Drug Policy in Context: Rhetoric and Practice in the United States and the United Kingdom

93 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2011

See all articles by Richard C. Boldt

Richard C. Boldt

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: 2011


The history of narcotics use and drug control in the U.S. before passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 is similar in important respects to that in the U.K. during the same period. Although the two countries’ paths diverged significantly over the ensuing decades, there has been a convergence of sorts in recent years. In the United States, the trend lines have moved from an active “war on drugs” in which criminal enforcement and punishment have been the primary rhetorical and practical instruments of policy to an evolving approach, at least at the federal level, characterized by a somewhat more pragmatic tone and a more balanced set of interventions that mix enforcement, treatment and prevention. From the British side, the movement has been in the opposite direction, from a longstanding public health approach to an intensifying focus on criminal offending as the primary social risk posed by the misuse of drugs. Thus, just as the criminal justice system long has been the principle front in the U.S. assault on drug abuse, the shift in British drug policy has now made the criminal system in the U.K. a central focus in its efforts to combat the problem of drugs and drug addiction.

This pattern of convergence is likely to be incomplete. Even though actors in each country have been aware of developments in the other (and have even borrowed policy prescriptions from time to time), one critical difference in their parallel histories is likely to be determinative. The American move toward pragmatism, if it is to occur, must be executed against the inertial force generated by policy commitments and social practices of more than seventy-five years standing in which the most dominant feature has been an intense moral disapproval of drugs and those who use them. The British approach to drug policy, on the other hand, does not have to contend with this moral anchor, and therefore is likely to remain more pragmatic and therapeutic in orientation into the foreseeable future.

Keywords: drug addiction, drug abuse, drug treatment, criminal justice system

Suggested Citation

Boldt, Richard C., Drug Policy in Context: Rhetoric and Practice in the United States and the United Kingdom (2011). South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 62, p. 261, 2011, U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-19, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1789088

Richard C. Boldt (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

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