Regulation and global drug policy

On December 4th, I will be giving a public lecture in Manchester. The lecture’s premise is that we have reached a dead-end in our thinking about global illicit drug problems. The argument I will make is that the way out of this intellectual and policy impasse is to view matters through the lens of regulation. Preparing this lecture has prompted me to reflect on how my ideas on this have developed over time and, more broadly, on my personal history of engaging with the ‘wicked problem’ of drugs.

My first entry into the drug policy world was nearly 20 years ago in January 1994 when I started as a Research Assistant at the drugs charity ISDD (now DrugScope), under the tutelage of Nicholas Dorn from whom I learnt a great deal. In those early years, the debate about drug law reform struck me as a largely uninteresting cul-de-sac. This was partly because I felt sure it was never going to happen and so discussing it at any length seemed self-indulgent. It was certainly not on ISDD’s official agenda. I also thought that there was a narrowness to the reform debate that was both politically and intellectually untenable: in a nutshell, too much emphasis on decriminalising possession for young people in richer countries, too little on the potential development consequences for poorer producer countries.

In 1998, I began my doctoral research, heavily influenced by Foucault and by the idea of governmentality as a different way of seeing the world. Although I came to view some aspects of the Foucauldian approach as unproductive, what stayed with me was the habit of questioning and pulling apart every assumption, concept and idea that I encountered. And inevitably, this ethos of critical thinking led me to revisit many of the positions I had held up to this point, including the question of drug law reform. Over the next few years, I began to think more and more about relationships between globalization and legal regimes, including the UN Drug Conventions and national drug laws.

A crucial turning point came in 2005. I can no longer remember exactly how it came about but throughout that summer, holed-up in my broom-cupboard of an office at the University of Leeds, I began to devour the work of people like John Braithwaite, Peter Grabosky and others in what was to me the then unfamiliar field of regulation. With perfect timing, at the end of 2005 an opportunity arose at the University of Manchester for a Senior Research Fellowship in Regulation which seemed to offer an ideal chance to explore these new ideas. The presence on the interview panel of scholars like Anthony Ogus, whose work I was starting to delve into, confirmed it was the right move for me and fortunately I was offered the job. The move to Manchester in early 2006 was a green light for me to press ahead with pursuing this agenda of reframing the drug problem as a regulation issue and during my first summer in Manchester I drafted a paper on the regulation of heroin which was my first public foray into this new territory.

My ESRC-funded project on criminal justice aspects of drug policy, later published as the Tough Choices book, proved fertile ground for continuing this work over the next couple of years. By early 2009, I was in the thick of working on what would become my second book, A History of Drugs. I consciously saw this as an exercise in bringing together Foucauldian critical analysis with a regulation perspective, partly inspired by the unique work of the South African scholar Clifford Shearing who visited Manchester a couple of times during this period. In March of that year, I presented a paper at the ISSDP conference in Vienna which tried to bring together my ideas at that point. Unaware of anyone else working along these lines, I fully expected the paper to be greeted with bemusement or indifference. In fact, my session was chaired by Australian drug policy researcher, Alison Ritter, who revealed she, too, was working on some similar ideas. Alison has since become a valued ‘critical friend’ for my work.

The Vienna paper became chapter six of A History of Drugs and led indirectly to an invitation to present at the 10th anniversary RegNet conference at ANU in Canberra in the spring of 2011. My paper went down well at the conference and informal conversations during my week at ANU with people like John Braithwaite, Peter Grabosky, Colin Scott, Philip Stenning, Peter Drahos and others, convinced me all over again that my intellectual agenda was proving fruitful and worthwhile.

In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on further developing the theoretical and conceptual ideas underpinning this agenda, with the aim of laying down the intellectual building blocks for what I now conceive as a substantial ongoing and future research programme. I hope some of you will be able to come along to my public lecture to catch up on my latest thinking.


About Toby Seddon

Professor and Head of School of Law at the University of Manchester. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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