An authoritarian government can scale up access to harm reduction and reform drug laws. But without a free and vibrant democratic society, drug policy reform cannot be truly meaningful and sustainable.
“Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades,” says the new global report of Freedom House. It’s not only that some previously democratic countries, such as my own country, Hungary, are sliding into authoritarian rule, but there is a general disillusionment with democratic values and civil liberties. Most worrisome for the future, continues the report, is that young people are losing faith and interest in democracy, contributing to a “dangerous apathy”. Indeed, everybody who has been taking part in any movements aiming at promoting social justice or human rights in the past ten years could observe this apathy among young people. It is not different within the drug policy reform movement.
To a certain extent, I understand those who are disillusioned. Democratic institutions have become increasingly alienated from the people whom they were designed to serve. Often they are hijacked by powerful business interests, decisions are not made in a transparent way, and the powerful elites use their sophisticated PR machinery to make an ignorant crowd believe in whatever commercial bullshit they want. But it is important to understand that the problem is not too much democracy – it’s not enough democracy. Democracy is, by definition, neither the rule of powerful elites nor the tyranny of the majority, but a system respecting the dignity and views of everyone.
Why, some people may ask, should I care about democracy if I am only interested in specific issues such as access to medical cannabis, antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV, harm reduction programs for people who inject drugs, or psychedelic medications for people suffering from mental disorders?
Of course an authoritarian, illiberal system can also create legislation to produce and distribute cannabis for medical or recreational use. It can scale up access to HIV treatment, introduce needle exchange programs, or even promote the cultivation of traditional plants. Some of the worst regimes in the world do so. So there are activists who think that we should avoid sensitive political issues such as democracy or human rights when we advocate for our causes. What they deem more important is to frame them as pragmatic, common-sense solutions to “purely” health or security problems. They prescribe non-confrontational, top-down strategies.
Although I recognise the difficulties of working under an authoritarian government and the necessity to adjust our messages and methods to political realities, I disagree with the notion that drug policy reform can be either meaningful or sustainable without political freedom.
In illiberal political systems, where there is no chance to change the government at the next elections, decisions are rarely made in a transparent and inclusive way. Public officials are not accountable and their actions have no political consequences. You cannot really design and implement good public policies without the involvement of the most affected communities, without a transparent debate and the free competition of ideas and concepts. Even if there are enlightened officials sitting in important positions who listen to professionals and take into account the evidence, change is fragile when it is not well embedded in and understood by the surrounding society. Real transformation of stigma and discrimination into respect and acceptance is not possible without an open, vibrant public sphere and free civil society. The best services are not run by government institutions but community organisations. Without the vital stimulation and creativity of grassroots movements politics is out of touch with the reality on the streets.
The war on drugs itself, first and foremost, is a system designed to discipline those on the margins of society. Without the safeguards of civil liberties, the same people would be exposed to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death even if drugs were legal. I mean can people really enjoy legal cannabis in North Korea where you can be executed for watching a foreign TV show?
Good public policies aim to serve the people. Not the people as defined by authoritarian populists: a mob of isolated, atomised, and loyal subjects of the state. But the people as a colourful political community of individuals and communities able to make free and informed decisions about their own lives. This is what makes democracy and human rights essential parts of drug policy reform.