The Psychoactive Consumer and International Drug Policy: A Sweeping Sketch

The Psychoactive Consumer and International Drug Policy: A Sweeping Sketch

Christopher Hallam, PhD
GDPO Research Associate

The role of the consumer, in its complexity and diversity, is often marginalised in analyses of drug policy. Of course, it is obvious that consumers play a part – if nobody were smoking, injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming psychoactive materials, there would not be a control regime trying to stop them. However, the consumers of drugs are a variegated group; their tastes for multiple psychoactive substances are formed by complex, often hybrid, cultures, and are satisfied by globalised industries and services. The forces of governance and the regimes of control are confronted not by a monolithic consumer and supplier, but by multifaceted appetites that are poorly understood by those seeking to suppress them. They are stimulated by the very attempt at control.
If we examine the historical foundations of the international control apparatus, its ground zero lies in China and its intricate population of opium smokers – or rather, the ways in which that population was constructed by the imperial powers, which possessed the economic, social and technological authority to enforce their will. The United States of America should be included in this grouping, as it had recently taken colonial possession of the Philippines following its brief war with Spain; it is notable that the beginnings of the US’s imperial period coincided with the inception of its global drugs project. Indeed, the occupation of the Philippines was tightly bound up with the suppression of opium smoking amongst the Chinese inhabitants of the islands.

Chinese opium smokers, lodging house, San Francisco (late C19th)

The Chinese diaspora, travelling to many parts of the world in search of work, carried the practice of opium smoking with it. Settling into Chinatowns across the planet, the diaspora became the object of indigenous fear and loathing, often centred on concerns over economics and the sexual possession of women. The cultural practice of opium smoking became a symbolic locus of this ontological panic (which underlay the ‘moral panic’), while governments constructed legislation to suppress the smoking of opium, before moving on to other drugs.

Opium smoking found its way from the Chinese diaspora into sub-groups within the indigenous population. Sex workers, the sporting classes, the underworld, the bohemias of modern cities, these took up the practice of opium smoking, followed by other drugs and modes of consumption: such use was a badge of otherness, a sign that one shared with the immigrant the status of outsider: the mark of the elective alien. The movement of psychoactive drug cultures from modernity’s ethnic diasporas into the indigenous population was an object of anxiety for nation states preoccupied with identity and borders. It was a movement that began with the Chinese but followed on successive waves of people of colour. The spread of bohemian culture – the ideas and attitudes of the elective alien – would, as the twentieth century developed, bring drugs into the youth movements of the 1950s and after.
The drug culture and the project of drug control are, therefore, profoundly bound up with conflicting patterns of identity and belief in modern societies. They are thoroughly symbolic and tied in complex ways to the process of modernity itself.
The responses of governments and international organisations to these developments are too many and varied to cover in their specificity here. However, a few general trends can be traced. The attempt to suppress the consumption of one drug led to the development of new, stronger and more mobile replacements – a trend which remains apparent today in the proliferation of hundreds of new psychoactive substances. In a final irony, the assembled discursive authority of governments, legislators, law enforcement agencies, educational systems, and finally bodies concerned specifically with ‘prevention’ have, in their vocal pronouncements against the evils of drug consumption, succeeded only in stimulating the appetite, and identifying it with freedom.
It is high time for a new approach.
Current policies are linked to an impoverished understanding of drug consumption, based upon assumptions current within the cultures of contemporary states. One could summarise these understandings as centred on ‘theories of absence’- in short, the idea people only take drugs because they’ve got something missing in their lives, either genetically or psychologically (for the political right) or in terms of social capital (for the left). Policies therefore are either repressive or therapeutic. None of them have been very effective so far.
On the other hand, if drug consumption is, as I have argued above, intimately bound up with the history and cultures of modernity, and is fundamentally part of the processes of modernity, there’s no point in these approaches. Instead, policies must integrate drugs and their users into a more generous cultural mainstream. The only approach that fits into the reality of the situation is a form of harm reduction, which accepts drug consumption and sets out to ameliorate the risks and harmful impacts of it. But the conception of harm reduction I’m suggesting here would be an extremely broad one, which includes acceptance of the benefits of some modes of drug use.

Chris Hallam, PhD

February 2019