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Drug wars: the origins of prohibition
Axel Klein and Mike Jay

Prohibitionists often argue that to legalise illicit drugs would take us into unknown territory. Ironically it was their prohibition in the 19th century that constituted the dramatic leap in the dark, driven far more strongly by ideology than by evidence. Before prohibition, a vast range of mind-altering substances were widely available, often from high street chemists. Axel Klein and Mike Jay outline the journey from the open sale of drugs to the current system of controls and ask, which way now?

The turn of the 20th century saw drugs creep up the political agenda, though this had little to do with drugs themselves. An increasingly well-organised and powerful medical profession were pushing an ambitious public health agenda. 

The influx of immigrants into the docks and ghettos of the West increased anxieties about the effects of undesirable foreign habits on the indigenous urban poor. A newly dominant middle class began campaigning energetically against the feckless and unhygienic habits of the unreconstructed working class. Intoxication was high on the agenda and the target of the Temperance movement, who had effectively pinpointed it as a cause of misery and hardship. 

As the Temperance movement grew, it came to unite many unlikely bedfellows –including the church, the medical profession and the women's movement. All were united in their belief that intoxication had no place in a civilised society of the future. 

Most of the debate was focused on alcohol. Much medical opinion was explicitly of the belief that alcohol was far more damaging to health and morals than opiates – still a staple of the doctor's bag – or the exotic intoxicants like cocaine or cannabis, whose use was still confined to small immigrant communities or metropolitan cliques.

War for drugs

The boldest policy initiative to spring from this social and political movement was, of course, the prohibition of alcohol in the United States – a move that unwittingly led to the control and criminalisation of other intoxicants and ultimately became the foundation of the our current drug laws.

At the height of the Victorian era, when Britain prosecuted a series of wars with China over her prohibition of opium to her subjects, miliarty intervention was presented as a defence of free trade and individual liberty. States in this era held back from becoming involved in drug control, and when they did, as with the UK’s 1851 Pharmacy Act and the 1868 Pharmacy and Poisons Act, the objective was strictly to prevent crime (from the sale of poisons), and the chosen measures were bureaucratic rather than legal. 

By the late 19th century the concept of government was shifting, expanding the regulative involvement of state agencies. Civil servants and government offices, alongside the increasingly powerful medical and pharmaceutical professions, oversaw the widespread regulation of food and drug purity laws and restrictions on retail sales.

Motherly love

In previous centuries, the main concerns of the state had been upholding law and order and foreign affairs – in other words, managing trade and war. With the expansion of state concerns, a corresponding complexity developed in inter-state relations. What emerged was a system that determined border delineations, trade regimes and, in due course, the thorny question of the production and consumption of psychoactive drugs – the international conference and treaty was born.
By this time the European powers were making their first attempts to control the sale of alcoholic beverages to the newly acquired African colonies. Such initiatives were presented as the benevolent concern of mother countries for their colonial subjects, but had the effect of extending the reach of the government into the arena of drug control. Once established, it seemed natural to extend such mandates further and to set up international control regimes for the most significant drugs – opium and later cocaine – particularly since the supply routes spanned the globe. 

In the course of the 20th century the diplomats and their advisors were joined by the bureaucrats in staffing the permanent inter-governmental organisations created in the aftermath of the First World War. Policing the adherence of member states to their treaty obligations, including the protocols of the various drug control conventions, remains one of the main tasks of the United Nations agencies today.

The American experiment

The impetus for bringing opium, and later coca and cannabis, under control came, however, from America. The US temperance movement had been more successful than any of its European equivalents in politicising substance misuse, leading to the great experiment of 1920. There were ready opportunities for combining the robust assertion of US values with US commercial interests in the Pacific. American traders were keen to expand their presence on the Chinese market, and had little involvement in the opium trade. This had become a cause celebre among nationalist Chinese politicians concerned over a trade balance that for the first time in the history had seen the Middle Kingdom go into deficit. Moreover, at the end of 1897 war with Spain, the US acquired the Philippines and with it a significant population of habitual opium users. Moral crusaders took over the colonial responsibility and launched opium control as an international undertaking.
In 1909 the US State Department organised a conference on Opium in Shanghai, followed up by a further meeting in the Netherlands. The provisions of the Hague Opium Convention of 1912 included a rudimentary system of import and manufacturing reporting, and the setting up of the Opium Advisory Committee, the first dedicated body to oversee adherence to it. While the system was further developed at conferences in Geneva 1925 and London 1931, three features that characterize today’s system emerged. 

First, although it was medical and social policy that drove the introduction of control measures, these were not the focus of the new system: its main concern was to control supply. The successor agency, the Organisation for Drugs and Crime (formerly the United Nations International Drug Control Programme), has since consistently prioritised legal instruments and supply control at the expense of treatment, social development and education. 

Secondly, the current disjunction between European harm reduction policies and US zero tolerance was initially adumbrated by their respective colonial administrations. The Dutch in Indonesia, the British in India, Hong Kong and Singapore, and the French in Indochina placed the supply of opium under government monopoly. In the US-controlled Philippines, by contrast, the licit use of non-medical opium was eradicated. 

Finally, the introduction of repressive legislation was derived from the outset from international agreement. Even in the US, proponents of drug control cited the obligations incurred by signing the Hague Convention in the run-up to the 1914 Harrison Act. Today, the drug laws of many countries are driven by the proscriptions of the international conventions. 

With the war clouds gathering in the mid 1930s the system became ineffectual and was eventually suspended. In 1940 non-political services of the League of Nations, including the functional nucleus of the drug control services, were transferred ‘temporarily’ from Geneva to Princeton University in the US. When the United Nations system was recreated in 1944 drug control was transferred to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), reporting directly to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Under this regime, as under the previous one, supply control was paramount. ‘If drug control were subsumed within a larger health of social issues organisation stringent advocates feared that doctors would pursue lenient schemes’.[1] (** who said this and where/why?) 

Other organisations, such as the World Health Organisation , UNESCO, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, and the International Labour Organisation were also frozen out. It was feared they would divert resources to social and medical issues, and challenge incarceration as the main treatment modality. 

Having engineered a smooth transition to the UN bodies, the control lobby extended the list of scheduled substances to synthetic narcotics in 1948, and promoted the construction of control agencies in the member states – many of them gaining independence in the wake of decolonisation. From there it launched a most ambitious project: to bring the various control provisions into a single instrument, the ‘Single Convention.’

Drugs for war

Throughout the Cold War, international drug control was subject to diverse influences. On the one hand, the explosion in drug use from the 1960s onwards created a climate of alarm among policy makers, tempered only periodically by a growing tolerance towards drug users. On the other, the exigencies of superpower rivalry prevented control advocates from cracking down too hard on drug producers – Iran, for example – for fear of pushing them into the Soviet camp. So low was drug control on the list of security priorities that in a few notorious cases secret services actively participated in the drugs trade in order to finance and support anti-communist activities.

The main treaties of 1961, 1971 and 1988, however, successfully extended rigid controls over the usual suspects – opiates, cocaine and cannabis – as well as a growing list of synthetic drugs. Countries were obligated to improve their reporting systems, set up control bodies, and enforce the provisions of the treaty. 

After the declaration of ‘War on drugs’ by president Nixon, the US took on the role of enforcing the treaties, calling into life first UNFCTAC – the United Nations Fund – and the annual certification exercise introduced under Ronald Reagan. 

Under the system, countries deemed producer or transit regions are now assessed for their ‘cooperation’ with US anti-drug agencies. Failure leads to the loss of US development assistance, and sanctions from the international financial institutions. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, drug warriors can stride the globe unfettered. The result has been the intensification and militarization of the war in key producer regions, such as the Andean countries. 

Caught between spiralling demand from the American people for their coca produce and intransigent demands by the US government to crack down on farmers and traffickers, several Latin American states pushed for a review of the system. But at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 1998, all such proposals were watered down beyond recognition, the agenda hijacked by an ambitious supply-control-oriented UNDCP director general. With the support of the UK and the US, the 1998 meeting agreed on a 10-year plan to significantly reduce coca, opiate and cannabis production.

A crack in the armour

A first progress review will take place at the forthcoming meeting of the CND in Vienna. It is likely to occasion heated debate within and outside the conference chamber. In addition to a host of pressure groups and NGOs pressing to scrap the conventions, there is growing disagreement between some of the key players.
As the US has tightened its grip on supply-side suppression, some of its staunchest European allies have embraced harm reduction and depenalisation. The outcome of the ensuing debates is of particular importance to the developing countries’ delegations, watching from the sidelines. Some, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, are desperate to ease the restrictions. Others, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, have no truck with such liberal nonsense, and indeed spy a crack in the western alliance that may be useful to exploit. 

It is highly likely that countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal and even the UK will come in for a ritual upbraiding by CND officials, including Hamid Godze from St. George’s Hospital. Whether the assembly will also return a positive verdict on the first five years of eradication remains to be seen.

Axel Klein is the head of the International Unit at DrugScope. An anthroplogist by training, he has worked on drug issues in Nigeria, the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe. He is particularly concerned about the impact of control regimes imposed on developing and transitional states with scant reference to local culture, and prevailing political and economic realities.
[1] McAllister 2000

This article has been kindly allowed for publication on Mama Coca by DRUGLINK.

Druglink is a bi-monthly magazine for all those with a professional interest in drug problems and responses to them. The news pages keep you informed about important current developments. Features articles provide in-depth analysis of drugs issues - local, national and international.

You will find the views and experiences of researchers, policy makers, front-line workers and drug users. Druglink reviews relevant publications, and lists new books, videos and events to keep you up to date with the latest literature, resources, courses and conferences.

DrugLink is published by DrugScope, the UK NGO on drug issues. Working closely with service providers and agencies across the drugs field, DrugScope is one of the leading centres for applied research on drug issues in the UK. Increasingly involved in policy analysis, DrugScope has been calling for a thorough evaluation and review of the UN drug conventions. The articles included in the special supplement are part of these efforts in linking domestic work with an international agenda.


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