Has a War on Drugs Ever Been Won?

Detail from an oil painting of a man smoking an opium pipe, date unknown. This picture hung in an opium den in London’s Victoria Street, run by Ah Sing (d. 1890). Sing’s opium den was probably the most famous of the dens in Victorian London, and was the model for the one described in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ by Charles Dickens. Wellcome Collection/Science Museum.

‘Once supply and demand are established, prohibitions are counterproductive’

Mike Jay, Author of Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (Yale University Press, 2021)

It could be argued that the first few decades of Britain’s war on drugs were a success. The prohibition of opiates and cocaine by the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 was directed at their use by ‘problematic’ groups – ethnic minorities, bohemians, deviants – and intended to stop it spreading to the law-abiding majority. By and large it achieved this aim, though like most drug prohibitions it could also be viewed as a drug substitution. After the rise of Islam, for example, when alcohol was banned across most of the Arab world, its function as a social lubricant was replaced by other intoxicants: coffee, hashish, khat or kola nut. Opiates were replaced in early 20th-century Britain by barbiturates; cocaine by amphetamines. 

In 1961 the global prohibition was consolidated in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ironically, this was precisely the moment when the consensus that supported it began to unravel. A new postwar generation, raised as global consumers, awoke to the fact that alcohol was not the world’s only intoxicant. Substances that their parents had considered to be ‘dope’ – of interest only to degenerates and foreigners – held no such stigma for them. 

By the time Richard Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971 it was effectively lost. Prohibitions can be effective at nipping nascent demand in the bud, but once supply and demand are firmly established their effects become counterproductive. The value of drugs soared and the booming trade was taken over by organised crime. Law enforcement was unable to significantly disrupt the consensual networks of buyers and sellers, becoming corrupted in the process: a consequence all too familiar from the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1986 the activist Richard Cowan formulated The Iron Law of Prohibition: ‘The harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs.’ The war on drugs prompted a transition towards crack, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

In 1998 the UN Office of Drug Control convened its General Assembly under the slogan ‘A Drug Free World: We Can Do It’. Its World Drug Report for 2022 shows that the number of people using them has increased by 26 per cent in the last decade.  

‘As is often the case with wars, the stated objectives are not always the real goals’

Maziyar Ghiabi,Author of Drugs Politics: Managing Disorder in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

A war on drugs is a peculiar inclination of modern states. Of course, in pre-modern times rulers could, and did, declare restrictions, but never with the systematic rationale that defines contemporary prohibitions.

In the early 17th century the Ottoman sultan Murad IV made drinking coffee an offence punishable by death because he worried that coffeehouses were responsible for the decay of ethics within the empire. Catholic missionaries persecuted indigenous Mexican communities for their use of peyote, a sacred cactus, referring to it as ‘the devil’s herb’. In 1890 Shia clerics encouraged large swathes of Iranians to boycott tobacco in response to Naser al-Din Shah’s concession to the British trader G.F. Talbot. It is speculated that even the shah’s harem refused to indulge in smoking during the boycott.

By the 20th century many states were regulating and prohibiting substances under the banner of ‘drugs’, using militaristic means to fight consumption, trade and production. If the objective of this war on drugs was to prevent the proliferation of mind-altering substances, then there can be little doubt that it has miserably failed. However, as is often the case with wars, the stated objectives are not always the real goals.

In Colombia, for instance, chemical fumigation and special military operations against cocaleros has been part of the United States’ strategy of preventing left-wing, rural communities from asserting a political agenda. Throughout its occupation of Afghanistan, the US carried out military operations to fight drug production. But it also made concessions to local elites involved in the poppy economy – as long as they supported the anti-Taliban coalition. From the fall of the Taliban in 2001 to its return to power in 2021 Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer of opium and heroin and a hotspot for methamphetamine.

One defining element of the war on drugs is its role in the making of modern carceral institutions, the population of which is made up by a majority of drug-related convicts across the world. If that’s not a failure, one wonders what is.

‘Control over opium meant control over trade’

Xun Zhou, Co-author of Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (Hurst, 2016)

Opium first arrived in China with Arab merchants. In 1729 the Yongzheng emperor issued a ban on smoking madak, a blend of opium and tobacco, comparing indulgence in the drug to a heretic religion. The ban was ineffective.

The quality of opium improved in the 1790s, after the British East India Company acquired a monopoly over its cultivation and production in Bengal. The improvement in quality fuelled demand. During the course of the 19th century opium smoking became a socially accepted form of recreation across the Qing Empire. Once a symbol of wealth and power, opium soon became power itself. Control over opium meant control over trade and therefore control over society. In 1839 the Daoguang Emperor opted for a strict prohibition, ordering the surrender of every last ounce of opium in Canton at three days’ notice. This ultimately escalated into the First Opium War. Opium was claimed to have turned China into a nation of hopeless addicts, smoking themselves to death while their civilisation descended into chaos. 

As anti-opium sentiment intensified in China, the opium trade became ever more lucrative. The prohibition by the Qing imperial government resulted in many Chinese, including senior officials, turning to smuggling, often supplied and supported by British merchants. Official attempts to police the bloodstream of the nation brought corruption and a black market. Instead of containing the drug, it created a drug problem. 

At the end of the 19th century morphine, heroin and many other more powerful new  substances flooded the market. Many of them first emerged as cures for opium addiction. In the first half of the 20th century thousands of opium smokers died in detoxification centres and prisons across China. Yan Fu, the renowned moderniser, was among them. Yan had smoked opium habitually to treat his severe asthma. Compelled to give it up, he died of an asthma attack. 

As is the case in the rest of the world, the war on drugs in China has been fought with limited success, but it continues to be fought. China is now the world’s largest market for cigarettes and the leading tobacco producer. The health risks from smoking tobacco are well known. That the Chinese government might wage a ‘war on tobacco’ is not unthinkable.

‘Winning a war on drugs is impossible, if victory requires elimination’

Elizabeth K. Gray, Author of Habit Forming: Drug Addiction in America, 1776-1914 (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

I understand why Richard Nixon asserted in 1971 that his administration would ‘fight and defeat’ the ‘enemy’ of drug abuse with a global ‘offensive’. His language conveyed that he took the issue seriously and believed that such a war could be won. But while some policies can diminish the negative impact of drug use on users and their communities, ‘winning’ a war on drugs is impossible, if victory requires eliminating drug use. Many political leaders, however, have pursued such a victory.

People have enjoyed the effects of psychoactive substances for millennia. In ancient Mesopotamia, Sumerians may have called the opium poppy the ‘joy plant’. Later, some leaders feared the effects of its use. In 1360 the Thai king Ramathibodi I banned the sale and consumption of opium, which merchants had introduced in the previous century. Such use, he feared, impeded the concentration necessary for Buddhist meditation. Violators were publicly shamed and imprisoned until they detoxified. For some rulers, no penalty was too harsh. In 1840 the Vietnamese king Minh Mang imposed the death penalty on ship owners involved in the opium trade. 

One might assume that punitive laws would work, but their impact is complex. Imposing harsh penalties on sales of an item increases its value on the illicit market. Meanwhile, drug use changes users’ brains. Losing access to their drug can feel akin to starvation; addicts will go to extreme lengths to obtain it. 

Some drugs lose popularity, and use can decrease, but a drug-free society does not emerge. The temperance movement reduced alcohol consumption in 19th-century America, but the non-medical use of opiates increased in tandem. In The Chemistry of Common Life, written in 1855, James F. Johnston noted that all populations – including those ‘from the most distant times’ – sought relief in recreational drug use. ‘The craving for such indulgence, and the habit of gratifying it’, he insisted, were ‘universal’. 

Evidence now indicates that short, immediate jail sentences curb drug use more effectively than the threat of years in prison. Ironically, the best way to fight the ‘war on drugs’ is to throw out the ‘war’ imagery and adopt a more supportive approach.

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