National drug policy is an area I’ve explicitly avoided since beginning this little project. There is an unavoidable impression created when advocating pragmatic measures that I didn’t want to impose upon myself. The suggestion that a government might look at the ample evidence and respond in a sensible fashion with intelligent policy undoubtedly causes at least some readers to write off a persevering commentator as immature or obnoxiously liberal. It’s a risk I’m willing to take at this stage, as in the past few weeks I have been subjected to a renewed debate surrounding the UK’s approach to narcotics, a debate that I am frankly sick to death of. I’m certainly not the only one.
I don’t believe the supposedly revelatory UKDPC report spoke of a single thing that hasn’t been held as the obvious truth for many years now. Drug policy is overly-simplistic and enforcement ineffective, unjust and horrendously wasteful. This fact resurfaces every few years in the confident pages of some commission or review and although in theory should be reinforced by the consistency of every single legitimate approach to the issue, very little happens. Except of course, that the anger and fear of any politician forced to address the matter bridles with particular indignation. Like petulant children they often respond to these eminently well-researched documents, created by serious and intelligent people, by doubling down on the same tired, stock responses.
I imagine many are wholly ill-informed of the contents of these reports as how else could they reply as they do. “We’re worried about the message decriminalisation would send to young people,” or “We should be giving harder penalties to drug abusers, not relaxing the law!” If not outright denial, it is deflection or truisms, “We should focus more on awareness and treatment and it’s terrible so many heroin addicts are stuck on methadone,” and my most hated, “We should absolutely look into this matter after doing the appropriate study into its potential effects.”
Well as said, the studies have been done. Over and over and over again, with practically the same outcome every time. The war on drugs does not work. That nothing has changed suggests to me that governments here and in many other parts of the world are happy with flushing vast sums of money down the drain on a monthly basis while achieving precisely nothing of any use. Of course, thousands of people are punished under the law, lives ruined, but the availability of drugs remains virtually constant. Prohibition does not work as it has been proved, with the same relentless consistency as the messages of those generally ignored advisory reports, that making something illegal for which there is a public appetite creates organised crime.
This article appeared in the Guardian very recently. I was outraged and was even motivated to write to my MP with the suggestion that it should have been titled, “Government drug policy causes surge in gun violence,” along with other damning opinions on Westminster’s archaic ways. Unsurprisingly I did not receive a response, something I happily prescribed to the dismissive nature of politicians to common sense. It is through no sense of personal slight that I offer that conclusion here as it is relevant to one reference I made in that letter to the former chair of the ACMD, David Nutt, who was summarily relieved of his post upon offering the statistical truth that ecstasy is less dangerous than riding a horse. My opinion then, as much as now, was that he suffered a great injustice, where ignorant social rhetoric oppressed scientific evidence. Although I find the occasionally proffered Galilean associations to be a little hyperbolic, there is a kernel of truth in them.
You’ll note at this point I’ve only suggested that policy and criminalisation deserve criticism, and this is quite often a refuge tactic for one avoiding overt support for anything in the area of decriminalisation. But I will properly throw my hat into the ring. You can infer from the hugely negative effects of criminalisation, that making drugs legal would save astounding amounts of money in enforcement, deprive crime of revenue and relieve a staggering burden on the justice system. One of the oldest arguments available is that government could control and tax them in the manner of alcohol and tobacco, thus generating substantial revenue.
The British Empire was arguably built on the crass and detrimental proliferation of opium in many parts of the world, notably China, so I would never argue that drugs should be a free market commodity. Government should certainly exercise a degree of moral authority as it so miserably failed to do in the 19th Century when Jardine and Matheson along with many other commercial enterprises wilfully undermined large tracts of societies across the globe. But the sheer dissonance of a situation where, no matter what, drugs are available, and yet government chooses the option to not profit and exercise control, is infuriating. The information campaigns alone that could be funded would far outstretch the relatively ineffectual efforts of today. I remember well the day a former addict and campaigner for drug awareness came to my school. This was the only occasion in memory and I must say that this ephemeral event left little of the desired impression.
An important distinction to be made is in the type of drug under discussion, one rarely made in political forums. “Drugs” is a catch-all for everything from cannabis to cocaine and heroin and this itself is an obstacle to practical reforms. The suggestion that cannabis and heroin are even remotely similar in their addictive properties and potential harms is either a patent and cynical lie or yet another indicator that policy makers just don’t know what they are dealing with. And although I recognise the potential horrors that can result from hard drug addiction, it’s still difficult to work past the rational consideration that if in any event the substance will be available, it should be made available by those with supposedly an inkling of social conscience. Namely government.
Cannabis, on the other hand, is a point of extreme consternation to me. I witness so frequently the appalling consequences, both immediate and long term, of alcohol consumption that its legality provides simply no room for an argument for cannabis illegality. Successive governments since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act have drawn the most arbitrary and hypocritical lines imaginable. The misguided conservative fear of narcotics stems from the 19th and early 20th Century when the world was finally getting to grips with a rampant culture of abuse of opium and its derivatives, including morphine and heroin. The fear in the 1920’s, when the UK first listed cannabis as a potentially harmful narcotic, was perhaps understandable, if still reactionary and racist based on the substance’s origins, but it is shocking we have not moved on.
Aside from the issue that stringent regulation of industrial hemp, via its inaccurate associations with cannabis production, has hampered the exploration of a potentially far-reaching commodity, the personal possession and use of a substance that can be grown from the earth and consumed as intended, without any treatment or process, should not be a pariah. I would take the pacified introspection of a smoker over the aggressive misbehaviour of a drinker any day of the week, and yet policy makers still have the gall to promote the most skewed perspectives. Margaret Curran MP on Question Time this week was waving the flag. She came so close to an honest portrayal by suggesting that reports indicated the patterns of cannabis use were extremely different to heroin use. She then sadly offered the hatefully distorted view that over a number of years, cannabis has grown stronger (referring to recently higher levels of THC, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis) and that it is now a serious substance with potentially harmful mental effects.
Put this notion to a scientist who has worked in the area and he would probably have to concede there is a certain amount of evidence that the misuse of cannabis can in theory lead to potential mental problems, although largely in the instance of an existing genetic propensity for such conditions. The scientist’s ambiguity would be that obvious however and he or she would likely never offer the certainty of the potential harms expressed by Curran. Regardless, the key word there is “misuse”. Given my occasionally libertarian views on certain issues, I would argue that if the government is concerned about the misuse of things in our society and was inclined to mitigate all the conceivable harms, we could swiftly say goodbye to almost every enjoyable aspect of life. Misuse begins at free will and I find it personally disgusting that any government would ever try to legislate that.
Indeed, I find it disgusting that they do. In the understanding that morally justifiable free will is limited by not infringing upon the free will of others, government should have no authority to command what one does exclusively to oneself, in the privacy of one’s home. The audacity of any individual to say to another that they should improve their own life through subjective measures is something I cannot abide. I won’t argue for a second that the life of a drug addict would not necessarily be improved by kicking the habit but for me or anyone to sit in judgement is profoundly wrong, and so providing the means of awareness and rehabilitation is the only reasonable recourse.
I think in closing I would provide these rough statistics. Tobacco causes the deaths of close to 100,000 people per year in the UK. There are close to 9,000 alcohol related deaths per year compared with approximately 2,000 drug related deaths, of which close to half are the result of the misuse of prescribed drugs, although opiate abuse in Scotland is more prevalent. There is no strong indication that the patterns of drug use would change or the numbers of users would rise in the event of legalisation because access to drugs is virtually unchallenged by its illegality. What sounds like a bigger problem to you?