The 12 Dichotomies of Drug Policy

A critique of contemporary drug policy and the drug apartheid.

Tammy Ayres is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Leicester. Stuart Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice in the School of Justice Studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

It has been a long hard year, full of challenges as we have all had to get used to new ways of working and increased pressures from the academy. Therefore, it is hoped that this blog brings a bit of festive cheer as we approach the Christmas break. Taken from a presentation delivered at the British Society of Criminology’s South West regional event ‘Dangerous Drugs in the Contemporary Era’, it provides an alternative slant on the 12 days of Christmas, drawing on our previous works to identify the 12 dichotomies of drug policy. There are no partridges in pear trees but there is hopefully food for thought. Here we present a critique of contemporary drug policy with our underpinning argument being that ‘any scientific examination of ‘drugs’ renders the present classification of illicit drugs as illogical and the present cultural promotion of legal substances as misguided… it is a ‘war between drugs’ a system of drug apartheid that has privileged the use of certain substances and outlawed the use of other substances, a corrupt system that has much to do with who uses the drugs and little to do with the risks posed by the drugs’(Taylor et al. 2016: 459). This drug apartheid is legitimised by a reductionist drug discourse, which presents fallacy as fact, cementing (erroneous) dominant constructions of drugs into our conscience, but dig beneath these and one unearths a series of contradictions and dichotomies, which together critiques what we see as a ho-ho-hopeless drug policy:

  1. Legal Vs. Illegal

Some substances enjoy unrestricted supply, some are available but regulated, others are prohibited. Resultantly, we often do not see certain substances as drugs. This is particularly true of legal substances, like alcohol, tobacco and sugar, which although legal are no less harmful than many currently prohibited substances. Bancroft (2009) has argued that this dichotomy reflects the social and cultural practices of the mid-20th century, rather than any pharmacological or scientific evidence, with drugs and their legal classification instead tied to Western capitalist interests and the exigencies of the current political economy and consumer culture (Ayres, 2017, 2019, 2020a; Taylor et al. 2020). The word drug has become associated with the illegal substances identified in the 1961 UN Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs and the UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act as the most dangerous drugs, which warrant their prohibited status. Yet the underpinning reasoning for this differentiation is opaque and not based on evidence or harm

2. Harmful Vs. Harmless

Illegal drugs have been posited as the most harmful – with statistical and visual reminders consistently reinforcing this (Ayres and Taylor, 2020; Taylor, 2008). Illicit drugs have been construed as causing health problems, addiction, crime, anti-social behaviour, and death. Whilst illegal substances can undoubtedly cause such harms, their use does not inevitably lead to such outcomes. In fact, most illegal drug use appears to be unproblematic, resulting in pleasure and fun rather than negativity and despair. Conversely, when we discuss legal substances – non-drugs – we tend to ignore their harmfulness and focus on their positive outcomes. Yet by constructing such substance as non-drugs we camouflage some the most destructive drug-related harms within society – obesity, tooth decay, loss of sleep, liver disease, cancer, the pharmaceutical companies, and the prescription practices of the medical profession. Harms that effect every member of society, in some form or another, at some time in their lives, derived from substances that fly under the dangerous drug radar.

3. Evidence Vs Ideology

This dichotomy between the legal and the illegal, between the harmless and harmful is purported by government to be driven by scientific evidence. Yet a body of critical scholars have begun to question the accuracy of this classification system (e.g. Nutt et al. 2010) and the place of non-drugs like alcohol and tobacco within it. Instead, drug policy is not driven by evidence, but by ideology (Ayres, 2020a; Ayres and Taylor, 2020), which is reflected in the recent swathe of global cannabis reforms (Taylor, et al. 2016, 2018).

4. Mitigating Vs. Enhancing Harm

A key justification for drug prohibition is that it mitigates the harms of those substances deemed dangerous drugs – yet we must question whether this is a tenable claim (Taylor et al. 2016). Firstly, drug prohibition permits us to embed the harms of legal substances as non-drug related. Secondly, drug policy suggests that it is the drugs and/or the drug suppliers/users themselves that cause harm, and yet a growing body of scholars argue to the contrary, that it is drug policy itself that is the primary cause of drug related harm (see Counting the Costs, 2012), like environmental degradation (Ayres, 2020b), as well as to stigmatise certain drug users.

5. Minority Vs. Majority

Yet to understand why we continue our crusade against drugs one must understand that the war on drugs has morphed into a war on drug users, particularly the problematic drug user – the heroin/crack-cocaine addict who commits crime to fund their use. Resultantly, over the past three decades we have developed drug policy based on this group of around 300,000 individuals. Whilst this group do undoubtedly require support and do indeed create harm to themselves and others, they represent the minority. Subsequently whilst we have developed support services for problematic users within the criminal justice system, we have failed to develop a pragmatic policy and services for all drug and indeed non-drug users.

6. Problematic Vs. Pleasurable

Focusing on problematic drugs and their users allows policy to avoid a recognition that for the majority, drug use represents a tangential element of their law-abiding lives; an appreciation that experimental or (in)frequent illegal drug use is a leisure pursuit engaged by a significant minority of the population; or an acknowledgement that many find solace, release and pleasure within their drug using lives. Instead, it allows drugs to be associated with problematic people, problematic behaviours and problematic outcomes as drug users are framed as others that are not like us (Taylor, 2008; Taylor et al. 2016).

7. Inability Vs. Functionality

The dominant view is that drug use negatively impacts on an individual’s ability to social function in terms of work, parenting, relationships etc. Yet this belies that the majority use drugs in a way that does not impinge on their ability to socially function, and for some, the benefits attained through their drug use – as with any other leisure pursuit – may enhance this. Yet instead of acknowledging those that sit in this middle ground, we instead construct two overly simplistic constructions of drug users (see Ayres, 2020a).

8. Civilised Vs. Barbaric

The consumption of certain (non)drugs is deemed civilised and the height of sophistication (e.g. Champagne), while the use of other drugs is associated with barbarism and uncivilization (e.g. the spice zombies) as the problematic drug user is used as a catch-all stereotype for all drug users, which is exacerbated by the media. In fact, the media partakes in objective violence through its purposeful polarisation of intoxication practices: ensuring the condemnation, alienation and criminalisation of the barbaric consumer; and the celebration and social recognition of the civilised (Ayres and Taylor, 2020).

9. Celebrated Vs. Excluded

Resultantly, we celebrate the substance use of the civilised whilst we seek to exclude the barbaric. So, whilst designated public place orders restricting the use of alcohol amongst street drinkers are enforced, those same streets see pop-up prosecco and gin bars permitted to appear as they attract the ‘right’ clientele. Whilst purveyors of alcohol are encouraged to remove high strength varieties of cheap cider from their shelves due to their association with problematic populations, those same shops expand the available range of craft beers and other high-end, high strength alcohol products (Ayres and Taylor, 2020)

10. Criminalised Vs. Commodified

This social accommodation of the civilized allows the corporate promotion and indeed commodification of both harmful substances and harmful behaviours (Ayres, 2020a; Ayres and Taylor, 2021). Yet barbaric use is also used to add an edge to consumer products despite the apparent abhorrence of its users as acts of so-called transgression are packaged up and sold back to us.

11. Individual Vs. Wider Responsibility

The civilised versus barbaric; celebrated versus excluded; and criminalised versus commodified dichotomies combine to serve a purpose. Attributing the barbaric use of legal substances to an irresponsible minority (who eat too much sugar, binge drink etc.) provides a smokescreen of corporate responsibility for the harmful practises of legitimate enterprises (Ayres, 2017; Ayres and Taylor, 2021). Meanwhile, in relation to illegal drugs, this process deflects attention towards the individual responsibility for addiction and away from the relationship between such use and the systematic violence of capitalism (poverty, social exclusion) which interlinks with this. Here the drug apartheid allows us to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate drug consumption and to develop a system of punitive control to respond to such use (Taylor et al. 2016).

12. Patience Vs. Punishment

Through generic representations of illegal drug users as barbarians (Taylor, 2008) the brutal practices of the drug apartheid are disproportionality applied to the most marginalised in society, who we continue to punish, whilst we hail those celebrities who enter the Priory to combat their addictions. Whilst drug policies rightly distinguish that socially marginalised populations are more likely to develop problematic patterns of (illegal) drug use, they simultaneously place the responsibility for this on poor individual (consumption) choices rather than the wider underlying issues of poverty, education, accommodation, and employment, which characterise problematic drug users’ lives. Conversely, this is a process which (via medicalisation, criminalisation and stigmatisation) exacerbates extant underlying problems, with drug use becoming the key defining factor in users’ lives. Resultantly, the already excluded become further isolated.

Consequently, we need to detach ourselves from dominant constructions of ‘drugs’ and ‘drug users’, contest the drug apartheid, reconceptualise our approach to all substances, abolish drug prohibition, and develop a regulatory system which recognises and incorporates all substances. Until we do, there will be only one outcome, (unnecessary) harm.

Have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year


Ayres, T.C. (2020a) Substances: The luxurious, the sublime and the harmful. In S. Hall, T. Kuldova & M. Horsley (Eds.), Crime, Harm and Consumerism (pp. 108-122). London: Routledge.

Ayres, T.C. (2020b) The War on Drugs and Its Invisible Collateral Damage: Environmental Harm and Climate Change. In A. Brisman and N. South (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Green Criminology. London: Routledge.

Ayres, T.C. (2019) Substance Use in the Night-Time Economy: Deviant Leisure?. In T. Raymen, & O. Smith (Eds.), Deviant Leisure: A Criminological Perspectives on Leisure and Harm (pp. 135-160). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Ayres, T.C. (2017) Drugs, Leisure, Consumption and Harm, BSC Newsletter (winter), pp. 20-26.

Ayres, T. C., & Taylor, S. (2021) Drug Markets and Drug Dealing: Time to move on. In T.C. Ayres & C. Ancrum (Eds.) Understanding Drug Dealing and Illicit Drug Markets: National and International Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge.

Ayres, T.C., & Taylor, S. (2020) Media and Intoxication: Media Representations of the Intoxicated. In F. Hutton (Ed.) Cultures of Intoxication: Key Issues and Debates (pp. 239-261). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Bancroft, A (2009) Drugs, Intoxication & Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Count the Costs (2012) The Alternative World Drug Report. Available at:

Nutt, D., King., L., & Phillips, L. (2010) Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. The Lancet 376(9752): 1558–1565.

Taylor, S. (2016) Moving beyond the other: A critique of the reductionist drugs discourse. Cultuur and Criminalitiet, 1, 100-118.

Taylor, S. (2008) Outside the Outsiders: Media representations of drug use. Probation Journal, 55(4), 369-387.

Taylor, S., Ayres, T.C., & Jones, E. (2020) Enlightened hedonism? Independent drug checking amongst a group of ecstasy users. International Journal of Drug Policy, 83, 102869.

Taylor S, Beckett Wilson H, Barrett G et al. (2018) Cannabis Use in an English Community: Acceptance, Anxieties and the Liminality of Drug Prohibition. Contemporary Drug Problems 45(4):401-424.

Taylor, S., Buchanan, J., & Ayres, T.C. (2016) Prohibition, privilege and the drug apartheid: The failure of drug policy reform to address the underlying fallacies of drug prohibition. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 16(4), 452–469.


Tammy C. Ayres, University of Leicester

Stuart Taylor, Liverpool John Moores University

Images: Courtesy of authors and Анастасия Белоусова from Pixabay