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Prohibition, Colonisation, and Undermining Indigenous Rights

Source: Matt Hrkac

Much of the criticism of prohibition talks about the ‘war on drugs’ as a war on Black and Brown people, a war on the poor, and a war on people who use drugs. While true, this is missing an important part of the picture. Less has been said about how the legal and political system that makes drug wars possible originally came about: colonisation.

In a paper published this year, I explore how drug policy can better incorporate Indigenous arguments and demonstrate solidarity with First Nations communities most harshly impacted by drug laws.


Colonisation and the legal system

To begin, it is important to discuss the ways that Indigenous intellectual traditions talk and think about colonisation and colonial violence. This starts with the basic premise that “settler colonisers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event”. Here, the act of dispossession is not located just in the moment of invasion, but also in the legal and social fabric of states that occupy stolen land.

Take the example of what is now called Australia; those who invaded and colonised this place had no permission to do so. The legal justification used for dispossessing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from their land was treating the land upon which European colonisers arrived as terra nullius’, or land belonging to nobody. The absence of “civilised” people upon land legitimised its occupation and the death or exile of those living on it. The legal principle of terra nullius was overturned by the highest court in Australia in 1992, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people’s connection and rights to land.

If the reason for invasion is acknowledged to have no legal basis, yet the coloniser remains in a position of power and asserts its control, then the legal system that remains in place must (at least in part) be acting to uphold that original dispossession.

With this understanding, I believe that we cannot properly understand how drug prohibition works without acknowledging that the legal system established as part of colonisation, the same one that creates drug-related laws, institutions and policies, continues to exert a colonial influence to this day – primarily the denial of First Nations peoples’ claim to their land.

Nowadays, the main way that this ongoing colonial function is challenged by Indigenous advocates is through the articulation of their political rights, including the authority to govern a land, or Indigenous sovereignty. This includes the right for Indigenous people to make their own decisions about their lives, or self-determination.


2023 Invasion Day Rally in Naarm (Melbourne). Source: Matt Hrkac.


The ‘savage’ native and drug-related harm

One of the main ways that colonisation undermines the rights of First Nations peoples is by presenting them as ‘savages’ that are incapable of taking care of themselves. This idea begins in its most crass form with terra nullius, but it has evolved in a range of ways over time. A more contemporary example is the language used to talk about someone’s Indigenous status as a ‘vulnerability’ to drug-related harm. For example, research often states things like: “[injecting] predispose many young indigenous peoples into pathways of vulnerability”, or make statements such as: “patterns of drug use may enhance sexual vulnerability among Aboriginal women”.

In my paper, I argued that this focus on vulnerability functions to keep alive the idea that First Nations peoples are unable to take care of themselves, unable to take care of their own children, and unable to govern the land that was stolen from them. Drug prohibition then serves as a double-edged sword: it maintains the punitive conditions that exacerbate worse health and social outcomes for First Nations people, as well as enacting colonial violence upon them, like removing Indigenous children from families at unprecedented and disproportionate rates, disconnecting them from kin and country, and stealing their intergenerational wealth.

You don’t need to have a personal vendetta against First Nations peoples to reproduce these ways of thinking, because this narrative forms the basic premise on which settler-colonial societies operate. If you benefit from living in a settler-colonial society, you already have lots of incentives to avoid thinking about the impact that a prohibitionist drug policy has on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To consider these implications would mean acknowledging your own complicity in perpetuating them. Countering them requires conscious self-reflection and a politics of solidarity with First Nations peoples, especially among drug researchers.

For example, there is a strong tendency in public health to rely on statistics or other forms of knowledge that are “at a distance” from First Nations communities and their way of understanding the issues – this is seen as necessary for research to be “objective” and “scientific”. These studies might say things likeAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience fatal overdoses at a rate more than three times higher than non-Indigenous people,” without explaining why this experience exists in the first place.

Such wording leaves open the possibility that there is something about Aboriginal people –whether due to their genetics or culture – that makes them more likely to die by overdose. Given that overdoses are entirely reversable with the right medication, this kind of statement obscures the reasons why First Nations communities would be more exposed to this drug-related risk in the first place.

First Nations communities have long argued that this interpretation is an evolution of colonial narratives about the apparent inevitability that Aboriginal people will die out. Drug research needs to more explicitly underscore that colonial and racial violence – such as the systematic marginalisation of Aboriginal people from mainstream health systems, or the over-policing of their drug use – are drivers of the kinds of concentrated harm these communities continue to face, and will continue to face, unless we reform our drug control systems.


What next?

What does a politics of Indigenous solidarity mean for drug research and drug policy? For advice on what comes next, the words of Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman, Veronica Nelson’s family say it best. In a statement following hearings related to Veronica’s death in state custody, a death that has been demonstrated to at least in part involve drug and addiction-related stigma, the Nelson family have called on the Victorian Government to:

“transfer decision-making power, authority, control and resources to Aboriginal communities in both the criminal legal system and the child protection system. That is what self-determination is.”

It is well overdue to hand the reins of drug regulation over to Aboriginal-led communities and community organisations. There are countless Indigenous night patrols, First Nations-led detached social work services, and networks of Aboriginal legal and community health services that are chronically underfunded who are far better equipped to deal with drug use in the community than the very well-funded state police. Until we move towards approaches that concede the power to govern drugs use to First Nations organisations, we will keep reproducing the colonial violence that has so harm Indigenous communities.

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