Drugs and the World

December 18, 2008

Written for a wide audience of specialist and non-specialist readers, Axel Klein's book Drugs and the World is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the use and misuse of psychoactive substances and the policies and interventions that make up the global war against drugs.

The style and orientation of the book no doubt reflect Klein's mix of academic background and professional experience in the national and international drugs field. Practitioners and researchers in the field of drug use, addiction prevention and drug policy may have come across Klein's work in the UK Anti-Drug Coordination Unit, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the drugs charity DrugScope and various United Nations and European Union drug control and evaluation projects. Others may be more familiar with his recent radio work that suggests that, contrary to popular assumptions, "drugs can be good for you".

Having conducted many consultancies for international organisations and numerous research visits to drug treatment centres, cannabis farms, crack houses, drug street markets and drug strategy units around the world, Klein is sceptical of the dominant discourse that pathologises and criminalises some mind-altering substances and their users (such as cannabis and qat) but not others (alcohol). Instead, he is interested in exploring the historical and global dimensions of "drug use within a wider culture of consumption", "treating many of the associated problems as questions of public health and social exclusion" rather than crime, and rethinking the "colossal collateral damage effected by 30 years of drug wars". And this is where the key strengths of the book lie.

Written in a clear and accessible style, the book challenges many of the misconceptions and stereotypes in our everyday thinking about the drugs problem and what is to be done about it. The book has 11 chapters and four central claims: "drugs and the human penchant for drug-taking remains perversely ill understood"; "after a century of institutionalised campaigning the methods employed have inflicted far more harm ... than the substances in question"; drug policy implementation for the "benefit of operational simplicity" and the "destructive methodology of war" prioritise "negative values" such as "abstinence, eradication and suppression"; the global drug control system "thrives on crises and will continue to expand into and destabilise new regions".

While I was less convinced by some of the more speculative arguments surrounding the use of mind-altering plant-based substances and human evolution and the "man/hallucinogenic mushroom symbiosis", I was fascinated by Klein's account of how drugs and drug control have become a battleground for bureaucrats, private agents, practitioners, policymakers and a plethora of experts associated with different international agencies working in Africa, the Caribbean and the Caucasus.

The book injects fresh insights into debates about the global drugs problem. Klein maintains an aptly sceptical stance throughout, deftly appraising the many contradictions and costs associated with a model of drugs control that has been exported from the global north to the global south. Overall, this book is a highly informative and valuable resource for all those interested in the use and control of drugs around the world today.

Drugs and the World

By Axel Klein
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781861893819
Published 19 November 2008

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