Recreational use of illegal drugs is a controversial social topic. Many of us will know users, those in favour of legalisation, those against it, people with cautionary tales, and so on. In the public policy realm however, the topic of recreational drug use is painted with a monochrome brush, lacking in nuance. This is because the issue has been subject to a process of securitisation over many decades.

In the 1960s, the first wave of securitisation occurred, when the demonisation of drugs led to higher instances of organised crime as part of securing distribution chains. The second wave began in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s and shifted the focus of drug discourse from the criminal structures that enabled their dissemination to the individual dealers and users. When an issue is securitised it is no longer open to political debate, and is dealt with in an inflexible manner.

MDMA pills. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Securitisation was defined by the Copenhagen School and refers to the process whereby speech acts are used to present an issue as in imminent existential threat that justifies the use of extraordinary measures. Such an issue is no longer politicised or disputed – it is viewed as an objective danger, although most often it is a heavily constructed one. In this case, the profile of the drug users and dealers as ‘Others’ threatening the global ‘Self’ (sometimes individuals, at other times society as a whole) had to be created. The ‘Self’, in this case, is defined as a coherent entity with well-defined morals and values that the ‘Other’ seeks to destroy.

This was achieved through language: using words such as ‘war’, ‘menace’, ‘evil’, ‘urgency’, etc. In addition, drug policy is often framed as a matter of national – and sometimes even global – peace and security. Thus, the focus is solely on defending an arguably fictitious social/national identity and ideas of sovereignty rather than on issues of wasted resources, human rights, and public health.

The genealogy of drug discourses stems from religiously and socially imposed moral limits on substances that can produce alterations in mood and mental state; simple chemical compounds then become imbued with implicit meaning and moral connotations. Modern assumptions around recreational drugs are that they are addictive, dangerous and lead to increased crime rates. The crimes are allegedly perpetrated by drug users either due to being under the influence or in order to obtain drugs, thus implying the inherent immorality of drug use. Some users do commit crimes, but many don’t. However, the fact that drugs are criminalised automatically makes users criminals, without them needing to commit further offences.

‘thus, the focus is solely on defending “national identity” rather than on issues of wasted resources, human rights, and public health.’

Demonising drugs has personified substances, contriving an entity we can declare war against, hence: the ‘War on Drugs’. Unsubstantiated metaphors of war justify military action, as in the invasion of Panama, or mass incarcerations for minor offences. At this point words become physical reality, the securitisation process has run its course. The need protect the ‘social fabric’ is used to legitimise measures, but this concept doesn’t hold water; it’s an empty placard ready to be equipped with whatever political message is useful to politicians at a certain point in time. An example would be Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just say NO!’ campaign which scapegoated the shortcomings of US social and economic policy in disadvantaged areas with a meaningless slogan. Instead of dealing with poverty, unemployment, and the other social problems which cause the cycle of drug abuse, drug abuse was emphasised as the cause, not a symptom. In the 80’s reports related to the ‘epidemic’ of ‘cocaine-related’ deaths failed to mention that for each of these there were hundreds of alcohol and tobacco related deaths. Whilst heroin and cocaine were connected with violence, marijuana and MDMA were often connected with ‘yuppie’ youth and used to delegitimise political movements led by young people.

‘nixon named drugs america’s “public enemy number one” and called for an “all-out offensive” against this “enemy”.’

The securitisation process is led by figures with political authority, who in turn influence not just public opinion, but the conduct of other public officials such as prosecutors and law enforcement. In the drug discourse these figures are most often the worst offenders in promoting prejudice and discrimination. The US has been heavily influential in shaping international attitudes towards Class A and B drugs. The most common rhetoric used by US presidents in the past has been punitive.

Nixon named drugs America’s “public enemy number one” and called for an “all-out offensive” against this “enemy”. Not only were drugs personified and given agency they do not posses, they were viewed in penal and retaliatory terms. Reagan was the first to shift from hard narcotics to marijuana and cocaine, thus expanding the pool of users in the securitising discourse and targeting recreational use more; as for the imagery he used, he referred to crack cocaine as an “uncontrolled fire”. H.W. Bush called cocaine a “scourge” and compared it to bacteria, evoking a biological threat; he also called for tougher prosecution and sentencing. 

Marijiuana. Source: Pixabay

Clinton appealed to the public with a sentimentally charged image: he stated that he ‘held crack babies in [his] arms’, then claimed his brother was recovering from drug addiction purely because the criminal justice system keeps drugs illegal – a statement based on no evidence at all, yet used to support punitive policy measures. George W. Bush kept previous discourse largely in tact, though he did add some emphasis on rehabilitation.

Barack Obama was the only US president in modern history to use de-securitising rhetoric. De-securitisation is the process by which an issue is brought back into the public and political realm, opening it up for debate. Thus, new solutions can be found and areas outside of national security (such as health) can be honed in on. Obama spoke of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, leading to senseless increases in prison populations; the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

‘during the crack cocaine crisis … words like ‘superpredators’ were used to stigmatise users, and little sympathy was offered to families.’

Drugs have been heavily racialised in the US, beginning with fear around Chinese labourers bringing in opium, then African Americans using cocaine, and Mexicans introducing cannabis. This is despite studies that have shown the rate of substance abuse is effectively equal amongst all ethnicities. Such a history helps shed light on the current opioid problem mainly affecting white communities.

During the crack cocaine crisis, large portions of the black population were incarcerated, the rhetoric in government focused around cracking down on crime rather than rehabilitation. Words like “superpredators” were used to stigmatise users, and little sympathy was offered to families. Fear-mongering depicted black people as violent and immoral because of drug abuse. Such fear-mongering spread misinformation, like the 80s crack baby scare – experts now believe most of the babies were merely premature and the ‘epidemic’ a case of media sensationalism. In contrast, although the pharmaceutical industry’s interests are getting in the way of the opioid crisis being adequately dealt with today, the users are not demonised in the media, and political discourse is focused on rehabilitation. However, efficient solutions for any drug-related issue will be hard to come by if the topic is not de-securitised and the discourses around it opened up to intense scrutiny.

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