THE debate over the decriminalization of drugs in the UK has erupted again after a private statement made by the one-time head of the Royal College of Physicians Sir Ian Gilmore was leaked to a drug-reform campaign group and the media. This reiterated the sentiment of David Nutt the former head of the Government’s drug advisory body, who argued that prohibiting drugs hands the trade to organised crime, driving users to paying higher prices for riskier doses while creating a new market for the next generation of legal highs. Sir Ian Gilmore commented that the country’s drug policy for Class A drugs had failed. He called for a change in tactics, decriminalizing illicit drug use and treating addiction as a health problem not a criminal problem. Is it time we should be admitting that we have already lost the war on drugs? Would safe, legal highs make the illegal drugs trade, with its networks of organised crime a thing of the past? Or should we continue to fight people’s urge to get high for the sake of their health and our society? >>
1. Drugs can be used for harmless fun
MANY – perhaps most – occasional drug users take drugs for one simple reason: they enjoy it. Social drinkers know how welcome a couple of beers or glasses of wine can be in the evening – they are not seeking obliteration, and few slide into alcoholism. They are simply treating a drink as one of life’s many pleasures. The same is true of most users of cannabis, LSD or ecstasy, none of which are particularly addictive, and all of which have fans who insist that using them enhances their lives. The psychotherapist Gary Greenberg praises the ability of ecstasy “to foster open, fearless communication” in his recent book Manufacturing Depression, and describes feeling total love for his girlfriend when they took the drug together. Such enjoyment is a widespread human trait.
2. Drugs play an important role in society
RECREATIONAL drugs don’t just benefit individuals. They also play an important role within wider societies, and always have done. Alcohol is an integral part of Northern European culture, dating back at least to the Vikings, who are thought to have been committed boozers and never took an important collective decision unless drunk. Peyote, a hallucinogen, has spiritual importance for many indigenous Americans, just as cannabis does for Rastafarians. The effects of this sort of social drug use can be very positive – pubs are often community hubs across Britain, and the coffee houses where people could gather in 17th century Britain arguably contributed to the development of newspapers, the Glorious Revolution and even the Enlightenment. The same is true of currently-illegal drugs. LSD contributed to the liberating, free-wheeling atmosphere of the 60s, and many look back on the ecstasy-fuelled raves of the early 90s with great fondness.
3. You’ll never get rid of drug use…
EVEN if you don’t like the idea of people getting high, there is no point in trying to stop them. Every attempt to ban popular drugs – even the most draconian – has failed. When Sultan Murad IV took over the Ottoman Empire in 1623, he introduced the death penalty for using tobacco, alcohol or coffee, and is even said to have carried out the penalty himself, walking the streets of Istanbul in plain clothes and using his mace to execute anyone caught using tobacco. Russia introduced a similar ban on tobacco at the same time – first-time offenders would have their nostrils slit or be exiled to Siberia, and repeat offenders earned the death penalty. But smoking continued in both countries until the laws were repealed later in the 17th century. Our current laws on heroin and cocaine have inflicted huge problems on the developing countries where they continue to be grown, put users in danger of taking contaminated doses of unpredictable sizes and allow drug barons to grow rich.
4. Policing it is only going to get harder
DRUG regulation is only set to get more difficult, as dealers continue to develop new – and therefore legal – highs by tweaking the chemical formulae of existing drugs to reproduce their effects, as occurred with mephedrone. Mephedrone was just one of over 400 new drugs identified in a report commissioned by the EU into the scale of the problem. New chemical formulae will continue to emerge and gain popularity. They have never been tested, and some will inevitably prove poisonous. Creating, rigorously testing and then selling safe drugs in a controlled way is the only solution.
5. New drugs will enhance our future
DRUG use need not just be a matter of simple enjoyment. New psychotropic substances have real potential to enhance our lives by releasing us from archaic notions of human nature – we can choose how we want to be by choosing the substances we take. Cognitive enhancers like Modafinil and Ritalin – developed, respectively, for sufferers from narcolepsy and ADHD – have been shown to enhance concentration and short-term memory in healthy users. Modafinil has been tested by both the British and American armed forces, and could one day offer a substitute for the caffeine and amphetamine “go pills” the US army and air force have long relied on for night-time operations. Scientists are currently investigating the effects of oxytocin, the “love drug”, a hormone released in mothers’ bodies during birth, which contributes to bonding and trust as it appears to help people with Aspergers Syndrome.
1. Real joy and fulfilment cannot be chemical
THE pleasure brought by any drug is fleeting and hollow compared with real happiness, and the fact that people search for chemical highs is a worrying sign that they are not satisfied with their ordinary lives. As the great 19th century British political theorist John Stuart Mill put it, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. One of the key things offered by many popular drugs – from alcohol to heroin – is an opportunity for obliteration. We seek to escape our problems but the long term solution should be to address them rather than finding new ways to avoid confronting them. In an ideal world we would not need even alcohol or caffeine to feel good – and we should be working towards such a situation rather than creating new alternatives for mental escape.
2. Drugs destroy cultures in many different ways
HISTORY has taught us that drugs – especially new drugs – can have devastating effects on cultures. Particular psychotropic substances may have historic or spiritual importance for some groups, but those societies are likely to have developed ways to limit their potential for harm – with alcohol, for instance, children can be introduced to the idea of drinking in moderation as part of a culturally acceptable way to socialise. With newly invented drugs, there is no opportunity for this to happen, so the effects may be catastrophic. Alcoholism is far more widespread among Australian Aborigines and indigenous Americans than the cultures which introduced alcohol to them, for instance. Even if you test drugs extensively, the entire point of them is to modify people’s behaviour, and their impact on society as a whole can never be foreseen. Some have even suggested that the recent recession could be blamed on heavy cocaine use by city workers.
3. Legalisation has terrible consequences
THE current law on drugs may be flawed and badly applied, but legalisation is no solution. No substance which has a profound effect on our bodies or minds can be totally safe physically or psychiatrically. We should always be fighting drug use, and the law remains a deterrent. The fact that it forces drugs to be used and sold relatively covertly also reduces the opportunities for peer pressure, especially among the young. Legalisation would inevitably increase the number of users, therefore increasing the number of people exposed to risk. You might expect David Nutt’s now notorious study on the relative risks of horse-riding and ecstasy to have been a serious work of statistics. In fact, it was based on questionnaires of professionals, was riddled with subjective judgement and was just the kind of scientism – the belief that only science can tell the truth about the world – that gives proper social research a bad name.
4. The dangers of drugs take time to emerge…
IT MAY in theory be possible to use some recreational drugs in a harmless way, but in practice new drugs are likely to have terrible effects. These may take time to emerge – when heroin was discovered by drug company Bayer in 1898, it was thought to be a harmless alternative to morphine, and was marketed as a remedy for coughs and a range of other ills. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal wrote in 1900 that heroin is “not hypnotic, and there’s no danger of acquiring a habit.” Sigmund Freud was one of many who believed that cocaine had great potential as an antidepressant as well as a painkiller. He even prescribed it to friends, including the Austrian physiologist Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who may then have been the first person to ever die of a speedball, an intravenous mixture of heroin and cocaine.
5. We might inadvertently create a terrible world
THE potential for abuse is inescapable – on both an individual and a societal level. It’s possible to imagine a happy world in which people took cognitive enhancers in order to get their work done and rush home to be with the family, for instance. But the idea that we can choose our own psychologies using a pharmaceutically provided selection is an illusion – we are too much shaped by our history and the culture we live in. The idea of using chemicals to rewire our brains is dangerous for our sense of ourselves – our personalities are made up of our bad experiences as well as our good ones.
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