The prohibition of drugs


From the Observer, Nov 25, 2001


Since the days of Adam and Eve, forbidden fruit has lost little of its power to tempt. There is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that prohibition is counterproductive and may actually stimulate the consumption of the banned goods. In 1675, Charles II forbade by proclamation the sale of tea, coffee, chocolate and sherbet from private houses. His aim was to discourage sedition. In Scotland, the pulpit denounced tea-drinking as frivolous and ungodly. A consequence of such fiats was that tea became the national drink.

In the Twenties, US Prohibition stimulated the production and consumption of booze and gave gangsterism a massive financial injection. Less malignantly it spawned the jazz age. In our own times, we have seen the massive failure of drug interdiction. It has corrupted police forces across the world and given violent gangs a route to wealth. It has spawned demented policies like Plan Colombia. Drugs, or the addict's need for them, more often than not lie behind crimes like robbery and assault.

It is more than 20 years since responsible voices began to question drug interdiction but were unable to make any impression on our political leaders. Even the libertarian Right, when it advanced to positions of influence during the Thatcher years, backed off. I interviewed Michael Forsyth at the end of the Eighties when he was Scottish Health Minister and I recall his embarrassment when he was asked about decriminalisation, an issue which at the time had been raised by the Lancet, the Economist and the New York Times (and, in its modest way, the Glasgow Herald).

Politicians were frightened by popular sentiment, in particular by powerful parental fears that decriminalisation would send the wrong signals to young people at the point where they were most vulnerable to the siren songs of the pedlars. Yet all the evidence is that interdiction has been a most efficient recruiting sergeant for the dealer. Drugs seem pervasive in schools and are the scourge of every Scottish town from Wick to Stranraer.

As James McIntosh and Neil McKeganey, of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, noted in their report Beating the Dragon (Prentice Hall), public policy has been primarily concerned more with prohibition and prevention than with treatment. It seeks by propaganda and education to prevent people using drugs in the first place. Then it stands back and waits for a drug problem to develop before intervening again. This, say the authors, is 'unwise' and even 'foolhardy'.

There have been very few attempts to influence drug-users' behaviour at an early stage of the addictive process, in particular at the moment when the fateful transition to injecting is made. In a Faustian perversion of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the injecting drug addict will ready the novice for nemesis, preparing the needles and showing him or her how and where to inject. The criminal status of addiction contributes to the damaging delay in confronting the problem in its early stages.

The drug subculture which McIntosh and McKeganey deal with is, of course, closely linked to deprivation or social incompetence. Their book is an analysis of the process by which addicts may recover. First, they must want to give up drugs so that they can recover their personality or, as it might have been put in another age, regain their soul. Second, they must cast aside a whole network of companions in addiction. The road to recovery can be dauntingly lonely.

But beyond the subculture, the recreational use of drugs, without the direst consequences of addiction, now seems prevalent among all classes. I don't think I have ever been to an Islington dinner party but am told that if I did I should routinely be offered drugs. Since interdiction has so signally failed, there is no logical objection to regulating the supply of drugs, ensuring their quality and taxing their sale. And we should return, too, to the older and more enlightened policy of treating addiction as a medical condition. The only objection to such a policy is that it might be taken as an official imprimatur of drug abuse. But that simply calls for skilful management.

What, I hear you say, about drink? It is all around us. It is cheap, plentiful and of excellent quality. We celebrate it almost as a badge of civilisation. Our Exchequer grows fat on the taxes and duties, even though the Treasury's greed has sent white van man on innumerable trips to Calais and other ports where duties are lighter.

And it is, of course, true that drink is often a scourge. It feeds domestic violence. It causes or contributes to many diseases. Indeed, they used to say there was a 'Tennants' Ward' in Glasgow Royal Infirmary, named after the celebrated local beer.

I have never touched drugs, in the general meaning of the sense, and gave up cigarettes a score of years ago, fortified by the realisation, one spring morning, that I hadn't smelt new mown grass since taking up the weed at the age of 17. If I really wanted to do my head in I should make one last effort to understand Russell's Paradox, a proposition which intoxicates only higher mathematicians. But I would not like to have been without alcohol during my march through life. It has been the source of much merriment. It has stimulated ideas and argument and its glow has shone on many friendships. I like to fancy that I have stayed on the right side of addiction, though such a claim may smack of piety, breaking the Earl of Chesterfield's dictum that if you are by any chance wiser than other people 'you should not tell them so'.

For others, for temperamental or even genetic reasons, moderation is unachievable and abstinence the only possible course. Drugs are just one of the dangers lurking in the thickets of life and they have to be confronted with all the rest.