Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Toby Seddon, Inventing Drugs: A Genealogy of a Regulatory Concept, Journal of Law and Society, 11 August 2016

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6478.2016.00760.x

Open access: Full PDF available

The trade in, and consumption of, illicit drugs is perhaps the archetypal ‘wicked problem’ of our time – complex, globalized, and seemingly intractable – and presents us with one of the very hardest legal and policy challenges of the twenty-first century. The central concept of a ‘drug’ remains under-theorized and largely neglected by critical socio-legal and criminological scholars. Drawing on a range of primary archival material and secondary sources, this article sets out a genealogy of the concept, assembled a little over a century ago out of diverse lines of development. It is argued that the drug label is an invented legal-regulatory construct closely bound up with the global drug prohibition system. Many contemporary features of the ‘war on drugs’ bear traces of this genealogy, notably how drug law enforcement often contributes to racial and social injustice. To move beyond prohibition, radical law and policy reform may require us to abandon the drug concept entirely.

Thanks to Philip Burton, Philippa Carrington, and Nishat Hyder for assistance with some of the archival research. Embryonic versions were given in Oxford and Sheffield and I thank Ian Loader and Layla Skinns, respectively, for the invitations. Later versions were presented at a ‘Global Humanities’ workshop in Warwick and at a plenary panel at the annual SLSA conference in Lancaster, at the invitations of Susannah Wilson and Suzanne Ost. Virginia Berridge and Robin Room read and commented on a draft. The usual disclaimer applies.

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