3: What is a drug?

This episode explores a core question of this field: what is a drug? It draws on an archival research project. For further details, read this paper or this short summary.

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2: Cannabis law reform in the 1960s

This episode looks at the cannabis law reform movement in the 1960s, drawing on an archival research project. Please see published paper here.

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1: Regulating Cannabis – virtual book launch

Authors Toby Seddon and Will Floodgate discuss their new book Regulating Cannabis.

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Regulating Cannabis

In April 2016, I was in New York for an ISSDP meeting on cannabis policy in the Americas. At the end of the first day, I was due to meet up for dinner with Niamh Eastwood and Alex Stevens. I was a little early, so decided to have a drink in the bar of my hotel before setting off for the restaurant. I sat at a stool at the bar and after five minutes became aware of a man taking the stool next to me. He ordered a beer and asked me if I had been at the cannabis conference. I said yes and he inquired what my interest was. I explained I was an academic researcher and then asked him the same question, expecting that he was either an academic or a policy wonk. His reply took me completely by surprise: he was a businessman, attending the meeting to help him decide whether cannabis was an industry worth investing in or not.

This was a revelatory moment for me. I realised two things. First, that the pace and scale of change in the US was far greater than I had appreciated: cannabis was rapidly becoming big business. Second, that cannabis law reform was now as much about commerce and capitalism, as it was about the familiar ‘progressive’ tropes of civil rights and personal freedom. On the flight back to Manchester, I began to hatch an idea for a project, although it would take a couple of years to get off the ground.

One strand of the project was for an archival study of cannabis law reform within the counter-culture in the 1960s, which I worked on for most of 2019 and which eventually led to this paper published earlier this year. Historicising reform was an important foundation for the project. The other strand aimed to produce a global state-of-the-art review of the latest legal and policy developments in the field. This has resulted in a book, Regulating Cannabis, co-authored with Will Floodgate, which finally came out a few days ago. Will led on the preliminary work for the book in the summer of 2018. After a pause, we picked it up together in spring 2019, as we prepared to present our framework and approach at the annual ISSDP conference in Paris in May. The bulk of the book was then written in a fairly intense period between October 2019 and March 2020.

The central thesis of the book is that if we view the ‘cannabis challenge’ through the lens of business regulation, we can see that we have as much to learn from how we have regulated a range of agricultural products as we do from the usual go-to comparisons with alcohol or tobacco. This analytical approach not only provides new insights on familiar issues but also opens up less well explored areas for attention, including the vital question of how to ensure that a legal cannabis industry is based on a model of environmentally sustainable consumption.

Perhaps the book’s most controversial point concerns the politics of cannabis policy. It is usually argued that policy should be based more on science and evidence, rather than politics and ideology. But if we dig down far enough, many of the regulatory decisions about cannabis that policy-makers take have their roots in matters that are inescapably about values. They rest on choices about the type of society we wish to live in and the things that we want to prioritise. Pretending we can de-politicise cannabis law and policy is misguided. We must embrace the challenge of engaging more seriously and transparently with the politics of cannabis control. We hope that the book points to some ways forward for doing exactly that.

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Thinking historically about HAT

In early 2016, when I was drafting my chapter on drugs for the ‘Oxford Handbook of Criminology’, I made a passing reference to Dr John Marks’ heroin prescribing practice in the 1980s. I had assumed that somewhere there would be a definitive summary or account of Marks’ work which I could cite. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. For an episode that has always been so frequently referred to, this struck me as both odd and unsatisfactory. With my Handbook chapter completed soon after, however, I moved on to other things.

At the tail end of 2018, at the start of a period of research leave, I began to think about new projects I might develop. My vague thought was to do something that involved historical research that might lead to a rethinking or reassessment of an important contemporary issue. This led to two ideas: one on cannabis law reform that I will write about another day, and one revisiting John Marks. Arguably the most pressing drug policy issue of the last couple of years has been the crisis of drug-related deaths and Heroin Assisted Treatment has been much discussed as a potential tool for managing it. It seemed to me that filling this peculiar gap I had found in material about Marks could be a perfect vehicle for a project to think historically about a key contemporary policy problem and hopefully generate some new insights.

In the spring of 2019, I wrote to John Marks to share my idea and ask for his support. Had he not responded at all, or responded negatively, I would probably have abandoned the project. In fact, he replied quickly and positively, and offered to help in any way he could. His generosity and openness throughout the project was invaluable. In particular, his donation to me of many of his personal papers took the research up a level from what would have been possible otherwise.

The first stage of the project is now complete and a paper has been published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. I have created a page to house materials on the project and in due course this will include uploads of some of John’s donated personal papers, so that other researchers can also explore this fascinating and important body of work.

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Drug law reform

I have created a new page to bring together my previous and current work on drug law reform. Links to downloads where available.

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Drinking guidelines

Listening to the Today programme this morning, I was interested to hear the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, defending the new guidelines on weekly limits for safe drinking. She was particularly keen to stress their basis in science and evidence. It reminded me of a passage in Betsy Thom’s book Dealing with Drink where she describes the somewhat arbitrary way in which the original guidelines were created, particularly the figures for weekly unit limits. It made me wonder whether the new figures were really as ‘scientifically’ based as she was suggesting.

She also didn’t answer the question put to her about why there are government warnings about safe alcohol consumption but not similar warnings about other common risky practices. The suggestion that this was a bit ‘unscientific’ didn’t go down well! Of course, the actual reason is political and socio-cultural but this is difficult for a Chief Medical Office to say when there is this attachment to the idea that health policy can and should be strictly and solely based on ‘scientific evidence’. As I have argued before, this is particularly short-sighted and unrealistic when it comes to drug and alcohol policy.

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Free downloads

As part of the general sprucing up of this website, I have added a page for ‘Papers’ which includes free-to-access articles and reports. I’ll continue to add to this. In the meantime, feel free to share and if there are other articles you require, please email me: toby.seddon@manchester.ac.uk.

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Revamped blog & website

To start the new year, I’ve revamped this blog and website, to include new pages covering my books, papers and projects. Work is ongoing to build up the content but do take a look round.

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Laying down the lasso

A recent report in The Guardian, on a ‘huge rise’ in illicit online sales of pharmaceuticals, reminded me of one of the best books I read in 2014: legal scholar Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road. Chander’s great insight, to my mind at least, is that as internet commerce and digital technologies are remaking the world before our eyes, we need to draw deep from the well of our creativity and imagination to build a new regulatory infrastructure for cybertrade. Trying to bend what he calls ‘Trade 2.0’ into the old legal frameworks is like a rancher trying to stop a car with a lasso.

Chander is mainly concerned with licit online trade but the challenge is arguably even steeper in relation to the growing use of the internet for illicit retail – whether of pharmaceuticals, psychoactive substances, or other counterfeit or prohibited goods. My own main interest is in online drug markets. Here, the sheer velocity of change in the last few years has been breath-taking, as the drug trade has been transforming in ways that even the sharpest-eyed observers can still only dimly discern. The one certainty is that policy-makers have not even started to grasp the nature and enormity of the new challenge, let alone to devise adequate new solutions – the drug-policy lasso remains very much in evidence. As I have argued recently, we need to be prepared to engage with genuinely new ideas if we are to achieve the kind of regulatory paradigm shift that is required. And it will be scholars like Anupam Chander who will be the most helpful guides as we seek to re-make global drug policy for the twenty-first century.

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