Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture


Drugs - It's prohibition stupid!

The ‘war on drugs' dominated the 20th century. Mike Davis dissects a failed policy finding the time is ripe for a debate on a new approach.

When seven members of Gordon Brown's new Cabinet declared they had used cannabis in their youth the stench of hypocrisy not hemp must have floated over the early meetings at No. 10. Instead of launching an enquiry into why our drug laws are not working—with consumption, production and cultivation of opiate and synthetic drugs rising—the new PM launched yet another review into the classification of cannabis, the one drug whose use has declined since re-classifaction as a class C drug under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Meanwhile police report yet further rises in violence and crime fuelled by that legal drug alcohol. It's a funny old world. The ambivalence and confusion surrounding drugs, what they are, what they do and why they are demanded and supplied needs open, democratic debate. Julia Buxton's The Political Economy of Narcotics* sheds invaluable light, raising important issues for discussion which government and society ignore at our peril.

Drugs have always had a complex relation to society. Why is it that some have been prohibited—heroin, cocaine, LSD and cannabis for example, while others are legally supplied and regulated: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine? Before the drug laws of the 20th century the only drug to be legally controlled in Britain was gin—for about 30 years in the 18th century, and tobacco for a brief period before James 1st realised it could be an enormous source of tax revenues for the Exchequer. The US 13 year experiment with alcohol prohibition between 1920-1933 proved a disaster giving rise to the modern mafia.

Drug control has always reflected power and class relations. In the emerging United States of the 1700s it was alcohol favoured by German, British and Italian immigrants that won out against the hallucinogens of the native Americans. Britain had enjoyed the imperial spoils of opium for 300 years. Indeed it had fought two wars against China to continue to control the lucrative trade and markets. However it was pressure from the US, who enjoyed little economic benefit from the opium or cannabis trade, that began the process of prohibition and control a hundred years ago.

Free trade, including in all drugs, had been part of the wealth and power of the British and European empires. As late as 1895 the Royal Commission on Opium was recommending a continuation of the trade, dismissing concerns over recreational opium use as ‘comparatively rare and novel'.

Similarly, the Indian Hemp Commission of 1893 concluded moderate cannabis consumption had no injurious effect and rejected regulation.

All this changed with revolutionary consequences, following the entry of the United States into the equation. The successful lobbying for drug controls reflected the growth of US imperial power and influence and the waning of Britain's following World War 1. The US wanted controls on opium, plus all naturally occurring and synthetic drugs. Rejecting regulation, the US government, heavily influenced by the Christian right, sought criminalisation, prohibition and control. The doors to this were opened at the 1909 Shanghai conference. By criticising the opium trade the US Republican government could portray itself as taking the moral high ground in its empire building in the Phillipines and Central America and construct an alliance with China of commercial benefit to the US against Russia, Japan and Britain. The European view, expressed at the time, that prohibition would lead to smuggling and illicit markets was marginalised. Following the lines of the 1860s British Pharmacy Act, the US regulated the patent medicine and pharmaceutical drugs industry requiring that cannabis, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin and chloroform (and alcohol) contents be labelled on all medicines and tonics. But not content with regulation of drugs as medicines, recreational use had to be criminalised.

Buxton's lucid analysis charts the rise, global domination and failure of US prohibition led policies of the 20th century. To whip up public feeling in the face of grassroots apathy anti-drug campaigners in the US used racism and anti-immigrant hostilities as a tool to build support for stricter drug laws. Ably assisted by media tycoon William Randlph Hearst's newspaper empire Afro-Americans, for example, were depicted as the worst cocaine abusers posing a threat to white society, particularly women.

Driven by the US six multi-national agreements came into force between 1915 and 1939 to create an international system of drug control. Buxton calls this a revolutionary development on account of four factors: the global scale of the industry; the vested interests of the different national players in distinct aspects of the trade, the complexities of intervention in trying to regulate consumer behaviour and the dualist nature of drugs - both as medicinal and recreational.

These measures did have the immediate effect of reducing opium production by 82% from 1907 to 1934 while legitimate heroin (an opiate) production fell from 20,000 pounds to 2,200 pounds between 1926 and 1931. There was also progress in reducing consumption. It was all to be short-lived.

In Europe, harm reduction was becoming an increasingly significant motive in drug control as welfare states emerged eliminating the need for self medication. Doctors supported drug control because it gave them a monopoly over prescription. Even trade unions were enlisted to support control espoused by employers in their drive to improve workplace productivity and attendance.

But big tensions between Europe and the US over the speed and methods of reducing the cultivation of coca, opium ad cannabis were evident. Prohibition meant little to US big business - though when the US took over in the Phillipines opium cultivation was allowed to continue for some time-whereas Britain, Holland and other states had vested interests. Tensions also grew over the issue of personal use. Europe tended towards a treatment, education and gradual reduction policy, but the US approach of criminalisation, harsh penal sanctions and reduction of supply dominated. Buxton identifies two reasons: the desire of European states to have the US on board in the League of Nations, replaced in 1945 by the United Nations and the simple fact of rising US power. The result however was a ‘skewed model of drug control, emphasising punishment and suppression over consideration of why people cultivated, produced and used drugs.'

Europeans states were selective in their application of international agreements. In 1939 state opium monopolies still operated in Burma, Malaya, Netherlands Indies, Siam, French IndoChina, Hong Kong, Macao and Formosa.

Total war had resulted in the virtual end of the illicit drugs trade, with closed borders and disrupted production. A big opportunity for a change of direction in international policy was missed.

Instead, the post-war period marked the institutionalisation of a comprehensive international prohibition regime, unquestionably a by-product of the growing power and influence of the US after World War 2. Drug control functions of the League of Nations passed to the UN and its newly created Commission on Narcotics Control (CND) while the World Health Organisation took over medical and health aspects

The inter-relationship between drugs, security and intelligence also led the US and Soviet Union to develop research in the use of mood and mind altering drugs in conflict and interrogation procedures during the Cold War. Much of this was promptly ended when youth rebellion in the US embraced the new psychedelic substances, although the military was happy to dispense amphetamines to sustain troop morale in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere.

The problem for the US, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, was that little was done to reduce demand. The US failed to learn the lessons of the disaster of alcohol prohibition. But economic interests were also at stake. So has prohibition of other drugs been a success? 180 states signed up to the 1961 Single Convention which consolidated the work of all previous drug conventions since the Hague Conference in 1911. 175 states became party to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and Trafficking and the 1988 Convention updating this was ratified by 170 states.

The punitive model may have helped widely different ideological regimes from Stalinist to fascist to suppress and curb resistance and in the west particularly the 1960s and 70s youth revolt, protest movements and social experimentation.

But the ‘War on Drugs' ranks alongside Vietnam and Iraq as the biggest US failures of the 20th century. The ‘Just Say No to Drugs' of the Nixon era did not stop demand nor did the huge post-war investment through the CIA and DEA stop the drugs trade.

Buxton indicates that from the 1980s European states sought to follow a more liberal approach as prison populations rose alongside consumption and ever more and new synthetic drugs hit the market. Many South American governments also began to adopt this approach.

After a century of the international drug control model the system has hit a crisis of confidence. Drug production, plant cultivation and consumption are running at an all time high. Prohibition has failed. It is iatrogenic in nature, that is, the cure is worse than the effects of the disease, the illicit drug trade.

Without change, as Buxton argues, there will be ‘potentially catastrophic implications for human health, human security and also global political stability.' The old model is anachronistic in the era of globalisation.

Meanwhile the US grows ever-more reckless in the search for a ‘secret bullet'. Bio-control is the latest nightmare. Secret mycoherbicide research, breeding dangerous fungus, could be sprayed on crops. Already dangerous and unknown fumigations have occurred in Colombia and Afghanistan. The absence of open, democratic and broad-based input into international strategies—increasingly determined by a narrow economic and political group—could spell ecological and political disaster.

Decoupling US drug policy from US foreign policy is one crucial first step to make progress combined with the abandonment of the failed ideology of prohibition.

Buxton puts the terms of the real debate between regulation and legalisation. Here is where Brown and his ministers need to focus a new and open discussion, joining with the Dutch, Swiss, Spanish and New Zealand socialists in taking the approach to drugs out of the current morass. And the debate must also include alcohol and tobacco, the biggest killer drugs currently on the market. Without urgent change a huge cost in terms of money and human lives will continue to be paid.

*Book reviewed: The Political Economy of Narcotics, Julia Buxton (Zed Books, £16.99 pbk)