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

The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.


Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton


Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author

A young artist’s perspective on criminal issues within the community

Young artist DG has created a music video for his single – Trapped – showing his perspective on gang violence, drug misuse and other issues.

DG is a young, upcoming rapper, from South Manchester, with aspirations for a career within the music industry. He produces tracks, sharing his point of view on criminal issues in the community, at Gorse Hill Studios, as a part of the Alternative Creative Education program.

Watch DG – Trapped (Official Music Video)

During lockdown, creative projects were a way to take your mind off the situation and turn a waste of time into a productive activity. I wanted to pursue my passion for music and created lyrical content relevant to many of the criminal issues within the community. The release – Trapped – uses the slang term ‘trap’ as both a reference to the street drug trade, and a metaphor for the difficulty of removing one from such a situation.

Currently studying at Gorse Hill Studios, as a part of the Alternative Creative Education program, I was able to record and produce the track along with working on my Silver Arts award (and other AQA awards,) which has led me to interview many well-known rappers within this style of music. Gorse Hill Studios has also allowed me to make use of the film equipment, therefore creating a new music video for the release.  

Watch DG – Trapped (Official Music Video)

Having recently researched the statistics on relevant issues, such as knife crime consistency, drug misuse on the streets, gang violence and other topics, I felt it was important to create a piece of content to share a voice on this which often goes unheard: a point of view on the severity of criminal issues to help create an understanding, from a first person perspective, of the impact in the community. Being a young person from such a background, the lyrics give a first-hand account and show contrast between the minds of those who are ‘trapped’ in this cycle of criminal activity, and the people who then must face the consequences. I wanted to use this blog article as a vehicle for speaking about the meaning behind some of the lyrical content, and shine light on the context behind the song.

I focused on common issues such as the process of ‘county lines’, explaining in the song that “out on the roads” is anything but fun, and how my mum is on the phone, referring to the conversation as “where’s her son?”

I thought about how the ‘streets’ have included me as a part of their team and have showed more care to me than many other groups within society. I understand that their intention may not have been in my favour, however at the time, I felt as if I had no one else. I say in the song, “all it is now is me and my team” to show that there was once some sort of association with a different group of people (my family), whereas now, it’s just myself and those part of the ‘team’.

I go on to say how “I wish life is a dream”, along with “late nights got me shotting to the fiends”. I have used the word ‘wish’ to create an image of how strongly I feel about not wanting to be a part of the activity. As the “late nights” are what is making me do these things, I have used the word ‘dream’ to refer to what I wish it was instead.

I also say, “I be on top with all of my G’s”, meaning that I have the upper hand with my G’s (my team) as opposed to before when I was on my own. I believe that this is a reason why so much of the young population feel the need to engage in this criminal activity, as it makes us feel powerful and that there is another ‘better’ way of life. I go on to say that I’m “living lavish, life so sweet”, showing the benefit of being a part of such a group, also backing up my previous statement.

Finally, the last line of the last verse concludes the meaning of the song and the main reason I made it. I state that I am “stuck in these streets’, as I cannot see myself going back to my prior lifestyle, and “that’s why they call it trap”. This is a metaphor, using the word ‘trap’ to show not just the lifestyle of one in this situation, but how it takes over your mind until you no longer want to go back.

I have written this piece to emphasize the meaning and context of the song, giving insight into the minds of those who take part in this cycle of criminal activity, for a related audience that may not have the understanding of why the young population take part in the criminal activity they do.

The track is available to stream on Spotify or Soundcloud, along with a music video on YouTube.





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Images: Courtesy of author