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Why is There a 'War on Drugs'?

by Dave Haans

Note: This essay was written for a graduate level course called "Sociology of Addiction" at the University of Toronto. The professor of the course was Patricia Erickson (see the Bibliography). It was completed on December 23, 1994. You may distribute this document freely, however please do not change it in any way. Thanks.


To ask the question "why is there a 'War on Drugs'?' must seem to some to be a bit like asking 'why are there laws against murder?' Such a large amount of popular wisdom exists to support an effort to stop the use, trafficking and production of illicit drugs that such a question must be at best facetious.

Images of the drug war, pouring forth across media from the radio to popular movies, convey a sense of evil and brutality that beckons for immediate, and brutal, retaliation. Once the question is asked, however, the onus is immediately on the one asking the question to provide evidence that is contrary to the accepted norm. This person who dares ask the question, even if s/he is sincere and honest, may quickly find that they are clearly outside of the 'norm' in society, and that few people will bother to help them in answering their own question. The question, then, carries with it a great weight, and often times remains unasked, both at the public and governmental levels.

It is the question 'why', however, that will be the purpose of this paper, with regards to the War on Drugs. Answering this question will of course necessitate using all of the tools currently used to define, describe and evaluate the War on Drugs. For example, it will have to be shown that there actually is a War on Drugs; that legislation has been enacted that makes the War on Drugs a reality; that the War on Drugs is not a necessary fact of legal or social life in this country; and that plausible alternatives have been largely ignored. What will be of ultimate interest, however, is why, given the realities of its social uselessness, there is a War on Drugs.


The American Experience

Most of our Canadian conceptions of the War on Drugs are the result of the American War on Drugs. Ronald and Nancy Reagan's 1986 'declaration' of the War on Drugs mixed metaphors of war, illness, crusades and religious righteousness in order to galvanize a nation into action against illicit drugs. George Bush, carrying the same theme, further made the issue both a domestic and international one (Elwood, 1994). While this reaction to the perceived problem of drugs typifies the most recent reaction to illicit drug use, it is certainly not the product of the 1980's. In early 20th Century America, international concern over opium trading was reflected by the Unites States legislating the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, which put in place a taxation on the trade of opium into the U.S. (Brecher, 1972). Aside from its rather benign face, the Harrison Act contained a clause that law enforcement officials viewed as being justification for the arrest and imprisonment of physicians who prescribed opiates to their patients. This led to the almost overnight creation of a black market, and caused those addicted to opiates to reduce their quality of life substantially in order to maintain their addiction. It is this affiliation with a criminal element which allowed for more punitive laws to be put in place, in the mistaken belief that drug use led to crime. By many accounts, even of the time, the laws and not the drugs themselves, forced many addicted individuals to turn to crime to maintain their addictions (Brecher, 1972).

The Canadian Experience

In Canada, a similar scenario had unfolded parallel (and previous) to the American experience. Concern over the international trade of opium had made necessary the first of the anti-opium legislation that sought to criminalize its use and movement outright. The result was the Opium Act of 1908, and the Opium and Drug Act of 1911 (Giffen, Endicott and Lambert, 1991). These acts sought to at first reduce, then eliminate opium traffic inside Canada, in order to complement efforts to stop international trading in this substance. As Giffen, et al (1991) describe, the 1911 Act was influenced by far more than simply a wish to help China with its opium problem -- at the time, a strong moralistic tide was washing over the country, and opium and a host of other drugs were blamed for crime, immorality and the like. More importantly, hostility towards the Chinese which manifested itself in the 1907 anti-Asiatic demonstration, and further publicity about Chinese opium use, led to the creation of the beliefs of extreme negative effects of opium (p. 53).

In 1986, just two days after President and Mrs. Reagan's declaration of war on drugs, Prime Minister Mulroney deviated from a prepared speech to announce that "drug abuse has become an epidemic that undermines our economic as well as our social fabric" (Erickson, 1992, p. 248). However, Prime Minister Mulroney neither said this in a dramatic address to Canada's public, nor further elaborated on his remark. While his remark resulted in the creation of "Canada's Drug Strategy", by most accounts very little has changed with respect to the Federal Government's treatment illicit drugs (Fischer, 1994; Erickson, 1992).

Does This Constitute a 'Drug War'?

In early United States and Canada, then, the factors which brought about prohibition of illicit drugs were a concern with international opium trade to China (and, seemingly, how that trade could be replaced with trade in U.S. and Canadian products), an increasingly racist (and very public) attitude toward immigrants from the Pacific Rim, and a new moralistic tide sweeping both countries. The effects of these factors was prohibition of most psychoactive drugs (save for alcohol and tobacco), and almost immediate police involvement in the control of the newly-illicit drugs.

Whether this constitutes a "drug war" is debatable. On one hand, there seems to be no explicit declaration of war against drugs to be found at the turn of the century. On the other hand, there are many facets of what Bruce Alexander (1990) calls "warlike aspects of current drug-control policy" (p. 50). For example, Alexander writes that a War on Drugs may be defined by its war language, violent imagery, legal violence, illegal police violence, spying, and its casualties. A closer look at the evidence available from the era of early illicit drug prohibition satisfies some of these requirements. For example, public action against drugs such as cocaine in 1910-11 was defined as a "fight" against cocaine, and cocaine users were typified as "fiends in human guise" (Giffen et al, 1991, p. 83).

As well, the Opium and Drug Act of 1911 set down several measures that were very much war-like. First, the police were given extensive powers which allowed them to seize, confiscate, and destroy drugs (Giffen, et al, 1991, p. 80). The 1911 Act also shifted the burden of proof from the police to the defendant, forcing the charged to prove that any illicit drugs seized were for scientific or medical purposes. Finally, the 1911 Act closed off the chance for any appeal on the grounds of technicalities (Giffen, et al, 1991).

The casualties in the early War on Drugs were mainly Chinese labourers who had legally entered the country to peaceably work for wages that could not have been earned in their own country. The actual use of the 1911 act was to imprison, and later (after a 1922 amendment) deport Chinese opium users, until a diminishing number of Chinese targets for the illicit drug laws caused a newer focus on Caucasian drug users (Giffen, et al, 1991, p. 97).

Back to the Present

Alexander (1990) argues that the whole of the illicit drug laws set the stage for an all-out war on drugs, even if the Canadian public is not as aware of the situation as the American public is. Even though no dramatic pronouncement of a drug war in Canada was ever made, Canadian drug laws reflect a War Measures mentality which reduces the legal rights of the accused, and strengthens the power, scope and role of the police forces. For example, police have almost unrestricted powers of search and seizure in drug cases (Alexander, 1990, p. 36). Police also have the right to break into premises, destroy any property therein, "manhandle and beat the occupants, and to punch and choke people who are suspected of trying to swallow drugs" (Alexander, 1990, p. 36). These rights of the police, which clearly come at the expense of the rights of the individual, are effected only when illicit drugs are, or are suspected of being, involved.

A drug war also contains language that clearly sets the stage for the public's acceptance of these types of power. This is certainly not a new turn of events -- since the very beginning of drug prohibition, drugs were associated with words and phrases that were meant to elicit visions of the public combating "evil imported from the Orient", the "curse of cocaine" (Giffen et al, p. 82, p. 84) and even "the downfall of the white race [by the Chinese]" (Alexander, p. 31). President Reagan's drug war declaration conveyed an image of illicit drugs "menacing our society" and "threatening our values and undercutting our institutions" and "threat[ening] ... our national security" (Reagan, 1986, pp. 1184-1186). These statements elicit images of an all-out attack on the United States by a foreign power. Prime Minister Mulroney echoed very much these same sentiments with regard to Canada two days later.

Even today, utterances such as cocaine being "a substantial evil in our society ... It ruins lives and destroys families and is directly responsible for the commission of other crimes," (Oakes, 1994a, p. A8) and "cocaine is undoubtedly an insidious and dangerous drug which undermines the very fabric of our society" (Oakes, 1994b, p. A11) can be found in the daily newspaper.

Obviously, with these images firmly implanted in the psyche of a nation, any steps taken to eradicate the 'enemy' will be met with little resistance. Any resistance that is proffered is bound to be met with a uninformed retort such as this: "I think half the children born are put to death by the sale of these cordials and yet some gentlemen say the law is too strict" (Senate Debates, Canada, 1910-1911, italics mine).

Yes, Virginia, There is a 'War on Drugs' This discussion presented in the previous section did not touch upon images in the modern media of an inner-city battleground, movie images of evil organized drug rings or the tendency of the media to report the government's, rather than researchers' views on the drugs, both licit and illicit. However, the intent in the previous section was to show that the governments in both Canada and the United States have waged a war on drugs that has existed, largely unabated, for over 80 years. The next two sections will focus on whether or not that war is justified, and whether alternatives could be used.


In the Persian Gulf War that pitted a number of countries against Iraq, President Bush went to lengths to ensure that people believed that a war against Iraq was indeed a 'just' war. However, many researchers, asking whether the war on drugs is justified, have come to the conclusion that this particular war is not (see Alexander, 1990, pp. xi-xii for a list of dissenters from the government's position). Further, there seems to be no effort on the part of the Canadian Government to evaluate whether the War on Drugs is necessary. The recent tabling of Bill C-7, which seeks harsher penalties for illicit drug users and sellers, overshadows any effort on the part of the Government to seek a re-evaluation of the effects of the laws on those affected by them. Even though a large number of groups have voiced their concerns regarding Bill C-7 (Erickson and Smart, 1994), the Bill is presently in its third reading, and stands a fair chance of being passed. The Bill also largely goes against Canada's Drug Strategy, a program that was initiated after Prime Minister Mulroney's off-hand comment on the 'problem' of illicit drugs in Canada. Canada's Drug Strategy has an explicit 'harm reduction' emphasis (see the section entitled "Harm Reduction as an Alternative to the War on Drugs", below) that was to guide Canada's drug policy (Fischer, 1994).

This being the case, it is now the task of this paper to explore the drug problem, and to ascertain whether there really needs to be a drug war. This question is important because one of the main assumptions of a War on Drugs is that illicit drugs do so much harm that they must be outlawed. As we shall see, this is largely a fallacy, and the presence of a War on Drugs in the face of the facts of the consequences of illicit drugs is made even more ironic by the Government's long-standing commitment to its prohibitionary policies.

Back to the Beginning

The previous section of this paper showed that the early drug laws in Canada formed the basis for a long-standing prohibitionary approach to the use and trafficking of opium. Not discussed at length however, were the social conditions that preceded these laws. It is useful to describe these social conditions, and in doing so the gulf between drug laws and the reality of the effects of the drugs in question can be illuminated.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, Canadian industrialists on the West Coast encouraged immigration of Chinese labourers, mainly because they were willing to work for less than their Caucasian counterparts (Alexander, 1990, p. 30), and they were seen as being "conscientious, thrifty, and law-abiding" (Solomon and Green, 1988, p. 89). The Chinese also brought with them the habit of smoking opium (Boyd, 1982). This remained a non-issue with most people, until Chinese immigration was seen to be threatening the livelihood of white workers (Boyd, 1982), who were feeling the effects of decline in railway employment and the gold rush in British Columbia (Solomon and Green, 1988).

This sentiment came to a peak in September of 1907, when anti-Asian feeling resulted in the Anti-Asiatic riot in Vancouver's Chinatown (Alexander, 1990, p. 30). After being sent to British Columbia to investigate claims for damage incurred by several Asians in the riot, then Deputy Minister of Labour Mackenzie King was 'shocked' to find that a Chinese opium industry was in place. He recommended in his official report that this trade, which was not subject to taxes, be immediately halted (Solomon and Green, 1988, p. 91). In 1908, the Opium Act was made into law, and for the first time the sale, importation and manufacture of opium was prohibited (Alexander, 1990).

The social backdrop of this period was increasing anti-Asiatic sentiment, and the fear that Asians were likely to influence Caucasians to use opium. At this time, a mythology was being created which helped to set the tone for further legislation.

Opium itself seemed not to be the problem, but opium smoking was seen to "exemplify the alien, inferior and unassimilable nature of the Chinese" (Giffen et al, 1991, p. 57). The prevailing fear was not of opium itself, but of whites being encouraged by the Chinese to use opium. Solomon and Green add that the success of this law, and the failure of other laws that sought to suppress alcohol, tobacco and other substances at the time, was due to the fact that (p. 88): it was directed against Chinese opium smokers and Chinese opium factories, but at the same time posed no threat to the larger number of predominantly middle-class and middle-aged Caucasian users who were addicted to the products of the established pharmaceutical industry With an emphasis on racial factors, and a complete mythology regarding the social effects of opium, the stage was set for newer and more punitive laws regarding opium and other drugs, such as morphine, heroin and cocaine.

In the next number of years, culminating in the 1929 Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, Canada saw a shift in its policies. Solomon and Green (1988) write of how the newly created Department of Health was given responsibility for the supervision of Canada's Federal drug laws, through the creation of the Narcotics Division (p. 97). At the same time, the RCMP was founded, and charged with the execution of Federal laws. The RCMP's 'raison d'etre' soon became the enforcement of drug laws, and was a great influence on the Narcotics Division, which found little resistance when requesting special powers be given to the RCMP to penalize drug users and traffickers. These special powers included police officers being able to search dwellings without a warrant, the onus on the defendant to prove s/he had no knowledge, consent, or authority in possession cases, and the police being able to prosecute doctors who were prescribing maintenance doses to addicts. Penalties were stiffened to include whipping, and deportation of immigrants who had been charged and had served their sentences.

During this time, warnings about the perils of drug use abounded. The anti-Asiatic campaign was also on an up-swing. In 1922, a highly influential and inflammatory book was published. It was written by Emily Murphy, an early feminist and jurist. Through it, Mrs. Murphy gave "a thorough introduction to the War on Drugs mentality in its modern form" (Alexander, 1990. p. 31). Included were racist epithets, and an image of the drug 'addict' (all illicit drug users were addicts, in Mrs. Murphy's opinion) that was so evil and depraved that s/he begged for swift and harsh discipline.

In the 1920s then, the RCMP and the courts were given enormous powers to stop the 'menace' of drugs. However, by the end of the decade, convictions had fallen rapidly, mainly due to the fact that the majority of Chinese drug offenders had either died out or been deported (Solomon and Green, 1988, p. 99). The image of the drug user had changed from a morally weak individual to that of a "fiendish criminal, obsessed with the need to addict others and motivated by lust and greed" (Solomon and Green, 1988, p. 100). This set the stage for continued criminal sanctions for the rest of the century.

Rather than a focus on race, which typified early anti-drug measures, the focus today is on moral, social, economic and health concerns (Alexander, 1990, p. 33). However, this change in emphasis does not make the War on Drugs more justifiable by any means. Rather, it simply reflects a change in who is to be charged with drug offences.


The Effects of Illicit Drugs

The personae of the War on Drugs is a frantic one. With images of the drug user as criminal, the police being given massive powers, a huge criminal network in place to supply illicit drugs to an unwitting populace, and 'crack babies' being born at the mercy of their delinquent mothers, one is hard pressed to find evidence in the popular media that would suggest that the War on Drugs doesn't need to exist. At the very base of the drug war is the assumption that illicit drugs do social and medical harm, and they must be stopped at any cost. It is this assumption which will be examined next.

Opium and Related Drugs

Opium was the first drug to be made illicit in Canada, largely due to anti-Asian sentiment. However, even at the time, there were questions as to the medical effects of the drug. During Senate debate on the 1908 Opium Act, Dr. Joseph Sullivan was the only person to question its alleged effects. In part, he stated:

I fail to find in statistics anything about the injurious effect of Opium on the Chinese. Above all things, the Chinese having this habit ought to be treated with a great deal of consideration (quoted in Giffen, et al, 1990, p. 72)

Dr. Sullivan's remark is borne out by the fact that, aside from physical addiction often present in continual users of opiates, there are no serious side effects of the continued use of them. Health and Welfare Canada's (1989) "Licit and Illicit Drugs in Canada" reveals that (p. 11):

Despite media dramatizations of heroin withdrawal, cessation is rarely fatal and is similar to a bad case of influenza. Observations of heroin-addicted individuals who have been maintained on daily doses under medical supervision show no significant psychological or physical negative effects from the drug. However, many adverse effects of heroin use are related to the addiction lifestyle and methods of drug administration.


Popular reports of the effects of other drugs also do not hold up when examined more closely. Marijuana was thought by Mrs. Murphy to drive its users insane, make them become "raving maniacs", and lead them to a premature death (Solomon, Single and Erickson, 1988, p. 370). However, if this were true, adverse psychological effects would be well known by now.

Instead, there have been few cases of patients reporting to treatment facilities with these kinds of effects. Health and Welfare Canada seems to indicate that this is surprising, given the high rates of usage in some populations (1989, p. 10).


Cocaine is another drug that was (and is) widely reported to have severe effects on the individual. While lethal in very high doses, cocaine actually is reasonably safe in moderate doses (Alexander, 1990, p. 202-203). Similarly, crack cocaine's label as "the most highly addictive form of all drugs ever known in history" has been countered with research reports that more or less simply report that "cocaine does not produce physical dependence" (Akers, 1991, pp. 783-784).

This list could be extended, but the point can be summed up by stating that (as Alexander (1990) does) "a large body of careful research shows that recreational use of illicit drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, does not lead to addiction or other harm for the majority of users" (p. 64). But what of the other popular edict of the anti-drug organizations and police and Presidents Reagan and Bush and Prime Minister Mulroney, etc., which states that there is nothing less than an epidemic of illicit drug use, which tears at the very fabric of society?

The final section of this consideration of whether or not a war on drugs is justified will focus on the proportion of people in our society which actually use drugs, and what the effects of this use actually are.

Use of Illicit Drugs

Some of the best trend data on drug use come from the Addiction Research Foundation, which has surveyed self-reported drug use among Ontario students since 1968, and Ontario adults since 1977. These surveys have been conducted once very two years in the case of students, and once every three years in the case of adults (Smart and Adlaf, 1990). In general, the use of drugs has dramatically declined among both students and adults. With respect to cannabis, the percentage of students who reported using the drug at least once in the previous year peaked in 1979 at a rate of 31.7%, and then fell gradually to a low of 11.7% in 1991. Students' use of heroin in the previous year had peaked in 1979 at 2.3%, then fell to 1% in 1991. Following the same trend, use of cocaine for students peaked at 5.1% in 1979, then gradually fell to 1.6% in 1991 (Smart, Adlaf and Walsh, 1991, p. 13).

For adults, the trends have been somewhat similar, however the peak years for use in the previous year come somewhat later (possibly because the students who continued using were now classified as 'adults', in other words, a cohort effect was observed). The peak year for cannabis use in the previous year for Ontario adults was 1984, with a percentage of 11.2% adults reporting the use of cannabis at least once. This percentage fell to 6.8% in 1991. With respect to cocaine, use rates remained relatively constant, with between 1.7 (1984) and 2.1% (1989) of adults reporting having used cocaine in the previous year (Adlaf, Smart and Canale, 1991, p. 7).

Although self-reported rates are not always the most reliable indicator of drug use (and with respect to the above studies, do not include teenagers outside of the education system), these data show that at least in Ontario, the vast majority of students and adults are non-users of marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Taking a national perspective, we find that the percentage of those individuals in Canada fifteen years of age or older that have never used marijuana or hashish is 80%. For cocaine, the percentage of people who have never used is 97% (Single, Williams and McKenzie, 1994, p. 113).

These data do not support in any way the claims made by Prime Minister Mulroney two days after President Reagan declared the American War on Drugs. If drugs had become an "epidemic" in Canada in 1986, use rates certainly do not reflect this. As for Prime Minister Mulroney's comment that drug use was eroding the social and economic fabric of the country also bears closer scrutiny, although it should be noted that it is impossible to define what, exactly, Prime Minister Mulroney meant by this comment. The focus of the next section of this paper, however, will be a discussion of the effects of drugs on people who use them. This focus will not be a pharmacological one, but a social one, taking into account a more important effect of drug use--the social sanctions that accompany those who decide to use illicit drugs.

The Effects of the War on Drugs

Anti-drug sentiment comes complete with a whole selection of 'facts' and 'figures' which support the 'fact' that drug use causes severe social upheaval. This is evidenced by many of the previously quoted remarks of even well-intentioned groups and individuals who fear that the use of drugs has severe social, economic and psychological effects on the individual, those around the individual, and society in general. While this may be the popular response to the problems of drug use, there is much more evidence to support the view that anti-drug legislation itself is the cause of the plight of drug users, and not the other way around. Brecher (1972) is certainly one of the first documenters of the history of drug legislation to espouse this view, and may in fact have been one of the creators of a paradigm shift in drug research that has carried through to this day. In Licit & Illicit Drugs, Brecher illustrates the history of all types of licit and illicit drugs, and documents anti-drug legislation in the United States and Canada. The first effects of the early narcotic legislation were almost immediate; Brecher writes that the result of these laws was that "the door was opened wide to adulterated, contaminated and misbranded narcotics of all kinds" (p. 47). Previously law-abiding addicts were forced to turn to the black market in order to secure their maintenance doses of these drugs. Just six weeks after the passage of the 1914 Harrison Act in the United States, Brecher quotes an editor in the New York Medical Journal as writing that the immediate effect was seen in the flocking of drug users to hospitals and sanitoriums, an increase in violence due to addicts looking to obtain drugs (some in a delirious state due to withdrawal), and that time would show further effects, in the failure of promising careers, the disruption of families, the commission of crimes, and the influx into hospitals of those who would have otherwise led normal lives (p. 50).

In Canada, predictably, anti-opium legislation also resulted in the creation of covert smuggling operations, which resulted in the price of opium rising dramatically. In a society founded upon capitalist principles, drug traffickers sprang up to reap the monetary rewards of the early opium legislation. As a result, enforcement of the opium laws became more zealous, which increased the profitability of the black market trade, which then increased the likelihood that the trade would continue (Giffen, et al, 1991, p. 117). In later years, morphine and heroin were to replace opium, mainly because they were easier to conceal due to the fact that they are more powerful, and take up less space. The opium users, in order to maintain their addictions, had to intermingle with and develop contacts with the criminal world (Giffen, et al, 1991, p. 118).

Before opium legislation, users could carry on useful, prosperous lives (as many Chinese did at the turn of the century), while addicted to opium. After anti-opium legislation, however, irresistible profits were to be made on the black market, causing users to be involved in the same violence, crime and corruption that typifies accounts of the illegal drug trade today. Persistent calls for harsher legislation were made because often, the defenders of these laws mistook "the violent side-effects of prohibition for the effects of the drugs themselves" (Alexander, 1990, p. 60).

This pattern of anti-drug laws and sustained attainability of drugs through the black market typifies the 20th century experience with drug prohibition. These laws also have other consequences that are directly related to the criminalization of drug use in modern times. These consequences form the main part of the public image of the drug user, and are used to further support the notion that tougher laws and police powers are needed. Erickson (1993) summarizes several finding of researchers who have studied this problem in relation to opiates (p. 1169):

Forced to obtain opiates illegally and at a much inflated price, addicts/users formed a deviant and sometimes criminal subculture; money went to purchase drugs rather than to food and personal hygiene; sharing and using dirty needles led to high rates of infection with diseases such as hepatitis; contaminated drugs and unknown potency contributed to high morbidity and mortality; criminalization further reduced legitimate economic opportunities.

Of course, not all illicit drug use in our society is of opiates, nor of an addictive nature. Even with illicit drugs commonly thought of as being non-addictive, however, the law has effects on the user that seem to overshadow the relatively harmless direct consequences of the actual use. The consequences of the law regarding marijuana (which in Canada today can be as severe as those applied in cases of opiates and cocaine) manifest themselves in reduced opportunities for employment (Erickson and Goodstadt, 1979), the offender wishing to remain more secretive to both his or her family, and disrespect for cannabis laws (Erickson and Murray, 1986). The stigmatizing effect of even the lightest of punishments on the 'cannabis criminal' have implications, therefore, on the user's self-image and the user's place in society, and are largely an unintended effect of the law.

An Answer to The Question

The genesis of anti-drug legislation, as presented above, was racist attitudes towards the Chinese labourers who were seen to be a threat to the Caucasian work force. The focus in those times was not on the effects of the drugs themselves, as there was, and is, ample evidence to support the theory that illicit drugs are not generally harmful in and of themselves. Nor, as is frequently argued, are there expansive social consequences arising from the use of these drugs. If anything, the market in illicit drugs benefits the police by keeping them busy, and allowing an easy outlet for their influence in anti-drug laws.

As for an epidemic in drug use, there seems to be few statistics to substantiate even a minor threat to the health of Canadians based upon the numbers of Canadians who do use illicit drugs.

Finally, the major negative impact of drugs on their users is the result of the drug laws themselves, and not drugs per se.

In short, the War on Drugs is in no way justified by any evidence gathered to date.

As will be discussed below, there are alternatives to the War on Drugs. In particular, a model of 'harm reduction' will be examined closely, and the evidence which would support an effort of this type presented. As well, 'Canada's Drug Strategy', a program based on harm reduction principles and announced in 1987, will be critiqued.


Harm reduction is a broad classification of proposals which shift the focus from prohibiting the use of drugs to dealing with the problems associated with drug use. As discussed earlier, the War on Drugs has brought about its own set of problems associated with drug use. Therefore, a successful program of harm reduction would also have to deal with the problems of the War on Drugs as well (Nadelmann, 1994, p. 35).

True harm reduction approaches were developed fairly recently through programs in the Netherlands, the U.K. and Australia (Des Jarlais and Friedman, 1994). The focus of harm reduction is on reducing the problems associated with drug use on a community and individual level, rather than an effort to prohibit drug use at a societal level. Harm reduction also focuses on the realistically attainable goals of reducing the negative consequences of drug use, such as the supplying of clean equipment to injection drug users (IDUs) in order to reduce the prevalence of AIDS and HIV infection in the IDU population. It is these immediately 'treatable' aspects of drug use which are targeted first, so that the use of drugs can be as risk-free as possible. A further consideration is the reduction of drug use, although abstinence is only an option when it would be clearly appropriate (Riley, 1994, p. 1).

Clearly then, there is a stark contrast between harm reduction and prohibition as models of dealing with drug use. Harm reduction assumes that there are effects of drug use that can benefit the user (as in the case of life-saving medication), and that there are also harmful and even neutral effects. Harm reduction offers a pragmatic means for the analysis of whether these effects are harmful or not (Riley, 1994, p. 1), a far cry from prohibitionist models, which assume that all illicit drug use is inherently harmful. Also, the emphasis is not on drug use per se (as in the prohibitionist model), but solely on the negative consequences of such use.

The concept of harm reduction is not entirely new, however. It can be traced back to the 'British System', which emerged in answer to a set of recommendations by the Rolleston Committee which was formed in the 1920s in the U.K. (Riley, 1994, p. 1).

The committee argued that in certain cases "maintenance on drugs may be necessary to help drug abusers lead useful lives" (Riley, 1994, p. 1). The modern-day model for the harm reduction approach is located in Merseyside, near Liverpool. In response to the rising use of drugs such as heroin in the early 1980s, the Merseyside clinics, along with doctors, pharmacists and the police worked together to establish a harm-reduction model.

Their efforts concentrate on treating users on an individual basis, supplying them with either the drugs they needed or effective substitutes, and exchanging syringes, all of which may help the user to lead more healthy, productive and fulfilling life (Riley, 1994).

The effects on the social problems in Merseyside as a result of the harm reduction program there have been encouraging. Riley (1994) writes that of all the English Regions, Merseyside had the lowest rate of HIV-positive IDUs, and the Merseyside police were the only force in 1990 and 1991 to register a decrease in crime rates (p. 5). The success of Merseyside is partly due to the fact that it is a collaborative effort between clinicians, police, pharmacists and doctors. Another factor which sets Merseyside's harm reduction strategy apart from other prohibitionary models is the fact that it is community based, and not a set of rules imposed from the government at the Federal level (as prohibitionary models are). Reducing harm in one's own community gives immediate and tangible benefits that can be appreciated by all concerned. This helps to ensure the continuation of the program which gives those benefits, and encourages the participation of people who enjoy its benefits.

Several examples of a harm reduction approach exist in Canada as well, especially with reference to alcohol. Single (1994) writes that the Alberta Liquor Control Board allowed for the special early opening of a downtown Edmonton liquor store, in order to allow for a supply of potable alcohol to Skid-row inebriates who were previously using other substances, such as shoe polish, which were easily attainable in the morning (pp. 2-3). Other programmes informed by the harm reduction model are available, and include such things as special training to owners and employees of bars and taverns that allow them to encourage moderation, designated driver programs, the promotion of 'light' beers and wines (Single, 1994), and making available information regarding the alcohol content of different beverages (Riley, 1994). Also, more than 30 needle exchange programs have been run in several major Canadian cities, which help to reduce the spread of AIDS through the use of dirty needles and works (Riley, 1994).

Unfortunately, it is the spread of AIDS that is the driving force behind many harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges. In the United States, over one-third of all AIDS cases are related to injection drug use (Des Jarlais and Friedman, 1994, p. 82). IDU is strongly associated with AIDS because the relatively easy transmission path from one user to another when needles and other injecting equipment (such as cotton, and the water used to clean the equipment) are shared.

Also at risk are the partners of injection drug users, even when the partner is a non-user.

The problem exists because many injection drug users find obtaining clean needles and other 'works' impossible, difficult or inconvenient. In New York, where needle exchange programs are illegal, the incidence of HIV (the retrovirus thought to cause AIDS) among injection drug users is approximately 60 per cent (Riley, 1994). Although it is presently difficult to find strong evidence that needle exchange programs help to prevent AIDS and HIV because of the time lag between infection and detection, researchers point to percentage of IDU related AIDS in cities such as New York, which have not instituted such programs (Riley, 1994). As well, those cities that responded early to the spread of AIDS and HIV show IDU related cases to be much lower than those that didn't (Des Jarlais and Friedman, 1994).

The harm reduction model, then, is an effective answer to controlling the problems associated with drug use. The emphasis on getting many different members of the community involved helps to give those people the feeling that they are helping to solve a serious problem, which benefits them and the community.

The objective standpoint offered by the harm reduction model is helpful in getting beyond the rhetoric of the War on Drugs as well, since harm reduction focuses on objective (and non-judgmental) information about drugs and their effects (Riley, 1994, p. 11). The harm reduction model reduces the conflict between the drug user and the community, by trying to erase the boundaries between these two groups, and by getting the drug user to be more a part of the community.

Canada's Drug Strategy -- Kinder, Gentler Repression

The examples of harm reduction shown above are primarily community based. As a result of Prime Minister Mulroney's aforementioned comment, a national strategy was announced in 1987, which was termed "Canada's Drug Strategy" (Erickson, 1992). Canada's Drug Strategy has an explicit harm reduction emphasis, and an emphasis on reducing drug-related harm to individuals and communities (Fischer, 1994, p. 71). The Strategy allocated the sum of $210 million in its first five years (and an additional $270 million in 1992) mainly to the prevention and treatment of drug use, while 30 per cent of this money was intended for the traditional area of law enforcement (Fischer, 1994).

This national effort would seem to indicate a shift in Canada's policy on illicit drugs, but seemingly little evidence of that shift is apparent. Soon after the announcement of Canada's Drug Strategy, laws were enacted (in 1988 and 1989 respectively), which prohibited the sale of drug paraphernalia and increased the power of police to seize the assets of arrested drug offenders (Erickson, 1992, p. 249).

Bill C-85, introduced at the end of the Conservative Government's reign (in 1992), clearly sought to strengthen the prohibition of drugs in Canada, at the expense of the drug user.

The proposed law, coming under attack by opposition members and from the drug policy research and practice community, was dropped (Fischer, 1994). (Also, while several external drug policy and research agencies were present during the debate of the Bill, one group, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, was not invited. This was quite surprising, because of the fact that this centre had been created solely out of Canada's Drug Strategy itself to serve as an 'arm's length' agency to the Federal Government for drug research and policy development (Fischer, 1994, p. 77).)

As a further shock to those in drug policy and research agencies, the new Liberal government (which had criticized Bill-85 extensively during Parliamentary debates) tabled Bill C-7, which was almost a word-for-word simulation of Bill C-85.

This Bill continues the repressive prohibition policies, and is currently in its third reading in Parliament.

Further, no shift was to be observed with respect to drug related offences since the Strategy's inception. The number of drug-related offences reported by police hovered around 60,000 for the first three years of the Strategy's implementation (Jensen and Gerber, 1993, p. 457).

Finally, money allocated to the provinces by the Federal Government for the creation and/or continuation of prevention and treatment programs has not been utilized -- due mainly to the structure of the program. Provinces have had to put up 100 per cent of the cost of these types of programs before receiving half of these funds from the Federal government. As a result, over 50 per cent of the allocated money has not been used by the provinces (Fischer, 1994).

Despite being based on a harm reduction approach then, Canada's Drug Strategy seems to be more like prohibition in harm reduction's clothing. Rather than focus solely on reducing the harmful consequences of drug use, and the even more harmful aspects of the effects of drug prohibition, Canada's Drug Strategy neither balances enforcement and prevention / treatment, nor effects a new outlook on drug policy in Canada.


Having explained that Canadian policy with respect to the use of illicit drugs constitutes a War on Drugs, that the initial impetus for prohibitionary policies were borne out of misinformation, mistrust and sensationalism both out and inside of Parliament, and that there are well-known and effective alternatives to the War on Drugs, this paper will now explore its main question. There are numerous explanations for the reason that a War on Drugs exists. These explanations will be discussed in turn, in the hope that a more comprehensive view (one that covers both psychological and sociological explanations) will be attained.

Psychological Explanations

Ethan Nadelmann (1994), writes (p. 43):

Indeed, the only way to explain and justify many current policies is by reference to the fears, prejudices and primitive moralisms of those who have transformed drug control policy into a modern version of an authoritarian crusade.

This quote is taken somewhat out of context (as Nadelmann was writing about harm reduction), but serves as a good introduction to a psychological explanation of why there is a War on Drugs. This quote is correct to a point, as illustrated in previous sections of this paper. Many aspects of the current policies came out of the fear of the effects of these drugs, prejudice towards the Chinese at the turn of the century, and the moralistic tide that was sweeping our country. However, this quote simplifies the problem somewhat, and doesn't allow for an explanation of why people continue to use illicit drugs in the face of prohibition, why prejudices were rarely explicitly stated in the course of the making of (even the early) Canadian laws regarding drugs. Nor does it explain the active role of Federal and local law agencies almost consistently being a part of drug legislation (in short, if they were afraid, why would they want to be so closely involved in the War on Drugs?). And why does the prohibition model continue to dominate Canada's agenda with respect to drugs in our increasingly secular and liberal society?

Alexander (1990) offers a psychological explanation of his own, drawn from years of research and interviews with people from both sides of the issue. The two main groups, he argues, are the 'drug warriors', who spearhead the War on Drugs, and the 'resisters' who defy the War on Drugs by using illicit drugs, or are simply appalled by it, although they may have little interest in the War on Drugs itself (p. 327-328). Other groups are also involved in the War on Drugs. A small group, whom Alexander calls the 'villains', go to extremes to either carry out or resist the War on Drugs, and in doing so promote the kinds of violence that typify the worst consequences of drugs and the war against them. There are also 'double-standard bearers', who both promote the War on Drugs, and yet are resisters as well. Finally, the largest group Alexander calls the 'neutrals', who fund the War on Drugs and have their opinions swayed to varying degrees by both warriors and resisters (pp. 328-329).

In Alexander's eyes, the drug war is not being fought over the drugs themselves, but centres itself around the need to blame others for societal ills, and a power conflict regarding personal freedom and social control (p. 329).

Blaming Others

Throughout history, people have pointed their finger at different groups, in order to fulfil three psychological needs that blaming serves. The first is that blaming helps one to feel that one is doing something in the face of a bad situation.

Second, blaming helps one to escape blame themselves. Finally, blaming helps to rally other members of society around that person. Societal ills become more tolerable when one group can be blamed for these ills (Alexander, 1990, p. 330-331). For the resisters, blaming the Government for repressive policies can help one to feel that s/he is doing something about the problem, and isn't implicated in the creation and continuance of other societal ills. Drug warriors perhaps get more of a benefit for blaming, however, as they also have been successful throughout the 20th Century in rallying the public around their cause.

Conflict Over Power

The drug warriors, Alexander (1990) argues, "embrace the need to reinforce societal power and suppress personal autonomy" (p. 336). Their concern over illicit drugs, then is that these substances may reduce the individual's compliance with social conventions. Drug warriors, interestingly, are not concerned with drugs which enhance the social order (p. 337). They have no objection to caffeine, little objection to nicotine and alcohol, and little concern for those in hospitals being given any sort of pharmaceutical agent. Resisters, on the other hand, place individual autonomy well above societal control. They believe they should be free to consume illicit drugs as long as that consumption does not hurt other people. Resisters are very much concerned with legal drugs that are used to control people in mental hospitals and in military applications (p. 339).

The Psychological Explanations -- A Summary

Alexander (1990) fills in many of the blanks left by Nadelmann's succinct comment on the reasons for the War on Drugs. For example, a reason why resisters continue to defy the War on Drugs is put forth, as is the reason why a War on Drugs continues to this day. Alexander admits that his explanation is a psychological, and not a political one (p. 326). Alexander's explanation is perhaps made more valid by the fact that he chose to conscientiously interview drug warriors and try to place himself in their shoes, so to speak. Alexander's explanation also elicits elements of a major sociological perspective that has been applied to the laws which are the expression of the War on Drugs. This perspective, called 'conflict theory' will be discussed next.

Sociological Explanations

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory arose out of a concern that structural functionalism neglected conflict in society, was politically conservative, and failed to account for change in society (Ritzer, 1992, p. 61). This theory has evolved to include elements of structural functionalism (for example, the functions that conflict serves) and a traditional Marxist focus on dominant and subordinate groups. In the sociology of law, conflict theory often depicts a:

polarization of the forces of 'law and order' on the one hand and left wing political activists and minority group members reacting to what they saw as excessive police repression of political protests and urban riots on the other (Giffen, et al., 1991, pp. 8-9)

This aspect of conflict theory assumes, however, that the dominant and subordinate groups are more or less homogenous in nature. Most research in the field of drug policy recently, however, deals with power being located in "institutional structures in society (economic, governmental, religious, etc.)" (Giffen, et al., 1991, p. 10), which does not presuppose homogenous groups. Both views have problems (Giffen, et al., 1991), however for the purposes of this paper both views will be considered, and discussion will focus on what may be termed a 'naive' view of conflict theory, one which allows for some oscillation between the two different views of conflict theory. This view is one that presupposes that the powerful in society may selectively criminalize actions of those who are subordinate to them.

Given this bracketing, conflict theory has quite a bit of explanatory value. It also is supported (albeit sometimes more implicitly than explicitly) by a number of people involved in drug policy research (for a strong example, see Johns, 1991, below), although it seems to be clear that this theory is being explored more in the United States than here in Canada. A rational reason for this is that the United States has a much bigger problem with lines being drawn between races and cultures than we do in Canada. After attending a conference on drug issues in the United States, Riley (1994b) remarked that many researchers felt the real reason for the war on drugs in that country was that it helped to suppress blacks and minorities.

Of course, conflict theory then allows for a certain amount of speculation on the motives of those in power. For example, it is thought by some that rhetoric in the U.S. war on drugs helps presidents construct policies which are:

... targeted toward blacks and minorities without reference to race [and] polariz[e] the electorate among racial lines and ... weaken the traditional economic divisions between Democrats and Republicans ... without communicating overt bigotry or anti-black effect to whites. (Edsall and Edsall, 1991, pp. 138-139)

Johns (1991) under the heading "Race: The Creation of an Enemy Class," writes bluntly: "The enforcement tactics of the War on Drugs are focused on minority populations" (p. 155). In her paper, Johns (1991) posits that the War on Drugs takes attention away from the factors which underlie the problems of drugs and trafficking, partly because the "more powerful segments in society" (p. 150) do not want attention focused the poor job they are doing to cure the ills of society. Johns also expands the group being oppressed include the poor, who have been hit with massive housing and health care cuts under the Republican Presidencies. The dichotomy between those in power and minorities and the poor is self-perpetuating, in that these groups have a limited upward mobility (and, therefore crimes like trafficking in illicit drugs becomes appealing), and when they do try to increase their wealth through illicit means, those in power see that as justification for minorities and the poor being in the position they are in.

Canadians have quite a bit of historical experience with racism as being one of the factors which precipitated much of the early prohibition laws. However, one of the failings of conflict theory becomes apparent when researchers in the history of this legislation find little in the actual discussion of the laws that pertains to race. Giffen, et al. (1991) write that the early legislation's principle proponents had the "altruistic aims of supporting the international anti-opium movement" despite the anti-Chinese sentiment of the times (p. 525). The fact that the laws were used solely against the Chinese at first is indicative of this anti-Chinese sentiment, and not the creation of the laws themselves. Later legislation was driven mainly by enforcement officials, as there was little in the way of public outcry for more rigorous anti-opium legislation (p. 525).

In the United States as well, early marijuana legislation came as a result of increased crime in the jurisdiction of enforcement officials, who found marijuana to be an easy scapegoat in their explanation of the problems. It was only during a campaign to have anti-marijuana laws established that anti-Mexican sentiment was used to create an ominous mythology surrounding marijuana use. This complicates a simple conflict theory explanation, because the real focus was initially on marijuana, and not on a minority group.

Thus, conflict theory is problematic in describing why there is a war on drugs. It may help to explain (as Johns (1991) successfully does) why a War on Drugs continues in the U.S., but leaves unanswered questions when applied to the Canadian situation. In the United States, perhaps, there is a stronger mythology of a racial link with drugs, and if that is so, it could be that those with power in the U.S. have bought wholly into the mythology created by their predecessors. It is the creation of mythology and the social construction of drug problems and threats that will be discussed next.

Social Construction of a Drug Problem

In the above discussions of the effects of drugs on the user, it becomes clear that there are two arguments to be made. The first is that drugs pose a threat that is almost unlimited in its scope. This group elicits images of 'crack babies', evil, crime, death and insanity to describe the problem with drugs.

The other group (usually more calmly) sees this as a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, and points to low self-reported use, and documented evidence that the 'problem' is created mainly from the effects of the repressive drug laws themselves. Some in this second group illustrate how members of the first group may benefit from their calls of alarm. By doing so, they point out that the gains to be made from alarming the public are such that the alarmists actually go out of their way in order to largely create a social perception of a problem when there is actually no problem to begin with. This is often referred to as the construction of a social problem, and will be discussed in this section.

Jensen and Gerber (1993) write about Prime Minister Mulroney's statement that "drug abuse has become an epidemic that undermines our economic as well as our social fabric" (p. 455) as a failed attempt at the social construction of a drug problem, in order to increase support for his leadership at the polls. They cite statistics (similar to the one cited above) that suggest that no epidemic was actually taking place. In their words, "neither self-reports, official statistics, nor health-related statistics provide consistent evidence that there was an epidemic in illicit drug use during the 1980s" (p. 458).

In short, Prime Minister Mulroney had no objective justification to call Canadians' use of drugs, or the consequences thereof, an epidemic that suddenly manifested itself in 1986. What makes this effort a failed one, according to the authors, was that the drug issue was not high on the agenda of many Canadians (previous to the PM's speech), and widespread scepticism of the claims made by the Prime Minister prohibited any significant social problem to be effectively constructed.

In the United States, however, President Reagan's call for a War on Drugs seemed to be wildly successful. By 1989, drugs were seen by 64 per cent of the U.S. population as the leading problem in the country (Goode, 1990, p. 1088). In periodical literature, however, a peculiar trend in emphasis on drugs occurred. Articles on drugs rose almost exponentially in the few years leading up to President Reagan's announcement, and subsided in the years following (pp. 1088-1089). Newspapers reflected public concern in that the number of articles in The New York Times concerning drugs and drug trafficking increased in 1986, fell slightly in 1987, and then rose dramatically in 1988 and 1989 (p. 1089). It was clear to Goode that the U.S. was experiencing a moral panic over the use of drugs. Several researchers, himself included, asked 'why?, and why now?' and answered that America's problem with drugs was indeed a social construction (Goode, 1990, p. 1090). This answer was often based on the fact that self-reported drug use declined in nearly every drug and age category, and was "strikingly lower than was true for the late 1970s and early 1908s" (P. 1091).

However, Goode also noted that every other objective measure of the drug problem in the U.S. did rise during the 1980s. These included personal use of cocaine (and crack) once a week or more, larger numbers of overdoses, multiple illicit drug use problems of a medical nature, larger number of arrests where drugs were concern, and increase in the number of police officers killed in drug-related incidents, and increase in drug-related homicides, and a higher number of babies born to cocaine addicted mothers (pp. 1091-1093). Goode uses this data to argue that social problems are constructed, but that they can be constructed of both objective and subjective factors.

Goode's argument that the construction of social problems are not created out of whole cloth points out the trouble with social construction theory in certain instances. In the case of Jensen and Gerber's (1993) study described above, little evidence is given for the assumption that the PM specifically sought to increase his standings in the polls, other than reporting that the public did not support him enough to win an election at that time. However, two years later, he was re-elected on a single-issue platform, but that platform was not the drug war. Perhaps his statement reflects more his reaction to President Reagan's call for the War on Drugs two days earlier, and a feeble attempt to test the waters of the opinion of Canadians on the subject. Also, it seems to be clear (from Goode's data on periodical publications and newspapers) that Americans were far more concerned with the problem of drugs shortly before President Reagan called for a War on Drugs, while Canadians did not share this concern before PM Mulroney made his remark.

One last point that needs to be discussed is the fact that deaths and illness resulting from licit drug use are far more numerous than they are for illicit drug use (Goode, 1991, p. 1094). This points to a question regarding the overwhelming concern with illicit drugs, especially when that concern is brought about so dramatically, as was the case with President Reagan, and somewhat so in the case of PM Mulroney. Johns (1991) explains this as an effort to keep the mind of the public off the damage that licit drugs (including alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals) are doing, by constantly calling for a continuation of the War on Drugs.

Moral Entrepreneurs and Status Politics

The concepts of moral entrepreneurs and status politics are closely linked, and are themselves closely linked with the construction of social problems. Each of these two concepts requires that one person (in the case of the moral entrepreneur) or any segment of society (in the case of status politics) attempts to create rules that others must follow. In doing so, the rules define who is deviant in a society and who is not.

Boyd (1983) writes that Becker (1963) argued that a study of deviance should not only study those labelled as deviant, but also study those who create the label of deviance. The societal creation of rules can be attributed to the work of a moral entrepreneur (Boyd, 1983, p. 260). Again, this sometimes requires a certain amount of speculation on the interests and motives of the moral entrepreneur. For example, was Mackenzie King a moral entrepreneur? He certainly thought that he had a great deal of influence on the early anti-opium legislation, and he depicted himself as a lone force in getting this legislation passed (Giffen, et al., 1991, p. 74). Whether this was entirely true seems, for the most part, to be debatable. Also, his motives seem to be more in line with legislating a form of social control, rather than specifically creating a definition of deviance. There seems to be more data on other groups' attempts to create a definition of deviance, however. Boyd (1983) points out that individuals, and not groups or social institutions can be thought of as moral entrepreneurs (p. 260).

The concept of status politics accommodates groups as well as individuals. Status politics also merges smoothly with conflict theory. Status politics deals well in cases where there are few tangible gains to be made by the dominant group. The gain, rather, is a symbolic one, in which a particular life style (the one of the dominant group) is embodied in legislation, whether it is enforceable or not (Giffen, et al., 1991, p. 17). An example of this is the legislation which added marijuana to the list of banned drugs in 1923, even though little, if any, marijuana was currently in the country. In effect, banning marijuana legislated a culture and a life style that was free from the crime that had been associated with marijuana use in the United States at the time.


The politics of drug legislation is a complex web of class, power, race, fears, social conditions and law. In asking 'why is there a War on Drugs?', we are also asking a question that begs for psychological and sociological answers. However, these answers become more complex the deeper one travels into the literature, and uncovers more factors which seem to vary over both time and space.

Alexander's (1990) psychological explanation attempts to uncover the universal 'truths' that guide the impulses and emotions of both the drug warriors and the resisters. Here, the battle is over social control and individual freedom, a problem J.S. Mill (1859/1978) wrote as having "divided mankind almost from the remotest ages" (p. 1). Alexander's theory can help explain that a certain segment of the population wants very much to curtail individual freedom, by in effect legislating their morality and fears onto the rest of society. This has much in common with several of the sociological theories (for example, conflict theory), but where conflict theory in particular offers no explanation for (and indeed, neglects) drug use among those in the dominant group, Alexander's theory allows both for hypocritical actors, and for the changing roles of the groups over time. Alexander, in this sense, is quite aware of the fact that people's motives are independent of their actions, and that their actions have over time been focused against different groups, while their motives remain consistent. As well, since the psychology of the situation is considered, actions can easily be irrational, and because of this account for actions which have little material benefit for the drug warrior or the resister.

Conflict theory, on the other hand, has much in common with Alexander's theory, at least in that there are opposing sides. We see the same pattern of us-against-them, except that the sides are more stringently defined. Conflict theory also fills in what Alexander leaves out, and that is the political and sociological environment in which these actions take place.

Within conflict theory, the reasons for the drug war are that the dominant group in society wants to legislate their life style and culture on others, in order to maintain their hegemony. In much of the American research, this hegemony comes at the expense of the minority groups, and the poor. In Canadian research, these lines of power are much harder to define, and in it there is little explicit feeling that drug legislation is specifically directed towards one race or another. The effects of the legislation were certainly felt by early immigrants to this country, but the emphasis changed as that members of that group were no longer available to be persecuted. There is a feeling, however, that a class distinction is made, in that (as in the United States) these laws penalize the poor more than they do the rich.

Also, if the War on Drugs is a social construction, one must have to consider that it is a superbly constructed one, and one that has resisted all attempts to disarm it. The temptation to say that the War on Drugs is simply a social construction, brought about by status politics is a strong one, however the motivations of those who successfully created it are sometimes misinterpreted or misreported. Other times they are simply not known. Social construction also neglects the way in which a society can be moved to support even the most preposterous measures of the War on Drugs. Societal opinions are seen to be tied by a string of unknown size to the person, or persons doing the constructing. Again, it is a psychological explanation that may help to shed light on this process, by examining the ways in which people's fears and prejudices are manipulated.

At the heart of it all, though, is the intense amount of morality that is present in any questioning of the reasons that a War on Drugs is taking place. Even though the War on Drugs takes place in a largely secular, liberal society such as ours, there is never a dearth of people who seem to want to fight to the end to keep prohibitionist laws in place. The statements made by the drug warriors, or the dominant group (or even the hypocrites who both decry the use of drugs in others, yet use drugs themselves), are the only consistent factor that pervades the history of the War on Drugs. This takes the form of the rhetoric that has been written and spoken from the earliest times, and it takes many forms, including drug 'education', flyers, tracts, sermons, public service announcements, posters... even arcade games flash out the same messages to arcade-addicted youth. The rhetoric is the result of the dogma of the War on Drugs, and need not be associated with any religion in order to prove effective.

Of course, early prohibition laws were not based entirely (or in some cases, at all) on an explicitly moral basis. But it is interesting to note that in every case, the morality of drug use sprang up as justification for the early laws, and the laws that followed. Conflict theorist have tried to explain at times that morality, whether in the form of racist attitudes or religious influence, have caused legislation to be enacted, which is not always the correct interpretation of the situation. However, their focus on the legislation as validating the life style and culture of the dominant group is not without cause, because imposing the life style and culture on another group is essentially a moral decision. Indeed, even when the early legislation focused on suppressing the international trade of opium, it was a moral decision to curtail one form of economic activity to benefit another.

Conflict theory also helps to identify the groups that benefit from anti-drug legislation, whether it be the economic gains made by multi-national pharmaceutical companies (as Johns (1991) argues), or symbolic gains made by the dominant group in society, or even just the satisfaction of seeing some of these laws affect only a certain, despised group in society. When these gains are made, unintended effects of the laws (which may be much more punitive than the laws themselves) are justified through a feeling of moral superiority that often comes entirely at the expense of those who suffer as a result.

In sum, morality takes on many faces. It can take the shape of cultural or economic superiority, and often manifests itself in the rhetoric of the War on Drugs. It serves many purposes, as well. It justifies authority and power of those making the laws, it justifies the economic superiority of those corporations which make money through the sale of licit drugs, and it justifies prejudice against subordinates in society. The most interesting aspect of this morality, though, is that drugs themselves aren't the focus. The focus is on a large-scale battle between real people and their core beliefs, and not on evidence, rationality, or humanity. The War on Drugs, therefore, is at its heart a battle over a morality that is pervasive on a societal level, very well-entrenched, and deflects arguments of evidence, rationality and humanity at the societal level. What may be needed to defuse the War on Drugs, then, is a grass roots approach that calls for a re-defined culture and morality regarding drug use based on the Canadian tradition of a peaceable society.


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