The goal of seeking to understand the development over time of drug policies is a specific version of the more general intellectual project of finding ways of explaining social change. The latter has been a preoccupation of some of the greatest thinkers within the social sciences of the last 200 years, from Foucault all the way back to the three nineteenth-century pioneers, Marx, Durkheim and Weber. I describe this body of work as 'historical sociology'. In this paper, I outline how a particular approach to historical sociology can be fruitfully drawn upon to understand the development of drug policy, using by way of illustration the example of the analysis of a recent transformation in British drug policy: the rise of the criminal justice agenda. I conclude by arguing that by looking at developments in drug policy in this way, some new insights are opened up © 2011 Elsevier B.V.