Fixing Drugs: The Politics of Drug Prohibition

David Nutt applauds a well-balanced evaluation of narcotics law, with all its inconsistencies and flaws

March 8, 2012

This excellent, concise yet scholarly overview of the current state of international prohibition-based drug control was published just after the 100th anniversary of the International Opium Convention, the agreement signed in The Hague that began the first attempts at international drug control. However, as Sue Pryce details here, the concept of enforced abstinence or prohibition is much older, dating back to the ancient Greeks some 3,000 years ago. The idea of using restraint to stop drug use appears in Homer's tale of Odysseus restraining his crew to prevent them succumbing to the addictive power of the lotus flower. Since then, in a convoluted manner, the attempts to control drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) have evolved and metamorphosed into a complex and destructive international policy enshrined and ossified by UN conventions in the latter half of the past century.

Pryce's book is easy to read and well sprinkled with powerful quotations that strongly bolster her case. I found particularly compelling one from Milton Friedman, who said "drugs are a tragedy for addicts, but criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society" (because prohibition is the dealer's best friend), and another from Richard Holbrooke, the late US special envoy in Afghanistan, who called attempts to destroy the opium crop "the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy".

I presume this volume is intended largely as a primer for a course on drug policy for students taking politics or international studies or law degrees, and it would certainly prepare them well for the complexities of the issues and their international ramifications. Each of its seven chapters is self-contained and balanced, although there is a fluid theme that weaves throughout. The first three chapters give a clear and accurate account of the nature of drugs, the reasons people use them and the consequences emerging from their use. The philosophical issues relating to concepts such as problem drug use and the artificial disparities between kinds of drugs - alcohol and tobacco on the one hand and cannabis and cocaine on the other - are explained. The historical context in relation to different cultures and religious attitudes - such as the Islamic prohibition not only of alcohol and cannabis but also coffee and tobacco, with only the latter two substances breaking free from these constraints - offers lessons in the way that public demand (and arguably the lack of intoxicating effects of caffeine and nicotine) can serve eventually to overcome even harsh state penalties.

One interesting perspective considered here is that of the fear of addiction being much more worrying than the experience itself. This is particularly evident when one considers the clearly contradictory attitudes to alcohol and "illegal" drugs. In the former case, alcohol dependence or addiction is seen as a real but tolerable consequence of the benefits of alcohol to society in general, whereas a more catastrophic scenario is envisioned for the use of "illegal" drugs. Every cannabis or cocaine user is presumed to be on the way to inevitable addiction, even though it is quite clear that this is nothing like the case. Indeed, cannabis certainly and cocaine possibly may be less addictive than alcohol. Another aspect of alcohol use and misuse is that we know that regulation works. As Fixing Drugs describes, the decision to regulate alcohol in the UK was driven by the epidemic of damage caused by the liberation of distilling in the early 1700s, moving it from the control of a small guild of brewers to open commercial production, which then massively ramped up the production of gin. Attempts to ban gin failed because of huge public demand, so taxation was used successfully to regulate demand. Why this lesson has not been brought to bear on other drugs is still something of a mystery. However, there may still be hope. The introduction of coffee into the UK was met with a serious backlash from many parts of society, and protest groups were set up to have it banned. These faded from the scene once the dire predictions of coffee's risks and harms were shown to be hype and exaggeration.

The subsequent two chapters deal with the meat of the book's central question - prohibition. The mechanisms of state drug control and its international aspects under the UN schedules are explained in a balanced manner, although the huge inconsistencies and flaws in the approach are graphically highlighted. These two chapters make the most significant novel contribution to the larger debate about the effectiveness and value of the drug laws, for they focus on the damage from prohibition and the reasons why states persist with a policy that, from almost all analyses, has not only failed in its objective but may have significantly magnified the scale of the problems contingent on drug use and addiction.

So why do states persevere with this failing policy? Pryce details a series of complementary explanations ranging from the ideological, through fear and expediency, to the vested interests of those (large) groups who make a significant living from policing prohibitionist policies, such as law enforcement agencies, military hardware manufacturers and those working in the legal professions.

The book's detailed critique of the use of sniffer dogs to detect cannabis (and supposedly other drugs) with its attendant breaches of human rights as well as UK law is welcome, as is the more general analysis of the way in which the pursuit of drug users has eroded the legal as well as the social and moral policies of many states. Much of this corruption of legal and moral principles appears to stem from the supposition that if drugs are - in the words of the UN - "an evil", then drug users must be, too. The fact that such a conflation can be allowed to occur and continue despite its obvious illogicality is discussed in terms of the international community acceding to moral principles, driven largely by the US on the back of its economic muscle. However, the rising wealth of drug dealers and cartels now threatens to have as much international influence as the US, with several West African as well as Latin American states now receiving more funding from the illicit proceeds of drug trafficking than from international aid.

Among the book's many strengths are that it is particularly up to date and offers a good international perspective rather than simply a UK-centric vision. Moreover, it is written in a fair and non-polemical way, with balance and evidence throughout. Areas that are less well covered, and which might profitably be strengthened in future editions, are those relating to the negative impact that the drug laws have on medical treatment and research, which is understandable given that the author is a social scientist. Overall, however, it is an excellent overview of a complex issue that should be a useful source for anyone interested in the origins, current status and possible future directions of drug and alcohol policies, particularly in relation to prohibition, and the author should be congratulated on this major achievement.

Pryce's final conclusion - that prohibitionists are like addicts in that each sees their behavioural choice as the solution to their problems, when of course the opposite is true - is well argued and judiciously presented. It is also a novel way to conceptualise the seemingly bizarre and illogical obsession that prohibition represents for so many politicians and opinion-leaders worldwide.

The Author

Currently associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Sue Pryce attended the university as an undergraduate and went on to complete her MA and PhD there before joining the faculty as a part-time tutorial assistant in 1994.

Two years after the publication of her acclaimed 1997 book Presidentializing the Premiership, she trained as a substance misuse counsellor. She says that her interest in the field of drug policy arose because she has a son addicted to heroin.

Pryce enjoys ballet, opera and fashion and recently collected her fifth sports car: "I live 30 miles from work, and I love driving across the country with the roof down." She is fond of felines and owns two Bengal cats, Jinnah and Nehru, and sponsors an ocelot and a lynx at an exotic pet refuge in Deeping St James.

She pays daily visits to a local farm to feed feral cats that have been left on their own since the deaths of their owners and looks after a one-winged swan that often waddles up from a nearby lake to spend several days at a time on her front lawn.

Fixing Drugs: The Politics of Drug Prohibition

By Sue Pryce

Palgrave Macmillan

200pp, £60.00 and £18.99

ISBN 9780230359703 and 59710

Published 17 February 2012

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