U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in a training exercise
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in a training exercise

The prohibition of drugs through sumptuary legislation or religious law is a common means of attempting to prevent the recreational use of certain intoxicating substances.

While some drugs are illegal to possess, many governments regulate the manufacture, distribution, marketing, sale, and use of certain drugs, for instance through a prescription system. For example, amphetamines may be legal to possess if a doctor has prescribed them; otherwise, possession or sale of the drug is typically a criminal offense. Only certain drugs are banned with a "blanket prohibition" against all possession or use (e.g., LSD). The most widely banned substances include psychoactive drugs, although blanket prohibition also extends to some steroids and other drugs. Many governments do not criminalize the possession of a limited quantity of certain drugs for personal use, while still prohibiting their sale or manufacture, or possession in large quantities. Some laws (or judicial practice) set a specific volume of a particular drug, above which is considered ipso jure to be evidence of trafficking or sale of the drug.[citation needed]

Some Islamic countries prohibit the use of alcohol (see list of countries with alcohol prohibition). Many governments levy a sin tax on alcohol and tobacco products, and restrict alcohol and tobacco from being sold or gifted to a minor. Other common restrictions include bans on outdoor drinking and indoor smoking. In the early 20th century, many countries had alcohol prohibition. These include the United States (1920–1933), Finland (1919–1932), Norway (1916–1927), Canada (1901–1948), Iceland (1915–1922) and the Russian Empire/USSR (1914–1925). In fact, the first international treaty to control a psychoactive substance adopted in 1890 actually concerned alcoholic beverages[1] (Brussels Conference).[2] The first treaty on opium only arrived two decades later, in 1912.


Drugs, in the context of prohibition, are any of a number of psychoactive substances whose use a government or religious body seeks to control. What constitutes a drug varies by century and belief system. What is a psychoactive substance is relatively well known to modern science.[3] Examples include a range from caffeine found in coffee, tea, and chocolate, nicotine in tobacco products; botanical extracts morphine and heroin, and synthetic compounds MDMA and fentanyl. Almost without exception, these substances also have a medical use, in which case they are called pharmaceutical drugs or just pharmaceuticals. The use of medicine to save or extend life or to alleviate suffering is uncontroversial in most cultures. Prohibition applies to certain conditions of possession or use. Recreational use refers to the use of substances primarily for their psychoactive effect outside of a clinical situation or doctor's care.

In the twenty-first century, caffeine has pharmaceutical uses. Caffeine is used to treat bronchopulmonary dysplasia. In most cultures, caffeine in the form of coffee or tea is unregulated. Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day.[4] Some religions, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prohibit coffee.[5] They believe that it is both physically and spiritually unhealthy to consume coffee.[6]

A government's interest to control a drug may be based on its negative effects on its users, or it may simply have a revenue interest. The British parliament prohibited the possession of untaxed tea with the imposition of the Tea Act of 1773. In this case, as in many others, it is not a substance that is prohibited, but the conditions under which it is possessed or consumed. Those conditions include matters of intent, which makes the enforcement of laws difficult. In Colorado possession of "blenders, bowls, containers, spoons, and mixing devices" is illegal if there was intent to use them with drugs.[citation needed]

Many drugs, beyond their pharmaceutical and recreational uses, have industrial uses. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas is a dental anesthetic, also used to prepare whipped cream, fuel rocket engines, and enhance the performance of race cars.


The cultivation, use, and trade of psychoactive and other drugs has occurred since ancient times. Concurrently, authorities have often restricted drug possession and trade for a variety of political and religious reasons. In the 20th century, the United States led a major renewed surge in drug prohibition called the "War on Drugs".

Early drug laws

Huichol religion worshiped the god of Peyote, a drug.
Huichol religion worshiped the god of Peyote, a drug.

The prohibition on alcohol under Islamic Sharia law, which is usually attributed to passages in the Qur'an, dates back to the seventh 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 were conducted in Egypt in the 11th and 12th centuries resulting among other things in the burning of fields of cannabis.[citation needed]

Though the prohibition of illegal drugs was established under Sharia law, particularly against the use of hashish as a recreational drug, classical jurists of medieval Islamic jurisprudence accepted the use of hashish for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, and agreed that its "medical use, even if it leads to mental derangement, should remain exempt [from punishment]". In the 14th century, the Islamic scholar Az-Zarkashi spoke of "the permissibility of its use for medical purposes if it is established that it is beneficial".[7]

A painting of opium ships sailing into China. Chinese attempts to suppress opium smuggling sparked the First Opium War.
A painting of opium ships sailing into China. Chinese attempts to suppress opium smuggling sparked the First Opium War.

In the Ottoman Empire, Murad IV attempted to prohibit coffee drinking to Muslims as haraam, arguing that it was an intoxicant, but this ruling was overturned soon after his death in 1640.[8] The introduction of coffee in Europe from Muslim Turkey prompted calls for it to be banned as the devil's work, although Pope Clement VIII sanctioned its use in 1600, declaring that it was "so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it". Bach's Coffee Cantata, from the 1730s, presents a vigorous debate between a girl and her father over her desire to consume coffee. The early association between coffeehouses and seditious political activities in England led to the banning of such establishments in the mid-17th century.[9]

A number of Asian rulers had similarly enacted early prohibitions, many of which were later forcefully overturned by Western colonial powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1360, for example, King Ramathibodi I, of Ayutthaya Kingdom (now Thailand), prohibited opium consumption and trade. The prohibition lasted nearly 500 years until 1851 when King Rama IV allowed Chinese migrants to consume opium. The Konbaung Dynasty prohibited all intoxicants and stimulants during the reign of King Bodawpaya (1781–1819). After Burma became a British colony, the restrictions on opium were abolished and the colonial government established monopolies selling Indian-produced opium.[10]

In late Qing China, opium imported by foreign traders, such as those employed by Jardine Matheson and the East India Company, was consumed by all social classes in Southern China. Between 1821 and 1837, imports of the drug increased fivefold. The wealth drain and widespread social problems that resulted from this consumption prompted the Chinese government to attempt to end the trade. This effort was initially successful, with Lin Zexu ordering the destruction of opium at Humen in June 1839. However, the opium traders lobbied the British government to declare war on China, resulting in the First Opium War. The Qing government was defeated and the war ended with the Treaty of Nanking, which legalized opium trading in Chinese law.[citation needed]

First modern drug regulations

Papaver somniferum. The sale of drugs in the UK was regulated by the Pharmacy Act of 1868.
Papaver somniferum. The sale of drugs in the UK was regulated by the Pharmacy Act of 1868.

The first modern law in Europe for the regulating of drugs was the Pharmacy Act 1868 in the United Kingdom. There had been previous moves to establish the medical and pharmaceutical professions as separate, self-regulating bodies, but the General Medical Council, established in 1863, unsuccessfully attempted to assert control over drug distribution.[11] The Act set controls on the distribution of poisons and drugs. Poisons could only be sold if the purchaser was known to the seller or to an intermediary known to both, and drugs, including opium and all preparations of opium or of poppies, had to be sold in containers with the seller's name and address.[12] Despite the reservation of opium to professional control, general sales did continue to a limited extent, with mixtures with less than 1 percent opium being unregulated.

After the legislation passed, the death rate caused by opium immediately fell from 6.4 per million population in 1868 to 4.5 in 1869. Deaths among children under five dropped from 20.5 per million population between 1863 and 1867 to 12.7 per million in 1871 and further declined to between 6 and 7 per million in the 1880s.[13]

In the United States, the first drug law was passed in San Francisco in 1875, banning the smoking of opium in opium dens. The reason cited was "many women and young girls, as well as young men of a respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise." This was followed by other laws throughout the country, and federal laws that 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 tincture of opium and alcohol, commonly taken as a panacea by white Americans. The distinction between its use by white Americans and Chinese immigrants was thus a form of racial discrimination as it was based on the form in which it was ingested: Chinese immigrants tended to smoke it, while it was often included in various kinds of generally liquid medicines often (but not exclusively) used by Americans of European descent. The laws targeted opium smoking, but not other methods of ingestion.[14]

Britain passed the All-India Opium Act of 1878, which limited recreational opium sales to registered Indian opium-eaters and Chinese opium-smokers and prohibiting its sale to emigrant workers from British Burma.[15]

Following the passage of a regional law in 1895, Australia's 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act addressed opium addiction among Aborigines, though it soon became a general vehicle for depriving them of basic rights by administrative regulation. Opium sale was prohibited to the general population in 1905, and smoking and possession were prohibited in 1908.[16]

Despite these laws, the late 19th century saw an increase in opiate consumption. This was due to the prescribing and dispensing of legal opiates by physicians and pharmacists to relieve menstruation pain. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 opiate addicts lived in the United States at the time, and a majority of these addicts were women.[17]

Changing attitudes and the drug prohibition campaign

Thomas Brassey was appointed the head of the Royal Opium Commission in 1893 to investigate the opium trade and make recommendations on its legality.
Thomas Brassey was appointed the head of the Royal Opium Commission in 1893 to investigate the opium trade and make recommendations on its legality.

Foreign traders, including those employed by Jardine Matheson and the East India Company, smuggled opium into China in order to balance high trade deficits. Chinese attempts to outlaw the trade led to the First Opium War and the subsequent legalization of the trade at the Treaty of Nanking. Attitudes towards the opium trade were initially ambivalent, but in 1874 the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade was formed in England by Quakers led by the Rev. Frederick Storrs-Turner. By the 1890s, increasingly strident campaigns were waged by Protestant missionaries in China for its abolition. The first such society was established at the 1890 Shanghai Missionary Conference, where British and American representatives, including John Glasgow Kerr, Arthur E. Moule, Arthur Gostick Shorrock and Griffith John, agreed to establish the Permanent Committee for the Promotion of Anti-Opium Societies.[18]

Due to increasing pressure in the British parliament, the Liberal government under William Ewart Gladstone approved the appointment of a Royal Commission on Opium to India in 1893.[19][20] The commission was tasked with ascertaining the impact of Indian opium exports to the Far East, and to advise whether the trade should be banned and opium consumption itself banned in India. After an extended inquiry the Royal Commission rejected the claims made by the anti-opium campaigners in regard to the supposed societal harm caused by the trade and the issue was finalized for another 15 years.[21][22]

The missionary organizations were outraged over the Royal Commission on Opium's conclusions and set up the Anti-Opium League in China; the league gathered data from every Western-trained medical doctor in China and published Opinions of Over 100 Physicians on the Use of Opium in China. This was the first anti-drug campaign to be based on scientific principles, and it had a tremendous impact on the state of educated opinion in the West.[23] In England, the home director of the China Inland Mission, Benjamin Broomhall, was an active opponent of the opium trade, writing two books to promote the banning of opium smoking: The Truth about Opium Smoking and The Chinese Opium Smoker. In 1888, Broomhall formed and became secretary of the Christian Union for the Severance of the British Empire with the Opium Traffic and editor of its periodical, National Righteousness. He lobbied the British parliament to ban the opium trade. Broomhall and James Laidlaw Maxwell appealed to the London Missionary Conference of 1888 and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 to condemn the continuation of the trade. As Broomhall lay dying, an article from The Times was read to him with the welcome news that an international agreement had been signed ensuring the end of the opium trade within two years.

Newspaper article from The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1912 reporting on a drug arrest, a month after the International Opium Convention was signed and ratified at The Hague
Newspaper article from The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana in 1912 reporting on a drug arrest, a month after the International Opium Convention was signed and ratified at The Hague

In 1906, a motion to 'declare the opium trade "morally indefensible" and remove Government support for it', initially unsuccessfully proposed by Arthur Pease in 1891, was put before the House of Commons. This time the motion passed. The Qing government banned opium soon afterward.[24]

These changing attitudes led to the founding of the International Opium Commission in 1909. An International Opium Convention was signed by 13 nations at The Hague on January 23, 1912, during the First International Opium Conference. This was the first international drug control treaty and it was registered in the League of Nations Treaty Series on January 23, 1922.[25] The Convention provided that "The contracting Powers shall use their best endeavors to control or to cause to be controlled, all person manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade."

The treaty became international law in 1919 when it was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. The role of the commission was passed to the League of Nations, and all signatory nations agreed to prohibit the import, sale, distribution, export, and use of all narcotic drugs, except for medical and scientific purposes.


In the UK the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, passed at the onset of the First World War, gave the government wide-ranging powers to requisition the property and to criminalize specific activities. A moral panic was whipped up by the press in 1916 over the alleged sale of drugs to the troops of the British Indian Army. With the temporary powers of DORA, the Army Council quickly banned the sale of all psychoactive drugs to troops, unless required for medical reasons. However, shifts in the public attitude towards drugs—they were beginning to be associated with prostitution, vice and immorality—led the government to pass further unprecedented laws, banning and criminalising the possession and dispensation of all narcotics, including opium and cocaine. After the war, this legislation was maintained and strengthened with the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920. Home Office control was extended to include raw opium, morphine, cocaine, ecogonine and heroin.[26][27]

Hardening of Canadian attitudes toward Chinese-Canadian opium users and fear of a spread of the drug into the white population led to the effective criminalization of opium for nonmedical use in Canada between 1908 and the mid-1920s.[28]

The Mao Zedong government nearly eradicated both consumption and production of opium during the 1950s using social control and isolation.[29] Ten million addicts were forced into compulsory treatment, dealers were executed, and opium-producing regions were planted with new crops. Remaining opium production shifted south of the Chinese border into the Golden Triangle region.[30] The remnant opium trade primarily served Southeast Asia, but spread to American soldiers during the Vietnam War, with 20 percent of soldiers regarding themselves as addicted during the peak of the epidemic in 1971. In 2003, China was estimated to have four million regular drug users and one million registered drug addicts.[31]

In the US, the Harrison Act was passed in 1914, and required sellers of opiates and cocaine to get a license. While originally intended to regulate the trade, it soon became a prohibitive law, eventually becoming legal precedent that any prescription for a narcotic given by a physician or pharmacist – even in the course of medical treatment for addiction – constituted conspiracy to violate the Harrison Act. In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled in Doremus that the Harrison Act was constitutional and in Webb that physicians could not prescribe narcotics solely for maintenance.[17] In Jin Fuey Moy v. United States,[32] the court upheld that it was a violation of the Harrison Act even if a physician provided prescription of a narcotic for an addict, and thus subject to criminal prosecution.[33] This is also true of the later Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Soon, however, licensing bodies did not issue licenses, effectively banning the drugs.[citation needed]

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.

Alcohol prohibition

Main article: Prohibition

The prohibition of alcohol commenced in Finland in 1919 and in the United States in 1920. Because alcohol was the most popular recreational drug in these countries, reactions to its prohibition were far more negative than to the prohibition of other drugs, which were commonly associated with ethnic minorities, prostitution, and vice. Public pressure led to the repeal of alcohol prohibition in Finland in 1932, and in the United States in 1933. Residents of many provinces of Canada also experienced alcohol prohibition for similar periods in the first half of the 20th century.[citation needed]

In Sweden, a referendum in 1922 decided against an alcohol prohibition law (with 51% of the votes against and 49% for prohibition), but starting in 1914 (nationwide from 1917) and until 1955 Sweden employed an alcohol rationing system with personal liquor ration books ("motbok").

War on Drugs

Main article: War on Drugs

American drug law enforcement agents detain a man in 2005.
American drug law enforcement agents detain a man in 2005.
Opium poppies growing in Afghanistan, a major source of drugs today
Opium poppies growing in Afghanistan, a major source of drugs today

In response to rising drug use among young people and the counterculture movement, government efforts to enforce prohibition were strengthened in many countries from the 1960s onward. Support at an international level for the prohibition of psychoactive drug use became a consistent feature of United States policy during both Republican and Democratic administrations, to such an extent that US support for foreign governments has often been contingent on their adherence to US drug policy.[citation needed] Major milestones in this campaign include the introduction of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971 and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988. A few developing countries where consumption of the prohibited substances has enjoyed longstanding cultural support, long resisted such outside pressure to pass legislation adhering to these conventions. Nepal only did so in 1976.[34][35]

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. In 1973, New York introduced mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for possession of more than 113 grams (4 oz) of a so-called hard drug, called the Rockefeller drug laws after New York Governor and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Similar laws were introduced across the United States.

California's broader 'three strikes and you're out' policy adopted in 1994 was the first mandatory sentencing policy to gain widespread publicity and was subsequently adopted in most United States jurisdictions. This policy mandates life imprisonment for a third criminal conviction of any felony offense. A similar 'three strikes' policy was introduced to the United Kingdom by the Conservative government in 1997. This legislation enacted a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for those convicted for a third time of a drug trafficking offense involving a class A drug.

Calls for legalization, relegalization or decriminalization

Main article: Arguments for and against drug prohibition

See also: Illegal drug trade § Effects of the illegal drug trade on societies, Prohibition of drugs § Legal Dilemmas, Harm reduction § Decriminalisation, and Prohibition of drugs § Social control

The terms relegalization, legalization, legal regulations, or decriminalization are used with very different meanings by different authors, something that can be confusing when the claims are not specified. Here are some variants:

There are efforts around the world to promote the relegalization and decriminalization of drugs. These policies are often supported by proponents of liberalism and libertarianism on the grounds of individual freedom, as well as by leftists who believe prohibition to be a method of suppression of the working class by the ruling class. Prohibition of drugs is supported by proponents of conservatism as well various NGOs. A number of NGOs are aligned in support of drug prohibition as members of the World Federation Against Drugs. WFAD members support the United Nations narcotics conventions.[36][37]

In 2002, five (former) police officers created Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a NGO that has gained a lot of media attention, showing that support for a regulation of drug sales also comes from the "other side" of the drug war and that maintaining a global corruption pyramid for the tax-free Mafia monopoly is not a good idea, compared to controlling access, age and quality. The former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Drug Czar John P. Walters, has described the drug problem in the United States as a "public health challenge", and he has publicly eschewed the notion of a "war on drugs". He has supported additional resources for substance abuse treatment and has touted random student drug testing as an effective prevention strategy. However, the actions of the Office of National Drug Control Policy continue to belie the rhetoric of a shift away from primarily enforcement-based responses to illegal drug use.[38]

According to some critics, drug prohibition is responsible for enriching "organised criminal networks"[39] while the hypothesis that the prohibition of drugs generates violence is consistent with research done over long time-series and cross-country facts.[40]

In the United Kingdom, where the principal piece of drug prohibition legislation is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,[41] criticism includes:

People marching in the streets of Cape Town against the prohibition of cannabis in South Africa, May 2015
People marching in the streets of Cape Town against the prohibition of cannabis in South Africa, May 2015

In February 2008 the then-president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, called on the world to legalize drugs, in order, he said, to prevent the majority of violent murders occurring in Honduras. Honduras is used by cocaine smugglers as a transiting point between Colombia and the US. Honduras, with a population of 7 million, suffers an average of 8–10 murders a day, with an estimated 70% being a result of this international drug trade. The same problem is occurring in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico, according to Zelaya.[46] In January 2012 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made a plea to the United States and Europe to start a global debate about legalizing drugs.[47] This call was echoed by the Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who announced his desire to legalize drugs, saying "What I have done is put the issue back on the table."[48]

In a report dealing with HIV in June 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) of the UN called for the decriminalization of drugs particularly including injected ones. This conclusion put WHO at odds with broader long-standing UN policy favoring criminalization.[49] Eight states of the United States (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized the sale of marijuana for personal recreational use as of 2017, despite the fact that recreational use remains illegal under U.S. federal law. The conflict between state and federal law is, as of 2018, unresolved.

Since Uruguay in 2014 and Canada in 2018 legalized cannabis, the debate has known a new turn internationally.

Drug prohibition laws

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The following individual drugs, listed under their respective family groups (e.g., barbiturates, benzodiazepines, opiates), are the most frequently sought after by drug users and as such are prohibited or otherwise heavily regulated for use in many countries:

The regulation of the above drugs varies in many countries. Alcohol possession and consumption by adults is today widely banned only in Islamic countries and certain states of India. Although alcohol prohibition was eventually repealed in the countries that enacted it, there are, for example, still parts of the United States that do not allow alcohol sales, though alcohol possession may be legal (see dry counties). New Zealand has banned the importation of chewing tobacco as part of the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990. In some parts of the world,[where?] provisions are made for the use of traditional sacraments like ayahuasca, iboga, and peyote. In Gabon, iboga (tabernanthe iboga) has been declared a national treasure and is used in rites of the Bwiti religion. The active ingredient, ibogaine,[50] is proposed as a treatment of opioid withdrawal and various substance use disorders.

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.

List of principal drug prohibition laws by jurisdiction (non-exhaustive)

Legal dilemmas

The sentencing statutes in the United States Code that cover controlled substances are complicated. For example, a first-time offender convicted in a single proceeding for selling marijuana three times, and found to have carried a gun on him all three times (even if it were not used) is subject to a minimum sentence of 55 years in federal prison.[59]

Drug sentencing guidelines under state law in America are generally much less harsh than the federal sentencing guidelines, although great irregularities exist. The vast majority of drug felonies and almost all drug misdemeanors in the United States are prosecuted at the state level. The federal government tends to prosecute only drug trafficking cases involving large amounts of drugs, or cases which have been referred to federal prosecutors by local district attorneys seeking the harsher sentences provided under the federal sentencing guidelines. In rare instances, some defendants are prosecuted both federally and by the state for the same drug trafficking conduct.[citation needed]

Drug prohibition has created several legal dilemmas. Many countries[which?] allow the use of undercover law enforcement officers solely or primarily for the enforcement of laws against use of certain drugs. On occasion these officers are allegedly 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.[citation needed]

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.[clarification needed]

Social control

In Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, and Theory (1975), senior US government researchers Louis Jolyon West and Ronald K. Siegel explain how drug prohibition can be used for selective social control:

The role of drugs in the exercise of political control is also coming under increasing discussion. Control can be through prohibition or supply. The total or even partial prohibition of drugs gives the government considerable leverage for other types of control. An example would be the selective application of drug laws ... against selected components of the population such as members of certain minority groups or political organizations.[60]

Linguist Noam Chomsky argues that drug laws are currently, and have historically been, used by the state to oppress sections of society it opposes:[61][62]

Very commonly substances are criminalized because they're associated with what's called the dangerous classes, poor people, or working people. So for example in England in the 19th century, there was a period when gin was criminalized and whiskey wasn't, because gin is what poor people drink.

Legal highs and prohibition

In 2013 the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported that there are 280 new legal drugs, known as "legal highs", available in Europe.[63] One of the best known, mephedrone, was banned in the United Kingdom in 2010.[64] On November 24, 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would use emergency powers to ban many synthetic cannabinoids within a month.[65] An estimated 73 new psychoactive synthetic drugs appeared on the UK market in 2012. The response of the Home Office has been to create a temporary class drug order which bans the manufacture, import, and supply (but not the possession) of named substances.[66]


In certain countries,[which?] there is concern that campaigns against drugs and organized crime are a cover for corrupt officials tied to drug trafficking themselves. In the United States, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger's opponents accused him of taking bribes from the Mafia to enact prohibition and create a black market for alcohol.[67] More recently in the Philippines, one death squad hitman told author Niko Vorobyov that he was being paid by military officers to eliminate those drug dealers who failed to pay a ‘tax’.[vague][68] Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has waged a bloody war against drugs that may have resulted in up to 29,000 extrajudicial killings.[69]

When it comes to social control with cannabis, there are different aspects to consider. Not only do we assess legislative leaders and the way they vote on cannabis, but we also must consider the federal regulations and taxation that contribute to social controls. For instance, according to a report on the U.S. customs and border protections, the American industry, although banned the main usage of marijuana, was still using products similar such as hemp seeds, oils etc. leading to the previously discussed marijuana tax act.[70]

The Tax act provisions[71] required importers to register and pay an annual tax of $24 and receive an official stamp. Stamps for Products were then affixed to each original order form and recorded by the state revenue collector. Then, a customs collector [72] was to maintain the custody of imported marijuana at entry ports until required documents were received, reviewed and approved.Shipments were subject to searches, seizures and forfeitures if any provisions of the law were not met. Violations would result in fines of no more than $2000 or potential imprisonment for up to 5 years. Oftentimes, this created opportunity for corruption, stolen imports that would later lead to smuggling, oftentimes by state officials and tight knit elitists.


United States

Main article: Drug policy of the United States

Total incarceration in the United States by year
Total incarceration in the United States by year
US cannabis arrests by year
US cannabis arrests by year

Drug possession is the crime of having one or more illegal drugs in one's possession, either for personal use, distribution, sale or otherwise. Illegal drugs fall into different categories and sentences vary depending on the amount, type of drug, circumstances, and jurisdiction. In the U.S., the penalty for illegal drug possession and sale can vary from a small fine to a prison sentence. In some states, marijuana possession is considered to be a petty offense, with the penalty being comparable to that of a speeding violation. In some municipalities, possessing a small quantity of marijuana in one's own home is not punishable at all. Generally, however, drug possession is an arrestable offense, although first-time offenders rarely serve jail time. Federal law makes even possession of "soft drugs", such as cannabis, illegal, though some local governments have laws contradicting federal laws.

In the U.S., the War on Drugs is thought to be contributing to a prison overcrowding problem. In 1996, 59.6%[73] of prisoners were drug-related criminals. The U.S. population grew by about +25% from 1980 to 2000. In that same 20 year time period, the U.S. prison population tripled, making the U.S. the world leader in both percentage and absolute number of citizens incarcerated. The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the prisoners.[74]

About 90% of United States prisoners are incarcerated in state jails. In 2016, about 200,000, under 16%, of the 1.3 million people in these state jails, were serving time for drug offenses. 700,000 were incarcerated for violent offenses.[75]

The data from Federal Bureau of Prisons online statistics page states that 45.9% of prisoners were incarcerated for drug offenses, as of December 2021.[76]

European Union

In 2004, the Council of the European Union adopted a framework decision harmonizing the minimum penal provisions for illicit drug-related activities.[77] In particular, article 2(9) stipulates that activities may be exempt from the minimum provisions "when it is committed by its perpetrators exclusively for their own personal consumption as defined by national law." This was made, in particular, to accommodate more liberal national systems such as the Dutch coffee shops (see below) or the Spanish Cannabis Social Clubs.

The Netherlands

Main article: Drug policy of the Netherlands

See also: Cannabis in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, cannabis and other "soft" drugs are decriminalised in small quantities. The Dutch government treats the problem as more of a public health issue than a criminal issue. Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is still technically illegal. Coffee shops that sell cannabis to people 18 or above are tolerated, and pay taxes like any other business for their cannabis and hashish sales, although distribution is a grey area that the authorities would rather not go into as it is not decriminalised. Many "coffee shops" are found in Amsterdam and cater mainly to the large tourist trade; the local consumption rate is far lower than in the US.

Coffeeshop in Amsterdam
Coffeeshop in Amsterdam

The administrative bodies responsible for enforcing the drug policies include the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, and the Ministry of Finance. Local authorities also shape local policy, within the national framework.

When compared to other countries, Dutch drug consumption falls in the European average at six per cent regular use (twenty-one per cent at some point in life) and considerably lower than the Anglo-Saxon countries headed by the United States with an eight per cent recurring use (thirty-four at some point in life).


A Nielsen poll in 2012 found that only 27% of voters favoured decriminalisation.[78] Australia has steep penalties for growing and using drugs even for personal use.[79][80][81] with Western Australia having the toughest laws.[82] There is an associated anti-drug culture amongst a significant number of Australians. Law enforcement targets drugs, particularly in the party scene.[83] In 2012, crime statistics in Victoria revealed that police were increasingly arresting users rather than dealers,[84] and the Liberal government banned the sale of bongs that year.[85]


Indonesia carries a maximum penalty of death for drug dealing, and a maximum of 15 years prison for drug use. In 2004, Australian citizen Schapelle Corby was convicted of smuggling 4.4 kilograms of cannabis into Bali, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of death. Her trial reached the verdict of guilty with a punishment of 20 years imprisonment. Corby claimed to be an unwitting drug mule. Australian citizens known as the "Bali Nine" were caught smuggling heroin. Two of the nine, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were executed April 29, 2015 along with six other foreign nationals. In August 2005, Australian model Michelle Leslie was arrested with two ecstasy pills. She pleaded guilty to possession and in November 2005 was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment, which she was deemed to have already served, and was released from prison immediately upon her admission of guilt on the charge of possession.

At the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Indonesia, along with India, Turkey, Pakistan and some South American countries opposed the criminalisation of drugs.[86]

Republic of China (Taiwan)

Taiwan carries a maximum penalty of death for drug trafficking, while smoking tobacco and wine are classified as legal entertainment drug. The Department of Health is in charge of drug prohibition.[87]

Methods of law enforcement

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Dareton police search the vehicle of a suspected drug smuggler in Wentworth, New South Wales, Australia.
Dareton police search the vehicle of a suspected drug smuggler in Wentworth, New South Wales, Australia.

Because the possession of drugs is called a "victimless crime" by some analysts, as it can be committed in privacy, the enforcement of prohibitionist laws requires methods of law enforcement to inspect private property. In societies with strong property laws or individual rights, this may present a risk for conflicts or violations of rights. Disrupting the market relies on eradication, interdiction and domestic law enforcement efforts. Through cooperation with governments such as those of Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan, coca (the plant source for cocaine) and poppy (the plant source for opium and heroin) are eradicated by the United States and other allies such as the United Kingdom, so that the crops cannot be processed into narcotics. Eradication can be accomplished by aerial spraying or manual eradication. However, the eradication is only temporary as the harvest fields can usually be replanted after a certain amount of time.

The government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has resisted criticism of aerial spraying of coca and poppy and has seen major reductions in both crops according to the United Nations Office of Crime and Drugs (See also Plan Colombia). In 2003, over 1,300 km2 (500 sq mi) of mature coca were sprayed and eradicated in Colombia, where at the start of the year, approximately 1,450 km2 (560 sq mi) had been planted. This strategic accomplishment prevented the production over 500 tonnes of cocaine, sufficient to supply all the cocaine users in both US and Europe for one year. Further, it eliminated upward of $100 million of illicit income in Colombia. No effect on prices or availability in the marketplace has been noted, and the actual number of acres of coca planted seems to have actually increased, largely shifting to more remote areas or into neighboring countries. Aerial spraying also has the unintended consequence of destroying legitimate crop fields in the process.

Interdiction is carried out primarily by aerial and naval armed forces patrolling known trafficking zones. From South America to the United States most drugs traverse either the Caribbean Sea or the Eastern Pacific, usually in "go-fast" boats that carry drug cargos and engines and little else. Drugs have also been smuggled in makeshift submarines. In 2015, a submarine with 12,000 pounds of cocaine was seized by the US Coast Guard off of the coast of Central America. This was the largest US drug seizure to date.[88]

Protest against the Philippine drug war. The protesters are holding placards which urge Rodrigo Duterte to stop killing drug users.
Protest against the Philippine drug war. The protesters are holding placards which urge Rodrigo Duterte to stop killing drug users.

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. The United States federal government has placed a premium on disrupting the large drug trafficking organizations that move narcotics into and around the United States, while state and local law enforcement focus on disrupting street-level drug dealing gangs.

Drug control strategy

Present drug control efforts utilize several techniques in the attempt to achieve their goal of eliminating illegal drug use:


Further information: Drug liberalization

See also: Arguments for and against drug prohibition

On February 11, 2009, a document called Drugs and democracy in Latin America: Towards a paradigm shift was signed by several Latin American political figures, intellectuals, writers and journalists as commissioners of the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy. The document questions the war on drugs and points out its failures. It also indicates that prohibition has come with an extensive social cost, especially to the countries that take part in the production of illicit drugs. Although controversial, the document does not endorse either the production or consumption of drugs but recommends for both a new and an alternative approach. The document argues that drug production and consumption has become a social taboo that inhibits the public debate because of its relationship to crime and as consequence it confines consumers to a small circle where they become more vulnerable to the actions of organized crime. The authors also demand for a close review to the prohibitive strategies of the United States and the study of the advantages and limits of the damage reduction strategy followed by the European Union. The proposal uses three paradigms as an alternative:

The document favors the European policies towards drug consumption since according to the authors it is more humane and efficient. The signers of this document are: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo, César Gaviria, Paulo Coelho, Enrique Santos, Mario Vargas Llosa, Moisés Naím, Tomas Eloy Martinez[89]

Two years later in mid-2011, the core of the Initiative and its commission were extended and endorsed in a report issued by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Joining the three former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Llosa on the Global Commission were former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker; Carlos Fuentes, Mexican writer and public intellectual; John C. Whitehead, formerly of Goldman Sachs; and Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.[90]

See also

US specific:


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Further reading