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Themes in Chemical Prohibition White, W.L. (1979).
Themes in Chemical Prohibition. in Drugs in Perspective (pp. 117-182). Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Drug Abuse Center.

Themes in Chemical Prohibition

The study of the historical themes in chemical prohibition movements can provide a helpful tool in understanding those institutionalized beliefs and myths which pose powerful barriers to any alteration in social policy on "drug abuse." This paper identifies the nature of those themes and presents the author's perceptions of how these inherited belief systems have severely limited our options for more enlightened and effective strategies for the social control of chemical intoxication. 

Chemical intoxicants have been available to humans in almost all cultures since the beginning of time. Each culture through succeeding generations has assumed the task of defining and redefining which chemicals will be blessed, celebrated, or tolerated and which chemicals will be forbidden, legally prohibited, and condemned. In like manner each generation has confronted what the policy would be toward those persons who disobeyed the rules about the use of chemical intoxicants. The conversion of these policy definitions into law has often followed prohibitionist mass movements which sought through a variety of propaganda techniques to instill in the culture at large a certain set of beliefs and fears about the drugs in question. When these movements have been effective at generating statutory prohibition of specific drugs, this set of beliefs and feelings toward certain chemicals and persons who use them evolves over time to the point where they are seen as flowing from unchallengable sources. At this stage, alternatives to the policies that reflect these prohibitionist themes are viewed as unthinkable.

This paper is based on the following premises: 

1. Current strategies toward the use and abuse of mood-altering drugs continue to be based on a set of beliefs generated from the prohibitionist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

2. The cementing of these prohibitionist beliefs into the very social fabric of American culture is one of the primary barriers to changing an outmoded and nonfunctional social policy. The integration of these beliefs into our culture has been so complete that to question them is immediately experienced by the culture at large as an attack on the institutions which have proliferated these beliefs, e.g., our national leaders, the law, our educational and religious institutions, and the family.

3. The development of national policies toward mood altering drugs has not and cannot be intelligently addressed until we expose and modify the irrational fears and beliefs upon which current policies are based.

 This paper will identify the nature of these inherited beliefs and describe the manner in which they have prevented development of a more enlightened and effective strategy for the social control of mood altering drug use in our society.


[to top of file]

 A review of chemical prohibitionist literature reveals eight themes which appear to emerge from the tactics of most such movements. The tactics utilized to produce these themes are as follows: 

1. The drug is associated with a hated subgroup of the society or a foreign enemy.

2. The drug is identified as solely responsible for many problems in the culture, i.e., crime, violence, and insanity.

3. The survival of the culture is pictured as being dependent on the prohibition of the drug.

4. The concept of "controlled" usage is destroyed and replaced by a "domino [gateway] theory" of chemical progression.

5. The drug is associated with the corruption of young children, particularly their sexual corruption.

6. Both the user and supplier of the drug are defined as fiends, always in search of new victims; usage of the drug is considered "contagious." [epidemic, war]

7. Policy options are presented as total prohibition or total access.

8. Anyone questioning any of the above assumptions is bitterly attacked and characterized as part of the problem that needs to be eliminated.

Each of the above will be reviewed looking at their historical development and their present status.


The prohibitionist themes as outlined above have left a burdensome legacy that severely limit any attempt to more adequately and rationally address the control of chemical mood alteration in our society. Consider the following:

1. American policies continue to be organized around the notion of "good and bad" drugs, although good and bad may be couched in terms like "safe," "dangerous," "schedule I," 'schedule II," and so forth. Our preoccupation with chemistry has prevented us from focusing on the excesses of the behavior. The question is not how do we prevent people from using "bad" drugs - we cannot. The question is how to provide social structures and rituals which decrease the excesses of usage of all drugs and the subsequent high personal and social costs of such extremes.

2. Our prohibitionist legacy has left us without a commonly understood language to address the excessive use of all mood altering drugs. We are left instead with an emotionally loaded language that continues to channel our thinking into good and bad drugs. A person receiving opiates under a doctor's care is a "patient," a person using opiates without medical supervision is a "drug addict," a person receiving amphetamines from a doctor is under "medical treatment," a person using the same amount of amphetamines without the doctor is suffering from "drug abuse," a physician prescribing drugs is a 'healer," a nonphysician distributing the same drugs is a "pusher." Chemicals received from doctors are "medicine," the same chemicals received on the street are "dope." A person abusing illicit drugs is an addict, a junkie, a hype, a freak, an acidhead, a pothead, etc. A person abusing nicotine is an ? (no word in language), a person abusing caffeine is an ? (no word in language); a person abusing alcohol is suffering from the "disease" of alcoholism. To be using drugs is to be "dirty," to be free of drugs is to be "clean."

3. The good and bad drug dichotomy has also resulted in an artificial dichotomy in the prevention and treatment field. There is an alcoholism prevention/treatment field and a drug (primarily illicit) drug abuse prevention/treatment field, with neither field addressing in any significant manner the treatment of excessive use of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medication, tobacco, etc. or addressing adequately the now large group of clients who are abusing both alcohol and other drugs either concurrently or sequentially.

4. The anti-hedonistic and abstinence stance of the prohibitionists has also influenced Our treatment approaches. If one looked at the amount of energy in the 1960's which went into explaining that methadone did not produce euphoria, you would think a cardinal tenet of treatment was that it could not be pleasurable. Treatment has also been consistently defined as "good" only to the point that it produced total abstinence from all psychoactive drugs--a policy which continues to define methadone maintenance clients as second-class citizens on the basis of a criterion that the majority of Americans could not meet.

5. Our preoccupation with "bad/illicit" drugs continues to detract our attention from the overall extent of prescribed psychoactive drug use and the increasing practice of self medication in our culture. If one could step into the future and look back on the major developments in chemical mood alteration, the use of illicit drugs would appear insignificant to the increased usage of approved over the counter and prescribed mood altering drugs.

6. The rigid moral practice of abstinence, the basis of prohibitionist thought, has spawned an equally rigid anti-prohibitionist movement. Where the former saw drugs as totally evil, the latter does not address the real dangers in excessive drug usage. Where the prohibitionists have demonized the drugs, the users, and the sellers; the repeal advocates and reformists have often demonized the laws and those who represent and enforce them. Where the prohibitionists have implied that many of society's problems will disappear with effective prohibition; the advocates of repeal imply that most, if not all, of the "drug problem" will disappear with legalization. Where the prohibitionists see the spread of drug use as part of a conspiracy of a foreign enemy; those for repeal tend to see the spread of drug control laws as the product of an internal conspiracy. Both view our present situation in simplistic terms which totally obliterate the extreme complexity of the issues surrounding the control of chemical intoxication within a heterogenous and rapidly changing culture. There is grave danger in this either/or polarization that is beginning to take shape. Although it is important to acknowledge that our past moral inflexibility has prevented us from accepting potentially effective strategies which could be construed as sanctioning illicit drug use, we must equally acknowledge that the abdication of all controls would not improve our current situation.

7. The continued association between crime, insanity, sexual corruption, miscegenation, evil conspiracies, etc. and illicit drugs makes rationally proposing policy alternatives politically risky for anyone in a position to have those alternatives heard.


A powerful system of prohibitionist beliefs and fears about the currently illicit drugs has been woven into the very fabric of our culture. It is this system of beliefs and moral premises, more so than our technical capabilities, which severely restrict the development of more enlightened social policies on the excessive use of mood altering drugs.


[document mirrored from
emphasis, bracketed comments, some illustrations are added]

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