Drug criminalization policy

Continuing the discussion from Intoxithread:

Making a new thread because that was a topic for fun stuff and this diversion heads into less fun territory.

I think that what was being said here does require a leap, so as I heard it, in my own words:

Drugs are presumably criminalized because habitual drug abuse can have bad side effects. But no one, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, chooses to be a habitual drug abuser so bad off that they steal from their family, can’t hold a job, become a menace to society, etc. etc. That type of life, and whatever underlies it, is not just on a whim for a good time, just on the weekends, or once at a party any more than it is for a cancer patient.

It’s easy for some to say that ‘people chose to use drugs so they chose to be that way and therefore anyone who chooses to use drugs must want to be that way and should be incarcerated’, but people didn’t choose to be that way, and most who choose to use drugs (once at a party) are not likely to end up that way.

People also don’t choose to have cancer, and while some who get it did smoke (or slack on exercise, or work outside in the sun) for many years knowing that may increase the risk, many who get it did not. Anyone can get cancer. You could get it from a stray cellular mutation that happened during a party, or from working in the garden on the weekends, or from a cigar you smoked while celebrating someone’s wedding/childbirth.

So the idea that we should incarcerate anyone who uses drugs kind of does map to the idea that we should incarcerate anyone who gets cancer by ignoring the underlying problems and punishing the wrong things.

At least, that’s my take on it. Not claiming to speak for Russell Brand, or that it’s a great analogy, it’s a stretch. As with any analogy, it has some big holes.

Hole #1: For the analogy to fit, you would need to arrest people for gardening on the weekends, because they might potentially end up with melanoma, not wait until years later once they get cancer to arrest them. Taken to the logical conclusion, you would need to arrest everyone exposed to the sun, cosmic rays, or the earth’s inherent radiation… really anyone who has cells that divide. Because if they’re allowing their cells to reproduce, they might eventually end up with cancer. Just as anyone with drugs might eventually end up as one of those bad drug abusers, but we don’t want to wait until then so we’ll just arrest everyone with drugs. In the analogy, that means arresting everyone with cells.


Prohibition has been a disaster. (Refusal to approve thalidomide excepted, and the decision not to approve drugs without further testing is very different from the decision to ban them.)

Some better public health options would be:

  • To focus on safety testing and documentation.

  • To crack down on employers pressuring people to take amphetamines, steroids, other doping agents, etc. and to work against other pressures to take them.

  • To decriminalize all kinds of hemp, reducing dependence on opioids.

  • To research other ways to prevent and treat chronic pain.

  • To focus on resources for people trying to control and addition or quit completely.


Not really, no.

The history of drug criminalisation is long and complicated, but it is primarily based in racism, colonialism and capitalism. Global prohibition is enforced by Western military and economic force, primarily American.

See this post for some modern events affecting both Australia and the USA:

There’s a good layperson’s history of cannabis criminalisation in this:


That link also has the Australian appendix that outlines the history of it here; starts with Napoleon, ends with Americans. It’s quite a story.

Other drugs have similarly complicated histories of prohibition. Most of the stimulants and narcotics began as over-the-counter drugs, then became prescription drugs, then became street drugs. The reasons for this shift were often not purely medical.

This is a cool book that covers a lot of cocaine history, amongst other things:

This is a fun book for the history of alcohol prohibition (and forensic science):

Excessive drug use can certainly have bad effects. Physical, psychological, social. But with most illegal drugs, the negative effect most commonly associated with them is involvement with criminals and police. Prohibition makes drugs more dangerous, not less.

Legalise, regulate, educate. Which is what almost all academics and health experts in the field have been screaming for decades.

The reasons why people use drugs are many and varied.

The overwhelming majority of users are weekend recreational sorts, who may go off the deep end in times of stress, but are most at risk from drug-affected car accidents and the like.

Add to that another group of middle-aged habitual drinkers/smokers, whose primary risks are long-term health related.

Then there are the fast-burn junkies; usually mentally ill, often abuse survivors, frequently homeless, high risk of overdose and suicide.

The exact motivations of these folks are also varied, but in my experience it frequently has a lot in common with what you see amongst cutters, anorexics and other self-harming disorders. It’s some mix of a destructive drive towards bodily autonomy, a cry for help and a slow-motion suicide attempt.


That is what Russell was getting at. He wasn’t saying “drug use is exactly like cancer”; he was taking a limited-by-the-context-of-Twitter swing at “people with drug problems are sick, and punishing them for being ill does not help anything”.

The video itself is actually unusually calm and sensible by Russell Brand standards.


BTW, these are very well done, accurate and relevant:

Worth ten minutes.


BTW: this will probably surprise no-one, but I see a strong link between America’s drug problems and American fascism.

Mental illness, crime, the carceral state, societal and cultural violence, racism and inequality; it’s all connected.


Okay, so this touches on something that’s been grinding my gears lately; the “Red States” embracing a compassionate approach to addiction. To me this is the height of hypocrisy. These are the same people who created drug policies for the last 50 years that have led to high conviction and incarceration rates for people of color with this “law and order” policy. But all of a sudden the “opioid addiction problem” is something that we need to be concerned about not from an enforcement perspective but from a treatment perspective. Why? Because it’s WHITE PEOPLE. The narrative of course is that it’s young white people, mostly gymnasts or whatever, who suffer a sports injury and are prescribed pain killers that get them addicted, and when the prescription runs out they have to turn to heroin. But they’re good people, not illegal drug users by nature, just driven to that by circumstances beyond their control. Not like the other hard drug users who of course deserve to be thrown behind bars for the rest of their lives…

Agh. It really gets me. Part of me wants to point out this absurd reversal on the part of conservatives, but the other part of me just wants to be happy that compassionate treatment and non-incarcerative solutions are starting to be more acceptable.

As for the whole legalization debate though, I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with it. I still think that some drugs should be illegal and that traffickers should be punished. That’s not to say that addicts should be incarcerated, but full legalization just seems too risky. I’m open to being convinced otherwise though; is there any country that has legalized everything (or just some of the hard stuff) that has succeeded?


Any drug can be dangerous, but there seem to be 4 major sources of danger:

(1) Ones pushed without adequate testing or with cover-ups. Extreme cases include radithor, elixir sulfanilimide, thalidomide, fenfluramine/phentermine, etc. Less extreme cases include pushing amphetamines and pushing opioids.

(2) Ones used as legal or readily-available alternatives to illegal ones. Krokodil because of restrictions on safer opioids, Spice because of restrictions on hemp and various others.

(3) Cutting agents, such as the use of fentanyl.

(4) Performance-enhancing drugs, where people either get doped against their will, or feel they have to get doped to keep up with others.

Ending prohibition wouldn’t do anything about (1) and (4) but it would just about end (2) and probably reduce (3).

P.S. Forgot (5) alcohol and tobacco.



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Although there were some exceptions (like the Opium Wars), that was pretty much normal in most places prior to the 20th century. Here, heroin was sold by Bayer and cocaine by Coca Cola.

There’s been decriminalization of even the hard stuff in small quantities for personal use, but that’s not quite the same as legalization (typically it means go to rehab, pay a fine, or do community service), and trafficking is still illegal. Portugal’s probably the one with the most written about it, but some other European countries (Spain, Italy, etc.) along with some South American and Central American countries (Uruguay and Argentina are notable but not the only ones) are doing similar things.


True. I’d be curious about the accounts of that time that led to our current drug laws. I have to think things were pretty bad, though in what context I don’t know. Pretty much everything I know about drug use at that time is from watching The Knick. :slight_smile:




It’s kinda horrifying that I can read the last several hours’ worth of Wanderthread and all of that just seems like “business as usual,” but it’s this that makes me react with “Oh, FFS.”