The substance of illegality

The Return of the Dangerous Classes

January 13, 1995

According to the author of this book, drug prohibition serves aims and interests other than the declared objective of reducing dangerous drug abuse. It has more impact on people other than those who abuse drugs, acting as a symbolic reassurance for those who invoke security and order, for example. Drug prohibition also survives because it may be used as a powerful emotional lever leading to political success on the one hand, and facilitating access to public finances on the other.

Nowhere does Diana Gordon claim that drug abuse does not constitute a problem for both those involved and the community in which they live. Rather, she detects a "shadow agenda" within North American drug policies whereby the task of eliminating drug abuse becomes a secondary one. She does so while studying cases of drug politics in action in a variety of arenas. These include the development of a congressional consensus supporting the death penalty for drug "kingpins"; the call in Michigan for mandatory life imprisonment without parole for people handling more than 650 grams of opiates or cocaine derivatives, the recriminalisation in Alaska, by citizen initiative, of possession of marijuana for personal use.

Both Emile Durkheim and Michel Foucault thought state intervention was only tangentially addressed to the subjects that apparently inspired them. For Durkheim, for example, the rationale of punishment is to be found less in the criminal act or the offender punished than in the effects that the very availability of institutional punishment have on the law-abiding society. He found in the rituals of penalty the key to the analysis of society itself, of its cohesion. In his search for sources of solidarity in modern societies, where the rise of individualism risks reducing the range of shared values, he found that penalty played a crucial role. These aspects, he argued, overweighed the function of punishment as a means of controlling crime. Even more radically, Foucault saw punishment as a metaphor for discipline, as a technology through which not "criminals", but individuals in general were culturally moulded and socially constructed in the modern world. In this panorama, offences and offenders tend to disappear, as the social pathology they epitomise serves to confirm the righteousness of honest citizens and the permanent educational process to which they are subjected. Diana Gordon's book does not refer to these notions explicitly, although the reader may sense that such notions constantly underlie her analysis.

The war on drugs accentuates sentiments of righteousness, and promotes social cohesion among those who wage it, be they political leaders or ordinary citizens. This war contributes to the construction of enemies -- blacks, aliens, youth -- who can be blamed for ills which transcend the drug problem itself. Such enemies constitute a metaphor for fear and insecurity, and can even be identified as the source of a general social crisis which affects all. Their being regarded as enemies is precisely due to their identification as a cause rather than an outcome of this crisis. They are the contemporary dangerous classes which give the title to this book.

If drug policies allow for such powerful symbolic construction, the value of these policies as "political resource" is consequently enormous. Politicians of diverse political creed cannot afford to overlook this essential resource, nor can they escape a "mine's tougher" contest, be they progressive or conservative. When the drug policies of political parties are observed, the ideological differences between them almost disappear: all of them sense that being "soft" on the issue of drugs may lead to electoral disaster. The contest also involves a variety of entrepreneurs, such as private security firms, therapeutic communities, and similar projects aimed either at the fight against drugs or the treatment of drug abusers. Gordon omits to consider how criminologists themselves may be incapable of escaping this contest, as the possibility of receiving research grants may soon depend on how "seriously" they take the drug problem. The vicious circle is finally drawn: drug policies, presumably designed to alleviate the damage caused by drug abuse, and academic research, presumably devised to shed light on the subject matter, take on independent lives of their own.

The critical approach of Gordon does not imply a call for the legalisation of drugs. She is adamant on this point. In her view, prohibitionists and legalisers may be making precisely the same error. Both assume that drug policies are the main tools for solving the drug problem. "My orientation to policy politics leads me to the conclusion that no less important than the substance of what our drug policy should be is how we address the shadow agenda of prohibition -- the racial and generational antagonisms, the yearning for order and for social and political participation, the political and fiscal insecurities of both citizens and leaders." It could be added that prohibitionists and legalisers seem to embrace a common notion of humans -- the rejection of or the inclination for drugs are respectively seen as part of our very nature. The former posit a pure, uncontaminated individual who achieves happiness without resorting to artificial euphoriants. The latter regard mood altering substances as part and parcel of human needs, these substances being known, in one form or another, to all traditional societies. Surely, when the social, devastating effects of both drug abuse and drug prohibition are examined, these naturalistic views sound out of place.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies at Middlesex University.

The Return of the Dangerous Classes: Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics

Author - Diana R. Gordon
ISBN - 0 393 03642 1
Publisher - W.W. Norton
Price - £23.95
Pages - 316pp

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