The Global Politics of Illegal Drugs module (PO42011)

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Module code


Module Aims

The aims of this module are: 

  • to introduce students to the historical context for international drug prohibition, its evolution, and the key contemporary policy questions arising from global use of illegal drugs
  • to familiarise students with the main tenets of public international law in relation to drugs, focused on three United Nations drug conventions
  • to provide students with an understanding of contemporary worldwide patterns of consumption, production and trafficking of illegal drugs
  • to familiarise students with the main policy options that exist alongside prohibition (such as prevention, harm reduction, alternative development)
  • to explore the political economy of the drug trade in countries affected by drug production and transhipment (e.g. Colombia, Afghanistan)
  • to allow students to debate the main arguments for and against the legalisation and decriminalisation of drugs
  • to evaluate the main issues facing drug prohibition today and its likely future evolution

Module Details

This module examines contemporary patterns of use, production and trafficking of illicit drugs on a worldwide basis. It aims to explain how and why particular substances are prohibited and their association with a concept of harm, as well as the characteristics of drug markets.

The module also describes and evaluates the range of policy interventions and strategies employed with the intention of preventing or limiting drug use in some form, focused either on those who use drugs or those who produce or supply them. A range of drug policy approaches adopted by different countries will be examined in the course of the module, in particular Portugal and Switzerland.

Teaching sessions will cover:

  • The internationalisation of drug prohibition
  • The post-1945 international drug control regime
  • International dimensions of drug use
  • Harms and illicit drug use
  • Drug production, distribution and markets
  • Prevention and young people
  • Health and social services for drug users
  • Supply-side intervention strategies
  • National drug policy variation
  • Political economy of the international drugs trade
  • Criminalisation and decriminalisation of drug use and possession
  • The legalisation debate
  • Taking stock: a century of drug control


This module consists of 11 lectures and 11 seminars (plus course film screenings when possible).


The assessed components on this module are:

  • two 2,500 word essays (weighted 50% each)

Intended Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and understanding

  • An understanding of how and why certain substances have become prohibited on a global basis.
  • An informed understanding of the scale and nature of problems linked to illegal drugs manifested at both national and global levels, as well as knowledge of the international legal frameworks that underpin prohibition.
  • A broad knowledge of the policies employed to address drug demand and supply and some key national variations.
  • An understanding of the political economy of the drug trade in relation to key countries affected by production and trafficking, and the role of transnational organised crime.
  • Confidence to formulate critical thinking on the policy environment in relation to the control of illegal drugs and their impact.


  • Analytical and research skills in relation to the identification, retrieval and evaluation of a range of source materials relevant to the study of the global drug phenomenon.
  • An enhanced capacity for both individual and group pursuit of set tasks, via group work in seminars and through written and oral presentations.

Indicative Reading

Babor, Thomas F., Caulkins, Jonathan P., Fischer, Benedikt, Foxcroft, David, Humphreys, Keith, Medina-Mora, Maria Elena, Obot, Isidore, Rehm, Jurgen, Reuter, Peter, Room, Robin, Rossow, Ingeborg, and Strang, John (2018) Drug Policy and the Public Good, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Bewley-Taylor, David (2012) International Drug Control. Consensus Fractured (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Nadelmann, Ethan (1990) 'Global prohibition regimes: the evolution of norms in international society', International Organization, Vol. 44, Issue No. 4 (Autumn 1990), pp. 479-526.


30 credits