That drugs should be subject to legal control is a relatively recent notion.  For much of the nineteenth century drugs Robertets throughout Europe and North America were based largely on the principle of free enterprise and received little external regulation. It was not until 1868 that Britain restricted the sale of opium and morphine derivates to pharmacies, with the Pharmacies Act. Substances like cannabis, cocaine, morphine and heroin (together with injecting kits) could be bought over the counter from chemists in Europe and North America as late as the end of the nineteenth century.

The rise of prohibition

The Opium Wars of Britain against China in 1839-1842 and 1856-1858 had a significant impact on changing attitudes to drugs in favour of greater control. The wars had been instigated in the pursuit of free trade, with the British authorities seeking to prevent the Chinese from enforcing a ban on imported opium. Britain grew opium in great quantities in India, generating huge revenues. The wars met with considerable hostility and opposition at home, fuelled by (exaggerated) reports that Britain’s flooding China with opium had impoverished and enslaved the Chinese to the drug.

This episode of imperial history became linked in the popular conscience to fears (again exaggerated by sensational reporting) about the corrupting influence of Chinese ‘Opium Dens’ in the East End of London. Alongside these anxieties, the emergence of a powerful public health lobby, of an assertive medical profession and of the temperance movement all helped to redefine opium use as a problem.

Vice or disease?

By the early twentieth century two broad schools of thought had emerged about how drugs should be regulated:

  • morally-infused conceptions of drug use as a vice to be controlled by the law
  • medical views of it as an addiction or ‘disease’ requiring treatment.

These contrasting sets of views are still evident in Western societies today. For example, drugs policies in the USA have tended to follow the former tendency, with a long history of prohibition dating back to the 1914 Harrison Act and culminating on the ‘war on drugs’. The US imprisonment rate for drug offences alone is higher than that of most Western European nations for all crimes put together. In the UK the balance between these different views about drug control has shifted over time.

The UK: a bird’s eye view

Early controls such as the 1916 Defence of the Realm Act, followed by the 1920 and 1923 Dangerous Drugs Acts, criminalised the unauthorised possession of opiates and cocaine but permitted their possession under prescription from a doctor. These arrangements provided the basis for a so-called ‘British System’, which prevailed from the early 1920s to the late 1960s.

The late 1960s saw concerns about new drugs (like LSD) and about increasing use, which led to an emphasis on the role of the police and the criminal justice system. This tendency hardened in the early 1980s, following a perceived wave of heroin ‘epidemics’. By the mid-1980s British policy had also come to be defined in terms of a ‘war on drugs’. Governments took an increasingly active role, with a concomitant politicisation of the debate about drugs. As medicine became displaced from its former central role, more emphasis was placed on law enforcement.  A political consensus along these more punitive and control-based lines has been largely maintained ever since.