Cohen, Peter (1993), Re-thinking drug control policy: Historical perspectives and conceptual tools. Paper presented at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) Geneva, 7-8 July 1993, Palais des Nations, Symposium The crisis of social development in 1990's.
© Copyright 1993 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


Re-thinking drug control policy

Historical perspectives and conceptual tools[1]

Peter Cohen

Ladies and gentlemen,

Over 80 years ago, the most important resolutions regarding our present system of drug prohibition were adopted during the 1911 Conference of the Hague. The 12 participating nations prohibited all non-medical production and use of opium, morphine and cocaine.

Although the factual basis for this prohibition was small, as were the number of countries signing, this event defined our present method of drug control: total prohibition. Since then a lot has happened. As part of the moral and political spirit of those times, the US. and Norway prohibited all alcohol use. But, as the number of users of alcohol was too large and the secondary effects of prohibition on public order too disastrous, lessons learned the hard way forced the repeal of alcohol prohibition.

We know what prohibition has done to countries, to individuals, to our police and judicial institutions, to the development of crime, and we are not at the end of the road. Our times move irreversibly in the direction of increased international communication and commerce, travel and transport. One of the effects of this internationalization is that not only goods but innovations, material and cultural, will move with ease across borders. In other words, both culturally and materially it will become easier all the time to access strange goods or alien practices, of which drugs are just one category. This will result in increased markets for drugs in localities where they are not now accepted.

My task today is to discuss alternative methods of drug control. I will do that only indirectly because I am firmly convinced that effective alternatives are impossible to design if we do not first re-design both our historical perspective on present drug control ideology and our conceptual tools for thinking about drug use.

Try to think of prohibition as if it were a major misunderstanding based on the limited knowledge of drugs available in the 18th and 19th centuries, a phase in history that will pass. Present day prohibition might then be understood as a fossil, an anachronism. It survives in our time because it serves and maintains political and symbolic functions it has acquired since its inception. I hypothesize that drug prohibition in itself is just one of the now fossilized products of the British industrial revolution, 18th-century Christian morality, and 17th- century Enlightenment ideas.

The British industrial revolution drove millions of workers off the lands where they had lived for centuries. They were amassed in cities under conditions that even then were experienced as intolerable. One of the reactions of this working class was to drink massively. Alcohol was one of the only ways for many workers to escape the totalitarian misery of their lives. During their fourteen-hour workdays in filthy and often lethal industrial plants they exhausted themselves, only to come home to overcrowded and inadequate housing. Socialism was born here. Socialism saw the root of all this evil in class relations. The Christian Temperance movement was born here, too. Temperance saw the root of this evil in alcohol.

Total alcohol prohibition never made it in England, but various forms of alcohol regulation did. Alcohol regulation became the normal method of alcohol control in most countries in the world. Alcohol prohibition became the exception, tried only in the U.S., in Norway, and in some Muslim countries.

The same moral forces that gave life to the temperance movement also attacked the opium politics the English maintained in China. The effects of opium on the Chinese people were described by British missionaries as more appalling than what temperance crusaders had said about the effects of alcohol on British workers. The opium problem became almost the sole domain of British priests and Church members, and we all know their success. Together with religious leaders in the US. they succeeded in giving opium and the English opium monopoly the image of pure evil. Here we see maybe the most important detail of the mistake that I mentioned to you above.

The English government ordered thorough investigations of the effect of opium consumption on India and China. Their expert committees concluded that opium abuse was not the rule, but the exception. The British investigative committees may very well have been right. Such outcomes were found by the Dutch in the East Indies, and also by the Portuguese. And this finding, that abuse was the exception and controlled use the rule, does not contradict all our modern social scientific and epidemiological knowledge about drug use.

But we may well understand the untenable position of the British Government: It was right that opium did not do the harm it was accused of. But the English Empire could not defend its near-total monopoly on opium and its near-total ban on the economic development of China by observing that opium smoking was not as evil as the moral crusaders were saying.

The opium opposition in both the US and England did not have the military power to chase the English , who had fought two opium wars against the Chinese, out of Shanghai and other strongholds. The only weapons the opium opposition had in its arsenal were political symbols and moral rhetoric. They used these to construct, exaggerate, and maintain a sense that opium was evil, just as they had done with alcohol. It was during these times, the latter half of the 19th century, that the myth of the super evil alien drugs was constructed. Opium, and later its derivatives, became the idealized demon of "psychotropic substance." We now take this image of opium in China for granted, but a re-examination of the history of opium and the construction of its image is long overdue.

Looking back at the second half of the 19th century we see two powerful forces at work against opium. First of all the expanding economic forces of the US. which could not enter the promising market of China, and second the Christian temperance movement against alcohol and other drugs, which was firmly embedded in the emancipatory movements of workers that relate back to the Enlightenment era. One might even cite a third force: the conviction that morality can be legislated by law and the power of the State. Many believed that drug use, but also homosexuality and prostitution, would ultimately disappear if simply outlawed.

Let me summarize the misunderstandings behind our present ideology of drug prohibition as follows:

The first error is the acceptance of a simplistic causal connection between drug use and poverty. In the case of the English workers of the early 19th century, the broad and highly visible extent of social misery was not, of course, the product of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse certainly aggravated an already intolerable situation, but just as certainly the intolerable situation was also an important source of alcohol abuse. Moreover, taking alcohol away would not have improved the social conditions of workers. This mistaken construction of a causal connection between large-scale social misery and drug use was the fundament of the images of evil created around opium then and remains with us in our modern images of crack cocaine.

The second misunderstanding behind our present system of drug prohibition is the idea that states can outlaw the desire for drugs, old or new. The ingestion of chemicals to alter consciousness has been part of every culture and epoch in human history, and this is likely to become more so as technologic change races ahead. Thus, the idea of a drug-free society is just as ridiculous as the idea of a crime-free society, or a society free of broken marriages. The very best one can do is mitigate the ill effects of drugs, crime, or broken marriages for all concerned.[2]

The third misunderstanding is that some drugs can, and others cannot be controlled by human consumers. This mistake is probably the most fundamental of all. I remember vividly the surprise I met in the Netherlands when I proposed research on how cocaine consumers control their use. The very question was seen as a contradiction in terms. The root of this mistake is located in the way the opium problem was constructed in the 19th century and has been reinforced ever since by the way we create knowledge about drugs. Our scientists have typically studied clinical sub samples of very heavy, problematic users and thus typically find problems. In this way drug use becomes identical to "drug abuse," and false generalizations and quasi-scientific prejudices become objectivized "truth."

In fact, both the American National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the European Council will not issue official documents which even use the term "drug use." In Europe one will always see "drug misuse", in the States "drug abuse". This is not science, it is a way of underlining the ideological point that non-abusive use of illicit drugs can not exist. When thinking about alternative methods of drug control it is absolutely decisive that this mistake be corrected. There is now a wealth of literature supporting the notion that drugs like opium, morphine, heroin, alcohol, coca, cocaine, smokable cocaine (and crack) and cannabis are used by individuals who maintain or regain control. Only when we dare to give up the dogma of the intrinsic powerlessness of humans to control these drugs, realistic and humane new drug legislation may be developed. New drug control policies should allow users to strengthen their own capacities for control and offer harm reduction measures to those who do abuse.

Eighty years of drug prohibition, especially the 40 years after World War II, have done lots of damage. It has given rise to a far larger crime problem in the developed Western countries than we would have seen without it. It has made drug criminals dominant in large areas in Northern Latin America, now expanding into Brazil, Ecuador and possibly Argentina. In Latin America, illegal drug trafficking fires the power struggles between the conservative ruling elites and newly formed guerrilla forces. In Asia, illicit opium production has been expanding steadily since the sixties. The political instability in this enormous area has made suppression efforts like those in Turkey fruitless. In fact, opium production ( and its unsuccessful suppression) is now one of the factors that generate political instability in this area.

And there is much more to come in the new Republics of the former Eastern Bloc. Because of the inability to gain sufficient foreign exchange by means of local legal production, drugs and weaponry will be the main areas of (illicit) enrichment. There is a high probability that cooperation between the official bureaucracy and the illicit economic sectors will make drug production and trafficking just as entrenched as it already is in Asia and Latin America. It is precisely the illegality of drugs, superimposed on economic underdevelopment and ethnic conflicts, that will be the main moneymaking force behind the merging of armed criminal forces and State bureaucracies. Although conditions are dissimilar, many of the poppy and marihuana growing republics in this area may develop into mature narco-corruption states, with a continuous line of narco-corruption from the lowest civic and military levels to the highest institutions and heads of State.[3]

But these geopolitical developments are not what worry me most. One of the most ironic developments of drug prohibition is the creation of a large number of local, international and supranational bureaucracies whose funding is almost wholly dependent on the lack of success of drug prohibition. Funds for these bureaucracies have been expanding, but illicit drug production and trafficking go on. The continued flow of US. funds has become essential to local Latin American agencies and the US. drug suppression agencies themselves without regard to their actual effectiveness.[4]

Ironically, in the present climate of prohibition there is no better funding rationale than an ever increasing need to do more of the same. In fact, a report just released by a well known think-tank in the U.S., the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls for enormously stepped up drug enforcement activities on a global scale.[5] As many U.S. analysts have done before, the authors see drug problems mainly as American problems that should be solved by American-style prohibitionism all over the world.

In the past 3 fiscal years, the US. alone has spent over 35 billion dollars on drug control. Still, the present national and international involvement of the 25 or so U.S. agencies involved in drug control are described in this report as "simply no match for the challenge". This type of drug control strategy has already given the US the highest rate of imprisonment in the world; diminished crime-fighting capacities, eroded civil rights, and placed one out of four young black males under the control of the criminal justice system. And this is "no match for the challenge?"

The report wants U.S. support to UNDCP "increased significantly" (page 21). It also wants expanded "overseas presence" (page 23) of a number of U.S. agencies like the DEA, FBI, Customs and the Coast Guard. Such opinions are common in U.S. and international drug control agencies, but they do not allow even the slightest doubt about the premises of present day drug control. Doubts would seriously harm the future expansion of these agencies. At the same time these agencies are the monopolistic sources of information relating to drug production and control in the world. Without exception, they find year after year that the drug control situation has worsened. And exactly this is their rationale for an expansion of prohibitionism. Just recently, UNDCP staged a fact finding commission to seven of the new Republics in the area of the old Soviet State. It did missionary work to convince authorities there to install drug control policies strictly to the prohibitionist letter of all U.N. conventions. Not a trace of doubt, and not a trace of insight into the extraordinarily destructive secondary effects of such policies in the new Republics.[6]

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have to look at the historical misunderstandings on which drug prohibition is based. We have to look far more systematically into what alternative policies might deliver. In order to do that we have to get rid of our outdated and anachronistic conceptual system with which we have constructed both our so called drug problems and the impossibility of solving them.

A serious pre-condition for improving upon present drug controls has to be the loosening of the suffocating grip of international drug treaties. These treaties have to be reformed and probably ultimately abandoned to make room for local differentiation of drug policy. First of all, more innovative policies would no longer impose western images on all countries of the world. Cultures in which opiates have been used for centuries should be free to choose their own policies in light of their own conditions rather than being forced to shape their drug policies according to the images and needs of a few large First World countries. Opium using cultures developed many control rituals and rules around opium that are now threatened by (opportunistic and very incomplete) compliance of Asian nations to the U.N. treaties. Allowing opium smoking to take place in First world countries would immediately decrease problems related to intravenous modes of heroin consumption.

The same for cannabis and coca. The main industrial forms of these vegetable drugs, morphine, heroin and cocaine, should be left open to a differentiation in controls as we now already see for alcohol. Let countries or groups of them decide on their own. Of course such a change could only happen if economic and military aid were no longer made conditional on prohibitionist drug policy.

No one will force the Norwegians to a system of alcohol control like Italy's if they want to join the EEC. And fortunately there is no power nor wish to enforce the Saudi Arabian form of alcohol control on the US. These different forms of control satisfy local needs and symbolic purposes without damage for cultures where such symbols play no role.

As the Dutch delegate to the first international Opium Conference at the Hague in 1911 remarked, for some countries state monopolies are better than full blown prohibition.(The same delegate said, by the way, he hoped that at some moment, alternative models to a global prohibition might see the light.[7]

Maybe the new strategies for drug control should exploit our new knowledge about drugs and drug use. When drugs are used to suppress social or individual problems, they have a completely different function than when used for recreation and experimentation with consciousness and perception. Drugs are used for both functions and this will continue. The best way to meet such facts of life is containment of social and individual harm and maximization of the positive functions of drug use.

Another aspect of recent knowledge about drugs is the ever growing doubt that the pharmaceutical properties of drugs determine the behavioral consequences of drug use. Of course, drugs are taken because of their pharmacological properties, but also for their magic, symbolic and social properties. More important, neither drug abuse nor addiction can be explained by pharmacology &151; apart from users' psychology and social circumstances. Indeed, pharmacological determinism is one of the basic errors under girding prohibitionism.

After the gin epidemic in London, the English introduced quality controls on all forms of liquor, opening hours of pubs, and the regulation of distribution outlets. Maybe more important, they created shorter working days, better housing and education. In this way, they, post hoc, were more clever than countries that tried to prohibit all forms of capitalist production. The largest experiment in centralized state control of needs and prohibition of certain forms of behavior was the Communist Experiment, which collapsed precisely because no rigid and bureaucratically maintained regulation system can survive under the enormous variety of human needs and cultures. After all, it appears much wiser to contain and limit the harms of full blown capitalism by regulating the labor market, production processes, and access to essential goods. Harm reduction in the sphere of capitalism has already brought better results than the prohibition of capitalism.

Fully free market economies can not exist anymore. Somewhere, we have to strike the balance between total absence of regulation and total regulation or planning. In the case of world wide and expanding drug prohibition we have lost our sense of balance. We have given up our human talents for adaptation, and worst of all, we have negated the idea that individual human beings are within limits fully responsible for their own drug use. The idea of building 21st-century drug policies around existing self-regulation no doubt seems strange now, but no stranger than freedom of religion seemed to leaders in the early middle ages when reformist movements had not challenged the orthodoxy of the catholic church. Now we would consider taking away the freedom of religion as against the most basic of human rights. It is time to pose questions about the human rights aspects of drug prohibition as well.

To finish this presentation I would like to make some recommendations. Of course I understand that an end to ingrained conceptions of drug control is not going to be seen shortly. But, at least a large organization like the UN. could employ its own research agency to develop a research strategy that investigates the questions that arise when present orthodoxy about drug control is no longer self evident. Basic questions need to be asked about the secondary effects of prohibition like the generation of crime and political instability. For instance, I think that it is extremely important to sit back and think for some time about secondary effects before agencies like UNDCP force prohibitionist orthodoxy on the New Republics of Eastern Europe. UNDCP has to stop acting like a legalistic robot. Other secondary effects are changes of drug use patterns in cultures that are most exposed to prohibitionist policies like the coca producing countries in Latin America and opium producing countries in Asia. Other important questions are not only related to how the drug problem seems to procreate itself and expand all the time. Although these questions should be investigated by sociologists and political scientists in very fundamental ways, we also have to invest in research on Western drug use patterns. Why not stage a large comparative research project in which cannabis use patterns are investigated over time and its consequences compared between countries and cultures in order to find out how cannabis use is controlled, and if not, what factors are associated with loss of control?[8] And what exactly does "loss of control" mean? Is this concept ready for the dust bin or will it survive scientific scrutiny? These and other vital scientific questions remain almost completely un investigated because the spirit of prohibition rules them out.

I want to finish by stressing that more effective drug control policies will be very diversified in different areas of the world. In order to work where prohibitionism has failed, old and obsolete notions about drug use will have to be abandoned. It will take courageous political minds to take us out of the present Middle Ages of drug control &151; a Middle Ages dominated not by Papal orthodoxy in Rome but by Presidential orthodoxy in Washington.

Note: an earlier slightly different version of this presentation was published by the Drug Policy Foundation, Washington, 1993. This article was further published in L. Böllinger (Ed.) (1994) De-Americanizing Drug Policy, The search for Alternatives for failed Repression. Peter Lang Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften


  1. I thank Craig Reinarman, Ph.D Santa Cruz), Freek Polak, M.D. (Amsterdam) and Seb Scheerer Ph.D (Hamburg) for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.
  2. As to the latter example, until about 25 years ago in Italy under Catholic morality, divorce was a moral -and therefor practical- impossibility. The system of total divorce prohibition was finally exchanged for legal regulation of divorce, too late for the millions who suffered its destructive effects.
  3. As we see e.g. in countries like Morocco or Mexico.
  4. In the words of Malamud Goti: "The optimal situation consists, therefore, of an everlasting battle to encourage the First World to invest on a seemingly hopeful anti-drug campaign". (italics added, PC). Jaime Malamud - Goti: Reinforcing Poverty; The Bolivian War on Cocaine in Alfred W. McCoy & Alan A. Block: "War on Drugs. Studies in the Failure of U.S. Narcotics Policy". Westview Press, 1992.
  5. Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington (CISS), The transnational Drug Challenge and the new world order. The report of the CSIS project on the Global Drug Trade in the Post-Cold War Era. Washington, January 1993.
  6. Special UNDCP fact finding mission in Seven Republics of the Commonwhealth of Independent States (CIS); 2 April - 2 May 1992. UNDCP Vienna 1992. Page 68.
  7. Sebastian Scheerer / Thomas Ben Bartholdy Das Kokainverbot Unpublished manuscript, University of Hamburg, 1993. Page 62.
  8. The important underlying question is whether the removal of "external controls" as imposed by prohibition, would inundate the world with uncontrolled drug use. Typical elitist perceptions assume that external controls, imposed by the ruling elites, protect populations against moral and political extremism. Such views were common during the struggles for expanded political power of the population in the 18th and 19th century, but also more recently in the period of "sexual emancipation".