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Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by David Lewis   


David C. Lewis and Janine A. Treves, Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University, Providence, R1, USA

The virtual medium is particularly well suited to the controversial subject matter of drug policy in its capacity to unite people from far-ranging backgrounds in the discussion of a specialised topic, and in the relative anonymity it provides. This essay relates the experience of teaching an on-line seminar and takes a look inside the virtual classroom, at the dynamics and reactions of 32 students ages 22-66, widely dispersed in lifestyle and geography in their discussion of I drug policy. Lectures addressed the issues of international drug war strategies, drug enforcement and overcrowded prisons, the array of drug policy alternative~, the impact of drugs on family structure, and finally the issue of individual privacy. The medium provided an open and flexible forum for the expression of different opinions, and by far, the lectures that generated the most response were those that were interactive and conversational in design, which engaged students on a personal or individual level in content. As excerpts from the class dialogue illustrate, student exchanges were down to earth and, for the most part, involved genuine give and take. On the whole, the experience of teaching an on-line seminar was very promising, both permitting a refreshing twist on traditional higher education and vigorously supporting open debate on drug policy.


The dramatic increase in the instructional use of technology in colleges and universities calls for thinking concretely about the advantages and disadvantages of technology use as it impacts on teaching. Clearly, there are unique advantages to every mode of learning; what makes for an educationally successful text-based virtual classroom? In this essay, we will relate some of the educational benefits and pitfalls that follow from our experience of teaching a six-week, entirely text-driven, on-line seminar on drugs and drug policy, as we take a look inside our classroom, at the dynamics and reactions of our students in their discussion of drug policy.

Made possible by BRUIN (the Brown University Interactive Network), by way of list server software, which distributes information to subscribers via email, our Fall 1995 on-line course entitled, 'A Drug Free America: What's at Stake?' was part of a series created by Brown University for its alumni, as part of the Continuing College programme. Only the third of its kind for BRUIN, this course offered alumni, a few research assistants, several colleagues and the professor himself a taste of academic cyberspace. BRUIN grew out of an alumni/faculty study group programme called Meetings of the Mind and was founded on the philosophy that electronic communication can provide Brown's extended family with a new way to reconnect to Brown, via the virtual classroom. Andrew Shaindlin, Brown's director of alumni education, managed and facilitated the electronic logistics of the course. Janine Treves, a Brown graduate and research assistant at the Center, was the electronic Teaching Assistant for the course.

Despite the many pitfalls that accompany the use of a technology not yet stable or predictable for everyone, we found the virtual medium to be particularly well suited to the subject- matter of drug policy, both in its capacity to unite people from far-ranging backgrounds in the discussion of a specialised topic, and in the relative anonymity it provides, based on the lack of visual contact. In terms of drug policy, the medium helped provide an open and flexible forum for the expression of different opinions and experiences regarding drug abuse and the politics surrounding these issues, thereby enhancing the grounds for a good debate and increasing the likelihood for a successful learning experience. The anonymity and privacy of the medium was beneficial to bringing the theories of drug policy down to a personal level.


A fascinating Fall 1995 article of the Educational Record entitled, 'Reengineering Teaching for the 21st Century' describes some of how technology might modify the nature of education in terms of a 'blurring of [traditional disciplinary] genres' and an emerging emphasis 'on making connections and on synthesising disparate sources of information into new knowledge ... on addressing difficult multidisciplinary global problems and on applying information' (Davis, 1995).

Insofar as the on-line medium caters to the needs of adult students participating from computers across the world, on-line instruction supports a less theoretical, more experience-based approach to the learning process than its physical classroom counterpart. With this shift, pedagogical emphasis moves away from a didactic or teacher-centred mode and towards a more problem-based teaching mode, leaving room for increased student-to-student learning. Technology therefore changes the role of teaching: "no longer simply about conveying information, far more attention will need to be paid to what to do with the overwhelming volume and detail of information: how to access, criticize, interpret and use them" (Davis, 1995).

Technology requires a systemic change. In education, this shift has been referred to as an a posteriori view of the curriculum, one which 'recognizes that "an education" is built through a series of experiences designed with students, that outcomes are not always known in advance, and that many kinds of people can be considered to be "educated"' (Davis, 1995). One of the greatest educational benefits of the medium is that it actuates a collaborative and flexible academic relationship, allowing for a creative dialogue between faculty and students, promoting communication among students and exploration across different levels of a given subject matter. Interaction and written communication become an increasingly important component of instruction, as does their promotion. In the virtual space, the instructional challenge is about how to keep generating focused and fruitful discussion in the face of unlimited diversity.


A Drug-Free America was by design more policy oriented than Professor Lewis's traditional undergraduate seminar, Drug and Alcohol Addiction in the American Consciousness, which focuses on the literature, philosophy and history surrounding addictions. On-line, we opened with a general discussion of the successes and failures of the drug war in terms of prevention, treatment and law enforcement, and moved through weekly discussions of the various facets of US drug policy. Forums addressed the issues of international drug war strategies, drug enforcement, overcrowded prisons, the impact of drugs on family structure, as well as the issue of individual privacy. The course considered these matters from a number of different angles (medical, economic, social and political), offered a set of alternative political views and provided a detailed analysis of the treatment issues at stake in the drug war, reflecting Professor Lewis's medical background. The professor presented not only 'neutral' data but also his point of view on drug policy in order to provoke debate and discussion in a manner that would help students
to reach their own conclusions with dispatch, given the short duration of formal course work.

The conceptual framework that served as the backdrop for the course is the understanding that drugs work by an interaction between the individual who takes a drug and the environment or social setting in which the drug is taken. This concept is not very different from the public health model, originally developed for the understanding of infectious disease, which looks at the interaction of a host or person, an environment or culture and an agent, ir, this case the drug itself. Whilst engaging the fundamental principles of social and health policy in the dialogue of drug policy, the course exposed the extent to which the 'war on drugs' has become a war on drug users, cordoning off badly needed ideas and insi,ghts from the medical and public health communities.

Although modelled on a traditional undergraduate seminar (syllabus, weekly lectures and readings), the on-line course was produced with concern for how best to facilitate electronic debate and stimulate an open dialogue on-line. Lectures were kept short, typically averaging about 2000 words, and the readings or case study materials, one or two each week, ranged from 12 to 30 pages (see Appendix A for course syllabus). Electronic lectures were sent out each Friday, giving harried learners enough time to do the reading and to respond at leisure to the accompanying discussion questions. Rather than impose assignments or papers which we felt might limit debate on-line, these questions were offered as impetus for further thought and springboards for discussion according to the needs of our students.

As one of the first - if not the first - full on-line education programmes taught on the subject of drugpolicy, A Drug-Free America was very much a pilot course. We wanted to provide students with a framework within which they would feel at liberty to express their views and questions and, by their interaction with the instructors, become involved in the direction of the course itself. Given the diversity of students involved, classroom materials needed to be made both accessible to those with only a casual knowledge of the field and thought provoking to those with a professional knowledge. At the same time, because the subject-matter of drugs and drug policy is quickly prone to knee-jerk opinions, our concern in developing the course was about how to account for and best to adapt an academic discussion of these matters to the public and private communication needs of our students.


From the start, we encouraged our 32 participants to 'weigh in' with a short autobiographical note, explaining their interest in the topic and their personal or professional connections to the field. Ranging from the Brown University class of 1952 to that of 1995, they represented a wide demographic and geographic spectrum, with participants from at least 11 different states, including Alaska, and one participant from France. Several worked in the health care professions as recreation therapists, psychologists and pathologists, others were small business owners, editors, or in retirement. Two professors, knowledgeable about drug policy and interested in the electronic medium, were invited to participate, one from Hawaii and the other from Australia.

Their motivations for taking this course were wideranging, though many students did mention a family history of alcohol abuse or a long-standing personal interest in the issue of drugs. Others joined the course for strictly academic pursuits, such as exploring the topic of altered states of consciousness, or the intention of satisfying a need for high-level intellectual stimulation in a way that fits the constraints of a fulltime schedule. Finally, others sought the course purely as a means for exploring the new electronic medium.

From the beginning, students' responses regarding their interest in the subject-matter of drug policy presented us with the biggest instructional challenge of the medium, electronic brainstorming:

· What is the link between drugs and crime?

· What is the place of prescription drugs in the discussion of illicit drugs?

· Are we to consider tobacco and alcohol as

· What is the root cause of drug use?

· Is drug use part of the human condition?

· Is it comparable to sexuality?

· Can we look at drug use from a sociological perspective?

· What of the issue of 'self-medication' with drugs and alcohol?

· Is there also a drug crisis in Europe?

· How can we get past the rhetoric of government papers?

· What issues are at stake with drug testing?

· How do we deal with the problem of youth and drugs?

· How can we effect community change?

For the professor, the instructional challenge becomes one of how to go about addressing the multiplicity of questions and issues from the students. For all parties involved, as several students noted within the first week of class, the educational challenge of the medium is the difficulty of following a single train of thought to logical conclusions.... There is no doubt that virtual classroom discussion requires a certain logistical adaptation.


Given the asynchronous nature of email, the greatest challenge of the medium is therefore that discussion tends to be multi-layered and disparate, flowing at many different levels simultaneously. Also, because communication is limited to writing, some of the spontaneity that accompanies face-to-face encounters; is naturally missing. Further accentuated by this lack of visual contact, responses seem to vary immensely in depth and in tone. Nonetheless, as with any successful educational programme, the key is knowing how to use the medium as a method to enhance the learning experience. The above difficulties, as awkward as they may be, are experienced online as some of the inevitable tradeoffs in exchange for the advantage of having someone in Hawaii be able to have a conversation with someone in France. Strong technical support is of course necessary throughout the course and students need to be provided with an electronic support system, various how-to manifestos and 'etiquette' guidelines (e.g. do not type in all capital letters because, on the Internet, this is considered SHOUTING). Psychological support is also important: people get nervous very quickly when encoded files appear by accident or when conversation suddenly drops and are hesitant to speak up in these situations. We found that students both want and need to be reminded to keep the discussion going, whether referring to issues from the previous lecture or problems with the medium. Above and beyond anything else in the virtual classroom, faculty and students must learn to combine efforts to maintain dialogue.

Even in the best case scenario, however, the on-line medium inevitably lends itself to the lurking' phenomenon, regardless of the potency of he subject-matter. At first surprised by the fact that he majority of our students passively participated or lurked'- 19 of the 32 students enrolled -we discovered that it is not at all unusual for people to have registered, paying the $ 50 fee, simply 'to view' the course. In the two previous BRUIN courses, generally only 0-20% of registered students actively participated cross the six weeks. As a general rule, the average participant who logged on to see how a course works on he Internet will be satisfied with an observer role and will learn just by reading what other people have to say.


Even without the benefit of multimedia and synchronous communication and once past some of the initial confusion that accompanied the novelty of he medium, electronic discussions are a valuable resource in academic learning. Theoretically, everyone has an equal opportunity to respond via email. Students can consider their responses before sharing hem with the class, a plus for those ordinarily shy in he classroom. Professors also have more time to ruminate over a response from a student.

The specialised yet emotionally charged subject matter of drug policy was itself quite amenable to virtual space, at the level of classroom dynamics. Here, as students were addressing their reactions to the entire class and not simply to the professor, their responses tended to be more opinionated and more questioning in nature, inviting exchange and even confrontation. We also observed a degree of boldness which was welcomed - in directly challenging the views of the professor. Exchanges were down to earth, for the most part involving genuine give and take, and more personal than in the classroom of any one educational institution.


Our introductory lecture provided students with a 'scorecard' of the current state of affairs with respect to the illicit drug world. We emphasised that a major problem stemming from our drug policy is its negative side-effect on the quality of medical care offered to the addicted (and non-addicted alike), and that part of the problem is the punitive social atmosphere created by the law enforcement process. This view portrays drug abuse as a moral failing rather than a public health problem and has 'criminalised' drug use -with an increasingly harsh, get tough policy, but with little actual success. The discussion questions of the first week of the course asked students to respond to our lecture and choice of readings in terms of their own outlook: What did they see as the most critical problems of the war on drugs? How d id they feel that Americans have constructed their image of a drug addict? To what extent did they feel that fear about drugs and drug abuse affect current drug policy?

During the first week of the course, those who spoke up, about a dozen students, were those who already had strong opinions on the drug issue. One student emphasised the need to look at the cause of drug use as the result of unmet emotional needs and proposed a holistic paradigm of health to solve the drug problem. Another student responded that there was no solution to the drug problem, that legalisation was an avoidance of the drug problem, and that drug dealers deserve cruel punishment. Reasoning that legalisation of drugs does not mean retreating from addressing drug-related crime, health or other societal ills, a third student argued that the criminalisation of drugs has been unsuccessful in halting use of drugs and has in many ways been counterproductive to solving the drug problem.

As typical as heterogeneous reactions are to the topic of drug policy, in the virtual classroom they created the springboard from which the course ensued, often times above and beyond the course syllabus. In the midst of potential miscommunications, questions would fly out, temporarily re-routing classroom discussion: Can we make an attempt to formulate exactly what is the drug problem that a drug policy attempts to solve or, at least, to alleviate? As students began to question the crossroads of politics and medicine in the drug issue, classroom discussion took an early turn towards definitional issues: 'What do we mean by "drug"? What do we mean by "legalising"? What does harm reduction solve? Exactly what is the "drug problem"? 'To the extent possible, the professor and teaching assistant responded to student questions in the form of specific, factual and short feedback, point by point, across the six weeks. The basis of our responses was to consistently encourage more thought and discussion, no matter the position of the student, in order to let students come to their own conclusions on the drug problem.

Lecture two focused on international drug war strategies including America's view that the drug problem is really a foreign problem for which other countries are to blame, underlining the Federal drug policy's historical focus on source country and interdiction programmes, providing examples and breaking down the primary deficit of this type of thinking (that it is economically based and faulty in so far as it paints a world in which drug consumers are rational about the price they are willing to pay for drugs). Whilst discussion questions asked students to consider what is at stake in describing the drug war as a foreign problem (What are the perpetuated social repercussions on ethnic minorities? Do they think that capturing drug lords affects the drug trade? Do they think military intervention is necessary?), students remained compelled to respond to the need of finding an adequate definition of adrug. One student expressed that she felt that 'addiction' was less about chemical properties than about personal, societal and environmental factors, whilst another student questioned whether drug addiction is a disease, emphasising the many facets of the 'drug problem' and the need to treat each facet in a different but complimentary manner. From the outside, a latecomer noted, the classroom looked like an electronic labyrinth of threads of conversation, both on and off the main track of the course.

As students increasingly explored different dimensions of the drug problem across week 2, discussion took on the form of mini -exchanges between students interested in one issue or another. Very early on in the course, therefore, we faced the challenge of weaving together these parallel dialogues, in order to )pen the floor to those students with less firm opinions on the matters at hand. At the same time, given the extent of electronic brainstorming going on in the classroom, we also faced the challenge of choosing what to respond to and of finding ways of shifting the discussion back to its original course. All the while wanting to respect students' needs, it became necessary to find ways of shifting the discussion away from definitional issues -and 'philosophical' questions, back to a more policy oriented or practical level. Such questions could only be answered contingently and were beginning to cause slippage in dialogue. Moreover, as student debate increasingly entrenched itself in cultural and ideological questions, classroom discussion became disconcertingly sporadic.

We responded to this situation by drawing up an impromptu lecture devoted to the topic of defining drug abuse, drug addiction, and addiction as a disease, all the while stressing to our students the culture laden connotation of each of these terms. Immediately following our posting, one student responded to the week 2 material in terms of an earlier question: 'Dr Lewis asked about fear: society does fear drugs, and that's why we claim to be fighting a "war", a wonderful macho expression which reflects how terrified we are. Military analogies come easily.' He continued asking how foreign countries get the strength for the "strong political will" to fight drug production: "Could it truly be pure morality? Is the true motivation American dollars?' Another student responded in terms of the need for comparative material on drug use/abuse in the USA vs Europe: 'I'm curious whether our problem is shared in any way, especially the link between drugs and crime. Is there also a drug crisis in Europe? How do the strategies used in other countries for dealing with drugs compare to ours?'

Clearly, our strategy for re-routing classroom discussion was effective, but only temporarily so, for other student responses during the first couple of weeks continued to slip away from the topics of the lectures themselves, though again they were clearly not without interest or importance. It seemed indeed that students had difficulty addressing policy issues without first conceptualising and/or understanding drug use and abuse. One student remained concerned about the implications of using marijuana as a medication and took issue with the professor on the point, made in lecture 1 , that persons not using illegal drugs are denied adequate medication because of' the influence of drug criminalisation on medical practice. He considered this is a 'dogmatic statement accepted as gospel by many medical writers, and presented as such'. He agreed, however, that the stigma against marijuana effectively prohibits its use as medicine. Another student commented on some of the exchanges taking place between students and on some of the reading materials, noting the importance of treatment issues, the difficulty of arguing with the rhetoric of the National Drug Control Strategy, the, interesting experience of the course, and the complexity of getting one's own thinking straight on the subject matter of drug policy.

By the end of week 2, what became obvious to us was the extent to which the fluidity of an on-line course depends on developing a curriculum precisely
to fit the vicissitudes of the technology, rather than simply applying the technology to traditional course structures and educational precepts.


The idea during week 3 was to provide students with a set of alternative drug policy categories in the hopes that these will enable them to become more proactive on behalf of a more effective policy, and to become more critical readers of the literature and press. On the basis that the current US drug policy is not successful in reducing either the supply or the demand for illicit drugs, students were asked to choose their most effective policy from the following range: Extreme Prohibition, Legalisation, Decriminalisation, the 'Right To Access' and Medical Models, and finally the 'Constitutional Alternative' (see Appendix B for the text of this lecture). Both the list-like format of the lecture and our asking students to take a stand on very specific issues (role play) generated a constructive flurry of responses from about a dozen students of the class.

One student disagreed with the Legalisation and the 'Right To Access' models on the basis that addictive drugs should not be freely available. He felt that the 'Constitutional Alternative' of leaving it to each state to decide was a cop-out and that Decriminalisation was not an effective solution either, pointing to the example of France. He, along with his friend who is addicted to heroin, picked the Medical alternative as as the best solution, where drugs would be relegated to the same status as prescription pharmaceuticals; they would not be illegal to possess or to consume, so long as they were obtained from a registered place of distribution (such as a pharmacy) and with a prescription. He added, however, that 'it is all very nice for us to think that such a policy is best for the individual and for the community but it will take a revolution before such a policy could be put into place in our current society'.

Another student felt that Extreme Prohibition could not work any more than it did the last time tried in the 1920s ('Americans just aren't built this way') and that Legalisation would create still more drug addicts. For him, the 'Right To Access' model infers legalisation of drugs as does the Medical model, though he felt that the latter maybe workible in the hands of responsible physicians. His concern was about what to do with abusers who will not take advice or otherwise cooperate with recommended therapy: 'refusing to prescribe their drugs might drive them to non-legal sources or bring harm to the doctor'. This student found the 'Constitutional Amendment' to be an interesting option:

'If implemented, at the state and local level, it would bring right wing fundamentalists and other anti-drug groups - nearly all middle class voters - into direct confrontation with more liberal groups, not to mention reactivating concepts like "dry" vs "wet" states and counties. The resulting arguments might even push
abortion aside for a while. And it might just be acceptable to people!'

In sum though, this student was personally in favour of Decriminalisation: 'decriminalisation is something that should be done and must be done'.

A third student thought it very constructive to list the social options available to us but asked what our goals were in trying to change drug policy. He offered the following two: decreasing the social agony and personal illness due to drug use; and freeing the court system from the burdens imposed by the criminal use of drugs. According to him, however, none of the models presented will accomplish these goals: 'Right To Access' comes close but needs to be further defined; Decriminalisation is 'hypocritical in that it favours institutionalising looking the other way'; Harm Reduction seems interesting though not obviously understandable; and Prevention 'will work for some segments of society, but for most people human nature will foil prevention attempts, making some other control necessary'.


Immediately following the flurry of week 3, discussion suddenly and enigmatically stopped. Was it that students were travelling away from their computers? Were other members of the class afraid to express their views? Or did they just all agree that drug use, for example, should be decriminalised and addiction treated as a normal medical problem? One student finally spoke up and shared an unexpected variety of concerns with the class, demonstrating the difficulty of predicting and accounting for the rhythms of classroom dialogue, given the number of factors potentially at play on-line:

'For my part, 1 have to admit 1 have been hesitant to express views which are out of step with the obvious position of the instructor something 1 had no problem doing verbally when in a regular classroom at Brown! There is something daunting about expressing your opinion to a bunch of fellow alums (1) doing it in print (2) using your professional name (3) HAVE a profession and a couple of mortgages and a kid who is still tapping you for tuition and (4) you're not sure you have any answers, just current opinions and a desire to see what happens when you toss them into the ring ... Shows you how timid a person can become .....

Another student added that he didn't know why there was so little discussion but hoped that it meant that people have lives away from their computers!

From our perspective, we had a strong suspicion that the length and quantity of readings were the trouble spots, despite their usefulness for understanding the big picture, and that students were reluctant to speak up if they had not done the assigned readings. We also sensed that students were hesitant to respond to issues that left them with mixed feelings or that deviated from the individual flows of conversation.


By far, the lectures that generated the most response were those that were interactive and conversational,
which engaged students on a personal or individual 1evel. The final three lectures brought the discussion of drugs to the human level, examining the impact of drugs on the family unit, privacy issues and drug testing. The tension between treatment and enforcement is never as vividly illustrated as with the cases of pregnant drug users, youth incarceration and privacy rights. Discussion questions first asked students to think about how political arguments are framed in the choices of story lines of the press, and had them consider the extent to which media coverage affects the public's perception of crack mothers as representative of substance-abusing mothers in general. One particularly provocative assignment asked students to comment on a controversial New York Times op-cd piece by A.M. Rosenthal entitled "While The Children Steep", generating fierce, very personal and extremely though provoking responses. Students expressed amazement at the draconian treatment of addicts in the USA and the media sensationalisation of crime and drugs, which they felt clearly added to the fear, misunderstanding and creation of ineffective policies. Here, responses tended to be shorter, more commentary than questioning, and became increasingly hold in expression.

During the fifth week, we asked students to consider the implications of rights of privacy and personhood with respect to drug abuse. Some took a hard line against random drug testing, as did this student:

Random drug testing, in my opinion, is the ultimate invasion of privacy and cannot he condoned under any circumstances. Testing with cause, impairment, is another matter, and can be justified. Would we consider testing pilots, locomotive engineers, and others in similar responsible positions to ensure that they have had enough sleep? That they don't have hangovers? That they did not fight with their spouse that morning? Or all of the other conditions that could interfere with their competency?'

Another student replied that he doubted whether 'any reasonable person would argue against random drug testing of people in positions where a misstep could threaten the safety of others - pilots, locomotive engineers, nuke plant operators, military personnel etc.', and left it at that. Responses also became increasingly personal and sophisticated throughout these weeks, and discussion, now better informed and better adapted to the rhyme and reason of the subject matter and the medium, slowly swung back again to question the causes of addiction and the possibilities of societal change.

In the sixth and final week, the lecture fleshed out some of the necessary components of a workable policy model: harm reduction and safety. Students were urged to reflect on the most salient information that they Would cite in defence of their own policy view and what critical pieces of information they might be lacking in order to reach a firm decision.

Though we increasingly lost students who were willing to post their thoughts, it was heartening to see that those five to seven students who actively stuck it out were finally able to communicate effectively how our course made it possible for them to formulate and to defend their own policy view on the drug problem. A final response, one of several, was the following:

'What this course did change was the way I feel my own views on drugs should he implemented. Dr Lewis's frequent reminders that drug addiction is a public health problem; that addicts deserve the same medical care we give to cancer, AIDS, -and other types of patients; that we need to put more emphasis on treatment and perhaps less on criminalisation; that politics often mess up our national drug prevention efforts - all of these ideas and others, usually backed by persuasive facts, did skew my thinking. So what do I still believe in? Well, I'm still vehemently against non-medical illegal drug use, mainly because among my own family and acquaintances, I have seen the heartbreak it can cause. I also am disturbed by people who call themselves recreational users. They just don't know (or care) about the harm they do by supporting present distribution systems. I also believe that nicotine should be added to the illegal drug list. I believe that legalisation of present illegal drugs, even if dispensation responsibility were assigned to physicians, would be most unwise. And I continue to believe in harsh, long-term sentences for big time pushers plus continued international coercion and interdiction to slow down drug production/traffic. But the changes in my views include... I now believe in decriminalisation of drug possession for kids and people who are simply addicted. I now believe that a lot more money should be spent on treatment and prevention because it saves rather than wastes taxpayer dollars. I also now believe - something we didn't stress in this course - that every possible avenue should be explored to make non-medical drug use socially unacceptable. If this could be done, it would be better than a thousand new laws or DEA agents. A socially unacceptable strategy would have to be both a grass roots and national effort and I could easily write a thousand words on this, but you get the idea.'

Responses such as the one illustrated above clearly indicated to us that distance learning had a significant educational impact on our students, despite the many uncertainties, twists and turns of the medium.


The BRUIN follow-up course survey asked students to rate the various facets of the course and, surprisingly, the lulls in discussion did not disappoint students as we had expected (either because they felt this was time in which they could catch up or because of the limitations in the amount of time they could be online). Most students found that the structure of the course was excellent and friendly for the first-time user and that the presentations and questions were well thought out and stimulating, albeit with a bit too much reading. Those who had actively participated throughout the six weeks expressed frustration with the 'lurkers' of the course but found that our responses to the themes being generated by the email discussions both reinforced student contributions and gave the discussion a sense of coherence and continuity.

Students found the references to personal experiences both helpful and educational, suggesting that on-line learning does indeed foster a shift towards a more experience-based classroom than in a real-time seminar. Though the flow of virtual classroom dialogue appears more difficult to predict, account for and control, given the number of factors at play with distance education, the ultimate advantage of the online seminar is that experience- based learning:

' ...will enjoy increased legitimacy and will be integrated (or alternated) with classroom learning in more creative ways .... Classes will not disappear, but they will be used mostly to develop skills in analyzing, criticizing, connecting, and applying information .... Class time will he devoted to working on difficult aspects of the subject, clarifying concepts, personal reflection, and interpersonal communication.' (Davis, 1995)

As a site for student-centred instruction, the use of electronic technology promotes interactive and cooperative learning between student and teacher and among students, and affords more freedom and flexibility in the learning experience. In 1996,Academe included a report prepared by a subcommittee of the Committee on College and University Teaching, Research and Publication which studies how the application of available technology is affecting the pedagogical environment of our institutions. On the teaching end, it is only after learning the technology and getting hands-on experience that faculty, as one author so aptly puts it:

'...begin to see the benefits of interactivity... and the power and potential of these tools for their teaching. Then, they are re-thinking and re -conceptual iz ing their entire course curriculum, and they are learning that technology changes not only how we teach butwhat we teach.' (Boettcher, 1995)

Several suggestions for provoking more engagement and better organising the threads of discussion include the following: sending out a single survey question before and after posting a lecture and encouraging students to take sides (e.g. should society force a pregnant addict to stop using drugs?); making time to achieve a course consensus (e.g. what should be the policy on drugs?); and permitting more flexibility in format for mini-lectures focusing on the themes being generated by the email discussions. The next time around there will be less reading, more commentary on student responses, and more references to Internet sources. In essence, we will strive to better integrate subject matter and technology.

On the whole, our experience of teaching an online seminar was educationally positive and promising, fun, and more time-consuming than expected. We came away with a sense that the medium permitted a refreshing twist on traditional higher education and was successful in vigorously supporting open debate on our national drug policy. Furthermore, in making room for the communication needs of' students living in an increasingly fragmented and diversified world, we feel that the text-based on-line medium has the potential to become an empowering educational vehicle and, with its emphasis on writing, might very well revive the lost art of rhetoric.. Finally, for us, the variety of views illustrated in the virtual classroom was an important reminder of how differently people react to drug problems and drug policy.


The authors would like to thank Reuben Steiger for editorial assistance in preparation of the manuscript.


For those interested in further exploring the uses of technology for education, Syllabus magazine contains useful information (news, resources and trends) on technologies to enhance education. You can visit their Web site at

Syllabus magazine reports that the percentage of college courses using email and multimedia resources has more than doubled since 1994, as has the use of computer simulation and commercial courseware. The 1995Campus Computing Survey further indicated that Internet and World Wide Web use has increased substantially: 76.5% of the respondents consider them a priority for their campuses over the next three years; 38. 1 % plan to use it as a marketing tool for promotion of their school to off campus audiences; 24.4% plan to use it for instruction; and 12.5 % for distance education. (In "News, Resources, and Trends 'I, Syllabus 9(6), 1996: 10.)


Boettcher J ( t995). Technology classrooms, teaching, and tigers, Syllabus 9(2): t 2.

Committee on College and University Teaching, Research and Publication (1996). The uses of technology in college and university instruction. Academe 82(3, May/June).

Davis J (1995). Reengineering teaching for the 21st century. Educational Record 76(Fall): 17.

David C. Lewis, MD, Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University Box G-BH, Providence RI 02912, USA. Tel: (401) 444-1818. Fax: (401) 444-1850.


Welcome Message & Introduction to the Public
Discussion of Drugs

Week 1: US Drug Policy: Successes & Failures in the Drug War

1. Participant Introduction

2. Lecture 1: Medical and Health Perspectives On
the Drug Problem

3. Discussion Questions

4. Readings:

National Drug Control Strategy, 'Message from the President' and 'Executive Summary', The White House, February 1994.

Henry H. Brownstein, 'Demilitarization of the war on drugs: toward an alternative drug strategy' in The Great Issues of Drug Policy.

Week 2: International Drug War Strategies:
Source-Country & Interdiction

1. Lecture 2: The Internationalization of Drug Law Enforcement and the Logic Behind Interdiction Arguments

2. Discussion Questions

3. Readings:

National Drug-- Control Strategy, focusing - on source countries', The White House, February 1994.

Mathea Falco, 'Foreign drugs, foreign wars Daedalus 121(3, Summer) 1992.

Week 3: Domestic Legislation: Drug Enforcement
& the Criminal justice System

1. Lecture 3: Drug Offendersl Overcrowded Prisons and Alternatives to US Drug Policy

2. Discussion Questions

3. Readings:

National Drug Control Strategy, 'Protecting neighborhoods through enforcement -and community action', The White House, February 1994.

Camille Gear and David Lewis, 'Locking up the drug problem: criminal & legal responses to drug addiction'.

Week 4: Drugs & the Family

1. Lecture 4: For The Sake Of Our Children

2. Discussion Questions

3. Readings:

National Drug Control Strategy, 'Protecting Ainerica's children through education and prevention', The White House, February 1994.

Patricia A. King, 'Helping women helping children: drug policy and future generations'.The Miibank Quarterly 690), 1991.

Case Study: A.M. Rosenthal, 'While the children sleep,' Op-Ed Piece,On My Mind series, New York Times, 22 September 1995.

Week 5: Drugs: Privacy Issues

1. Lecture 5: What Are Our Drug Rights?

2. Discussion Questions

3. Readings:

Laurence H. Tribe, 'The significance and substance of rights of personhood'I 'Sources of protected rights of personhood', 'Points of intersection between personhood and law (Paragraph I)% inAmerican Constitutional Law.

Irving R. Kaufman, 'The battle over drug testing, New York Times, 19 October 1986.

6: Drugs, Crime, Treatment & the Future

1. Lecture 6: Weighing the Costs

2. Discussion Questions

3. Readings:

Ralph Weisheit, 'Drugs and crime: what if.. criminal justice in the year 2010'.

Week 7: Conclusions & Final Remarks


The following is a discussion adapted from a paper coauthored with Evan Dellon and Camille Gear (in press: Journal of Primary Prevention 17 (M which looks at some of the options to current US policy. In these first weeks, we have seen that since the early 20th century, the federal government has been involved in a 'War on Drugs', an attempt systematically to prohibit the sale and distribution of a selected group of psychoactive drugs. In so primarily relying on enforcement and penal measures, this federal war has been largely ineffective in terms of the flow of drugs into the United States and the reduction of the numbers of drug abusers.

At this time, we need a way rationally to assess our policy options. Media portrayals of diametrically opposed options like complete legalisation (the so called 'supermarket' model) and extreme prohibition (the 'try-and-die' model) have not brought us much insight. We need a perspective that will allow us to examine critically the range of possibilities between these extremes. Some alternatives include the following: decriminalisation (the 'grudging tolerance' model); the 'right of access' model which is a mail-order model; a 'medical' model in which doctors prescribe drugs; or a 'Constitutional alternative' model which allows states to control drug policy.

Analysing Drug Policies

The aforementioned alternative drug policies range from the reactionary to the radical, the harmful to the benign, and the impossible to the feisible. The discussion uses a harm reduction framework which assesses whether a policy creates more good than harm or, in other words, whether it minimises drugs' negative impact on society. We begin here with the most extreme of policies in order to establish a background for us to consider more moderate approaches.

Harm reduction philosophy has been quite successful in helping officials develop effective policy. Several European countries, including The Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden, and Switzerland, as well as Australia, have used a combined harm reduction/public health approach to form their drug policies. These countries attempt to minimise the number of addicts and their harmful actions by providing accessible treatment and needle exchange programmes. In this way, they have been able to eliminate some drug related crime and decrease the stigmatisation of drug users. Harm reduction approaches, however, do not always centre around social and medical services. Nonetheless, there is general agreement about the spectrum of policy alternatives and most policy makers see harm reduction as a noble goal regardless of whether they want tougher or more moderate drug laws.

Extreme Prohibition

Extreme Prohibition, the first alternative, would require an intensification of our current policy. This alternative would mandate a massive shift of funds, the transferring of more money to national and international supply reduction efforts (i.e. interdiction and military involvement), and more severe sentences and punishments for drug dealers. The ultimate expression of these get-tough policies is 'if you try, you die'. Despite the degree to which it is discussed, this policy has seldom been implemented; at present, it is only used in totalitarian societies.

Under prohibition, patterns of use are not difficult to predict: casual use would decline but the number of heavy users would hardly diminish, if at all. Crime would decrease in the long run but the criminal justice system would be overwhelmed, with the number of arrests greatly outweighing current space for incarceration. In the final analysis, the substantial and assorted costs of this option seem to outweigh its benefits. When one considers the economic resources necessary to fund such measures, as well as the overburdening (and potential corrupting) of the criminal justice system, and the poor past track record of similar, less extensive, supply reduction techniques, extreme prohibition seems an unreasonable course.


Legalisation is at the opposite end of the policy spectrum. Whilst there are many variations on the legalisation theme, in essence, legalisation would repeal the prohibition on currently 'illicit' drugs. The 'supermarket' model, examined here, is the most lib
eral possible of all legalisation schemes. In this model, drugs would be freely available in the same ay that alcohol and over-the-counter drugs are currently available to the general population. Under his plan, drugs could be sold at grocery stores, pharmacies, state controlled liquor stores, or special drug stores. A legalisation policy, however, would not create an unregulated market-place. As with alcohol and nicotine, legalised drugs would undoubtedly carry tough regulations, limiting who qualifies as legitimate seller or purchaser.

It is difficult to make any definitive estimates about patterns of use under legalisation and most work in he area is speculative. Critics who argue that legalisation destigmatises drug users and eliminates all obstacles to use act as if individual decision making lays no role in a person's decision to use drugs. Certainly, the average person might experiment with previously taboo drugs, and some of these new users night become addicts. It is difficult to determine how many new addicts there would actually be. A variety of information demonstrates that drug use may not increase as much as we have been led to believe. Furthermore, scholars agree that the legalisation of drugs would virtually eliminate drug related crime because it would destroy the illegal drug market. Treatment and prevention efforts would receive unprecedented support. If funds from the rug control budget were split evenly (about $6.6 bilion treatment and prevention respectively), it would represent a 230% increase over the current treatment levels and a 410% increase over the current prevention levels.


The decriminalisation of drugs, or the 'grudging tolrance' model, has many meanings. In this context, decriminalisation refers to the removal of all penalties for personal possession and medicinal use of pre-determined (small) amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs. The distribution and purchase of these drugs would still be illegal. Superficially, this policy seems contradictory because in order to possess drugs one would have to buy drugs. The policy option, however, attempts to recognise that the majority of users are of the casual variety, and their possession of small amounts of drugs for personal and recreational use poses no immediate criminal threat.

Whilst it is difficult to chart patterns of drug use under a decriminalisation policy, there are not as many variables involved as with legalisation.
Charges that there will be increased use, because drugs will have wider availability, do not apply here because, under decriminalisation, market availability should not change from its current levels. The large amount of crime associated with the illegal
market would not change under decriminalisation.
Because decriminalisation only eliminates personal possession crime,.,, the violent crime associated with the distribution and sale of illicit drugs would continue. However, relieved of the momentous task of processing possession crimes, the criminal justice system could focus on breaking drug distribution rings, and effectively prosecuting 'big time' drug dealers. Under decriminalisation, health conditions could improve; however, this improvement would be contingent on certain budgetary shifts. If the funds currently used to process possession crimes were redirected to prevention and treatment, then public health would improve. Furthermore, it is likely that as people stopped stigmatising drug users and became
more sympathetic, more users would seek out drug treatment; they would feel they had move reasons to integrate themselves back into mainstream social life.

The 'Right to Access' Model t
The 'right to access' model is the proposal of a mail-order plan which would allow everyone in the United States the right not only to possess small amounts of any drug for personal consumption, but also the right to obtain any drug from a reliable, legally regulated Source which is liable for the quality of its products. On the basis that 'legal availability does not always connote easy availability' of drugs and, j List as restrictions on alcohol and cigarette use affect the number of users (primarily through age controls), restrictions on the use of other drugs might affect their availability in a legalised regime. 
As far as the issue of availability is concerned, the 'right to access' model is little more than a legalisation regime with a specific distribution plan. Therefore, the policy's effects on patterns of use would be the same as those expected under legalisation. There might be an increase in casual users of a relatively mall but unknown quantity and, consequently, a mall increase in the number of heavy users and addicts. Although similar in effect to legalisation, he 'right to access' model is less effective at eliminating the illegal market. However, like under legalisation or decriminalisation, we would no longer label casual users as 'criminal' or 'deviant'; there would also be fewer crimes committed to support drug habits. These changes would unburden the criminal justice system.

The 'Medical' Model

Because clinics, treatment centres and health care professionals currently classify addiction as a disease, many scholars feel that the drug problem should be dealt with within the medical confine. Under such a scheme, drugs would be relegated to the same status as prescription pharmaceuticals; they would not be illegal to possess or to consume, so long as they were obtained from a registered place of distribution (such is a pharmacy) and with a prescription. In order for both casual users and addicts to obtain drugs, they would have to obtain a physician's prescription. Doctors would explain how to use drugs properly and encourage addicts to receive treatment. A more limited version of this model is to allow doctors to prescribe maintenance doses of some currently illegal drugs, but only to confirmed addicts who are seeking treatment. But this version of the policy allows society to continue to make it illegal for the casual user to receive drugs legally.

The 'Constitutional Alternative'

The 'Constitutional Alternative' is a new drug control policy which is based on the fact that the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States did not actually repeal the prohibition of alcohol, but rather granted control of the issue to the states; the states then, eventually, adopted a repeal. A similar action is called for today with respect to illicit psychoactive drugs: if the federal government relinquished control of drug prohibition and remanded his issue back to state control, those states, acting individually, could better respond to the will of their populations and adopt flexible policies. In states with populations that want more liberal policies, state and
local government, along with popular representatives, could construct a policy which would meet the needs of the given community. In states in which the population is strongly against drug use, these same parties could craft a 'get tough' policy that would focus on specific community problems, rather than attempt to address some amorphous 'drug problem'. The implementation of such an alternative would he relatively straightforward because the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is the only piece of legislation which would need to be amended. Any general analysis of the specific costs and benefits of this approach would be moot, as these factors would vary depending on local governments' policy choices. However, one thing is certain: if a local population opted for one of the more liberalised alternatives described above, the results would be close to what is predicted for these reform policies. Similarly, if a community opted to do nothing or to strengthen its current measures, either no change would occur, or the effects would be like the ones described earlier for extreme prohibition.


Our valuable member David Lewis has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.