Illicit drugs policy through the lens of regulation

01 November 2009

The application of regulatory theory to the problem of illicit drugs has generally been thought about only in terms of ‘command and control’. The international treaties governing global illicit drug control and the use of law enforcement to dissuade and punish offenders have been primary strategies. In this paper the application of other aspects of regulatory theory to illicit drugs – primarily self-regulation and market regulation – are explored. There has been an overreliance on strategies from the top of the regulatory pyramid.


Two other regulatory strategies – self-regulation and market regulation – can be applied to illicit drugs. Self-regulation, driven by the proactive support of consumer groups may reduce drug-related harms. Market strategies such as pill-testing can change consumer preferences and encourage alternate seller behaviour.

Regulatory theory is also concerned with partnerships between the state and third parties: strategies in these areas include partnerships between police and pharmacies regarding sale of potential precursor chemicals. Regulatory theory and practice is a rich and well-developed field in the social sciences. Governments should consider the full array of regulatory strategies. Using regulatory theory provides a rationale and justification to strategies that are currently at the whim of politics, such as funding for user groups. The greater application of regulatory approaches may produce more flexible and structured illicit drug policies.

International Journal of Drug Policy
November 2009

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