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Drug Policy History and Reform

"Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded." ~ Abraham Lincoln, 18 December 1840.

2012 was a historic and exciting year for drug policy reform, with two US states voting to legalise cannabis and a host of eminent public figures – including incumbent presidents – declaring that the war on drugs has been lost. The chart below helps place these milestones in context by outlining the history of drug prohibition and government policy around the world, showing the progress that has made, and the missteps taken along the way.



A history of drug prohibition and a prediction for its abolition and replacement

This timeline contains a selection of events that were felt to be of significance in the history of prohibition and the campaign for drug law reform. It is not intended to be a historically comprehensive document, but to give a sense of narrative and progress; to shed some light on why we are where we are with regard to the drug laws, and more importantly, how we can use this experience to move forward. Much of the content has been reproduced from Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the UK.

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Year Relevant parties Event Details Commentary




Napoleon bans cannabis usage among his occupying troops.

Worried about the widespread habit, Napoleon stated:

'It is forbidden in all of Egypt to use certain Moslem beverages made with hashish or likewise to inhale the smoke from seeds of hashish. Habitual drinkers and smokers of this plant lose their reason and are victims of violent delirium which is the lot of those who give themselves full to excesses of all sorts.'[1]

This is the first widely recorded drug prohibition of the modern era, and the religious overtones of Napoleon's decree are obvious. Prohibition was to have a lengthy future as a discriminatory tool. Napoleon's soldiers are credited with bringing cannabis back to France, despite their leader's ruling.



Passage of the Poisons Act.

This Act, a more extensive follow-up to the Arsenic Act of 1851, regulated the supply of poisonous substances, primarily to stop them falling into the hands of murderers. Such regulation became a basis for future legislation prohibiting various drugs.

The drug historian S.W.F. Holloway sees the Act, and the circumstances that produced it, as indicative and formative of the subsequent, overwhelmingly prohibitive drug policy. 'Throughout the nineteenth century, British governments declined to accept responsibility for the promotion of pharmaceutical science, education and practice. Their sole concern in prompting poisons legislation was the prevention of crime. And in that, perhaps, lies the cause of all our woes. A fervid concern for the liberty of the individual has produced, on an international scale, a bureaucratic regulation of the supply of drugs in which the rights of individuals, and even nations are systematically violated.' [2]





Convention of Peking.

Ends Second Opium War. Among other trade-related conditions imposed by the British, the opium trade is legalised after many years of British smuggling of Indian-grown opium into China.

The Convention precedes a rising awareness of opium use in the USA, leading to a few disparate and generally ineffectual laws in individual states, most of which were openly enacted as a means of discrimination against local Chinese communities, commonly leaving such opium derivatives as morphine and laudanum unregulated, and, as with the San Francisco Opium Exclusion Act of 1875, ignoring opium use by whites.



Passage of the Pharmacy Act.

The Act regulates the purchase of poisons such as arsenic, cyanide and prussic acid. (Opium is hastily added to the list.) Substances must be purchased from a registered chemist, who must record the buyer's name, the date and the details of the purchase.

The effect of this is more foundational than direct, foreshadowing the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.





1906 Amendment to the UK Pharmacy Act of 1869.

Sino-British treaty restricting opium trade

1909 Passage of the US Opium Exclusion Act

Shanghai Commission

1910 British dismantle the India-China opium trade

Opium and preparations thereof greater than 1% are included in the Pharmacy Act, aimed at regulating the supply of various drugs by pharmacists and medical professionals (though not prohibiting the use of said substances). The US goes further in 1909, banning imported, non-medicinal opium smoking altogether.

US governance of the Philippines features the prohibition of opium on religious and moral grounds. This is the first national - as opposed to racial - prohibition of opium. The application of a similar model to China is discussed at the Shanghai Commission, after the US has rushed through its first federal drug prohibition law in 1909.



Merck Pharmaceuticals synthesises MDMA (Ecstasy).

The drug was synthesised during attempts to create a blood-clotting agent, and not as a potential appetite suppressant as is sometimes reported.

MDMA lay dormant until the late 1950s, when small groups of people began to experiment with it. The celebrated drug chemist Alexander Shulgin re-synthesised it in the late 1960s, and it soon entered therapeutic use, which persists sporadically today.




1912 First International Opium Conference. Hague Convention.

1913 Second International Opium Conference.

The Convention obliges signatories to restrict opiates to medical purposes, penalise their unauthorised possession and prohibit their sale to unauthorised persons.

The First World War intervened, and signatories were not fully committed to the measures until the incorporation of the Convention under Article 295 of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.



Passage of Harrison Narcotics Act

After the failure of the Foster Antinarcotics Bill of 1911, and much constitutional wrangling, the final Act brought the USA into line with the Hague Convention, forcing purveyors of opium and cocaine to register with the government, keep sales records and pay taxes.

The impetus is less on prohibition for its own sake and more on fulfilling international obligations, but the Act severely limits non-medical availability of the relevant drugs. It also sets a precedent for the incorrect, ignorant use of the word 'narcotics', as the Act encompasses cocaine, a CNS stimulant.



Passage of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) - a piece of emergency wartime legislation - undebated in Parliament.

Under DORA regulation 40b, the possession, distribution and sale of cocaine and opium were controlled under the authority of the Home Office. This control, obtained under emergency conditions, was to be retained, setting a precedent of treating drugs as a criminal matter and a threat to national security.

Though the circumstances perhaps warranted the move, and the emphasis was on ensuring the availability of medicinal drugs when needed, these restrictions drew on several years of growing 'anti-narcotic' posture closely related to that which was simultaneously becoming established in the United States.



1920 Passage of the Dangerous Drugs Act.

1921 Report of Home Secretary's committee to consider outstanding objections to the 1920 legislation.

1923 Passage of the Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act.

The 1920 Act implements the Hague Convention in Britain by extending and reinforcing DORA 40b. As well as opium, the Act places controls on tincture of cannabis and preparations containing dyhydrocodeine, and bans cocaine following stories of 'crazed soldiers' in WWI. It also creates the offence of being an occupier of premises permitting the smoking of prepared opium and introduces the offence of performing acts in this country resulting in the commission of an offence contrary to corresponding law abroad.

The Act represents Britain's first formal drug legislation, and solidifies the precedence of the Home Office over the Ministry of Health in the area of drugs policy.

The 1923 Amendment Act continues the punitive emphasis, introducing more severe penalties and imposing stricter controls on physicians and pharmacists. Perhaps most significantly, it expands the search powers of the police.




Report of the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction, chaired by Sir Humphry Rolleston ('the Rolleston Committee').

The Committee, established in 1924, is concerned with assessing the best approach to the problem of addiction. The approach favoured in the UK thus far has largely been more punitive than medical. The findings of the Committee aim to reverse this situation, emphasising addiction as a disease as opposed to 'a mere form of vicious indulgence' and recommending that policy be changed to reflect this.

This represents a major divergence between the policy of the UK and the USA. The report forms the basis of the 'British System' of allowing doctors to prescribe drugs to addicts in a regulated and safe manner, which survives several decades before coming under fire in the 1960s. The USA fared less well, ruling against the doctors in a number of high-profile court cases in the 1920s, despite the emergence of a body of expert opinion along similar lines to the Rolleston Report.



Amendment to Dangerous Drugs Act 1920.

The amendment adds cannabis (plant material, resin and oil) to the Act's list of substances and introduces the offence of the possession of cannabis.

The move follows the Second Opium Conference of 1925, at which cannabis is discussed and relevant policies appended to the opium regulations. In addition to this international impetus, cannabis is somewhat conflated with opium at home due to a lack of accurate drug information and the press-driven association of both drugs with immigrants.

'An internal memo at the Home Office suggested that coverage of one particularly overblown cannabis case were evidence of journalists "having nothing better to do".'[3]




Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs signed at Geneva.

Requires signatory countries to produce detailed drug consumption statistics, and limits production of 'narcotics' to quantities required in medicine and research.

The detailed stipulations of the Convention foreshadow the drug grouping or 'Schedule' system in common worldwide use to this day. The system has more recently attracted criticism that it is ineffective, unscientific, and influenced unduly by popular opinion, rather than being based on evidence of effectiveness and a scale of the genuine risks of each drug.



Formation of the Home Office Drugs Branch.

The new body maintains addiction statistics and monitors physicians and pharmacists prescribing and dispensing drugs to addicts.

The branch now coordinates the UK government's drug strategy.



Release of film Reefer Madness.

The heavily propagandised film tells the story of a group of 'beatniks' who become 'hooked' on the 'devil's weed' and their subsequent decline into illegality and squalor.

The film began as a church-group project entitled Tell Your Children, but was then purchased by director Dwain Esper and sensationalised with compromising insert shots and a new title. The film lay dormant until the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1970 and began showing the film at pro-pot rallies. Since then, Reefer Madness has become a humorous cult classic among college students and other aficionados of drug arcana.



Passage of the Marihuana Tax Act 1937.

Cannabis remained legal, but commercial dealers were taxed (at a low flat rate). The true bite of the Act was its bureaucracy and punishment structure: even minor procedural violations could result in a fine of up to $2000 and five years' imprisonment, and the burden of paperwork was significant.

The Act was made law on the back of the claim that cannabis caused 'murder, insanity and death', connecting government policy firmly to the hysteria of 'Reefer Madness.' The Act itself was later found to be unconstitutional and superseded by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.



Albert Hofmann synthesises lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

The drug was synthesised as part of a speculative programme of research (into potentially useful ergot alkaloid derivatives).

Hofmann returned to the substance 5 years later. Accidentally absorbing a small amount through his skin, he discovered the psychoactive effects and proceeded to work rigorously with the drug. LSD was then trialed as a 'truth drug' and investigated for possible social engineering and mind control applications, but proved unsuitable (it has also been used in therapy). Hoffman, aged 100, still gives talks on his 'problem child' to this day.




The opiate drug later named methadone is patented, having been first synthesised in 1937.

Methadone has been manufactured and distributed in the USA since 1947 as a long-acting and low-cost analgesic.

Methadone has since become better known as a substitute treatment option for heroin addiction, as its longer lasting effect makes it easier to administer and disassociates it from the need for a 'high.' However, users experience vastly prolonged withdrawal periods. Numerous other disadvantages and a more recent trend of medical opinion against the use of methadone as a heroin substitute reinforces the impression of the practice as a more politically palatable (it is usually taken orally rather than injected), rather than necessarily more effective, alternative to prescribing heroin itself.




The Paris Protocol 1948.

The Protocol introduced the 'similarity concept' into drug legislation in order to prevent drug manufacturers evading legislation by producing analogues of prohibited drugs.

The 'similarity' concept is a common tenent of modern drug prohibition legislation, facilitating the clampdown on 'designer' drugs. Relevant legislative provisions were made in the USA in 1986 with the passing of the Federal Analog Act, and the US government was more recently given emergency powers to 'schedule' any substance for up to eighteen months, pending scientific evidence. Similar analogue legislation was implemented in the UK.





[International - UN]

1961 First report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Drug Addiction, chaired by Sir Russell Brain ('the First Brain Committee').

1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

1963 Methadone Maintenance Treatment (MMT) pioneered in the US by Nyswander and Dole

1964 UK - Dangerous Drugs Act 1964

1965 Second Brain Report

The First Brain Report confirms and reinforces the findings of the Rolleston Report of 1926, favouring the status quo of drug prescription where necessary and emphasising the small scale of drug use in the UK. The report is publicly criticised for failing to recognise the extent of the problem. In the same year, the UN consolidates and broadens previous drug treaties into a coherent whole, forming the bedrock for the global penal response to drug use. The Convention formally introduces the four-schedule scheme, which has since become the basis of US and UK drug classification. Cannabis is notably added to the list of proscribed substances. The UK complies with this legislation in the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1964. Meanwhile, methadone treatment is being successfully trialled in the USA. Following a sharp rise in the number of UK heroin addicts on record, and reports of cavalier prescription by doctors, the Second Brain Report is commissioned and concludes that tighter restrictions are needed.

This marks the beginning of the end for the 'British System' of opiate prescribing. The main recommendations of the 1965 report included the notification of addicts, wide-ranging restrictions on the prescribing rights of doctors, and the establishment of special treatment centres or clinics for the provision of drug treatment. The right to prescribe heroin and cocaine to addicts was now limited to specialist psychiatrists working in clinics and equipped with a license from the Home Office. From this point, in addition, the quantity of these drugs prescribed was reduced dramatically, the heroin substitute methadone being supplied in their place.

The 1961 UN drugs convention marks a key turning point in global prohibition - enshrining prohibition in domestic law across the globe, and closing down any possibility of regulated models of production and supply for the proscribed drugs (anomalously excluding alcohol and tobacco)being introduced by individual countries even if they democratically determined to do so. An entire avenue of policy options was closed.



LSD is prohibited

The measure comes after usage spills over from research to recreation and reaches levels thought to be problematic, fuelled in part by the emerging psychedelic music scene and predictably hysterical media coverage.

The use of LSD in therapy continued until the early 1970s before finally being halted.



Passage of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1967

The Act implements the Brain Committee recommendations of 1965.

A clause is appended that gives the police 'stop and search' powers, which are retained to this day despite concerns over racial profiling.



'Legalise Pot' rally in Hyde Park

The rally is accompanied by an advertisement in the Times, sponsored by SOMA, a drug research organisation.

The campaign states: 'The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.' Signatories to the petition include the Beatles, RD Laing and Graham Greene.




'Operation Intercept' targets the smuggling of cannabis into the USA over the Mexican border.

The two-week operation (involving a three-minute inspection for every vehicle passing over the border) adversely impacts the local economy on both sides, and has a 'negligible'[4] effect on cannabis supply to the US.

The zeal with which Operation Intercept is conducted is at odds with its short timescale and relatively low effectiveness in stemming the flow of cannabis, adding weight to the impression that the drug 'problem' is being used for geo=political leverage. G. Gordon Liddy writes in his autobiography: 'The Mexicans, using diplomatic language of course, told us to go piss up a rope. The Nixon administration didn't believe in the United States taking crap from any foreign government. Its reply was Operation Intercept.'[5]



1969 The psychiatrist Dr. Robert DuPont conducts a study which finds a link between crime and heroin addiction.

1970 Foundation of the Narcotics Treatment Administration. Funds provided by the Nixon administration for DuPont to expand his methadone program in Washington.

DuPont takes a urine sample from all new inmates to the Washington D.C. jail system in August of 1969, and finds that 44% test positive for heroin. DuPont convinces Washington's mayor to allow him to supply methadone to heroin addicts.

The program is part of a more general anti-crime campaign, but one year afterwards, burglaries in Washington have decreased by 41%.

The methadone program was controversial due to widespread ignorance about methadone and worries that the program might be a tool to control racial minorities. Nonetheless, as official state policy, it had both the legitimacy and the funding to be a great success. As Nixon's 'drugs czar', Dr. Jerome Jaffe, comments: 'We knew that what we were doing was probably the right thing to do - that treatment helped people, so it was a good thing to make available. But we did not have the data that we now have to show that not only is it helpful, but it's cost effective. In terms of what society gets for every dollar invested, it's terrific. We have that data now.'[6]



1970 Passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.

1971 Nixon formally initiates the 'War On Drugs'.

1971 Foundation of Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Policy (SAODAP) under Dr. Jerome Jaffe.

The 1970 Act consolidates previous drug laws and reduces penalties for marijuana possession. This act includes the Controlled Substances Act, which establishes five categories ("schedules") for regulating drugs based on their medicinal value and potential for addiction.

Nixon follows this up in 1971 by declaring drugs to be 'Public Enemy Number One' and creating SAODAP to deal with the perceived problem. Jaffe is given a free rein in recruitment, finance and policy.

The Act also strengthens law enforcement by allowing police to conduct 'no-knock' searches. This shifting of power back towards the law enforcement agencies epitomises the Nixon drug policy as a whole as comprehensive but inconsistent, despite some notable successes. Throughout the Nixon years, more money is spent on treatment than law enforcement, but this pragmatic policy is at odds with the president's tough rhetoric, and the inconsistency gradually comes to light as both counterproductive and embarrassing.


International [UN]


1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act

The Convention addressed the limitation of the Single Convention of 1961 to named, straightforwardly organic drugs (opium, heroin and cocaine and their derivatives). In view of the experimentation with many 'new' drugs such as LSD, MDMA and amphetamines in the 1960s, the new Convention facilitated the inclusion of almost any drug imaginable.

The draft treaty, released in 1969, was taken as a basis for both the US Comprehensive act of 1970 and the UK Misuse of Drugs Act of January 1971.

The UK Act implemented the 'schedule' system in accordance with the judgement of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs as to the potential for abuse and the therapeutic value of each drug included. These criteria still underpin UK drug policy today. Recent thinking has suggested that a 'scale of harm' measuring the risks of each drug would be more pragmatic and effective.



Establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), headed by John R. Bartels.

The DEA is intended as a 'super agency' to deal with all aspects of the illegal drug issue in the US. It consolidates several departments from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the CIA, Customs and the Office of Drug Law Enforcement (ODALE, set up in 1971).

Today, perhaps the most notorious and US-specific strand of the DEA's activity is in the area of drug education for youth. The route of providing harm-reduction advice, whilst still strongly discouraging drug use, that has become prevalent in the UK and elsewhere in Europe is largely spurned here; instead, all illegal drugs are spuriously conflated and demonised under a pervasive and outdated 'Just Say No' policy.



Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter campaigns on the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Carter is merely proposing the extension of several state laws into federal law. The proposal suggests decriminalising the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

Carter's drug czar Dr. Peter Bourne makes it known that he does not view marijuana or cocaine as serious public health threats, a pragmatic response to patterns of usage that remains unreflected in the US drug scheduling system.



Parents' anti-drug movement established.

Troubled by marijuana usage at her 13-year old daughter's birthday party, Keith Schuchard and her neighbour Sue Rusche form Families in Action, the first parents' organisation designed to fight teenage drug abuse.

Schuchard writes to Dr. Robert DuPont, then head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which leads DuPont to abandon his support for decriminalisation.



Amendment of Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to include MDMA (Ecstasy) as a Class A drug.

Ecstasy was previously unmentioned in UK law.

The move closely follows the first widespread instances of street availability of MDMA in the UK. unusually it is not sheduled in the US until the 1980's.




Election of Pablo Escobar, one of the most notorious drug lords in history, to the Colombian Congress.

Escobar makes himself popular with the people, building a 'Robin Hood' image by investment in housing and sport, giving monetary handouts and even appearing throughout the city accompanied by Catholic priests.

Escobar typically acted as if he was above the law, and given the failure of authorities to apprehend him, this was justified for most of his career. Prohibition had helped him become the seventh-richest man in the world[7] at one point, and the US government was forced to expend more and more resources on attempting to curtail his activities, eventually killing Escobar in 1993. This did not have any effect on cocaine availability or price in the US.



Launch of 'Just Say No' movement, spearheaded by Nancy Reagan.

Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign becomes a centrepiece of the Reagan administration's anti-drug campaign. The movement focuses on white, middle class children and is funded by corporate and private donations.

The slogan is backed by a slew of new drug education movements, most notoriously Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE).

Marsha Rosenbaum of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy reform organisation, comments on DARE's 'Just Say No' methods: 'What I don't want kids to hear is that all drugs and any amount you do will be the road to devastation. Once kids get to an age where they're experimenting . . . they know that is not true, so they throw away the entire prevention message. It isn't really education. It's indoctrination.'[8]




1985 Crack cocaine takes off in New York.

1985 UK Passage of the Controlled Drugs (Penalties) Act

1986 Death of Len Bias, a promising college basketball player, from a cocaine overdose.

1986 Televised 'Just Say No' address from Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

1986 USA Passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Crack, a potent form of smokeable cocaine developed in the early 1980s, begins to flourish in the New York region. The New York Times brings this to the nation's attention. Crack is cheap, powerfully addictive and is quickly associated with ethnic minorities and violent crime. The death of Len Bias, a popular and seemingly clean-cut sportsman, provides the anti-drug movement with a sacrificial lamb on whom to pin the 'Just Say No' slogan. Two days after Nancy reagan's televised address, Congress passes the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. $1.7 billion is committed.

The 1986 USA Anti Drug Abuse Act is most significant for its introduction of mandatory minimum sentences. Possession of at least one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine is punishable by at least ten years in prison. In response to the crack epidemic, the sale of five grams of the drug leads to a mandatory five-year sentence. Mandatory minimums become increasingly criticised over the years for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, because of the differences in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine. In the UK, the 1985 Act has already introduced life imprisonment as a maximum penalty for drug trafficking.



MDMA (Ecstasy) use is popularised.

1989 First UK media-reported death from Ecstasy, of an underage girl, Claire Leighton, in the Haçienda club in Manchester.

The US tendency for recreational use of MDMA in sedentary social settings (along with niche use in the gay scene and amongst 'dead-heads') gives way to the European tendency, famously formed in Ibiza, of widespread use at raves and dance parties. Ecstasy becomes a cornerstone of British rave culture.

After what now seem curiously ambivalent or even positive media coverage of the rave phenomenon initially, the rave drug of choice begins to be vilified in the media and by the police. There is widespread misunderstanding about its effects, and a bias towards describing the stimulant effects over the empathogenic effects persists today. The few fatalities are used as a rallying point to question the potential threat to traditional values from the rave lifestyle.



President Bush proposes a 50% increase in 'War On Drugs' spending.

The proposal adds an additional $1.2 billion to the coffers of prohibition enforcement.

The specific inclusion of a 50% increase in military spending presages a government response to illegal drugs that comes to appear more and more like an orthodox war. There is no doubt of the zeal and resources of the war, but its rhetoric implies a clarity of aims, enemies, targets and strategies that is completely illusory.



President Clinton admits to having smoked cannabis in his youth.

'When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale and never tried it again.'[9]

Subsequently, at a public relations event for children that was shown on MTV, Clinton was asked 'If you could do it again, would you inhale?' He readily replied, 'Yeah, I would.' This was reconciled with his generally standard anti-drug stance by his explanation that he had originally tried to inhale but had an allergy and was not used to smoking. In a Rolling Stone interview in 2000 he stated that: "I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be."


New Zealand


MDMA-related deaths of Anna Wood (NZ) and Leah Betts (UK) within weeks of each other.

Jan and Paul Betts help devise the 'Sorted' anti-ecstasy campaign, allowing an image of Leah on her deathbed to be used.

Details to emerge later suggest that both girls were teenagers who died from a cerebral oedema caused by overhydration, rather than a direct toxic effect of MDMA.

Drug education material now tends to warn of the dangers of drinking too much water, as well as the dangers of dehydration. This is a harm reduction strategy based on the provision of accurate and unbiased information. Such aims will evidently be furthered by removing the trade from the hands of potentially unscrupulous or misinformed dealers. The 'Sorted' campaign, in contrast, provided no harm reduction information and has perpetuated the tenacious misperception that Ecstasy use is 'quite often fatal'.



Sentencing Commission recommends revising mandatory minimum sentences.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which administers federal sentencing guidelines, releases a report which notes the racial disparities in cocaine vs. crack sentencing. The commission proposes reducing the discrepancy.

For the first time in history, Congress rejects the recommendations of the Commission, a move illustrative of Prohibition as an ingrained ideological dogma rather than a practical or coherent set of policies.



Establishment of Transform Drugs Campaign (retitled the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in 2003).

The camapign/foundation aims to reduce drug related harms to individuals and communities by promoting a pragmatic discourse on the counterproductive nature prohibition and the benefits to be gained from moves towatrds legally regulated drug production and supply.

In the same year, then Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, refuses to debate drug legalisation on the basis that it would 'send out the wrong message'. The conflict between practical policy and political image is an important challenge that Transform faces.



International [UN]


UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS 1998) produces a new ten-year drug strategy.

Appointment of Keith Hellawell, former Chief Constable of Weast Yorkshire, as the UK's National Anti-Drugs Co-Ordinator, or 'Drugs Tsar'. (occassionally Tzar or Czar)

The somewhat aspirational strategy commits signatories to working towards a 'drug free world' by 2008. Kofi Annan stated:

'Our commitment is to make real progress towards eliminating drug crops by the year 2008. It is my hope that this session will go down in history as the time the international community found common ground to take on this task in earnest.'

By 2002, Hellawell had departed ignominiously and his unit dissolved, having made little impact besides introducing the concept that policy outcomes should maybe be measured, establishing some key performance targets - although no data was being collected on most. The UK's own ten-year strategy, progressing poorly even by its own standards, is revised and relaunched in 2003. The UN continue to put a brave face on the negligible progress towards its ambitious targets, with ever more desperate attempts to spin evident failure as success.



House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report entitled 'HM Customs and Excise: The Prevention of Drug Smuggling' is released.

The report questions the efficacy of Customs in reducing the supply of drugs - the key objective of supply side prohibitionist interventions - and concludes that there is a lack of evidence that prohibition-based customs policy produces either a direct effect on drug availability or a deterrent effect on other potential drug smugglers.

Such a point of contention, as both sides of the debate are acutely aware, can be rejuvenated almost indefinitely by the shifting application of various contradictory statistics. More interesting, perhaps, is the admission that the policymakers themselves are pursuing these costly policies with no clarity of belief as to their effect. As the Chairman of Customs and Excise stated in evidence to the Committee, 'I cannot be sure whether we are holding the line, improving, reducing.' [10] The strong implication is that current customs policy with regard to drugs is based, if not on ideology, then at least on dogma rather than outcomes.



Publication of the Police Foundation report on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman (often referred to as 'the Runciman Report').

The report is a comprehensive analysis of the failings of UK drug policy, making a series of pragmatic short term recommendations, including calls for cannabis to be reclassified from Class B to Class C, and MDMA from A to B. The aim is to restore some credibility to drug law enforcement by moving away from a scaremongering educational model portraying 'drugs' as a homogenous, uniformly harmful entity.

The Runciman report sums up this aim: 'The most dangerous message of all is the message that all drugs are equally dangerous. When young people know from their own experience that part of the message is either exaggerated or untrue, there is a serious risk that they will discount all of the rest.' [11]The report is summarily dismissed by the Home Secretary, but later comes to be highly influential with many of its recommendations being adopted.



The human rights organisation Liberty passes a motion to call on the government for an end to absolute prohibition.

'This AGM upholds the right of access of every adult to the lawful supply of psychoactive substances for personal consumption save where expressly constrained by or under the law for the purpose of protecting minors, countering crime, treating addiction, or some other legitimate public purpose and calls on the government to reform the laws accordingly.'[12]

The motion represents a facet of the drug policy debate that is often overlooked, that of personal rights and freedoms over one's own body and risk taking behaviours. Much propaganda in support of prohibition seeks to depict drug use in an oddly dual way, as frivolous and worthy of scorn on the one hand, and criminal and fear-inducing on the other - both of which aim to portray drug use as distant and alienated from normal, civilized human society. Historically, the opposite is true; the ubiquity of drug use throughout history has led some anthropologists to posit a 'fourth drive' in human instinct - the drive for the intoxication or clarification that various drugs might provide. Thus viewed, the frivolous excesses of 'recreational' drug use and the depths of criminal amorality are superseded by a conception of drug use as a natural right, incongruously withdrawn by authority figures and worth campaigning vigorously to regain.



House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Report entitled 'The Government's drugs policy: is it working?' is released.

The Select Committee was mandated to review the government's ten-year drug strategy, put in place by Keith Hellawell et al in 1998. This three-year appraisal concluded that the targets set in 1998 were 'unmeasurable and insufficiently grounded in evidence'. [13]

Given its criticisms of the Government's drug strategy, the recommendations of the report were disappointingly timid. The report considered (and rejected) outright decriminalisation (although left the door open if conditions chhange in the future), but supported the reclassification of cannabis to Class C and the Police Foundation recommendations that MDMA should be made Class B, while maintaining a firm 'deterrent' line on drug education and refusing to lower penalties for 'social supply'. More interesting was the recommendation that 'the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways-including the possibility of legalisation and regulation-to tackle the global drugs dilemma.' [14] It is this which will allow future policy changes to go beyond the incremental. The recommendation was notably supported by Committee member, and prime ministerial contender David Cameron.



Resignation of Pino Arlacchi, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP).

Arlacchi's resignation follows a disastrous period in charge of ODCCP, during which a number of senior officials were provoked to resign by his mismanagement and refusal to face the fact that UN administered global prohibition was not delivering. This led to Arlacchi's ruthless editing of the World Drug Report 2000 to reflect his illusory progress, at which point the expert Francisco Thoumi resigned in disgust.

Though Arlacchi was, by the end of his term, almost universally acknowledged as incompetent and delusional, his downfall failed to provoke a major change in UN drug policy. The internal mismanagement issues with which Arlacchi was associated were allowed to cloud the wider issue of the failure of UN prohibitionist policy, and the UN 10-year drugs strategy was allowed to limp on towards its inevitable negative assessment in 2008. The episode briefly showed that the judicial, authoritative, impartial façade of the United Nations barely disguised a highly ideological US dominated (rather than evidence-led) drug policy.



Liberal Democrat Party launches new drug policy.

The policy paper 'Honesty, Realism, Responsibility: Proposals for the Reform of Drugs Law', (written with the help of consultation from Transform), set out the failures of prohibition and proposed changes that would challenge, but remain within, the United Nations drug treaties. Treating each drug on an individual basis, the Lib Dems followed the Runciman Report of 2000 by proposing the reclassification of cannabis to Class C and of MDMA to Class B. It went further by calling for the legal regulation of cannabis if UN treaties issue could be addressed.

More importantly, it was proposed that imprisonment should no longer be a punishment option, at least for offences involving Class B and C drugs. Other proposals included a major investment in drug treatment and the replacement of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) with a standing Drugs Commission, which would monitor legal as well as illegal drugs.

The new policies represented a crucial break with the other two major political parties, shattering the tripartite consensus on drug policy that had hitherto quietly existed. The Lib Dem policies were evidence-based, rejecting artificial distinctions between the harm caused by legal and illegal drugs, and rejecting enforcement and prison as priomary policy tools based on evidence of ineffectiveness. This sound apolitical basis made the Lib Dems' later failure to promote their policies (which came under considerable political and ideological fire) all the more bitter.



Launch of FRANK drug education campaign.

The campaign aims to promote open discussion of drugs among youth, parents and teachers, and to provide relatively unbiased factual information, continuing the attempt to gain credibility.

Though vastly superior to US counterparts, FRANK leaves much to be desired in terms of drugs included, harm reduction advice offered and level of detail.



Number 10 Strategy Unit document on drug policy.

The report, commissioned by and presented to Tony Blair , concludes that supply side enforcement of drug laws is ineffective and counterproductive. Transform briefing on the report here

This was suppressed until 2005, when the issue was taken up by the press and the Government attacked for largely ignoring the report's recommendations.









2002 Portugal amends laws to de facto -decriminalise possession of all drugs for personal use.

2003 Canadian court case sets a precedent for the de facto decriminalisation of small amounts of cannabis. Swiss bill to legalise and tax cannabis is narrowly defeated.

2004 Russia makes possession of all drugs in amounts for personal use a civil rather than a criminal offence, subject to a fine.

2004 Spain moves drugs brief from Ministry of the Interior to Ministry of Health.

2004 UK reclassifies cannabis to Class C. Punitive measures and arrest are not applied unless circumstances considered 'aggrevated' .

Israel deems up to 5 ecstasy pills to be 'personal use'.

In an unprecedented move, the chief of the UN unit on Drugs and Crime praises the Russian decision. The UK, however, is condemned by UN drug agencies for its new policy on cannabis.

These incremental moves are positive, but appear paltry and contradictory within a larger unregulated, prohibitionist framework. During the same time period, for example, Italy has undergone a regime change and shifted its drug policy back towards a harsh and largely indiscriminate prohibitionist model. Widespread international condemnation ensued, with the Senlis Council think tank urging the Italian government 'not to enlist in another repressive US "Drug War" which has proved to be inefficient and damaging, but instead work towards a comprehensive, realistic and up-to-date approach alongside the rest of Europe.'[15] Having railroaded the original bill through the Senate, the majority governing party has since 'talked out' an opposing bill and looks set to continue the repressive policy in the face of massive opposition. Similarly, the new conservative government in Canada has vowed to end de facto decriminalisation of cannabis possession. The future does not lie in the legalisation/regulation issue becoming a political football between opposing groups, but in the development of a consensus around the most pragmatic policy option.





Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK), King County Bar Association (US) and Health Officers Council of British Columbia (Canada) release papers covering the failings of prohibition and suggesting models for legalisation and regulation of currently illegal drugs.

Within a few months of each other, 'After the War on Drugs: Options for Control', 'Effective Drug Control: Toward a New Legal Framework' and 'A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada' all argue, from similar (though variously accented) pragmatic bases, for an end to prohibition and immediate serious investigation of legal regulatory frameworks for drugs.

The extent of common ground in the three reports is despite the three very different nations and types of organisation involved. Such an international intellectual consensus will be vital for long-term policymaking. The failure of prohibition in three disparate environments is a powerful confirmation that internal tinkerings with national policies will not be sufficient to end prohibition and ensure effective regulation.



The UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) report on Khat (a Somalian derived plant stimulant) is released.

the report concludes that khat, if consumed under typical usage patterns (which are habitual and heavy), has various adverse effects on health. However, these are insufficient to warrant its inclusion in the list of proscribed drugs.

The report points out that khat costs approximately £15 per kilogram in the UK, but in the US (where khat is illegal) the price approaches $400 (c.£210) per kilogram. In addition, its legal status in the UK causes the khat trade to be completely separate from the trade in illegal drugs, and to have no role as a 'gateway drug' - a concept, in any case, that is far from established in fact. The committee argue against prohibiting the drug on the basis that this would increase harms - a logic they have yet to apply to drugs currently under the Misuse of Drugs Act for which they are responsible.



Ketamine made illegal, following a report and recommendation from the ACMD.

Previously a controlled drug under the Medicines Act, but not technically illegal to posess, ketamine is now a Class C drug, illegal to possess or supply.

Practitioners of veterinary medicine had to appeal vigorously before being granted an exemption to this judgement. The logic applied in the khat report - that harms would be increased by prohibition, (made clearly in a Transform submission to the ACMD) , is not applied in this instance.



House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology report on drug classifications is released.

The report roundly condemns the Home Office and the ACMD for their rigid defence of the current A-C drug classification system. The system is based on historical precedent, vagaries of public opinion and media hysteria and the misuse of the criminal justice system to 'send out a signal'[16], rather than on an evidence-based hierarchy of harm as it is supposed to be - a circumstance demonstrated most blatantly by the fact that alcohol and tobacco are not included in this supposed scale of harms. Furthermore, these signals are completely ineffective in deterring drug use.

Even if these issues were addressed with a scientific reclassification of substances according to the harm they do, the scientific validity of positively correlating a scale of harm and a scale of legal penalties would still be called into question. The report calls for the harm assessment and criminal justice aspects of drug policy to be decoupled immediately.

The report provides a strong direction for successful drug policy in the future, by demonstrating that a relatively narrow policy review cannot be conducted, except cosmetically, without placing the entire framework of prohibition under scrutiny. Media coverage is favourable, and the stage is set for an open comparison of pragmatism and ideology, which escalates when Parliament resumes in October with renewed cross-party backbench support for reform.