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.
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.
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.
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’.
(** 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.’
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.
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.
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
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