Petter Grahl Johnstad
September 6, 2023
The world has a long-standing system of drug control intended to suppress the use of a range of psychoactive drugs on the basis that such use is very harmful both to the users themselves and to their social surroundings. This perception of harmfulness has a long medical history, but recent research indicates that many forms of illicit drug use are not more harmful than the use of alcohol and tobacco. This article analyzes the historical and normative background for the apparently exaggerated assessments of drug harms on which the regime of drug control is founded. Starting from the observation that the drugs that have been exempted from this criminalization regime are those that were integrated in European cultures during the early modern era whereas the drugs criminalized under this regime lack such a history of European acceptance, the article discusses racial and cultural (especially religious) prejudice as a foundation for the exaggerated perceptions of drug harms. It finds that such prejudice is well-attested in the historical literature and seems to have contributed substantially to the formation of the international drug control regime. In sum, this article argues that drug prohibition was first introduced in the early modern era on racial and religious grounds and that the influence of these prohibition motives can be traced, directly and indirectly, all the way to the present day. This influence may explain why the health risks associated with illicit drug use are still often exaggerated in contemporary drug harms research.