Cocaine Rules

Religion and State

Cocaine’s chequered history with control and regulation is intertwined with the other forces which drive its use. Regulation, by either religious institutions or any other form of governance is highly complex, sometimes enacting the social values of the day, or indeed imposing its own. Sometimes regulation is imposed for reasons of power or economic benefit or sometimes it is in an effort to maintain social order.The famous Karl Marx quote, that “Religion is the opiate of the people” embodies the complex relationship between people, power, and drugs.  Many of the historical aspects of the evolution of cocaine regulation have been covered in other pages, and are mentioned here only in the context of the broader discussion of 20th century global developments.

Pre Agriculture-1200’s Coca use controlled through cultural and religious use
1100-1500’s Inca’s regulate coca plantations, use reserved for ruling classes
1500’s Decline of Inca empire, little regulation.Spanish holders of land grants take over Inca plantations. Use of coca initially banned by Catholic Church, but in 1539, legalised and taxed. Tolerated as indigenous vice, with no spread to Europe
1855-1860 German chemist isolates cocaine alkaloid from coca leaf. Industrial scale production in Europe and US follows
1912 International Opium Convention, signed at The Hague on January 23, 1912 during the First International Opium Conference, convened by the US. It was the first attempt at international drug control treaty, later registered with the League of Nations in 1922.
1914 Cocaine banned in US, Harrison Narcotic Act effectively bans cocaine, morphine, opium and their use in patent medicines
1920 Cocaine banned in UK
1961 The United Nations’ “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 10 March 1961” is ratified, a global agreement  an international treaty to prohibit production and supply of specific (nominally narcotic) drugs and of drugs with similar effects except under licence for specific purposes, such as medical treatment.
1986 The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 was passed, making possession of crack a far more serious offense than possession of powder cocaine.

A brief glance at the timeline of control and regulation of cocaine production and use reveals the powerful social, economic and religious/political influence which determines how society regulates the use of cocaine.

One might imagine that increasing secularism of the 19th and 20th centuries may have diluted the influence of religion in drug and alcohol control, at least in Europe and the United States. However, events in the latter part of the 19th century that led to a huge move towards prohibition as the central dominant drug policy in the US, had a firm basis in the religious ethics of the time.

Carrie Nation, the hatchet wielding, bible bashing crusader who personified the US temperance movment

The temperance movement of the US began in the 1820s, initially urging individuals not to drink, but later campaigning for legal prohibition of alcohol and other drugs. Temperance reformers were typically evangelical Protestants who denounced the taking of alcohol as a sin. Some of the first advocates were people of Anglo-Saxon heritage who associated alcohol with the growing number of hard drinking Catholic immigrants from Ireland and the European continent. (zi)

After the bloody civil war, the temperance movement was eager to make it illegal for emancipated African Americans to drink alcoholic beverages. Prohibition of alcoholic drink, and later cocaine, became intertwined with black disenfranchisement and subordination. (zh)

As this movement grew, it became a political movement, gaining significant momentum by the beginning of the 20th century. Lurid tales of debauchery and crime emerged from the “sinister oriental menace of the opium den” and stories of black dock workers high on cocaine raping respectable white women” helped drive the moral panic which propelled the growing movement towards more zealous pursuit of federal and global prohibition.

The Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, a direct result of the temperance movement was easly passed through US legislature. But since cocaine was produced in places that were outside the jurisdiction of US law, the US sought international regulation to ban production at the source.

From the outset, it was the US who drove the push for global regulation, taking the absolutist position of the temperance movement to conventions the US convened in the Hague in 1912, there boldly demanding comprehensive “dry bans” from third world drug plant sources to end use manufacturing firms; the American plan of the elimination of all production not serving medical or scientific needs. They also sought a regime to criminalise rather than medicalise addicts in an uncompromising policy which at the time, failed to gain support from either the countries producing cocaine at the source, or European nations like Germany, Britain and France who also had big pharmaceutical interests in both opium and cocaine.(zc)

So ratification of international treaties through the League of Nations and later the United Nations was a slow process, and it was not until the political balance had changed after WWII, and the end of the 1952 revolution in Bolivia, that a binding universal and comprehensive anti-drug regime was reached. (zc) This was the the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which drew together previous drug control legislation and formed the unified legal bedrock of the current system. Later conventions sought to keep pace with new drugs and the changing nature of the global drug landscape (The 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Drugs; and The 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances).

Elivs Enlists for the War on Drugs

In 1970, towards the end of the war in Vietnam, the US public was shocked by the high rates of addiction of returned soldiers. 10-15% of servicemen were addicted to heroine and in a bid to address this and the growing problem of drugs domestically, the Nixon administration coined the term “war on drugs” to describe the set of policies implemented as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. (zj)

But really, this was just a continuation of the policy of prohibition that had begun in 1914. Through successive US administrations, the war on drugs has expanded to include military aid, military intervention and foreign aid with the assistance of participating countries to define and reduce the illicit drug trade in the framework of prohibition. This in itself is a huge area of study, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is the ramifications of this global policy that is enacted at both global and national levels in this era of US hegemony, that are of interest in determining how such an approach acts to drive the spread and use of drugs.

The global drug control system is now almost a century old, and still based on the model shaped by the religious movements of the 19th century. Although most of us have forgotten that. We mostly wonder why alcohol is legal and other drugs, which in many instances cause less harm to society, are not. We remember the US alcohol prohibition in movies like “The Untouchables” or the “Great Gatsby, forgetting that we are still in an era of prohibition, just not of alcohol. Yet we read daily about the crime, drug seizures, mass graves in Mexico associated with drug gangs and unfortunate souls awaiting execution in foreign gaols, all associated with the ongoing ban of other drugs, a prohibition which ended for alcohol, but which remains, with all its underworld crime, for other widely used psychoactive drugs.

The present global drug control policy acknowledges that no country can regulate drug use in isolation, since these commodities are so readily bought and sold across borders and jurisdictions. Effective control requires states to work together as an international community. The overall objective of the conventions remains as it was specified a century ago – to limit the production, distribution and use of drugs to scientific and medical purposes. A noble goal, but based on a model that is heavily committed to prohibition backed by punishment. (zk)

America's Eternal War on Drugs

As with the US alcohol prohibition and prohibitions that are current in many parts of the world today, the prohibition/punishment model fails in many areas. Prohibition immediately drives the black market, and the production and distribution of illicit drugs is always associated with organised crime and all that goes with it. Costs and efforts of law enforcement and incarceration are huge and black market alternatives to legally produced drugs or alcohol are frequently adulterated or of poor quality.

In the case of the US alcohol prohibition, more than half a million Americans had been arrested for drink offences, sentenced to a total of 33, 000 years’ imprisonment. More than 250,000 stills had been confiscated, there were more than 700 gangland assassinations and the consumption of illicit alcohol (often containing methanol) was responsible for at least 35000 deaths and many people permanently incapacitated. One can only imagine the similar categories of statistics from the global prohibition of drugs like cocaine and narcotics over the past century. (zl)

In Sweden, seen as a country with tough drug policies, of the resources dedicated to tackling drug misuse, about ¾ of the budget is spent on enforcement. In the UK, an annual budget of about £1.4 billion is divided into approximately ¾ spent on law enforcement, customs etc, whilst only about 13% is spend on treatment. In the US, 2/3 of the annual federal budget of $18 billion was allocated to supply reduction measures.

There are only a few governments have not signed up to the treaties underpinning the global drug control system, which has been viewed for many years as exemplifying the spirit of international co-operation in the name of humanity. Recently, however, there has been a growing realisation that the system is far from perfect, and needs to be fundamentally reviewed. (zl)

In the early 90s, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) completed the largest study ever undertaken on the use of coca and cocaine. The WHO/UNICRI briefing kit, released in 1995 reported: “Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use. Few experts describe cocaine as invariably harmful to health.”

Unfortunately (and predictably), under pressure from the United States, it was never published when it became clear its findings were in direct conflict with the myths, stereotypes and propaganda that prop up the war on drugs. (zm)

The war on drugs has always divided opinion since its inception. A US poll in 2008, found that three in four Americans believed that the War On Drugs was failing. (zj)

Critics claim a large number of unnecessary deaths and imprisonments, increased levels of violent crime and gang activity, wasted government funds, violation of civil liberties, lack of public support, illegality of current drug policies, environmental destruction from drug eradication programs and lack of effectiveness. (zj)

There are other models for reducing drug use, and many policies are beginning to focus on harm reduction and concepts like risk, regulation and responsibility. Prohibition is only one form of control and in considering some of the ways drugs have been regulated throughout history, we can identify 7 main regulatory categories:

1, Prohibition: No manufacture, sale or use allowed (eg Heroine)

2. Prohibitory Prescription: Prohibited except for narrow therapeutic purposes unrelated to addiction, and then only if administered by health care professionals (eg cocaine)

3. Maintenance: Prescription allowed for relief of addiction, but under supervision (eg methadone)

4. Regulatory Prescription: Unsupervised, self administration allowed for those holding a valid prescription (eg Ritalin, Valium)

5. Restricted Adult Access: No prescription required, though availability is legally limited (eg Alcohol sold only to unintoxicated persons during certain hours)

6. Unrestricted Adult Access: Sufficient age the sole criterion of purchase (eg tobacco)

7. Universal access: Available to any individual (eg caffeinated beverages) (zl)

Control regimes may focus on prohibition, decriminalization (drugs remain illegal but there is no criminal offence for their use, but usually there is for distribution) and legalization.  In our exploration of future scenarios, we will consider some of these regulatory options in alternatives to the current global model for drug control.