Casey William Hardison is an entheogenic activist, unauthorized researcher and psychedelic chemist. He is currently six years into a 20 year prison sentence for manufacturing LSD, DMT and 2C-B. Having studied the UK and International drug laws very closely, Casey argues here, why there is no such thing as an ‘illegal drug’ and why it’s important to understand this.
Uncritical, unthinking discourse hampers the amelioration of the seemingly intractable problems of current drug policy, law and praxis, both international and domestic. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of the mythological phrases “legal drugs” and “illegal drugs”. No instrument of law makes a drug or substance unlawful; rather, drug laws make some human actions regarding some drugs unlawful.
Drug laws regulate people, not drugs!
Careful attention to language re drugs is important because it is our liberties that are being regulated and taken away; so when we refer to drugs as “illegal” or “legal” we conceal the effect drugs laws have on the individual and the community under a seemingly harmless phrase which has no bearing on reality.
The Commentary on the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances made it clear three decades ago that, with respect to penal provisions, drug laws regulate human action:
“article 22 [of the 1971 Convention] uses a general formula for defining actions to be subject to penal law, while article 36 [of the 1961 Single Convention] employs for that purpose in the first instance the enumerative method and only in a supplementary way a general formula”. (United Nations, 1976, page 346, emphasis mine)
What “actions” does Article 36 of the 1961 Single Convention enumerate? Article 36(1)(a) says:
“Subject to its constitutional limitations, each Party shall adopt such measures as will ensure that cultivation, production, manufacture, extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, delivery on any terms whatsoever, brokerage, dispatch, dispatch in transit, transport, importation and exportation of drugs contrary to the provisions of this Convention, and any other action which in the opinion of such Party may be contrary to the provisions of this Convention, shall be punishable offences when committed intentionally, and that serious offences shall be liable to adequate punishment particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty”. (United Nations, 1961, emphasis mine)
The “punishable offences” described above are property activities with respect to drugs. In effect, drug laws control property rights. Thus, drugs legislation regulates humans and not drugs. This makes sense; drugs will not obey; drugs have no agency.
Hence the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (“the Act”) regulates persons who import or export, produce or manufacture, supply or distribute, and possess certain “dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs”.1
And as neither the phrase “illegal drug” nor “legal drug” appears in the Act: we should stop using these phrases immediately. What people often refer to as “illegal” drugs are actually, in law, “controlled drugs”, s2(1) of the Act; alas, “controlled drugs” is yet another misnomer as they are far from controlled.
However, all this begs the most important question: why are some “dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs” designated as controlled by law and other equally (or more) “dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs” are not? On what rational and objective basis are such distinctions made?
The UK Government’s response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s 2006 report “Drug classification: making a hash of it?”, Cm 6941, said:
“The distinction between legal and illegal substances is not unequivocally based on pharmacology, economic or risk benefit analysis. It is also based in large part on historical and cultural precedents”.
If we exorcise the mythological phrase, “legal and illegal”, from this sentence, it reads:
“The distinction between … substances is not unequivocally based on pharmacology, economic or risk benefit analysis. It is also based in large part on historical and cultural precedents”.
So when we discuss and analyze the “drugs problem”, let us remember that alcohol and tobacco are drugs. And let us also remember that the (un)intended consequences of a “War on some people who use some Drugs” is exactly that: partial, unequal, and unjust.
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Find out more about this argument and issues surrounding drug law at www.drugequality.org
Commission on Narcotic Drugs (1994) Opening Statement to the 37th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs by the Executive Director of the UN International Drug Control Program. Vienna: CND
United Kingdom Home Office (2006) The Government Reply to the Fifth Report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Session 2005-06 HC 1031 Drug classification: making a hash of it?, Cm 6941, 13 October 2006
United Nations (1961) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961. New York: UN
United Nations (1976) Commentary on the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. New York: UN
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (1997) The Regulation-Legalization Debate: UN World Drug Report 1997. Vienna: UNODC