chapter  1
22 Pages

British society and illicit drug use: historical perspectives

It is only relatively recently that we have come to conceive of ‘drugs’ as either licit or illicit and ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For example, paracetamol can and does kill humans if too much is ingested, but it is a legal, freely available and socially sanctioned drug that is seen as ‘good’ inasmuch that it acts as a pain relief. Conversely, opium, which historically has been used as an analgesic in much the same way as paracetamol is today, is proscribed and those who do use opium for ‘recreational’ purposes are often stigmatised and criminalised, making opium a ‘bad’ drug. The purpose of this chapter is to examine how we have arrived at this situation. It will begin by offering a very selective overview of drug use from pre-history up to the beginnings of the 1800s. From there it will provide a more detailed look at the manner in which drugs were used, supplied and controlled from around 1800 up until the end of the 1970s. Drug use and control since the 1970s will be integral to much of the content of subsequent chapters. A further organising principle, which will run throughout the whole of this

chapter, is the use of a basic typology to ascertain the nature of drug control throughout history. Holloway (1995: 77) provides a useful analytical tool where he states that ‘three distinct models of regulation can be constructed (around drug control): consumer sovereignty, occupational control and bureaucratic legislation’. However, the same author goes on to note that this typology is a ‘rough and ready’ sorting device. Nevertheless, the above typology enables us to make some sense of the growth of the control of substances from pre-history to the present day, but it needs some words of explanation. In this work, consumer sovereignty will be taken to mean unfettered access

to all manner of substances, with the only barriers to use being either the inability to pay for the substance or the inability to harvest and synthesise the plant. Thus, in pre-history for example, individuals were free to collect and use plant-based substances at will, free from any form of physical or moral control, making access to and use and trade of substances entirely at the discretion of the consumer. Occupational control can be taken to mean the

control of the access, sale and use of substances by trades or professional groups, such as the case of the guild system in the Middle Ages. Here, the guilds used the need to be a guild member to limit the extent of trade. Bureaucratic control relates to control exercised over the use, sale and access to drugs by the local or central state and would most closely fit today’s approach to the control of substances. This opening section looks briefly and selectively at drug use from pre-

historic times up until the start of the 1800s. For brevity’s sake I have divided this opening section into three eras: pre-history, Greco-Roman societies and the Middle Ages. The purpose of this historical journey is not to give a definitive historical guide to drug use and control, rather to allow students to realise that alongside many other aspects of social life, the origins of the manner in which we both use and control substances can be found in our history. It is also useful as it allows us to recognise early on in the book that the manner in which societies have thought about, used and controlled what we now see as ‘drugs’ is fluid and is as much dependent on social mores as it is on the pharmacological effects of substances.