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Encyclopedia > War against drugs

The prohibition of drugs through legislation or religious law is a common means of controlling the perceived negative consequences of recreational drug use at a society- or world-wide level. Present-day attempts to enforce drug prohibition are frequently considered to be part of the ongoing war on drugs instituted by United States president Richard Nixon in 1972.

The prohibition of non-medical drug use is controversial. Opponents often feel that prohibition unfairly impinges on the perceived right of the individual to alter their consciousness. They also argue that prohibition is an ineffective means of controlling the negative effects of non-medical drug use. Proponents of prohibition feel that the use of psychoactive drugs outside of a medical context is so dangerous that absolute prohibition is the only sensible means of control. Some people also oppose the use of certain drugs on moral or dogmatic grounds. For further elaboration see: Arguments for and against drug prohibition.



Most countries have a very similar set of prohibited drugs. Some exceptions exist; most notably, Islamic countries mostly prohibit the use of alcohol, while most other states allow at least adults to purchase and consume alcohol. The United States, Finland and Canada also instituted alcohol prohibition in the first half of the 20th century. All countries regulate the manufacture, distribution, marketing and sale of some or all drugs, such as by using a prescription system. Only certain drugs are banned with a "blanket prohibition" against all use. However, the prohibited drugs generally continue to be available through the illegal drug trade. Many countries allow a certain amount of personal use of certain drugs, but not sale or manufacture. Some also set a specific amount of a particular drug, above which is ipso jure considered to be evidence of trafficking or sale of the drug.

In July 2000, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan ruled opium to be "against Islam" and outlawed it, with verbal and foreign aid support of the US government. After the Taliban was swept out of power by the USA (for other reasons), opium cultivation resumed. In April 2004, Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai declared a jihad on drugs (after opium output reached a near-record 3,600 tonnes in 2003 -- equivalent to three-quarters of world supply).


Early Drug Laws

Although the present War on Drugs is a distinctly modern phenomenon, drug laws have been a common feature of human culture throughout history.

Perhaps the earliest recorded example in the Old World is the prohibition of the use of alcohol under Islamic law (Sharia), which is usually attributed to passages in the Qur'an purportedly dating from the 7th century. Although Islamic law is often interpreted as prohibiting all intoxicants (not only alcohol), the ancient practice of hashish smoking has continued throughout the history of Islam, against varying degrees of resistance. A major campaign against hashish-eating Sufis was conducted in Egypt in the 11th and 12th centuries resulting among other things in the burning of fields of cannabis, and the public torture of hashish users (Ref 1).

Religious intolerance was also the motivation for drug prohibition in Christian Europe. In a move interpreted as support of the efforts of the Spanish Inquisition against the Arabs, in a 1484 fiat Pope Innocent VIII banned the use of cannabis. The persecution of heretics in the form of witch-hunts also gathered momentum around this time, and frequently targeted users of medicinal and hallucinogenic herbs. The Inquisition proceeded apace in Central and South America, where peyote, ololiuqui, toloache, teonanacatl and other sacred plants of the Aztec culture were prohibited as works of the devil.

In Northern Europe, the Protestants were also guilty of passing drug laws motivated by religious intolerance, according to Stephen Harrod Buhner (Ref 2). Buhner argues that the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, which stipulates that beer may only contain water, malt and hops was a "reflection of Protestant irritation about 'drugs' and the Catholic Church". Unlike the typically stimulating herbal blends widely used at the time (e.g. gruit), hops cause sedation and reduce libido. In 1536 Edward VI commended hopped beer as "notable, healthy and temperate", while the exclusive use of hops had been compulsory in France since 1268 (Ref 3).

Coffee almost followed the same fate as cannabis as its use spread from Ethiopia through the Middle East to Europe. Its use was banned in the Middle East on numerous occasions as in conflict with Islamic law, but eventually it came to be accepted. The introduction of coffee in Europe from Muslim Turkey also prompted calls for it to be banned as the Devil's work, however Pope Clement VIII sanctioned its use, declaring that it was "so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it."

In late Qing Imperial China, opium imported by the British East Indian Company was vastly consumed by all social classes in Southern China. Between 1821 and 1837 imports of the drug increased five-fold. The Chinese government attempted to end this trade, on public health grounds. The effort was initially successful with the destruction of all British opium stock in May 1839. However to protect this trade, the British declared war on China (First Opium War). China was defeated and the war which ended with the Treaty of Nanking, in which the opium trade is legalized. The resulting trade greatly weakened Chinese society, and set into motion a chain of events that would lead to the massive Taiping Rebellion.

Twentieth century

The next great wave of anti-drug legislation began in the late 19th century, and continues to the present day. The United States have been the driving force in the present-day war on drugs.

The first law outright prohibiting the use of a specific drug was a San Francisco, California ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The inspiration was "many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise." The primary cause of the movement for the law was a moral panic based on a fear of Chinese immigrants and other railroad workers seducing white women with the drug. This was followed by other laws throughout the country, and federal laws which barred Chinese people from trafficking in opium. Though the laws affected the use and distribution of opium by Chinese immigrants, no action was taken against the producers of such products as laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, commonly taken as a panacea by white Americans. The dividing line was usually the manner in which the drug was ingested. Chinese immigrants smoked it, while it was included in various kinds of (generally liquid) medicines for white people. The laws were aimed at smoking opium, but not otherwise ingesting it. 1 (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/cu/cu6.htm) As a result of this discrepancy, modern commentators believe that these laws were racist in origin and intent.

Cocaine was prohibited in the first part of the 20th century. Newspapers used terms like "Negro Cocaine Fiends" and "Cocainized Niggers" to drive up sales, causing a nationwide panic about the rape of white women by black men, high on cocaine. Many police forces changed from a .32 caliber to a .38 caliber pistol because the smaller gun was supposedly unable to kill black men when they were high on cocaine.

This was followed by the Harrison Act, which required sellers of opiates and cocaine to get a license (which were usually only distributed to white people). The supporters of the Harrison Act did not support blanket prohibition of the drugs involved 1 (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/cu/cu8.html). This is also true of the later Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Soon, however, the people who were allowed to issue the licenses did not do so, effectively banning the drugs.

The American judicial system did not initially accept drug prohibition. Prosecutors argued that possessing drugs was a tax violation, as no legal licenses to sell drugs were in existence; hence, a person possessing drugs must have purchased them from an unlicensed source. After some wrangling, this was accepted as federal jurisdiction under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The prohibition of alcohol commenced in the United States and Finland in 1919. Because alcohol was the most popular recreational drug in these countries, reactions to its prohibition were very different to those of other drugs, which were commonly perceived to be associated with racial and ethnic minorities. Public pressure led to the repealing of alcohol prohibition in 1933 in the United States, 1932 in Finland. Residents of many provinces of Canada also experienced alcohol prohibition for similar periods of time in the first half of the 20th century.

1937 saw the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act. Harry J. Anslinger (Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner) testified in hearings on the subject that the hemp plant needed to be banned because it had a violent "effect on the degenerate races". This specifically referred to Mexican immigrants who had entered the country, seeking jobs during the Great Depression. The law passed quickly and with little debate. The American Medical Association (AMA) protested the law soon after, both on the grounds of actual disagreement with the law and the supporters' lies on the subject; Anslinger and others had claimed the AMA had vocalized support when, in fact, the opposite was true.

In response to rising drug use amongst young people and the counter-culture in particular, efforts to enforce prohibition were strengthened in many countries from the late 1960s onwards. In 1972 United States president Richard Nixon announced the commencement of the so-called War on Drugs. Later, President Reagan added the position of drug czar to the President's Executive Office.

Lobbying at an international level for the prohibition of non-medical drug use has been a feature of United States policy since the beginnings of the modern War on Drugs in the late 20th century, to such an extent that US support for foreign governments is sometimes contingent on adherence to US drug policy. Major milestones in this campaign include the successful introduction of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971 and the Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988.

Methods of enforcement

The War on Drugs utilizes several techniques to achieve its goal of eliminating recreational drug use:

  • specialized law enforcement agencies, officers and techniques
  • information campaigns to educate the public on the real or perceived dangers of recreational drug use
  • streamlined enforcement and evidence-gathering procedures

The War on Drugs involves action taken against three groups of criminals:

A War on Drugs is usually run like a modern war with police and other law enforcement officers instead of military personnel. The apparatus prepared for the War is ordinarily organized to face guerrilla situations, armed attacks or counter-attacks and bombings. These tactics include espionage, as undercover agents (spies) are used to infiltrate drug use and trafficking circles.

Investigation on drug trafficking often begins with the recording of unusually frequent deaths by overdose, monitoring financial flows of suspected traffickers, or by finding concrete elements while inspecting for other purposes. For example, a person pulled over for traffic violations may have illicit drugs in his or her vehicle, thus leading to an arrest and/or investigation of the source of the materials. Most investigations into trafficking or manufacturing are fruitless, and casual users remain at a greater risk of arrest, conviction and imprisonment than others.

Legal Provisions

The following frequently used drugs are prohibited or otherwise regulated for recreational use in most countries:

The regulation of the above drugs varies in many countries; cannabis and hashish, for example, are sometimes legal for personal use, though not sale. In some countries Dextromethorphan is available in ordinary over-the-counter products such as cough medicines. Alcohol possession and consumption by adults is today banned only in Islamic countries and various parts of India. The United States, Finland, and Canada banned alcohol in the early part of the 20th century; this was called Prohibition. Tobacco is not illegal for adults in any country.

In countries where alcohol and tobacco are legal, certain measures are frequently undertaken to discourage use of these drugs. For example, packages of alcohol and tobacco sometimes communicate warnings directed towards the consumer, communicating the potential risks of partaking in the use of the substance. These drugs also frequently have special sin taxes associated with the purchase thereof, in order to recoup the losses associated with public funding for the health problems the use causes in long-term users. Restrictions on advertising also exist in many countries, and often a state holds a monopoly on manufacture, distribution, marketing and/or the sale of these drugs.

In the United States, there is considerable legal debate about the impact these laws have had on Americans' civil rights. Critics claim that the War on Drugs has lowered the evidentiary burden required for a legal search of a suspect's dwelling or vehicle, or to intercept a suspect's communications. However, many of the searches that result in drug arrests are often "consent searches" where an arresting officer does not have probable cause or a warrant, but has asked for and received permission to search a person or the person's property.

Sometimes, crimes not directly related to drug use and sale are prohibited. For example, the United States recently brought charges against club owners for maintaining a place of business where a) Ecstasy is known to be frequently consumed; b) paraphernalia associated with the use of Ecstasy is sold and/or widely tolerated (such as glow sticks and pacifiers); and c) "chill-out rooms" are created, where Ecstasy users can cool down (Ecstasy raises the user's blood temperature). These are being challenged in court by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Drug Policy Alliance.

Many countries allow the use of undercover law enforcement officers solely or primarily for the enforcement of laws against recreational use of certain drugs. Many of these officers are allowed to commit crimes if it is necessary to maintain the secrecy of the investigation, or in order to collect adequate evidence for a conviction. Some people have criticized this practice as failing to ensure equality under the law because it grants police officers the right to commit crimes that no other citizen could commit without potential consequences.

The War on Drugs has stimulated the creation of international law enforcement agencies (such as Interpol), mostly in Western countries. This has occurred because a large volume of illicit drugs come from Third-World countries.


1. Abel, Ernest L., Marijuana -- The First Twelve Thousand Years, 1980. (online here (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/abel.html))

2. Buhner, Stephen Harrod, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation, Sirius Books, 1998

3. Hops: The Bitter Herb (web page: here (http://www.greydragon.org/library/hops.html))

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