Rethinking Drug Law Reform in the Asian Century

Toby Seddon
Professor of Social Science
University College London

Origin stories are perennially fascinating. This is partly because of our intuition that beginnings are important and that they may sometimes provide a clue to hidden or buried truths. Origin stories further appeal by drawing on our deep human attachment to narratives and story-telling. For sociologists, they have proved to be central to the critical analysis of social policy because of the ways in which the framing of social problems is so often shaped by the creation of particular narratives about their origins.

The origin story of global drug prohibition has been told many times and in many ways. One persistent version – partly influenced by a narrative template first set in classic works in the 1960s and 1970s by Howard Becker, Alfred Lindesmith and David Musto – holds that prohibition is a twentieth-century phenomenon, created, driven and led by that century’s superpower, the United States.  The prototype for this framing is the notorious Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger’s racist campaign against ‘marijuana’ in the 1930s. But it has been revisited many times since, perhaps most (in)famously in relation to Richard Nixon’s declaration in 1971 of a ‘war on drugs’. The idea that this American-led war has been a total failure has become almost a shibboleth for drug policy experts today.

But there are other versions of the origin story. Perhaps the most prominent alternative holds that prohibition is in fact a nineteenth-century phenomenon, shaped by that century’s principal imperial power, Britain. The narrative here centres on the two mid-century conflicts fought in China that have become known as the Opium Wars, in which Britain (joined in the second conflict by other Western countries) deployed military power to force China to allow opium to be traded in Canton (Guangzhou) and, later, in the other Treaty Ports first established after the first of the conflicts. The Opium Wars were driven by ‘free trade’ ideology and the commercial desire to open up China to the West. According to this narrative, these two military defeats led China to push increasingly hard for the prohibition of the opium trade. As British and European imperial power waned at the turn of the century, this pressure eventually led to the international agreement of the Opium Convention in 1912 at The Hague, which laid the foundations for today’s global prohibition system.

This version of the origin story highlights two important dynamics in drug law and policy that are often hidden:

  1. The Opium Wars were not about health or personal morality or individual liberty, the usual terrain of drug policy. Fundamentally, they were about trade, power and economics. Specifically, they were a military contestation of the boundary between licit and illicit trade. My paper published in 2020 in Social & Legal Studies (Seddon 2020a) attempted to develop a theoretical account of drug control as a form of market regulation. Drawing on cross-disciplinary literature on market-regulation relations, the paper assembled a framework of intellectual resources for rethinking drug control and drug law reform as a question of how best to regulate psychoactive commerce.
  2. When we see the nineteenth century as the point of origin of prohibition, not only do we locate it squarely in the context of colonial power, we also re-centre China and Asia in the story. This is an important counter to the continuing Western-centrism of much of the discourse of drug law reform, which still sees what happens in Europe and North America as the heart of the matter.

Deconstructing the origin story of drug prohibition, in all its versions, has been the focus of a book project I have been working on over the last couple of years, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2022 under the title Rethinking Drug Laws: Theory, History, Politics. One of the threads running through the book is the idea that the trajectory of international drug control over the last 200 years has always been shaped by the wider context of global power and politics. In the nineteenth century, it was British and European empires; in the twentieth century, and especially post-1945, it was the United States. Many political scientists and commentators now argue that the centre of global power is rapidly shifting away from the West and that the twenty-first century will turn out to be the Asian Century, with China at the very centre as the world’s superpower. This raises an intriguing question for drug policy scholars. What if Europe and North America are no longer the ‘heart of the matter’? What if China becomes (once again) a critical location for (re-)setting the boundaries of licit and illicit trade in psychoactive commodities? In other words, what might be the implications for drug law reform if this does indeed become the Asian Century? In my view, this is a question that has not even begun to be seriously asked but answering it may turn out to be the most important task of the coming decades.

Read More

Seddon, T. (2010) ‘Regulating markets in viceCriminal Justice Matters 80 6-7.

Seddon, T. (2016) ‘Inventing Drugs: A genealogy of a regulatory concept’ Journal of Law and Society 43(3) 393-415.

Seddon, T. (2020a) ‘Markets, Regulation and Drug Law Reform: Towards a Constitutive Approach’ Social & Legal Studies 29(3) 313-333.

Seddon, T. (2020b) ‘Immoral in Principle, Unworkable in Practice: Cannabis Law Reform, the Beatles and the Wootton Report’ British Journal of Criminology 60(6) 1567-1584.

Seddon, T. and Floodgate, W. (2020) Regulating Cannabis: A Global Review and Future Directions. Palgrave.

Blog and website

About the author

Toby Seddon is Professor of Social Science and Head of the UCL Social Research Institute at University College London. He has been researching and teaching in the areas of drug policy, criminal justice and socio-legal studies for over 25 years. In the last decade, he has particularly focused on developing new regulatory perspectives on drug policy and drug law reform. His forthcoming book with Oxford University Press – Rethinking Drug Laws: Theory, History, Politics – brings together this work to present a radical intellectual re-appraisal of the past, present and future of our drug laws. He also hosts the ‘Drug Talk’ podcast.

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