The secret of worldwide drug prohibition: the varieties and uses of drug prohibition.

Author:Levine, Harry G.

What percentage of countries in the world have drug prohibition? Is it 100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent, or 25 percent? I recently asked many people I know to guess the answer to this question. Most people in the United States, especially avid readers and the politically aware, guess 25 or 50 percent. More suspicious individuals guess 75 percent. The correct answer is 100 percent, but almost no one guesses that figure. Most readers of this paragraph will not have heard that every country in the world has drug prohibition. Surprising as it seems, almost nobody knows about the existence of worldwide drug prohibition.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, men and women in many countries became aware of national drug prohibition. They came to understand that the narcotic or drug policies of the United Sates and some other countries are properly termed drug prohibition. Even as this understanding spread, the fact that drug prohibition covers the entire world remained a kind of "hidden-in-plain-view" secret. Now, in the twenty-first century, that situation, too, is changing. As "global drug prohibition" becomes more visible, it loses some of its ideological and political powers.

In this article, I briefly describe the varieties and uses of drug prohibition and the growing crisis of the worldwide drug prohibition regime.

Drug Prohibition Is a Continuum from Heavily Criminalized to Decriminalized

Every country in the world has drug prohibition. Every country in the world criminalizes the production and sale of cannabis, cocaine, and opiates (except for limited medical uses). In addition, most countries criminalize the production and sale of other psychoactive substances. Most countries also criminalize simple possession of small amounts of the prohibited substances (Bewley-Taylor 1999; Nadelmann 1990; and many publications at the International Narcotics Control Board Web site at:

In Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice (1997), Craig Reinarman and I suggested that the varieties of drug prohibition can be seen as a long continuum. In this article, I suggest that the most criminalized and punitive end of the continuum be called criminalized drug prohibition and the other end be termed decriminalized drug prohibition.

U.S. drug policy is the best-known example of criminalized drug prohibition. This form of drug prohibition uses criminal laws, police, and imprisonment to punish people who use specific psychoactive substances, even in minute quantities. In most places in the United States, drug laws prohibit even supervised medical use of cannabis by terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients. U.S. drug prohibition gives long prison sentences for possession, use, and small-scale distribution of forbidden drugs. Most U.S. drug laws explicitly remove sentencing discretion from judges and do not allow for probation or parole. The United States now has nearly half a million men and women in prison for violating its drug laws. Most of these people are poor and from racial minorities. Most of them have been imprisoned just for possessing an illicit drug or for "intending" to sell small amounts of it. The mandatory federal penalty for possessing five grams of crack cocaine, for a first offense, is five years in prison with no chance of parole. Criminalized prohibition is the harshest, most punitive form of drug prohibition (Reinarman and Levine 1997).

The cannabis policy of the Netherlands is the best-known example of the other end of the drug prohibition spectrum--a decriminalized and regulated form of drug prohibition. Several United Nations (UN) drug treaties--especially the Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961--require the government of the Netherlands to have specific laws prohibiting the production and sale of particular drugs. Therefore, Dutch law explicitly prohibits growing or selling cannabis. This regime is still formally drug prohibition, and the Netherlands does prosecute larger growers, dealers, and importers (or smugglers) as required by the UN treaties. In the Netherlands, however, national legislation and policy limit the prosecution of certain cafes, snack bars, and pubs (called "coffee shops") that are licensed to sell small quantities of cannabis for personal use. The coffee shops are permitted to operate as long as they are orderly and stay within well-defined limits that the police monitor and enforce. The coffee shops are not allowed to advertise cannabis in any way, and they may sell only very small amounts to adults. Like other formally illegal activities, cannabis sales are not taxed. Without a change in the Single Convention and other international treaties, this is probably as far as any country can go within the current structures of worldwide drug prohibition (Reinarman and Levine 1997).

The prohibition policies of all other Western countries fall in between the heavily criminalized crack-cocaine policies of the United States and the decriminalized and regulated cannabis prohibition of the Netherlands. No Western country and few Third World countries have ever had forms of drug prohibition as criminalized and punitive as the U.S. regime, and since the early 1990s drug policy in Europe, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere clearly has shifted even farther away from the criminalized end of the prohibition continuum. All these countries, however, are required by international treaties to have--and still do have--real, formal, legal, national drug prohibition (Andreas 1999; Bewley-Taylor 1999; Reinarman and Levine 1997).

Drug Prohibition Has Been Adopted Throughout the World

Drug prohibition is a worldwide system of state power. Global drug prohibition is a "thing," a "social fact" (to use sociologist Emile Durkheim's term). Drug prohibition exists whether or not we recognize it, and it has real consequences.

For many decades, public officials, journalists, and academics rarely identified any form of U.S. drug law as "prohibition." Instead, they referred to a national and international "narcotics policy." The international organization that still supervises global drug prohibition is called the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

National drug prohibition began in the 1920s in the United States as a subset of national alcohol prohibition. The first U.S. drug prohibition enforcement agents were alcohol prohibition agents assigned to handle "narcotics." American prohibitionists had always worked hard to convince other nations to adopt alcohol prohibition laws. During the 1920s, some savvy prohibitionists (notably an obscure U.S. prohibition commissioner named Harry A. Anslinger) realized that the success of U.S. alcohol prohibition depended on support from other countries. However, the campaign to spread American alcohol prohibition to other nations was an utter failure. After 1929, the impoverishment, dislocation, and despair caused by the Great Depression further weakened support for alcohol prohibition. In 1933, unprecedented state referendums repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending national alcohol prohibition. The question of alcohol policy was turned back to state and local governments to do with as they wished. A few states retained alcohol prohibition for years, and many U.S. counties today still have forms of alcohol prohibition (Blocker 1989; Kyvig 1979; Levine 1984, 1985; Levine and Reinarman 1993; Musto 1987).

Drug prohibition took an entirely different course. Since the early twentieth century, the United States has recognized that European governments are far more willing to accept antinarcotics legislation than antialcohol laws. The founding Covenant of the League of Nations explicitly mentions the control of "dangerous drugs" as one of the organization's concerns. In 1930, Congress separated drug prohibition from the increasingly disreputable alcohol prohibition and created a new federal drug prohibition agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by the committed alcohol prohibitionist Harry A. Anslinger. In the 1930s, the United States helped write and gain acceptance for two international antidrug conventions or treaties aimed at "suppressing" narcotics and "dangerous drugs." In 1948, the newly created UN made drug prohibition one of its priorities, and the UN Single Convention of 1961, supplemented by a series of subsequent antidrug treaties, established the current system of global drug prohibition (Bewley-Taylor 1999; Epstein 1977; King 1978; McAllister 1999; Musto 1987).

In the past eighty years, nearly every political persuasion and type of government has endorsed drug prohibition. Capitalist democracies took up drug prohibition, and so did authoritarian governments. German Nazis and Italian Fascists embraced drug prohibition, just as American politicians had. Various Soviet regimes enforced drug prohibition, as have their successors. In China, mandarins, militarists, capitalists, and communists all enforced drug prohibition regimes. Populist generals in Latin American and anticolonialist intellectuals in Africa embraced drug prohibition. Over the course of the twentieth century, drug prohibition received support from liberal prime ministers, moderate monarchs, military strongmen, and Maoists. It was supported by prominent archbishops and radical priests; by nationalist heroes and imperialist puppets; by labor union leaders and sweatshop owners; by socialists, social...

To continue reading