Inventing Drugs

Today’s my last day in work in 2011. This week, I’ve got immersed in writing a new paper (actually first started a while ago), provisionally titled ‘Inventing Drugs’. It’s essentially an extended and significantly developed version of this small piece published last year which, in turn, was based on a very short passage from the first few pages of my last book, A History of Drugs. Since then, with the help of my colleague Nishat Hyder, I’ve been trawling through parliamentary proceedings and other documents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, slowly piecing together what I hope is an interesting picture of the origins of the ‘drug’ concept.  But beyond historical interest, the paper will also argue that there are significant implications for contemporary drug policy and politics.

I’m going to road-test the paper at seminars at Oxford and Sheffield in early 2012 and then attempt to get it finalised for submission to a journal, maybe in the Spring. In the meantime, below is a special Christmas sneak preview of the latest version of the first few paragraphs.

‘There are no drugs “in nature”’, Jacques Derrida once declared[1], ‘the concept of drugs is not a scientific concept, but is rather instituted on the basis of moral or political evaluation’. In other words, to label a substance a ‘drug’ is an evaluative rather than descriptive act[2]. There exist simply chemical compounds – whether naturally-occurring, processed/refined or entirely synthetic – which have a variety of properties when ingested by humans (poison, stimulant, sedative, nourishment etc). The different labels we then attach to these compounds are human constructions, some of which are legal in character, some not. These labels are not settled or universal but rather are historically and culturally contingent, that is, they change over time and vary from place to place.


The English language is in fact unusual in attaching a double meaning to the term ‘drug’, referring both to a medicine and to an illicit psychoactive substance. Certainly in most of the main European languages, there are separate words for these two senses: in Spanish, for example, medicamentos and drogas, respectively[3]. My focus in this paper is on the second of these meanings, that is, the notion of a ‘drug’ as an illicit substance used for the purpose of altering one’s psychic state or consciousness. The puzzle I wish to explore is highlighted by this observation from the late historian, Roy Porter[4]:


“If you’d talked about the ‘drugs problem’ two hundred years ago, no one would have known what you meant. There was no notion then of ‘drugs’, in the sense of a small group of substances scientifically believed to be harmful because addictive or personality destroying, the availability of which is restricted by law. The term ‘drugs’ as a shorthand for a bunch of assorted narcotics is in fact a twentieth-century coinage: if you’d mentioned ‘drugs’ to anyone in George III’s time or in the Victorian era, they’d have thought you were referring to the remedies physicians prescribed and apothecaries made up.”


Porter reminds us here that the idea of ‘drugs’, as we understand it today, is a relatively recent invention, still only around 100 years old. But how has this ‘twentieth-century coinage’ accomplished this apparent self-evidence as a way of describing the world? After all, even the most trenchant and radical critics of drug policy rarely question the term ‘drug’ itself….

[1] J. Derrida, ‘The rhetoric of drugs: an interview’ (1993) 5(1) differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies at 2.

[2] V. Ruggiero, ‘Drugs as a password and the law as a drug’ (1999)…

[3] This is the same in French, German and Italian. I am grateful to my colleagues Juanjo Medina, Pierre Schammo and Simona Giordano for information on this.

[4] R. Porter, ‘The History of the “drugs problem”‘ (1996) 24 Criminal Justice  Matters 3-5 at 3.


About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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1 Response to Inventing Drugs

  1. Pingback: Visiting Oxford | Toby Seddon

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