Tricky little column from Melanie Phillips this week, largely because we can all agree with the general sentiment that people suffering through addiction to elicits is a bad thing, and we’d be happier if less people got hurt. How bad things are, how we got here and where we go is where the column and this blog differ.
Starting with the topical hook to this discussion of drugs policy, Katherine Jenkins has announced that she used to take drugs and that she regrets having done so. As Melanie agrees, this is entirely laudable. However, she goes on to wonder
“Surely it is rather more likely that she will merely have added to the general perception that just about every fashionable person is on drugs.”
There is a general problem here with a newspaper so fixated with celebrity, and their accordant drugs lives, being concerned with perceptions that just about every fashionable person is on drugs. ‘Fashionable’ is a measure of media exposure – if you stop talking about them, they will go away. Perceptions, if they exist, can be laid to some extent at the doors of those who created them.
How effective such perceptions are is an empirical question. The bald assertion
“On the contrary, it even adds to their glamour. After all, there they still are in the public eye. Using drugs or coming off them – hey, what’s the difference, it’s all part of being rich and famous.”
is dubious. It may be that there’s a survey out there showing that 20% of heroin addicts get into the drug because they want to be more like Pete Doherty, but I’d be surprised. Equally surprising would be if people were making a backwards linkage between being on drugs and being rich and famous, which is what the quote suggests. There is also, as ever, a problem with the halcyonisation of the past – I’m not convinced that there hasn’t always been a perception that the rich and famous were on drugs, at least not since the era of free-love and mind-expansion.
So “The way such role models effectively normalise drug use is perhaps the single most important factor behind its rise” stretches things slightly. While I can believe that my peers taking coke might normalise it for me, Kate Moss taking coke at most normalises it for those in the circles she moves in. I have neither the access to drugs or the money to pay for them that she does, I don’t attend the sort of gatherings she does, I’m not surrounded by the people she is. Our normals are not the same, our standards of behaviour differ accordingly.
Less controversial on its face is the statement that
“The Government has hugely exacerbated this impression through its incoherent policies, which have muddled the crucial message that all drug use is an unconscionable menace to individuals and to society.”
There are two components to this: that the Government has exacerbated the problem through muddled messages and the implication that the menace to society and individuals is best contained through a more rigorous application of our current system.
The first point is relatively uninteresting, and centres on the idea that the Government can increase or suppress demand by coherence in its negativity. This is doubtful: we would have to accept that a) people’s decisions to take drugs are based solely or largely on whether the Government tells us drugs are bad, and b) there was a time during which the Government said anything less than ‘taking drugs is illegal because it’s bad’. Misconceptions about the re-classification of cannabis do not amount to mixed messages from the Government, should not have led to an increase in demand for drugs other than cannabis¹ and, as a result, are unlikely to be the reason for increasing supplies of harder drugs like cocaine. (Melanie later attributes this to failures in preventing importation, and can’t have them both – either more importations are being attempted as a result of an increased demand for cannabis, in which case the problem is the prevention not increasing to keep pace, or the prevention has got worse in which case the attempted importations haven’t necessarily increased as a result of Government messages or anything else.)
The second point ties in with the later concerns about the conspiracy at the top of government to legalise drug use:
“For years, an international network of legalisers has been working to overturn the UN drug conventions which commit Britain and other countries to eradicate illegal drugs.”
The problem with UK drugs laws as they currently stand is that they are paternalistic and prohibitive. These are two things which free individuals object to: where the risk is to ourselves we object to being told we can’t take it. This is especially the case which drugs, where there is a relativism which attaches to legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) and the softer illegal ones. This, essentially, divides the debate into people for whom this is a freedom issue and people for whom it is a public protection issue. The actual question should be whether individuals and society are better protected under the current system of prohibitive laws or under one of regulation. When Phillips says “Regulating drug use would merely institutionalise a black market”, it is clear where she stands. Again though, this is somewhat implausible: an end to prohibition need not mean an institutionalisation of criminals, indeed it would be a very poor set of laws which allowed that. Ending Prohibition meant and end to bathtub moonshine – if people can get drugs of known purity from licensed outlets, it is unlikely that back-street purveyors of impure products would survive. Attacking straw men as a justification for more of the current system won’t wash.
This point aside, while ending Prohibition did for an generation of whisky barons, it allowed an increase in the number of drinkers as alcohol was once again accessible. Given a likely increase in drug taking as a result of easier access, would more people suffer under an open system and would their suffering be worse than under the current one? Given the amount we currently spend maintaining (or failing to maintain, as Phillips contends) the system we have, would this be better spent redirected onto educating and rehabilitating in a world where drugs were legal?
Melanie avoids this more useful question by plumping for prohibition from the start – if only we went about prohibition properly, the damage could be averted. The current system is right in principal if not in practice because drug use is an unconscionable menace. This is too simplistic and misses the point – drug use carries dangers, but we cannot wish those away. How to minimise them is the central issue. That is something we need to debate more urgently and more clearly. Simply taking swipes at the Government for not trying hard enough and having less stories about celebrities doing badly on drugs isn’t going to help.
¹ More than anything else, the highs obtained through use of cannabis and coke are very different, one is not substitutable for the other and they are used in different circumstances.