We're Out of Control On Drugs

Merrick, 3rd May 2004ce

For as long as there have been humans, there has been a human love of intoxication. We love the stimulation, the new ways of seeing things, the letting off of stress, the escape from mundanity, the bonds it forms with those we get intoxicated with.

No legislation will ever stop people getting mashed. Despite all the laws, intoxicant drugs is one of the biggest industries on earth. The question is, how do we minimise the destructive elements?

The UK's recent legal downgrading of cannabis from a Class B drug to Class C was held to be some kind of loosening of the law. But by the wilfully bizarre twists of the legislation, it is nothing of the kind.

The Misuse of Drugs Act divides drugs into classes A, B and C. Class A is the harder stuff - heroin, cocaine, powdered speed, etc – Class B is speed pills and, until a month or two ago, cannabis. Class C is steroids and certain other prescription drugs.

But the same law that downgraded cannabis from B to C also changed the meaning of these terms, and effectively upgraded C to B. Possession of Class C drugs moved from non-arrestable to ‘arrestable at the officer’s discretion’, which is exactly the status cannabis already had. Along with the non-change for possession, the new law lumped in a big increase in the penalties for people dealing cannabis.

This is extraordinary – a seeming claim to recognise that it’s not that harmful for us to have cannabis, tied to harsher measures for the providers. If it’s not bad for me to have it, why can it be extra-bad to give it to me?

Cannabis is about as benign as recreational drugs can get. It is not addictive in any medical sense of the word. Most of the claims levelled against it are nonsense.

The stories of lowering sperm count in men and causing infertility in women stem from the US government’s ‘reefer madness’ anti-cannabis propaganda of the 1930s and 40s. They were essentially saying it’ll make blokes cissies and deny women their womanhood. These stories were issued by the same people who gave sworn testimony to Congress that – and I quote directly – ‘marijuana is the most violence causing drug known to man’.

Now, being the US government with all that CIA black-ops stuff, maybe they’re right, maybe they developed stuff so strong that it does all the hallucinogenic nightmarish stuff they claim. But out here we find cannabis tends to make people have trouble finding the momentum to get up and change the CD.

Cannabis does not ‘lead to other drugs’; most cannabis users do not use any other illegal drugs. Far from being the ‘gateway’ drug, for most people it is more of a terminus.

But - although some may claim it - cannabis is not entirely harmless. Breathing any form of smoke is not good for the respiratory system. Cannabis is not as harmful as tobacco (primarily cos users smoke a lot less), but there can still be damage. It certainly affects the short term memory. It is precisely because it isn’t harmless that it should be legalised.

All recreational drugs should be legalised. The current situation is ludicrous. We have arbitrarily picked a bunch of drugs and banned them, thus moving the production and supply into the unsupervised unregulated hands of the most unscrupulous people we know of. They adulterate the drugs with poison and use the profits to fund other antisocial activity. The entire trade is underground. Absurdly, we call these ‘controlled drugs’.

Then, almost as if the purpose was to prove the lunacy of the policy, having decreed that cannabis and ecstasy and the others are so very dangerous that nobody can ever be allowed to have any, we pick two of the most dangerous and addictive recreational drugs - alcohol and tobacco - and sell them in sweet shops.

Those who think drugs need to be illegal rarely advocate the banning of alcohol. They understand that most of us can use it sensibly. They know that we can have the odd bender and still not ruin our lives. They see that to ban it because a small minority have problems with it would be an affront to our liberty. They just don’t take the final logical step and apply those thoughts to other recreational drugs.

At the other end of the prohibitionist spectrum, some complain that it would become too corporate if it were legalised. Firstly, sexy advertising of intoxicants is clearly stupid and shouldn’t be allowed, thus taking much of the corporate thrust out.

But, as with all else in this issue, we have to be consistent – those who say we shouldn’t have legal cannabis and cocaine cos it’d be too corporate should also want alcohol to be a Class A drug. They should be campaigning for dodgy bootleg hooch that blinds its users. They should be wanting tens of thousands of people to have their lives ruined by a criminal conviction for having a pint. They should take advantage of the fact that they may legally make their own alcohol and never buy the corporate stuff. I’ve yet to meet one person that does so. Fact is, all of us who use alcohol like the ease of corporate supply.

Drugs are very powerful, and the fact that they can be very damaging to some people means that it is an intensely serious issue. Which is why we need a serious – rather than hysterical – response. Drug prohibition is no more sensible or workable a policy than responding to the phenomenon of self-harm by banning knives and then jailing any of us who own or use a knife for any purpose.

Addiction is a medical condition affecting a minority of users of any drug. People who are addicted to a drug are sick, they need help. We do not help addicts by criminalising them. People do not get healed in prison.

Beyond that, most recreational drug users are not addicts. They have no problem at all. Why on earth should we imprison someone who has done no harm to anyone at all, not even themselves?

Elsewhere, it’s a different story. In Switzerland they are untroubled by the prohibitionist restrictions of EU law and UN conventions. Acting in the full understanding that addiction is a health issue rather than a criminal one, they can try an array of different programmes and find what actually works.

For heroin users, there is a programme of treatment that includes prescribing medical-grade heroin. Amongst the addicts on the programme health has improved, the number of deaths has halved, unemployment has more than halved and, perhaps most significantly for us non-users, the number involved in theft to fund their habit has gone from over 70% to under 10%. You’d think our government would want to replicate these results.

However, in prescribing heroin they’d look ‘soft on drugs’, so instead they leave us all with the misery and death of prohibition.

I have seen lives ruined by drugs. I have lost a friend to heroin. I still believe the things that did so much damage should be legal, because there would be less lives ruined and ended early. Heroin users are often killed by adulterants, or by getting a dose that’s purer than usual and so they accidentally overdose. If it were legal and regulated we’d know what was in it, just as the bottle of vodka tells us the percentage.

The effects of adulterants in drugs and of bad information are killers just as much as overdoses. The famous case of Leah Betts, the girl who died after taking ecstasy at her 18th birthday party, is a case in point. Leah was featured on a national billboard campaign that said ‘just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts’. This is not true.

The media were usually careful to describe her as having ‘died after taking ecstasy’. This is technically true. It is also true that she died after putting her socks on, but neither the ecstasy nor the socks were actually the cause of death.

Those of us who bothered to follow the inquest learned that she died of a condition called coning of the brain. It is caused by ingesting phenomenal quantities of water in a short space of time. Leah was coming up on a strong pill. In the garbled world of misinformation, the advice to drink plenty of water when on E had translated as water being some kind of antidote. When water didn’t quell the rushes, she drank more and more. If she’d drunk that much without the ecstasy, exactly the same thing would have happened. Put simply, she died from an overdose of water. She died of bad information.

Legal production would mean the manufacturing and distribution costs plummet, and that would leave room for taxation that would fund research, education, and treatment for the small minority who have problems. Just like we do with alcohol.

Millions of us belt our brains with ecstasy without knowing what it’s going to do to us. If we could remove the stigma and the legal obstacles to proper research we could find and spread accurate information so that people could use drugs responsibly.

If we had choices other than alcohol, if alcohol wasn’t promoted to us as sexy, then maybe it wouldn’t cause so much damage. Ecstasy’s replacement of alcohol as the young person’s drug of choice in the late 80s and early 90s is credited with reducing club violence and ending the era of football hooliganism.

After cannabis was decriminalised and sold openly in the Netherlands in 1976, cannabis use went down for the following six years. It has risen since, in line with the rise in prohibitionist countries like the UK. Despite the very different legal status, young people in the UK are twice as likely to regularly use cannabis as their Dutch counterparts.

In the USA, alcohol consumption did not go down in the years of prohibition, nor did it significantly rise after relegalisation. Availability of the currently illegal recreational drugs would not make us into addicts, any more than the existence of off-licenses makes us all alcoholics.

Prohibition is expensive in every way. It sees lives ruined with poisoned drugs, it funds gangsters, and it does not reduce usage of the drugs concerned. There is no evidence to suggest that the strategy works, or ever will.

The inescapable conclusion is that it isn’t the law that decides whether someone uses a drug, or whether they have an addictive disposition.

We are intelligent enough to make choices as long as we are making educated choices. The hysteria surrounding recreational drugs obscures facts and diverts us from proper information. It treats us as if we are stupid and unfit to judge what to do with our own bodies.

The possibility – even certainty – of being harmed by an activity is not a good enough reason to ban it. Thousands of people book ski-ing holidays from which they come back with serious injuries. We do not imprison them for using skis. We do not have tabloid campaigns to ban these evil travel agents who make their profits pushing killer ski-ing holidays to our young.

Ultimately, we have to ask whose body is it? We deserve to be warned of the dangers of an activity, and equally we deserve to be trusted to choose whether we want to do it.

As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society other than the people themselves; and if we deem them too unenlightened to exercise their power with a wholesome discretion, the answer is not to take it from them, but to inform them’.