Reducing Harms of Harmless Pleasures: The Role of Civil Society

Reducing harms of "harmless" pleasures

My effort to learn as much as possible about international drug policy brought me two interesting films last week, Sicario and Cartel Land. The following reflections are based on what I got from those films: first, both made it clear that people in high income countries who use illicitly produced and trafficked drugs recreationally (non-problematically) are accessories after the fact to drug war violence/harms in producer and transit communities, including urban neighborhoods. Engaging in political action to promote decriminalization and regulated access to what are now illicitly sourced psychoactive substances could be a powerful form of drug user harm reduction. Supporting civil society activities in countries where CSOs are weak or repressed, while personally boycotting illegally sourced substances altogether until goals are achieved, is another. Ethical consumerism must, after all, extend to our guilty pleasures.

The harm to be reduced arises from the illicit drug market, or "state of nature," where personal security is non-existent, and life "nasty, brutish, and short." Such is the existential context of producer and transit environments. When governments themselves cannot provide security for their citizens, the state of nature prevails, and people must defend themselves in the "war of all against all," until a new "sovereign" emerges to protect them.

The invisible hand of the market created by recreational and problematic users in high income countries generates these violent parallel "states" [of nature] in producer and transit countries where governments are weak and often illegitimate. The law of the strongest and best supplied -- Thomas Hobbes' war of all against all -- co-exists alongside the laws of governments selected by citizens via elections, or appointed by military coups.

Their social contract duty to protect citizens renders governments that tolerate, let alone profit from, the existence of parallel states, liable for drug war damage to their own citizens, as well as to citizens of other states. Governments and agencies that fail to protect forfeit domestic obedience and legitimacy in the international community.

Other narratives of transnational ethics of solidarity and mutual aid, which can provide protection for vulnerable communities, are possible. The Michoacan self-defense forces in the documentary film Cartel Land did exactly that at first, providing security for communities ravaged by cartel violence and unprotected by official forces. "There is no government. The government is often working with the criminals," said the people. Citizens in towns that were not so hard hit, who continued to believe in the state, took the opposite perspective and refused to join the Autodefensas, saying "If we don't believe in the institutions of the state we are finished as citizens."

Members of drug policy reform organizations in the high income countries can act as responsible global citizens by acknowledging their consumer communities' partial complicity in the cycle of violence. Civil society organizations that take responsibility for their part in strengthening the "invisible hand" of the market for illicitly trafficked substances can work authentically to end the cycle of violence. After all, it is demand from the rich countries that keeps the cartels in business and the state of nature flourishing.

Taking an ethical/political stance doesn't mean playing the blame/victim game or stigmatizing people who use drugs, but acknowledging responsibility for consumer habits that expose "bystander" individuals and communities to cartel violence and government repression. Those vulnerable 'other' communities are found in what Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino SJ calls "entire crucified continents".

Cartel Land drives home how ordinary people, usually poor people, pay with their security, peace of mind, and their lives, to satisfy the northern hunger for their products. Participating in consumer advocacy initiatives to change repressive drug control laws that benefit the cartels would be one way recreational users could take responsibility, pay for pleasure bought with blood money.

Media induced hype about the so-called "opioid abuse epidemic" in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, is already damaging patients and families in countries with low to no access to medical opioids for pain and palliative care. The exaggerated threat posed by prospect of widespread non-medical use of opioids now supports governments' unwillingness to identify and remove barriers to legitimate access, making advocacy much more difficult.

Organizations in high income countries with strong civil society sectors can campaign to pressure governments to reduce the harms of the drug war and support NGOs in countries where they are weak or suppressed. They can also facilitate inter-governmental and UN agency collaborations for good public policy outcomes, requiring political appointees and bureaucrats to step out of institutional comfort zones.

Advocacy means active and responsible participation in institutions such as the Civil Society Task Force organized for UNGASS2016, and hopefully set to continue until the next drugs UNGASS in 2019. The CSTF can remind governments whose citizens use illicitly sourced drugs either recreationally or problematically, that they have a duty of care to support evidence-based policies that reduce the harms of such use. Policies include decriminalization, prevention, treatment, harm reduction, reintegration services, and the rational use of controlled medicines for the treatment of pain and suffering.

Governments that promote hard line, exclusively supply control, drug policies at the UN, clinging to the largely fractured "Vienna consensus," and boycotting the health and human rights based approach promoted by the Geneva institutions, claim to be "protecting" their citizens from these parallel governments. As they are often besieged from within and without, such governments use their monopoly of "legitimate" violence to suppress the trade, failing to produce the desired effect while generating multiple harms. One way to diminish these harms is to build the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) to hold governments accountable, an approach that does not appeal to countries ruled by precarious elites.

Nation states and drug cartels are not the only powerful institutional actors in the international community. Transnational civil society networks can also be powerful, which is why some member states discourage them. Member states that favor moving away from exclusively militarized solutions to the world drug problem, could contribute to the emerging public health paradigm by supporting capacity building for CSOs in countries where civil society is weak and in need of support. And let's take ethical responsibility for our guilty pleasures by committing to harm reducing political advocacy at the local, national, regional, and global levels inter alia!