A beginner's guide to prohibition and the war on drugs

The following is the first in a series of extracts from Transform's publication, 'Ending the war on drugs: How to win the global drug policy debate'.

Any activity or product can in theory be prohibited by law, and drugs are no different. The current prohibition on drugs was established in international law by the 1961, 1971, and 1988 United Nations drug treaties, and has since been incorporated into the domestic laws of over 150 countries. It mandates criminal sanctions for the production, supply and possession/use of a range of psychoactive substances, although the penalties vary widely between countries.

The stated aim of drug prohibition is to reduce the production, supply and use of certain drugs to ultimately create a 'drug-free society'. As the 1998 United Nations Drug Control Programme once put it: A Drug Free World: We Can Do It! It hardly needs saying that such a world has not been achieved: globally, drug use has steadily increased over the last 50 years. But what is more, drug prohibition has had an impact far worse than anyone could have imagined. The unregulated, criminally controlled drugs trade has expanded to become one of the largest commodity markets on Earth, bringing with it disastrous costs. The widespread criminalisation and punishment of people who use drugs also means that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users – a war on people

Drug prohibition has its origins in the US temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement ultimately led to the prohibition of alcohol, which lasted from 1920 to 1932. This experiment failed in dramatic style, and is widely considered to have been repealed because it was expensive, counterproductive, threatened public health and generated high levels of crime. As a result, using the term 'prohibition' to describe current drug policy can, as well as being technically accurate, be a useful way to highlight how and why the harms it is causing are similar to those caused by the US's catastrophic experiment with alcohol prohibition.

Following the failure of alcohol prohibition, the groups that had been in conflict over the issue – whether Puritans, Americans of German, Italian and Irish descent, or US government agencies – were able to reconcile some of their differences by agreeing that the 'foreign' substances consumed by some racial minorities were different in some crucial way and therefore unacceptable. This engendered overtly racist attitudes and actions towards Chinese opium-smokers, cocaine-using African Americans, and cannabis-smoking Mexicans. These groups, and the drugs they were associated with, were scapegoated as the cause of many social ills, in much the same way that drug-using counterculture 'hippies' later were in the 1960s.1

Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon decided, for domestic political gain, to rebrand the policy of prohibition as a 'war on drugs', one of many military metaphors later employed by successive US governments. This served to fuel a perception that drugs, and those involved in their production, supply and use, were enemies of the US, legitimising the use of extreme measures that would otherwise have been unacceptable.

Despite, or more accurately because of, this prohibitionist approach, today's drug problems now closely echo those of alcohol prohibition, except that they encompass many more drugs, and a vastly larger – in fact, global – illegal market. The creation of this market has had disastrous unintended consequences, as identified by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (see right).

This was an inevitable outcome. Basic economic theory dictates that prohibiting a substance for which there remains a high demand, whether alcohol or any other drug, will simply push up prices and generate far greater profit margins, thereby creating a huge financial incentive for criminals to become involved in the trade. This fuels the same kinds of illicit markets with the same kinds of problems.

It is important to understand the distinction between drug prohibition, which puts an absolute ban on the production, supply and use of certain substances for non-scientific or non-medical use, and regulated drug markets, in which some activities are legal and some remain prohibited, such as sales to minors and purchases not made via licensed outlets.

Prohibition is an absolutist position, and its repeal opens the door for a wide variety of possible regulatory options which can be far more effective.



1  Jay, M. (2011) Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the 19th Century, Dedalus, pp. 196–207.