Julian Buchanan

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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 will a constant and reliable stream of funding sources for endless prevalence studies and evidence 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!



  1. Lee Tolson says:

    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. Greg Denham says:

    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.


    • julianbuchanan says:

      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!


    • Steve Wellcome says:

      Just for reference:
      They have some excellent videos on YouTube as well.


  3. Geoffrey Ward says:

    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. Rhys Ponton says:

    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)


    • julianbuchanan says:

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


  5. Kieran says:

    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.


    • julianbuchanan says:

      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. […] 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. The evidence presented 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 organisations interests.  […]


  7. Harp Saint says:

    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”


  8. If the average individual faces prosecution for drug use, why not have politicians also face that same thing themselves when they have also used them? The hypocrisy is absurd.


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