An historical perspective on drugs

It’s very easy to passively accept the prevailing narrative on drugs. The government’s campaign to halt the sale of these dangerous, illegal substances seems sensible. Noble, in fact. But when you look a little closer, the certainties fall away.

Viewing the drugs situation from a historical perspective, we get a more unsettling and complicated view. For starters, we cannot take our moral stance on drugs from the UK legal system. The laws that have grown up around drugs were not decided all at once, but rather are an inherited ad-hoc smorgasboard. Tobacco and alcohol were firmly embedded in our society long before the governmental will or ability to regulate them was in place, and long before their harmful effects were understood.

Alcohol is so wrapped up in the social fabric that most of us don’t question it. Indeed, refraining from its use still raises eyebrows in many circles. Whether it’s a quiet drink with friends in a nice comfortable pub, getting smashed on the weekend, or breaking the ice at networking occasions, this is a drug we use casually. We realise that some people take it too far, but that’s not the drug’s fault. We are trusted to know how to use alcohol responsibly, and there are structures in place to deal with its use when people become dependent or addicted. So whilst alcohol leads to stresses and strains on the social fabric, our society seems comfortable with the use of this drug in the abstract sense. Given its positives, we seem happy bearing the costs that come with it. But the social costs of alcohol are the greatest of all drugs. Had it only recently arrived in the UK, it would doubtless be criminalised.

Given the inevitable social costs of drug use, I’d prefer a world without them, but given that attempts to restrict supply have not been successful, that view looks sadly naïve. Look at the shambles in Scotland, for example, where 99% of heroin evades the police. The UN believes that around 60% of shipments need to be intercepted to have any chance of reducing drug use. And criminalisation simply shifts the problem around rather than addressing it at root. The criminalisation of GBH, for example, just led to the imitator GBL being sold. The ingenuity of human exploitative greed is more potent than well-meaning regulation. Perhaps we need to change tack.

What else could we try? Treating people addicted to drugs (both legal and illegal) as patients rather than criminals is a good start. Legalisation and taxation of all but the inherently harmful would mean that users who were not harmed by drug use would pay for the treatment of those who were, internalising the social costs of drug use. But we need to go much further. We need to work on the real problem behind all of this – people’s need to escape their uncomfortable, unfulfilling lives, devoid of joy or meaning, by recourse to drugs of any sort. Now perhaps that’s an even more naïve aim than restricting supply. So let’s go and smash down the doors of a few dealers and forget about utopia. After all, we can go out and get lashed afterwards.

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One Response to An historical perspective on drugs

  1. A new Lancet article by David Nutt (the sacked government drugs advisor) deals with this issue. The report itself is not yet accessible, but a summary of its findings is doing the rounds in the media:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/01/alcohol-more-harmful-than-heroin-crack

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