It doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to recognise that the rulings on which drugs are legal or illegal are governed by no particular logic.
No theory from medicine or philosophy or psychology demands alcohol, tobacco and caffeine must be legal while marijuana, cocaine, and heroin must be prohibited.
We cannot rely on distinctions about relative harm. Many experts have pointed out that marijuana is on balance less dangerous than alcohol. But this legal discord isn’t unusual. One British police chief controversially stated a few years ago that ecstasy is safer than aspirin.
Nor is the distinction between recreational or medicinal use any help. There are legal and illegal drugs that fall on both sides of that artificial line.
The generally accepted definition of the word “drug” offers no guide to legality either: “any substance other than food which by its chemical nature affects the structure or function of the living organism”.
Whether a drug is illegal is nothing more than an accident of history. Drug laws were not written dispassionately by a panel of the best medical and ethical minds in the world. The laws bear no relation to the damage those drugs could cause or their danger to society – they were not written to minimise harm or protect health.
Quite the opposite: the current schedule of drugs in the Western world has been driven by politics, expediency, prejudice, and sometimes outright racism.
Take, for instance, the prohibition that kicked it all off – the prohibition on opium.
In 19th century Britain, opium was so common as to be part of everyday life. It was an essential ingredient in tonics and pick-me-ups. One writer claimed in the 1870s that opium use “may indeed be said to have reached the height of Fashion”.
Few British conceived of a drug “problem”. Certainly, there were dramatic, gothic tales of addiction and vice. Thomas de Quincey’s novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is the most well-known. And there were some distressing, but not representative stories of overdose. But, culturally, moderate drug use was normal.
And the medical establishment largely accepted this. When reporting on the Royal Commission on Opium in 1893, the iconic journal Lancet described it as a “crushing blow to the anti-opium faddists”.
There was however, an “opium problem” in Australia and the United States. The difference was race. In both countries there was a significant Chinese minority who had brought their country’s opium smoking habit with them. The first war on drugs was a proxy for racial politics, not public health.
“Who has not seen the slave of opium?,” the Victorian minister of health asked parliament at the end of the 19th century: “a creature tottering down the street, with sunken yellow eyes, closely contracted pupils, and his skin hanging over his bones like dirty yellow paper.”
The issue here, clearly, was not opium but the Chinese.
Unsurprisingly this attitude towards opium was hard to separate from the belief Chinese migrants were undercutting Australians in the employment market. The visceral hatred of opium-smoking was the manifestation of resentment about labour competition.
It was the same in the United States. As the British writer Christopher Snowdon points out in his excellent new book The Art of Suppression, “if the government could not get rid of opium-smoking, it would get rid of opium-smokers”.
The 1862 Californian law Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into California Act is self-explanatory.
One of the most prominent American anti-opium campaigners, Dr Harry Hubbell Kane, openly argued that those concerned about job competition should focus their animosity on Chinese drug use.
It is easy to tell a parallel history of marijuana prohibition, which was overwhelmingly used by Hispanics and African-Americans.
And in his book, Snowdon details the tabloid hysteria of recent times which has led to laws against “designer” drugs – synthetic concoctions which are better described as second-rate substitutes for safer, purer, and already prohibited drugs.
Do the political origins of drug laws matter? Absolutely.
The first international treaty on drug control was signed in January 1912. The war on drugs is 100 years old this year.
This century-long war has definitively and undeniably failed. There is widespread belief in expert circles that the world needs to move towards decriminalisation (or even legalisation) if we want to minimise the harm of drug abuse.
But the biggest cultural barrier to such reform is the current status illegal drugs have. In the sort of circular reasoning that only popular discourse can manage, the prohibition of drugs is mostly justified by their pre-existing legal status. Why are certain drugs prohibited? Because they are illicit drugs.
But that status has been set by politics and moral panics, not dispassionate evidence-based risk assessments. Drug prohibition carries the legacy of the ugly politics of the past. Once we realise that, we may start to rethink the justice of a war that is, in truth, not against drugs, but against drug users.