Cohen, Peter (2003), The drug prohibition church and the adventure of reformation. International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 14, Issue 2, April 2003, pp. 213-215.
© Copyright 2003 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.

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The drug prohibition church and the adventure of reformation

Peter Cohen

In Memoriam Giancarlo Arnao (1927–2000) who wrote `Proibito capire. Proibizionismo e politica di controllo sociale' Torino 1990.

Whatever the origin of the UN Drug Treaties, and whatever the official rhetoric about their functions, the best way to look at them now is as religious texts. They have acquired a patina of intrinsic and unquestioned value and they have attracted a clique of true believers and proselytes to promote them. They pursue a version of Humankind for whom abstinence from certain drugs is dogma in the same way as other religious texts might prohibit certain foods or activities. The UN drug treaties thus form the basis of the international Drug Prohibition Church. Belonging to that Church has become an independent source of security, and fighting the Church's enemies has become an automatic source of virtue.

In the history of Western culture, we have known many churches. The best known are the Roman Catholic Church, with its Rome-based Central Office of the Faith, but also the Church of Communism as ultimately ruled by its once Moscow-based Central Committee. All these churches know and worship central texts that do not serve to promote scientific understanding and social development, but rather to promote the Church's own dogma, faith, and the reign of its Institutions. When, for reasons that no longer count, the USA became inspired to write the first versions of the first global drug treaties slightly more than a century ago, no one could have foreseen the results.

But then had anyone foreseen the ramifications of setting up central texts and later central headquarters of Christianity, or, indeed, of Communism?

Sociologically seen, the equation between the UN Drug Treaties and Faith may not be immediately self-evident. As I have written elsewhere, (Cohen, 2000) the mid eighteenth century birth of individualism, with its ensuing fights against dependence, colonialism and slavery should be seen as the cradle of our modern mythologies about drugs and addiction. The concept of a drug and the concept of addiction were sincere expressions of that new ideology, the religion so to speak, of the `free individual'. In the cradle of individualism new movements and cultures were born and raised, trying to create `independence' and `emancipation' of both peoples and persons. The aim that would define Humanity, acquiring God's `grace' for the soul, was from the eighteenth century on replaced with `independence' and later `health' for the body. Here, I will not discuss the specific interpretations of `independence' or `health' that are chosen, because they do not matter for this short paper.

The socialist ideologies, too, can be understood as expressions of that new vision of individuality and freedom, of which the best known and the best researched was Marxism. We should understand that The First Communist International and the First Global Drug Treaty have the same secular philosophical parents, begot similar institutional empires, and had similarly destructive Inquisitions as their consequences.

In the Catholic Church, congregations of the Sacred College of Cardinals or administrative departments thereof, would decide on matters of saints, heretics and secular strategies of the Papal Office. One of the famous Congregations--the Congregation of the Index--would decide on what books could be read by the faithful, and for instance in one of their meetings, in 1616 (March 5) it was decided that reading Copernican astronomy would be banned, as it was `false and contrary to Holy Scripture' (Sobell, 1999).

In the Prohibition Church we have several of these Congregations, where the Cardinals of Prohibition compare the sacred texts with policies the world over, and decree if these policies are holy or not. It makes no sense to try to show the Congregations where the anti drug version of emancipation has brought us, just as it makes no sense to go to Rome to tell the congregations of Cardinals there are more ways to lead a virtuous and ethical life than through Christ or by strictly following the Bible.

The places where the Cardinals of Prohibition convene do not matter. In Vienna, in Rome, in New York, the scenes are identical. The Cardinals convening there are chosen not to express problems surrounding the holy texts, but to create faith, unanimity and possibly glory. The bureaucracies that organise these meetings are masters of the text, and masters of the rules that guide the faith.

The Prohibition Church's bureaucrats are not hired because of their knowledge about sociology, pharmacology, drug use, or the problems drug prohibition creates for hundreds of millions of people from Malaga to Memphis to Moscow to around my corner. The anti-drug bureaucrats are hired because of their religious conformity and usefulness to the Church; and of course their workplaces are often far away from the worlds of drug users or the effects of drug policy.

What about drug policy reform? Reformation does not happen during the Congregations nor should drug policy reformers focus on that level. The UN Congregations are just as likely as the European Song Festival to promote change in the drug policy field.

Since a Congregation of Prohibitionist Cardinals has no army (unlike the old Popes or the former secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party), its real powers will be tested by time. The Prohibition Church itself has only powers of faith, belief, intimidation and awe. How long can the Church maintain those powers and prolong its orthodoxy without looking or listening to the small Reformations that are going on all over? The Reformations that are happening are the user rooms in Germany, the decriminalisation laws in Portugal, the coffee shops in the Netherlands. They are the (almost secret) syringe exchanges in New York, but also the fully open super-market-syringe-availability in that Tuscan village where you rented your villa.

Drug policy reform is local, and the little political power that reformers have should not be wasted on the Church or its Congregations.

Drug policy reform is inextricably tied to local cultures and politics. No two systems of harm reduction can ever be identical. Therefore, drug policy reformation first proceeds and then diversifies itself on local levels. Only there can reform respond to the uncountable unique sets of conditions and constraints. Even under brutal drug prohibition regimes, at the local level drug policy reformers can be the voices and agents of the people who need change. From neighbourhoods, communities, towns, cities and regions, reformation can eventually creep up to the national and international capitals.

Our only chances are local because in the local arenas we can be the specialists. At the level of the Congregations no one wants change. And there we are the anti-specialists. Change and Reformation are enemies to the Cardinals of all well-established Churches, including the Prohibition Church. The Cardinals fear change and forbid discussion about it. Even when the voices of reformation speak out inside the sacred rooms where the Cardinals convene, and even when the Cardinals are forced to listen, the reformers' words come out in languages that the Cardinals cannot understand and that they will not translate. For the Cardinals, merely understanding the reformers' words can be seen as yielding to the forces of unbelief, unfaith, and heresy.

And like the work of the Congregation of the Catholic Index, designating and seriously diagnosing heretical voices or countries is the lifeblood of the Congregations of the Prohibitionist Faith. (Books by Andrew Weil, Norman Zinberg, and Lester Grinspoon have been listed on drug warrior websites in the US as `dangerous' while `concerned' citizens are encouraged to demand their removal from local libraries.) The more detail in which the heresies are spelled out, the more the security of the Faith is established. This work, the work of the Establishment, has to be repeated at least every few years. It is a highly necessary ritual of Faith for the Church of Prohibition.

To summarise, the real challenge to the legitimacy of the Drug Treaties will not consist of bringing initiatives of change to the level of the Congregation. The real test will be when countries or groups of countries realise that the changes their cities need will always contravene some phrase or some comma in the sacred texts. Or, as Fazey remarks in this issue (Fazey, 2003) `Change will come about by governments selectively ignoring parts of the Conventions.'

When European countries have introduced changes that are contrary to the sacred texts, up till now they have found that nothing happened! The countries find that the Church cannot stop them from reforming their own laws or at least their policies, and they find (sometimes to their surprise) that the Church does not even try to stop them. This has already occurred in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and many other places.

However, countries sometimes discover--as may be the case in the near future with Canada--that their own local drug policy Reformation discussions have become deeply threatening to the Prohibition Church and its Cardinals. In such cases, the autonomy of a nation may be challenged, not by the Prohibition Church itself, but by national governments for which support for the Prohibitionist Church is more important than their own Constitution. This moves the Reformation far beyond local drug policy. New coalitions between such heretical countries will then have to be forged, and when these coalitions are strong enough, drug policy reform might be taken to the level of the Conventions (Bewley-Taylor, 2003). But drug policy Reformation will not wait so long. The reformations that are already happening will eat the flesh out of the Conventions, just as Rome's holiness, pompous Congregations, and once fierce armies could not prevent the Reformation from happening and ultimately European churches emptying, divorce becoming commonplace, and abortion a human right even in Spain, once the country of the Catholic Kings.

The international drug treaties are among the holiest texts of the Drug Prohibition Church. At the Church's meetings, wherever they are held, you will find people kneeling in ridiculous postures before them, because for them the texts contain the sacred words of the Divine. A reformist perspective on the Treaties or a refusal to kneel before the texts, are very dangerous actions now for countries, as the growing hegemony of the US has consequences that push towards extremism and orthodoxy. The more the US Caesars exploit their hegemony, the more the UN Drug Conventions symbolise their desire to define and control Humankind, the same way as their gulag state, armies and armada of aircraft carriers are its material expression.


Thanking Harry Levine, Craig Reinarman, Peter Webster and Dava Sobell for their help.


Arnao, G. (1990), Proibito capire. Proibizionismo e politica di controllo sociale. Edizioni Gruppo Abele, Torino.

Bewley-Taylor, D. (2003), Challenging the UN Drug Control Conventions: Problems and Possibilities. International Journal of Drug Policy 14, 171-179.

Cohen, P. (2000), Is the addiction doctor the voodoo priest of western man? Addiction Research 8 6, pp. 589-598 Special issue.

Fazey, C. (2003), The Commission of Narcotic Drugs and the United Nations International Drug Control Programme: politics, policies and prospect for change. International Journal of Drug Policy 14, pp. 155-169.

Sobell, D. (1999), Galileo's daughter, London, Penguin Books.