A question of damage
I have known too many friends die class A deaths to be convinced by a new call for drug tolerance
Friday March 9, 2007
Most public reports and tribunals suggest a gentle correction to the tiller, but yesterday's Royal Society of Arts report on Britain's drug laws overturns the whole boat. A panel including profs, cops, hacks and do-gooders has concluded that narcotics legislation is "not fit for purpose", revealing an addiction to the current Class-A cliche of official language.
In many areas of British life, the report concludes, "the harmless use of drugs is possible, indeed common". Police efforts should be diverted elsewhere and the sale and use of most heighteners by most people tolerated.
The traditionalist response will be that this can have come only from a smoke-filled room where the haze was suspiciously sweet. But the RSA's thinkers include John Yates, the Met's deputy assistant commissioner, and so cannot easily be dismissed as hippy dippiness.
Essentially, the report calls for a moral, medical and legal equivalence between illegal drugs and alcohol and nicotine. This is not as soft a policy as it can be made to sound. The government's war against nicotine prohibits ingestion in public and warns that private use may lead to the withholding of medical treatment. As for drink, it can clearly be argued that it's illogical - at a time when policy is focusing so strongly on smoking - to differentiate between recreational releases. Public policy, though, is often illogical. A Briton is far more likely to be killed in a car crash than a terrorist attack, yet neither legislation nor reporting reflect this fact.
And all cultures have their historical weak spots. America's prohibition laws in the 1920s have left a national legacy of hysteria about alcohol, exemplified by the spread of rehab clinics. Our moral faultline is drugs, perhaps because Victorian and Edwardian London was rife with high-society drug addicts, up to and including famous fictional detectives; or possibly because politicians have traditionally drunk and smoked. As a result, booze and fags are seen as an individual issue, while spliffs, tabs and wraps are societal scandals.
This is partly because those addicted to legal substances tend to make it to middle age before the damage shows, while prohibited stuff leaves tragic young faces for campaign posters - such as Olivia Channon or Leah Betts. It's also extremely rare for someone to resort to burglary or murder to get a packet of Marlboro or a bottle of Absolut.
These distinctions, though, are not absolute. Many young people die each year in falls, car crashes or fights caused by alcohol. And, as the RSA points out, the very illegality of some substances makes them more likely to involve criminality. One of the report's suggestions - making prescription heroin available - should make the chain less dangerous. Imposing criminal records for small-scale possession or experimentation is also an imperfect use of police time.
Even so, this provocative call does not quite convince me. We are influenced by our own appetites and anecdotal evidence, so let me admit mine. Wine has always been my addiction; I have lost friends and colleagues to class-A drugs, and my prejudice, having hung around showbusiness a little as a reporter or performer, is that junkies destroy themselves rather quicker than puffers and drunks, and that their work descends into gibberish more rapidly.
The question is this: imagine citizens A, B, C, D and E who regularly comfort themselves with, respectively, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Whatever the RSA argues about equivalence, I would still rather work with or live with the earlier end of the alphabet and suspect most GPs would take the same view. D and E are at more immediate risk of health problems than A and B.
A weakness of the report is that it seems to operate on the assumption that people are careful about narcotic options, browsing in a notional super-tobacconist that has ciggies at one end of the counter and coke at the other. Yet it's rare to meet a non-smoking teetotaller who snorts a few lines; addictions tend to be multiple, and making strong drugs more available will result in people putting increasing demands on their systems and, ultimately, the NHS.
But, even here, the RSA has a point: that the government's anti-drugs policy is clearly not based on health concerns (as its attitude to nicotine is) but on a "moral panic". Yet in saying this the report is effectively admitting to impotence in a political culture where even student drug use can threaten a politician's future. It's a pity because - especially on the issue of the waste of police time - the RSA is on to something.