Vested Interest is the Driver of Prohibition

war on drugs, addict, drug reform, legalisation, decriminalisation, prohibition, criminalisation, drug war, regulation
Do the benefits of prohibition outweigh the costs to those in power?

It is widely assumed that the so called ‘war on drugs’ (the war between drugs), has been a disastrous failure, and faced with mounting evidence and criticism, governments would eventually seek legislative and policy change. Not so. The evidence presented to argue for the end of prohibition is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other government, business and organisational interests.

Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits:

  1. It protects the market share and status of the privileged, promoted and culturally embedded legal drugs: alcohol; caffeine; tobacco; sugar and pharmaceuticals.
  2. It provides the police with excellent powers to easily stop, search, arrest, interrogate and prosecute.
  3. It successfully attracts significant additional funding for police, armed services, customs officials and security services.
  4. It provides justification for military action and invasion of other countries.
  5. It provides excellent opportunities for significant additional resources for the police/state through the seizure of assets.
  6. It provides excellent business opportunities and raw material (people) for the ever burgeoning penal industrial complex.
  7. It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the invasive and expanding drug testing industry.
  8. It provides considerable opportunities for new technology development and sales, in the avoidance of drug detection industry.
  9. It provides the drug rehabilitation business with an endless supply of illicit users, who must always abstain, and forever be in recovery.
  10. It provides excellent opportunities for the state to easily target, monitor, control and punish the poor, indigenous people, Black and minority ethnic groups and people of colour.
  11. It provides politicians with a societal scapegoat, and the chance to rally support and votes by getting ‘tough’ on a socially constructed enemy within: the ‘addict’ hooked and controlled by the ‘demon drugs’.
  12. It provides the news media with easy, cheap dirty stories and pictures of the apparent horrors associated with illicit drug use.
  13. It provides a much needed distraction from the serious problems caused by the more harmful, addictive and culturally embedded legal drugs – alcohol, tobacco, sugar and pharmaceuticals.
  14. Internationally, it rallies otherwise disparate nations together by finding common ground to fight a shared war against a global enemy, ‘drugs’.
  15. It provides the Banks with massive investments from money laundering.
  16. It provides researchers and academics with a constant and reliable stream of funding sources for endless prevalence studies and evidence, needed to uphold prohibition propaganda such as reefer madness, gateway theory, crack babies and krokodil.
  17. It allows governments to detract attention away from the key structural drivers behind most chronic addiction (inequality, stigma, exclusion, poverty and blocked opportunities) and instead, misleadingly shift attention towards the supposed demonising and devastating power of the illicit drug.
  18. It provides a lucrative illegal market that enables gangsters and drug cartels to make incredible untaxed profits.
  19. It provides an attractive and unquestionable dogma for religious groups to ‘say no’ to drugs, avoiding the complexities of science, reason and rationale, and indeed the contradiction in respect of sugar, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
  20. It provides excellent careers for drug enforcement officials and drug policy entrepreneurs and careerists, facilitating endless debates, inquiries, international travel, networking and conference events, particularly via the United Nations.

If these are key drivers that sustain prohibition and maintain the ‘war between drugs’ then appealing to the groups that benefit from prohibition by providing endless research reports and campaigns to highlight the limited impact prohibition has upon supply and demand, or the negative unintended outcomes from criminalisation, may have limited political impact or sway given the benefits experienced by these powerful groups and organisations.

by Julian Buchanan, Associate Professor Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, (updated 24th August 2015).

Thanks to @mhound and @ChurchOfBong for helpful suggestions!

35 thoughts on “Vested Interest is the Driver of Prohibition

  1. Nailed it.

    Bottom line, free access to cannabis/hemp shifts power from the state to the individual, and must be blocked at all costs, if the agenda to concentrate all power in one is to succeed.

    Ultimately, so called recreational drugs shift perspective and can expand consciousness, releasing one from slavish adherence to the Matrix agenda. I believe this is one of the primary reasons why recreational drugs, and those that use them are so fiercely fought against and demonized.


  2. Julian I am not sure if you know of LEAP in the USA? I have started an Australian chapter. I have seen a video on the LEAP USA website where former judge talks about the 5 ‘P’s – Police, Prosecutors, Prisons, Politicians and the Press benefiting from the war on drugs.


    1. i knew the late Eddie Ellison, and know Jason Reed and Diane Goldstein who are all LEAP members I think 🙂
      The 5 P’s is a nice way of putting it – not seen that.
      Hey well done starting an Aus LEAP Chapter!


  3. Thank you Julian for such a brilliant and concise analysis of the huge obstacles that those who benefit from the status quo put up against all efforts to consign prohibition to the garbage can of history. It is really a “war on people who use drugs” , being your own citizens, but when the levels of money and power are so vast considerations such as human rights, evidence based policy and the like do not have a hope in hell.


  4. Julian, whilst number 7 is correct factually, there is no incentive for it to exist (at least in the UK) – the treatment services do not profit from numbers in treatment and staff get stressed with even bigger caseloads; worst of all is the emotional distress to staff when clients lapse/relapse back to using, seeing all their hard work go to nothing IE I would never say drug workers benefit from it (except at the end of a career maybe they can sit back and say they tried their best with everyone- which if course the majority do)


    1. Rhys good point, the group that benefits are private residential rehabs which are a lucrative business particularly in the USA


  5. Great points Julian, hit the nail on the head! I guess several of the reasons you list are also the same reasons that prohibition came about in the first place, particularly the ability to control marginal populations and law enforcement funding RE Harry Anslinger etc.


    1. Thanks Kieran – spot on! That why when we argue the drug prohibition has failed, and we cite statistics regarding drug use and drug supply as evidence to end prohibition we are in some ways missing the point.


  6. Julia,lovely name-you’ve covered most of the bases.Add in mega-billions for Weapons makers selling their products globally and all bases are covered.US Dr’s want billions they get with #1 visit Dr basic care- #2 psychiatrist to prove U is not drug addict trash -# 3 decreasing ffffield-frightens many Drs PAIN MANAGEMENT SPECIALISTS.To bring my prescription meds from Thailand home to USA requires USa DR to write to scripts.If we doesn’t get no money you aint have your meds. I pay 1% of what costs are in USA for treatment of long term-(Vietnam1969- now chronic pain.} elderly and weuns with disabilities are caaught in middle o this “WAR”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a co-authored paper in 2000 I argued:

      Buchanan, J. & Young, L. (2000) ‘The War on Drugs – A War on Drug Users’ in Drugs: Education, Prevention Policy Vol. 7 No.4 2000 pp 409-422 (full download from publications page)

      But I use the term Drug Wars deliberately, because I see ‘drugs’ and ‘drug users’ as misleading socially constructed terms that have been peddled by prohibitionists.

      I explore these issues in my blog; Power, Democracy and Drug Reform: Challenging the ‘War on Drugs’

      I argue:

      “The so called ‘War on Drugs’ never existed. The idea that there is or has been a war against drugs is a lie, it’s classic prohibition propaganda. There has never been a campaign against drugs. Let me explain. Society and governments have always appreciated the wide ranging benefits and pleasures derived from drugs. Drugs have never been as popular as they are now. The availability, promotion and use of pharmaceutical and legally approved drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar, has never been greater. However, prohibition propaganda has conveniently resulted in these drugs escaping under the radar of the prohibitionist drug discourse, and these substances are incorrectly, not perceived as drugs.

      Rather than a War on Drugs, what we have is a Drug War, a hostile war waged by the proponents of approved drugs against anyone using unapproved drugs. More accurately, a process better conceptualised as a politically driven Drug Apartheid; an arbitrary and illogical separation, not of people, but of drugs. This distinction between these two sets of drugs has no rational basis, it has no science or evidence to support it, neither is it based on the risk of harm. Under the strictly enforced Drug Apartheid alcohol, sugar, tobacco and caffeine enjoy privilege, power and promotion, while unapproved drugs are outlawed and anyone found involved in possession, production or supply risks stigma, criminalisation and punishment, including life imprisonment and the death penalty. This brutal, inhumane and damaging system that impacts negatively on individuals, families, communities and nations, is perpetuated because society has been successfully indoctrinated (at a personal, cultural and institutional level), to believe a social construction of ‘drugs’.”

      Hope that explains why I prefer to resist the prohibitionist categorisation of drugs and drug users


  7. If politicians want to enact laws to prohibit drug use, the laws should apply to the lawmakers and the general public alike. No exceptions. Otherwise, just abolish all laws pertaining to drug use.


  8. Neil Woods’ new book has a platform for us to use. “In 1959 there were 62 known heroin addicts in the UK.” (Drug Wars, by Neil Woods, p. 26)

    Clearly, they had a successful drug policy — a drug policy that reduced new addictions to the minimum. We should learn what it was, and tell the world.

    Psychiatrist John Marks shows us that the policy was open access to the pharmacy; if you want drugs, go to the drug store.

    “Recently when taking a routine history of substance abuse from a Bootle youth, I asked him about solvent abuse. He eyed me defiantly, ‘Ee docta, tha’s divvy gear’, which translated from the Scouse, means roughly ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead using such childish stuff’. This attitude to glue, despite its availability, is precisely what England achieved with the Pharmacy Acts of the nineteenth century and the Rolleston Committee (which later made the mistake, not foreseeable at the time, of placing the monopoly of opium for non-medical use in the hands of doctors). We achieved the same attitude to opium, cocaine and their analogues that the Bootle youth had to glue.” (“The Paradox of Prohibition”, John Marks, 1 luglio 1994, Radio (28) page 6)

    I want a policy that is proven to produce the minimum of new addictions. It would be hard to beat Britain’s policy of open access to the pharmacy.

    As an ‘experiment’, it’s powerful. From the Pharmacy Act of 1868 until 1959, is 91 years. The sample size is the population of the UK in 1959 — 50 million. That’s a powerful ‘experiment’.

    I want to put that drug policy to work, here in America. We deserve it.

    Open access to the pharmacy


    1. Hi Wiley

      Yes I worked with Dr John Marks in the mid/late 1980s when we set up a new drug clinic for South Sefton patients – we prescribed oral and injectable heroin and methadone on a maintenance basis, gave free condoms, clean needles and nursing staff showed people how to inject more safely – especially those patients who were injecting in the groin, usually because all other veins had collapsed or sometimes women who wanted to keep their drug use private for fear of stigma.

      It was known in the 1950s as the British System – and we were just carrying it on with a commitment to harm reduction.

      The social and cultural context of drug use changed in the 1980s onwards – so IMO these approaches are still vital but for tackling chronic addiction today, we also now have to look more closely as the social and structural factors to addiction. For example see: Buchanan, J. (2004) Tackling Problem Drug Use: A New Conceptual Framework, pp117-138, in Social Work in Mental in Health, Vol. 2 No 2/3, Haworth press

      Full download here:

      Best regards



      1. Julian Buchanan, what are your thoughts regarding the hypocrisy of U.S. politicians who admit to drug use and yet want to punish us if we do the same thing? I don’t get that personally.


  9. Jeffrey Liakos – Fundamentally, it’s never been about science, reason or rationale – if you try to see it through that lens the drug war and prohibition wont make much sense.

    It’s about power, privilege and propaganda.


    1. I appreciate your commitment for personal freedom. Well done!

      But I’m not sure objecting to drug use is tenable

      – tea, fizzy drinks, coffee, alcoholic drinks, hot chocolate, pharmaceuticals?


  10. Julian Buchanan, I was actually being a smart-ass in that comment. You do make a valid point insofar as alcoholic beverages and pharmaceuticals go. The rest of the items are debatable. Prohibition does not solve the problem of drug use.


    1. I can’t see the prohibition of what we might consume has any merit at all for any substance, regardless of risk.

      It’s counterproductive, ineffective and a breach of human rights.
      I see merit in regulating business and providing individuals with reliable balance information and health education advice


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