Originally published in 2010 ‘A History of Drugs: Drugs and Freedom in the Liberal Age’ by Toby Seddon examines the proliferation of drug law over the past 200 years in Britain. Seddon is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, where he is also Director of the Regulation, Security and Justice Research Centre. He has previously authored ‘Punishment and Madness’ (2007).
A History of Drugs: Drugs and Freedom in the Liberal Age is a book of scholarly devices, strategies and theories for understanding the evolution of governmental devices, strategies and methods, concerning the regulation of drugs in the United Kingdom over the last two hundred years. The modern scholarly technique for self-referential examination means that a great deal of the text is concerned with outlining methodology and, in particular, detailing the technicalities of its own approach. Therefore, untangling Seddon’s approach from his results, due to its prominence in the narrative of the argument, becomes something of a required skill for the reader, which is to say that the possibility of particular results are implicit in the approach. However, in a subject such as drug regulation this appears to be an extremely fruitful method; an approach determined by a category of governmentality neatly illuminates the politically-determined aspects of drug regulation.
Taking his cue from Michel Foucault, Seddon has constructed an analytical genealogy that looks at drug laws in terms of emergence and descent. This is to say that the examination of events therein, the passing of a law for example, must be understood as a process. This type of historical analysis seeks to understand the history of drug regulation within wider socio-political forces. In this case, Seddon looks at the regulation as corresponding to three epochs of liberalism: Classical liberalism, from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century; welfare liberalism from the end of the nineteenth century till the 1970s; and finally, the neo-liberalism that was ushered into play during the 1980s. As Seddon notes, this approach, embedded as it is in notions of governmentality, views the word ‘drug’ as a political term and it becomes clear in his argument that this underlines the very idea of a ‘drug problem’. In other words, drugs and their perceived associated problems have been historically defined by the State.
Freedom has become an iconic idea. It is the ultimate aspiration for individuals. It is the yardstick against which we judge societies. It is the value we use to critique governments and their interventions in our lives. Who could be ‘against’ freedom, other than tyrants and dictators? (Seddon 2010, 18)
Chapter two of the book examines certain key terminologies, like ‘drugs,’ ‘addiction,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘liberalism,’ and thereby helps construct the governmental framework for reading the history of drug regulation: “[T]he universality of freedom, its centrality to the human condition, its necessity or ‘naturalness’, all begin to unravel in the face of historical (and cultural) perspectives” (Seddon 2010, 18). The interesting outcome of this construction is the role of the individual as being both defined and treated within the specific knowledge framework of the liberalism that confines them.
There is a determined relationship between freedom, will and addiction, in the text, wherein ‘will’ is understood as being a mechanism for articulating the more fundamental relationship of the other two: “Although theorizing about addiction, or at least the construction of grand theoretical schema, has largely gone out of fashion in the past few decades, particular conceptions of addiction can nevertheless still be seen within specific drug policies and practices” (Seddon 2010, 31). In a nutshell, this is the approach Seddon applies, so far as there is no single meta-theory explaining drug regulation but rather a series of events and episodes that are each determined by the genealogy. The aforementioned terminologies, like addiction, are understood within the schema of particular governmental ideology and the regulation that said ideology produces.
Chapters two, three and four deal with the following parliamentary acts respectively: The Pharmacy Act 1868, the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920, and the Drugs Act 2005. And each of them are understood, broadly, within the aforementioned three liberal periods. The 1868 act ushered in the development of the ‘problem framework’ for opiates that had hitherto been an accepted social phenomenon. Furthermore, the first steps are taken toward a medical monopoly of drugs and, therefore, the problematic is seen as inseparable to institutionalization of certain substances into the governmental category of ‘drugs’. The 1920 act went a step further. Appearing just prior to the rise of welfarism in Britain, this second act began to delineate some drugs as ‘dangerous’ and a split emerges in regard to tobacco and alcohol on the one hand, and certain other psychoactives on the other. The rise of the British System further put the medical establishment at the heart of dealing with ‘addiction’ problems and a framework of criminal law began to be introduced. Finally, the Drugs Act 2005 is the final event in Seddon’s genealogy. The transition from welfarist to neo-liberal politics, it is suggested, recast the drug problem in terms of ‘harm reduction’ and this is reflected in policing methods for public spaces, like alcohol free zones and determined smoking areas.
[T]he place to see convergence is not so much at the level of changes in state legislation but rather on the ground in emerging and developing strategies for the shaping and direction of behaviour. This idea fits very well, of course, with the ethos of the governmentality analytic, as well as with the idea that regulation has become increasingly decentred and dispersed (Seddon 2010 97)
As regulation, therefore, is implemented in a variety of strategies at the societal level, regulation is increasingly diffused into a sort of bureaucracy of morals that becomes increasingly difficult to separate, were there to be major regulatory changes. This institutionalisation becomes a self-perpetuating ‘drug problem’ for, without it, the systems of drug governance lose their validity. Recognising the ‘spirit’ of this affinity between governance and freedom lies at the heart of this text: “It is in this spirit that I hope that this book – despite its undoubted inadequacies, omissions and other shortcomings – can help us to ‘contest the evils that are done to us in the name of government’ and make a small contribution to creating a better future” (Seddon 2010, 136). As a platform for first understanding the nature of ‘drug problems’ and, thereby, allowing one to challenge them, Seddon’s book is invaluable.