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.

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Tough Choices – drugs and criminal justice

Over the last 15 or so years, I have been involved in a series of research projects on drug interventions in the criminal justice system. I’m now at the point where I feel like I’ve said pretty much everything I ever want to about this topic! But my last word (or 80,000 words) on the subject, co-written with Lisa Williams and Rob Ralphs, will be published next year in book form by Oxford University Press in their Clarendon Studies in Criminology series. The book will be titled Tough Choices: Drug Policy and the Risk-Security Nexus, and below is a short extract from the concluding chapter which gives a flavour of what it’s about.

Our central task in this book has been to attempt to understand the emergence of the criminal justice turn within British drug policy. Why has the drug-crime link become in recent decades so central to how we view the drug question? And why has policy taken on the particular forms that it has, with the emphasis on using the criminal justice system to identify and target drug-using offenders in order to channel them into treatment? We briefly summarise here our main arguments.

In chapters two and three, we sought to answer these questions by setting the development of drug policy within the context of the ‘big picture’ of social change. We argued that the transition over the last 40 or so years from the welfare-liberalism of the middle twentieth century to an era of neo-liberalism at the turn of the twenty-first has changed the nature of the drug situation in Britain, greatly extending the reach and prevalence of ‘recreational’ drug use amongst young people and creating new pockets of severe neighbourhood drug problems (in which drugs, poverty, crime and worklessness coalesce). This transformation has generated new risks and insecurities which have, in turn, been understood and problematised in a distinctively neo-liberal way. These problematisations have posed new policy predicaments: drugs are everywhere (in the media, popular culture and society) and at the same time deeply problematic (linked to intractable problems of social exclusion and crime). The responses to these predicaments, of which the criminal justice turn is one part, have also, in turn, been shaped by the transition to neo-liberalism, becoming entwined with questions of risk and the governance of security. In chapter three, drawing on interviews with national policy actors, we sought to piece together in more fine-grained detail exactly how the policy was put together and developed at national level, focusing on the motives and intentions of these actors. Together, these two chapters set out an original account of how the evolution of the criminal justice turn in recent British drug policy can be understood as a (socially-structured and culturally-shaped) process of problem-solving action in the face of a new (socially-structured and politically-constructed) drug policy predicament. 

We then explored the implementation of the criminal justice turn by local partnerships in chapters four to six, drawing on data from three multi-method local case studies we conducted. We framed our analysis here by viewing the drug interventions delivered through the criminal justice process as a risk management system aligned to a security project. In chapter four, we focused on drug testing and assessment processes in the police station, understood as elements of a risk-filtering machine. In chapter five, we examined interventions at the court stage, conceptualised as parts of a system for the administration and management of risk. In chapter six, we explored the ways in which the role of criminal justice drug workers could be understood as brokers of risk knowledge within the system, rather than as therapeutic professionals conventionally defined.

In chapter seven, we addressed the thorny question of the impact of the criminal justice turn: has it worked? We argued that there is insufficient evidence currently to claim that it has been effective in reducing crime. We also suggested that there were some good reasons to believe that such an impact would in fact be unlikely anyway. We argued, too, that it is helpful to widen out what is meant by the idea of impact, to provide a more rounded and nuanced assessment. We turn now to consideration of the wider significance of our study.

If you like the sound of that, watch this space for publication details nearer the time!

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New venture

I’ve decided to start blogging…

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