Tobacco, coffee, cocoa and crack

Narcotics in History - Drugs, Crime and Corruption - Eurodrugs
October 6, 1995

There has always been ambiguity over the use of pharmacological substances because their potential use as mood changers makes them open to abuse. As a result of this the state, drug users, the medical profession and public opinion have engaged in bitter battles over the status of drugs.

These three volumes cover the history and current state of that battle. Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich's edited collection of essays, drawing on an international group of scholars, explores the medical and pharmacological history of drugs from ancient Greece to the present. In classical antiquity opium was a recognised medicament and while the dangers of overdose were recognised, there was no general unease about addiction: the lesson here is that "addiction" must be put in the context of society's values at a given time.

The 16th and 17th century controversies were about the spread of exotic substances: tobacco, coffee, cocoa, tea and distilled liquor. In Britain, economic as much as moral considerations governed public attitudes and the state quickly realised the potential profits of mass consumption of drink and tobacco. The 19th century saw concern over the control of drugs in situations where governments were reluctant to intervene in the medical and pharmacological professions and where issues of individual liberty on the one hand, and the growing power of the professions (the role of the American Medical Association, for example) and governments' relations with the burgeoning chemical (as in Germany) or pharmaceutical (as in the UK) industries contended with the emotive issue of addiction in the debate.

By the late 20th century that debate had become even more emotive with the advent of Aids, and with the language of government policy on both sides of the Atlantic , the "war on drugs", couched in militaristic terms which masked its disappointing results. By contrast, some commentators, notably the psychiatrist Ann Dally in the Porter and Teich volume, see the "war" as a phoney one: this view holds that it is a myth that cannabis use leads to hard drugs; drugs policies themselves give rise to corruption; society has constructed "problems" for which "treatment" must be found and imposed.

Richard Clutterbuck, by contrast, is concerned with the interplay between trafficking, corruption, terrorism, counterinsurgency and crime. The way forward must be, above all, to cut demand. Does suppression work? The evidence from the United States is not encouraging. Clutterbuck offers an alternative: the introduction of machine-readable identity cards incorporating biometric data, a move he denies would raise civil liberties issues, and the registration and treatment, by compulsion if necessary, of all addicts. In addition, antidrug procedures should be strengthened: life sentences should mean lifetime incarceration; extradition and trial procedures with protection of jurors and witnesses should be improved, as should international cooperation to counteract money laundering. Clutterbuck's most interesting suggestion is for legalisation under licence, overseen by a royal commission which should research the feasibility of such procedures and then monitor implementation. Whether such a strategy would find acceptance in the present climate of penal policy is questionable; but so too is the experimental nature of the proposal. A gradual extension of licensed legalisation on a trial basis would be vulnerable to public clamour, with swift termination of the programme an easy option for home secretaries.

Vincenzo Ruggerio and Nigel South's perspective is not to offer possible policy strategies but to chart the growth of drug use in Europe and responses to it. Their approach reflects the current use of business models in the analysis of international crime and deviance. They compare countries in both western and eastern Europe and provide an extensive review of the literature. Case studies of London and of Turin, based on interviews of participants in the drugs market, demonstrate convincingly how the structure of the drug economy mirrors its legitimate counterpart. The market model is also pertinent as trafficking becomes a major and organized international business. Trafficking in Europe is dominated by coalitions of professional criminals, or by import-export traders who move drugs alongside their legitimate merchandise. In Britain, the structure of the drug business parallels the legal economy: traditional white groups dominate the more profitable sectors, and minorities (despite popular assumptions) occupy lower positions. While drug markets, particularly those for cocaine and crack, may be becoming more violent, fears that the Yardies (illegal immigrants from Jamaica) are a truly organised mafia operation are misplaced.

Today there is also an increasing interest in the alleged association of drugs with social malaise. Some evidence of a correlation between conditions of multiple deprivation and drug use exists; the issue, however, is that of the response of American and European governments to deprivation and the "underclass" which has been less than generous, with antidrugs strategies remaining focussed on suppression. Pragmatic responses aimed at harm reduction are currently the most useful way forward in Europe, where the adoption of legalisation and decriminalisation policies is remote.

These studies demonstrate that while mood-altering substances have been recognised since classical times, the growth of misuse and the contemporary explosion of drug availability has focussed attention on organised forms of drug-related crime. At the same time, popular belief that the drugs economy is controlled by monopolies or large cartels is misplaced. What is of major concern is that the scale of profits mean that criminal enterprises are likely to become more organised and more visible than in the past.

Debates on substance misuse and what policies, if any, should be used to combat it remain contentious. The role of the state, the effectiveness of penal policy, the internationalisation of organised crime (and of measures to counteract it) seem to offer at best a form of damage limitation. Though societal responses are still vulnerable to "moral panics", the strong theme which is emerging is that suppression alone is no longer feasible. The emphasis on harm minimisation suggests, however, that a mix of control and ameliorative procedures will remain the major policy reponse, given that decriminalisation and legalisation, and even suggestions for cautious experimentation with legalisation under licence are still unacceptable in government circles.

Dilys M. Hill is reader in politics, University of Southampton.

Narcotics in History

Editor - Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich
ISBN - 0 521 43163 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 2

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