Thursday 5 November 2009

Drugs, Politics and Science

Once again the UK government indulges in a very British outbreak of moral outrage over drugs. In this case there is the added excitement of an outraged scientist. It is so very clear and very sad that there seems to be zero chance of a serious debate about the use of drugs in the UK today. Just about all politicians are frightened to talk about the issues openly. There appears to be an unwritten agreement that any discussion about drugs starts from the premise that drugs are very, very bad and that people who take drugs or deal in drugs are very, very bad people and that the use of drugs will inevitably result in misery. Misery not just for those who consume the drugs, but also for their families and indeed whole communities. This line is most strongly peddled by most of the mainstream media, including TV and radio. There appears to be a never ending succession of stories about the dangers and damages caused by drugs. It is amazing how passionately concerned our politicians and right wing journalists become about communities when drugs is the topic. When it comes to the damage caused to communities by neo-liberal economics these same politicians and journalists remain very, very silent.

Drugs may or may not be a bad thing - I’ll leave that one for the moral philosophers out there. What is clear is that lots of us, almost certainly the majority of us, consume drugs on a more or less regular basis. And are no worse, or at least not significantly worse for the experience. Of course for the vast majority of us our preferred drugs are of the legal variety - tobacco or alcohol. Those of us who limit ourselves to one or other of these legal drugs are somehow immune from all the dreadful downsides to drug taking. What moral superiority it confers on us! And when some upstart scientist - otherwise known as the Government’s chief scientific advisor - comes along and points out that, erm, some of the illegal drugs, cannabis and ecstasy for example, are actually less addictive and less harmful than alcohol, well then all hell breaks loose.

How dare he challenge our cosy little world and in the name of science! Since it is a bit risky to challenge him on the science the moral outrage comes in very handy. Hence all this talk about wasted lives and damaged communities etc. It is not just the top politicians who seem to live in a different planet from the rest of us. Just last week we had some lesser known politicians on radio talking about this very issue. And what a confused and muddled lot they were. One justified the ban on cannabis by using the analogy of a packet of biscuits. It would be alright if we could trust people to just take one biscuit from the pack, but of course we know that some people will just scoff the lot at one sitting. What moral depravity! I was a tad surprised that she wasn’t asked if she was therefore in favour of banning biscuits on the grounds that some poor souls could not resist the temptation to misuse them. This appears to be the general tenor of the debate around drugs, or at least the illegal drugs. We cannot reclassify them, never mind decriminalize them, for fear that some people might misuse them. It is a pretty stupid argument as it could just as easily be applied to most things in life. Some people deliberately misuse food and end up obese or anorexic, causing great harm to themselves and to their nearest and dearest. Do we ban food? Some people, in fact quite a lot of people, misuse cars and cause great injuries and sometimes death to other people. Do we ban cars?

Banning something because of what some people might end up doing with it is not a serious policy. It is a knee-jerk reaction and in the case of drugs based on delusions of moral superiority and it seems, bad science. What then to do? At the very least we should decriminalize drug taking. Then as is the case with tobacco and alcohol addiction we try to minimize misuse and if possible prevent misuse by offering clear simple information on drugs and the provision of rehabilitation centres for those who wish to change.

This of course is most unlikely to happen anytime soon. Why? Why are nearly all of our politicians and media so trapped in this moral crusade approach to illegal drugs while at the same time are happy to promote the consumption of alcohol? There must be something behind all this. Most likely money and lots of it. The War on Drugs, like the War on Terror, has become big business for some very rich people. In the case of Afghanistan the two have become intimately entwined. Perhaps there is too much for too many rich people to lose if we were to change our drugs policy?

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