Emily Crick, MPhil student, Swansea University

At different points in history, drug production, supply and use have all been presented as threats to human, national or international security. The international relations theory of securitization can be used as a way of explaining how and why the ‘drugs as a threat’ narrative holds so much power, even today.  The UN drug control conventions clearly illustrate the ‘drugs as a threat’ discourse and more recently Russia has attempted to identify Afghan opium production as a threat to international security.

The Speech Acts

UN Single Convention, 1961, - addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind

UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988 - illicit production of, demand for, and traffic in [drugs] adversely affect[s] the economic, cultural and political foundations of society… [and ] links between illicit traffic and other related organized criminal activities… undermine the legitimate economies and threaten the stability, security and sovereignty of States”

Russia’s ‘Rainbow-2’ Plan, 2010 - “Raising through the UN Security Council the status of the problem of Afghan drug production to that of a threat to global peace and security

Securitization is defined as a specific grammatical process that involves a ‘speech act’ whereby an issue is presented as an ‘existential threat’ to a designated ‘referent object’ and finally, ‘extraordinary measures’ are justified in order to combat this threat.

Of course, ‘extraordinary measures’ do not automatically have to equal war; they are more likely to result in a range of law enforcement activities.  Though the UN drug control conventions allow national governments a certain degree of flexibility which accounts for the spectrum of policies that includes de-penalization (e.g. Portugal and the Netherlands), strict law enforcement (e.g. the USA) and the militarization of enforcement and eradication (e.g. Plan Colombia), all these policies can be seen as examples of the ‘extraordinary measures’ of global drug control.

Whilst the speech acts mentioned here are not the only examples of drugs having been securitized, they highlight the power of the ‘drugs as a threat’ narrative.  Global prohibition consistently relies on the portrayal of drug users, drug producers and drug traffickers as the ‘existential threat’. Initially the threat was identified as drug use (Single Convention), however gradually drug trafficking organisations and then ‘narco-terrorists’ have become identified as the most dangerous threats to national and international security (the 1988 Convention and ‘Rainbow-2’).

Securitizations define which values and behaviours are acceptable, and which are not.  In the case of global drug policy it sets out which drugs are acceptable (alcohol and tobacco) and which are not (e.g. coca/cocaine, opiates and cannabis). 

The securitization of an issue can create ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ in that it is no longer subject to the scrutiny of normal policy making because it has been framed either as ‘security politics’ or as above politics.  In some cases the ‘emergency measures’ themselves create severe ‘unintended consequences’, nowhere is this more evident than with global prohibition (Costa, 2008).  The idea of ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ partly explains the ‘bureaucratic inertia’ that has characterised the regime and reinforces the argument that political and security professionals portray themselves as managers of security in order to compete for budgets, develop technologies, and justify their own authority.  Furthermore, once the monster has been created, limiting or challenging it becomes extremely difficult. 

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