Prohibition, privilege and the drug apartheid: The failure of drug policy reform to address the underlying fallacies of drug prohibition

AuthorJulian Buchanan,Tammy Ayres,Stuart Taylor
Date01 September 2016
Publication Date01 September 2016
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2016, Vol. 16(4) 452 –469
© The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/1748895816633274
Prohibition, privilege and the
drug apartheid: The failure of
drug policy reform to address
the underlying fallacies of drug
Stuart Taylor
Liverpool John Moores University, UK
Julian Buchanan
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Tammy Ayres
University of Leicester, UK
It appears to be a time of turbulence within the global drug policy landscape. The historically
dominant model of drug prohibition endures, yet a number of alternative models of legalization,
decriminalization and regulation are emerging across the world. While critics have asserted that
prohibition and the ensuing ‘war on drugs’ lack both an evidence base and legitimacy, reformers are
embracing these alternatives as indicators of progressive change. This article, however, argues that
such reforms adhere to the same arbitrary notions, moral dogma and fallacious evidence base as their
predecessor. As such they represent the ‘metamorphosis of prohibition’, whereby the structure
of drug policy changes, yet the underpinning principles remain unchanged. Consequentially, these
reforms should not be considered ‘progressive’ as they risk further consolidating the underlying
inconsistencies and contradictions that have formed the basis of drug prohibition.
Decriminalization, drug policy, evidence, legalization, prohibition, reform
Corresponding author:
Stuart Taylor, Liverpool John Moores University, Redmonds Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, L35UG, UK.
633274CRJ0010.1177/1748895816633274Criminology & Criminal JusticeTaylor et al.
Taylor et al. 453
There is a transformative change in the global drugs policy landscape with significant
adjustments to the historically dominant model of prohibition emerging, leading some
commentators to suggest a ‘quiet revolution’ is taking place (Rosmarin and Eastwood,
2011). Policies of drug decriminalization, legalization and regulation are materializing in
a number of jurisdictions around the world, a phenomenon welcomed by critics of prohi-
bition who have long exposed its lack of evidence base (Boland, 2008), efficacy (GCDP,
2014) and legitimacy (Pryce, 2012). While a number of these reforms have been posited
as ‘progressive’ (Transform, 2014), this article argues that they represent the ‘metamor-
phosis of prohibition’ whereby the face of drug policy changes yet the fundamental prin-
ciples remain unaffected. Inadvertently this reform ‘revolution’ camouflages the
underlying contradictions that have lain at the heart of global drug policy since they were
enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961.
This article, therefore, seeks to expose how the fundamental inconsistencies of drug
prohibition continue to be accommodated in policy reform. It will do so by exploring two
interlinking issues; first it will identify the untenable flawed assumptions underpinning
drug law enforcement and prohibition. It will contend that certain ‘fallacies’ used to
legitimize drug prohibition lack an evidence base, and instead draw upon myth and a
reductionist discourse that obscures nuanced drug policy debate. These fallacies arbitrar-
ily frame particular substances as ‘drugs’ and skew the risks of ‘drug use’ by focusing
almost exclusively on specific types of use and users, and concentrating attention upon
associated negative outcomes. This process allows certain substances to attain an unwar-
ranted position of privilege while others are prohibited, creating a ‘drug apartheid’ – a
deeply divisive system of segregation and punishment determined by the substance used.
Second, the article will reflect on how the changing global policy landscape and ad hoc
reform strategies are essentially rooted within a prohibitionist mind-set resulting in the
‘metamorphosis of prohibition’ – whereby a raft of reforms give the impression of pro-
gressive drug policy evolution, yet actually mask a continuation of the arbitrary and
contradictory processes that underpin contemporary drug policy. Consequentially the
article concludes that given the paucity of rationale, evidence and lack of scientific anal-
ysis upholding both prohibition and the current wave of alternative strategies, the repeal
of drug laws rather than superficial policy reform is necessary.
The article will utilize the United Kingdom as a lens through which to scrutinize drug
prohibition while drawing on comparative reform policies from across the globe to illus-
trate how fallacy continues to inform, motivate and legitimize drug policy change. This
examination of drug policy, critiquing the fundamental evidence base upholding both
drug prohibition and drug reform has international significance.
A Changing Landscape?
The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs listed those ‘narcotic’ substances
that required strict legal controls. In doing so it represented a significant shift away from
drug regulation towards a more prohibitive approach (Bewley-Taylor and Jelsma, 2012),
providing the legislative bedrock for contemporary global drug control.1 For almost five

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