Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Is drug policy about drugs?

This week, I’ve been at a mini-conference to discuss prohibition through different periods of history and across different countries and societies.  Although I did (part of) my first degree in history, anything I write now is more based on what ‘I reckon’ rather than any genuine knowledge, historic or current.  So it’s not clear what I was doing there, but they let me in anyway.

(I should say at this point, as I did when I wrote about the original conference, that this is an amazing group of academics, and there’s a load of fascinating work going on at Warwick University more broadly.)

My contribution was born a year ago as a response to the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act.  Unsurprisingly, at that point (and now), it was hard to find too many academics in history or social policy prepared to defend the Act.  So, being the attention-seeking contrarian that I am, I saw my role (or my way of getting a paper accepted) as being to be a bit more positive about the Act.  I suggested that it could be a catalyst for change in drug policy, as it reframes the debate from being about harm to being about psychoactivity itself.  But that’s a post I’ve kind of already written (though I can write it much more clearly, and will do sometime).

So what I want to do here is to reflect on what we were trying to do as a whole.  The idea was – and is – that we can usefully say something about the idea of prohibition through the ages.

But I was constantly reminded of a paper I saw at the wonderful ADHS conference a few years ago.  There, Lauren Saxton talked about how alcohol was understood to lead to infertility amongst women in France in the nineteenth century (because that was their major national concern), whereas at the same time, with the same substance in Britain, we were concerned that alcohol was leading women to have more children than they should do.

The point being: alcohol (or any other ‘drug’) has a meaning and set of concerns that are hugely dependent on the wider context.

So what’s that got to do with prohibition?

Well, hearing these accounts from France, Indochina, Mexico, Russia, America, Portugal, as well as the UK and the international community more generally, I started to think about how alcohol or any other drug offers something of a lightning conductor for any other concerns the public might have, be they in relation to race, gender, class, nationality, religion, productivity, industry, modernity, or anything else.

In some ways, use of morphine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could be seen as rational, pure, clean and reasoned, with the use processed ‘white drugs’ (like heroin and cocaine, as well as morphine) administered with precise dosage using the technical innovation of the syringe.  This was what Christopher Hallam was telling us the ‘bright young things’ of the interwar period were doing – elite, well-educated, white aristocrats.  ‘Brown drugs’ were less processed substances like hashish and opium, perhaps seen as ‘dirty’ and were more associated with the working class or ‘foreigners’ like Chinese immigrants.  (The white/brown binary here really is pretty transparent.)

But others, like Susannah Wilson, noted that in some cultures and periods, that scientific/natural binary doesn’t always have ‘science’ on top.  Of course, doctors can use it to defend their own use, as they did in nineteenth century France, but the precision and technical approach to drug use can be seen as new and frightening.  Soon, you get onto a discussion of the optimism and fear that equally surrounded ‘modernity’.  Is change exciting, frightening, or both?  Are ‘natural’ ingredients better than chemically pure, processed ones?  You’re probably thinking that it depends on who you are, what you’re doing and what you’re trying to achieve.  And so it is with drug debates.

Similarly, the idea of prohibition can symbolise any number of things.  It can be, as Mark Lawrence Schrad argued, an opportunity for emerging nations (such as Turkey, even when ruled by heavy drinker Ataturk) to expel foreign industries and express a new anti-colonial identity.  Or it could be an opportunity for the Protestant Ethic to express itself.  (And I should reference the work of Henry Yeomans at this point, as I didn’t do in that post.)  Or, in the early twentieth century, it could be a way for a nation to show it was part of the international club, which Cecilia Autrique noted was part of Mexico’s motivation in developing drug policy in the early to mid twentieth century.

Alternatively, rather than being anti-colonial, prohibition has been justified by discourses of anti-orientalism (that drug use is somehow characteristic of ‘weak’ nations like the Chinese, or Arabs, or whatever culture is viewed as negative in the time and place in question).

But even here, things are complicated.  Aro Velmet explained that the same forms of drug use were seen as appropriate to French Indochina in the early 20th century, because of the culture and climate – not just for people from that culture, but for French people living and working there – but inappropriate if they were continued on returning to France.

So amongst all this I started to wonder whether there was any coherence at all.  Notably, as James Nicholls has pointed out, there’s no straightforward position on the issue of ‘alcohol’ that can be produced by reference to even the relatively narrow definition of nineteenth century liberalism.  JS Mill argued that it wouldn’t be real freedom for us to abstain from alcohol if it was just what was required.  And yet TH Green maintained – invoking the same argument that led Mill to reject slavery, that we shouldn’t be given the opportunity to become dependent on alcohol – we’d be better off if alcohol was never available.

And as Mark pointed out, this is a more nuanced debate than we often acknowledge: the key organisation in the US was the Anti-Saloon League, rather than the Anti-Drinking-at-your-own-pace-at-home League.

So, given all our discussion, is really anything linking these themes at all?  I’m reminded of my concern about whether there is any point in trying to develop an ‘alcohol’ strategy.  ‘Alcohol’ or ‘drugs’ or ‘prohibition’ might be a lens through which to look at society, but what we end up actually looking at are the familiar themes of politics, identity, and so on.  It’s no surprise that a discussion of drug policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ends up as simply a discussion of racism, anti-colonialism, nationalism, gender, class, and so on – the ‘fundamental’ issues of societies in that period.

So is there any point talking about ‘prohibition’ as a general concept (or more importantly as a useful academic concept)?

Well, only in as much as James Nicholls suggests alcohol is a useful lens through which to understand how people think of and enact liberalism (in principle and in practice).  But maybe what that means is that there’s not much point studying the phenomenon of prohibition in itself, or trying to understand what motivates people to ‘prohibit’.  Perhaps, just as with ‘alcohol’ and/or ‘drug’ strategies, the ‘take-home’ point should be that we need to think about what these substance-specific ideas tell us about life more broadly.

So, in answer to the title of this post, I’d say no, ‘drug policy’ isn't really about ‘drugs’.  But it's worth pointing that out. And as ever, I look forward to a more open, honest discussion.  And I’ll be writing again soon about how the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act can be part of that more open and honest discussion.


  1. What does "being about drugs" mean anyways? I usually ask this question as "it it meant to prevent harm from drugs?". Any my conclusion is similar to yours: no it is not meant to prevent harm.

    I believe the alcohol prohibition in the US was somewhat different. It really was meant to prevent harm, however it failed to deliver. Once it became obvious that it caused more harm than good, it was revoked.

    Such corrections hardly ever occur with the prohibition of other illicit drugs. Even though we know, that the current prohibitionist laws are more dangerous to the general public than the drugs they prohibit, the laws are not revoked. This is because they are not bad for everyone. There are a number of people who actually benefit from these laws and they seem to have no problem with causing harm to the general public.

  2. Thanks for this insightful summary, Will! Food for thought for our publication.