Rethinking Drug Laws

Author: Toby Seddon
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2023.  224 pages.
Reviewer: Gabriel Ferreyra | April 2024

Toby Seddon’s book is a refreshing reassessment and an in-depth analysis of the international drug control system to remind us how it works, its origins, and what unheard future alternatives can bring about change. The author proposes to use regulation as a hermeneutical tool to shed light on new possibilities and paths to change the current status quo of the drug problem to eventually produce a paradigm shift. He emphasizes an interdisciplinary methodological perspective to carry out this vision, one that encompasses social sciences as a whole (e.g., sociology, anthropology, law, criminology, etc.) rather than just the traditional silo-like mindset of particular disciplines that have dealt with drug control in the past. Seddon argues that this point of view enriches the discussion and provides new ideas and mechanisms to grasp the complexity of the problem. In addition, the author wants to reframe and reshape social science as a whole to explore other courses of action that influence reality and bring about change in society.

The book has eight chapters (chapter one is the introduction, and chapter eight is the conclusion), and it is organized into three parts, each consisting of two chapters. Part I includes Theory, part II covers History, and part III explores Politics. The book starts with a short introduction where the author reexamines the main characteristics of the drug problem, such as the meaning of drugs, the paradigm of prohibition, global trends in regulation, and the essence of drug control.

As the name suggests, part I presents the theoretical framework and scholarly foundations to reexamine the essence of drug control. A critical premise for the book is the author’s argument that markets and regulation are inextricably connected and, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. According to him, markets contain exchanges or bargaining transactions to exist. These exchanges are the basic units of analysis to unpack and study analytically markets themselves and the entire range of components that depend on it such as the supply chain, the economy, etc. Based on this proposition, he coins the concept exchangespace to refer to both markets and regulation in this concrete scenario. Considering that the book claims that drug prohibition is a distinctive and unique regulatory system, the author maintains that his idea of exchangespace is an excellent theoretical tool to present a new perspective on drug regulation. Accordingly, the idea of exchangespace will help address the problem’s complexity from multiple perspectives and create new potential ways to approach it.

Part II looks into the genesis of global drug prohibition by examining a particular historical period between the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, in particular, the Opioid Wars and the Opium control meetings that took place between 1909 and 1914 in Shanghai and The Hague respectively. The justification for emphasizing this period is to challenge the Western-centered accounts of the international drug control system and to highlight the crucial role that China and the Asian region played in world drug regulation early on, according to the author. An unequivocal intention of Seddon is to decolonize the traditional mindset of drug control to embrace a different, diverse approach that includes other voices (hence the importance of embracing China and Asia) as crucial stakeholders to come up with new alternatives and fresh solutions to the problem.

The book’s final section, Part III, delves into the political aspect of drug control. Seddon argues that instead of seeing politics as a negative side of drug control that interferes with the problem, the politics of drugs should be embraced and discussed because it is a critical element of both drug policy research and drug law reform. The eighth and final chapter conclusion incorporates a brief but detailed argument where the three main themes of the book (theory, history, and politics) are discussed as an interconnected set of variables that, if put together, will lead to a paradigm shift. The chapter also includes the potential direction of where drug policy and research could be heading in the future.

The most engaging sections of the book are parts II and III (chapters four to eight), where the author displays his vast expertise and scholarly knowledge of drug control and provides detailed contextualization and extensive insights on the topic. To that end, part II guides the reader in a historical depiction of early international drug regulation by contextualizing the Opioid Wars in the nineteenth century. It includes vital historical events citing Western and non-Western sources to have a better and more precise knowledge of why and how these wars took place to comprehend their ramifications to contemporary debates. Also, Seddon describes the origins of the international drug prohibition period that began in the twentieth century to highlight how and why the connection between the Opium Wars and modern drug control exists and the need to properly study them in the future.

Chapter six (part III) delves into the politics of drug control. A central proposition is Seddon’s argument (borrowing theoretical concepts from other authors) that ideology—the somehow derogative term referring to strong personal beliefs and ideas—should not be considered an obstacle to progressive politics. Instead, Seddon argues that ideology requires to be understood as a “socially anchored” concept that can help scrutinize and comprehend better the political contention of the drug problem. The main feature of this argumentation is that when addressing the drug question and drugs in general, it is not possible to separate it from their political context. There is no such thing as an “apolitical way of talking about drugs,” he explicitly summarizes it. Consequently, it is not possible to argue for a scientific or evidence-based approach to address the drug problem because this in itself would be considered an ideological position. In short, drug control is politics!

Furthermore, the author advances the idea that a better politics of drugs is possible in chapter seven based on the theoretical and analytical premises from chapters one to six. Again, borrowing heavily from other authors, Seddon tries to explain this in multiple theoretical ideas– but something more concrete or pragmatic is needed. For him, better drug politics implies expanding the traditional approach towards the drug question, requiring a solid connection between researchers and policy actors to produce a more holistic vision that influences the “debate on public social science.” This involves engaging reality as it is today while bringing in multicultural and open-minded intellectual resources to break down the reductionistic perspectives from the past regarding drug control. He calls this effort “intellectual pluralism.”

In addition, Seddon puts forward the idea to democratize the politics of drug control. By this, he means to understand “why… [the drug question] is so politically potent and therefore how our collective discussion about reform [is] also about the nature of ‘good society’ and how we might create it” (p. 168). Finally, he proposes the establishment of a cosmopolitan politics of drugs where a global system incorporates a diverse number of nations and visions (not just Europe and the United States) to address the drug problem holistically because the geopolitical context has changed now, and the centers of power are not Western nations anymore. Hence, including Asia, China, and other countries with interests at stake is important. Finally, he argues that it is essential to give voice to people who consume (controlled) drugs to hear their points of view. The drug control system has always silenced them, and their testimony is important to enrich the conversation, given that their silence has never been acknowledged, let alone challenged.

The book is well-written, comprehensive, and scholarly, with abundant sources across multiple disciplines on relevant information about drug control and regulation from different historical periods and geographic areas. This approach honors one of the book’s goals: to be intellectually inclusive and decolonizing regarding the international drug control system by challenging the traditional narrative of international drug control as an American-made policy and citing multiple non-Western authors and sources to support that challenge. Also, the book’s emphasis on incorporating China and Asia into the discussion of the drug problem sheds light on both the historical foundations of international drug interdiction and the author’s argument that prohibition is a unique form of market regulation.

Despite all these efforts, the book comes across as incredibly theoretical, complex, and sometimes heavy to read because of the many conceptual ideas and premises needed to achieve the propositions formulated by the author. In particular, part I (chapters two and three), where the concept of exchangespace is developed and explained, contains profound theoretical conceptions such as the four-dimensional nature of the aforementioned idea or the network topology as a particular perspective for regulatory trajectories (p. 50) to mention just two that are difficult to grasp and do not seem directly connected to the topic in an explicit manner. Of course, a theoretical foundation is always necessary and welcomed, certainly if the author’s explicit goal is to develop a robust set of premises on which the main discussion will be based. However, the issue here is that, with some exceptions, the author’s voice is not unequivocally present in parts of the book because the narrative includes multiple citations of somebody else’s ideas, theories, and arguments to support the book’s statements. Still, there are no clear lines or transitions where the author’s point of view begins and where the sources’ ideas end in key sections of the book.

This is the case because the transitions from the cited sources and the author’s words are often confusing, and the readers may wonder if what has been said is necessary or needed for the next premise or just a conceptual explanation to expand the conversation. For example, in chapter two, where the author explains his four-dimensional exchangespace concept (p. 37), most arguments are ideas that come from other authors. Still, the book has no original propositions to uniquely and creatively explain each dimension in instances in which the author’s voice is evidently present. Maybe it is there, but it is not as clearly stated or explicit in the book as readers may like to see.

Another problem is that some ideas and principles discussed in the book are highly specialized or part of an exclusive intellectual niche that needs some contextualization to be better understood by the general public. For instance, when explaining the concept of regulation, the author uses three broad definitions (p.36), and he points out that the third one (‘steering the flow of events’) best grasps how regulation works. However, there is no explanation of what this means and how the reader should interpret it, the assumption being that it is a self-evident concept that everyone will understand at face value. I do not mean to cherry-pick issues, but my point is to highlight that the book could have been more intellectually accessible and pedagogical for a wider audience and impact. Instead, it is written very technically and just for people in the field.

A missing component in the book is the fact that, despite acknowledging the crucial role of markets in drug prohibition and regulation, there is no mention whatsoever of the drug demand factor. In other words, drug demand is a fundamental piece in the drug problem that has been ignored over and over again (or needs to be sufficiently acknowledged from all fronts, at least) when addressing the drug problem. Yet, the book repeats the same lapse (intentionally or not), undermining the whole argument about the exchangespace concept since the demand side of the drug problem is not addressed. It should not go unnoticed that the book focuses on drug laws/regulation by reframing the narrative to address the drug question as the title suggests. Therefore, drug consumption or demand is not expected to be part of the analysis. However, the drug problem is a convoluted and perplexing matter (as the author himself acknowledges it), and not mentioning or considering the demand side, even in a short section, sabotages the goal of the book.

Finally, the book argues that China must be part of the new era of international drug regulation because it has become the new center of power in the world in the twenty-first century. However, there is no evidence or data to support this statement; therefore, the argument is speculative. I am not saying that the assertion is false; it may well be accurate, but it should be supported with sources or information to make it valid and convincing since this is an academic book, considering the great expertise of the author, and not an opinion piece. I am sure many scholars would disagree with that affirmation because it is not clearly evident at face value (as the author suggests), especially considering that China’s current economy and influence have recently become more precarious.

Despite these shortcomings, Seddon’s book is an outstanding theoretical examination of drug control regulation because it presents a holistic approach with innovative conceptual premises, is exhaustively academic, and is well-written. It also includes an original historical reexamination of the drug problem that challenges the traditional Westernized notions of drug control by incorporating sources and ideas from non-Western authors while emphasizing the importance of a multipolar world. Anyone interested in drug regulation should look at the book to learn something new.


Gabriel Ferreyra, PhD is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the California State University, Los Angeles.  (He is the Author of ‘Drug Trafficking in Mexico and the United States’ Lexington Books).

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