THE IRRATIONALITY OF CURRENT DRUGS POLICY
BY PETE CREAN
There are essentially two ways of looking at drug prohibition as a whole. Firstly we can assume it is in the best interests of society to ensure all recreational drugs are illegal as they are inherently dangerous. The second analysis of drug prohibition is the acknowledgment that through legislation, as oppose to outright prohibition, there is the possibility of making recreational drug consumption safer, alongside an understanding that the issue of addiction is far more complex than simply the substances themselves.
The inescapable reality is that in our current situation of prohibition drugs are not unavailable, they are everywhere. In 2015 during a debate about legalisation of cannabis in the UK parliament, Labour MP Paul Flynn recalled asking the government about prison drug use. After requesting how many UK prisons had been free of illegal drug use for a year, the answer he received was one, Blantyre House, because it had closed down(1). This provides somewhat of a wakeup call regarding the the scale of the task at a national or international level. There are minor victories here and there for authorities, but never anything substantial or effective in the long term.
An interesting example of such a victory for the prohibitionists was around the time of 2009/2010.A huge seizure of one of the components of MDMA in Cambodia led to significant decline of the purity and availability of the drug around the UK. On the surface this appears to be a success, yet around the same time, potentially as a result of this, a new drug called mephedrone (Mkat, Meow Meow), with similar effects saw a surge in popularity, effectively replacing MDMA throughout the drought (3).This reiterated that focusing on eradicating the supply of these drugs is futile. Whilst the demand remains, whether that is for recreational purposes or as an antidote to ones suffering in some cases, the demand will be met.
There is certainly no doubt that drugs can have dangerous implications to a person’s health and have the potential for abuse and addiction. Much like with alcohol there is always this risk yet the vast majority users will not experience such problems. The unfortunate reality of the war on drugs is that it removes the possibility of the safe and calculated consumption we can enjoy with alcohol. It would be easy to make the case that the biggest dangers derive from lack of regulation; unknown purity, dangerous cutting agents and requirement to engage with criminal networks to purchase etc.
The complexity of addiction itself was exemplified in a study called Rat Park. Contrary to previous studies on addiction carried out using rats, in which the rats where put in empty cages with no stimulation and offered either regular water or morphine water, Rat Park offered the same options in a very different environment. These previous studies had discovered that the rats would almost always opt for the morphine water until it killed them, thus allegedly proving the dangerous chemical hook involved with using drugs. However the environment in the later experiment offered the rats everything they could wish for; toys to nibble, dens to hind in as well as rats of the opposite sex. The results couldn’t have been more different. Despite a constant supply, the rats chose to hardly use morphine at all. The reliance on the substance was clearly about much more than simply a chemical hook in the brain (3).
If ever there has been a clearer example of why there needs to a drastic change in drug policy it is the current synthetic cannabinoid crisis. This group of drugs was initially created and sold in legal high shops as a legal replacement for cannabis, which in the UK remains a class B substance. In doing so however something much worse has been created, the effects are much more potent than cannabis and the negative effects on the individual dwarf that of cannabis. The drug unfortunately is being used overwhelmingly by those most vulnerable in society (4), which prompts a serious question of what the criminalisation of the substance has achieved for them. The underground market has thrived since change in law, and enabled those with little care for their customers to turn a profit.
There is certainly evidence that the general consensus towards drug prohibition is changing worldwide, but at a painfully slow rate. In the US several states have opted to fully legalise cannabis for recreational as well as medical purposes. In 2013 Uruguay became the first country to fully legalise every aspect of the drug. However any progress beyond cannabis throughout the world remains unlikely for the time being. In 2001 Portugal decriminalised all drugs, meaning possession and personal consumption was no longer a crime, while dealing remained illegal. The idea being compassion and help is given to those caught in possession and appear to be suffering, rather than punishment. Overall it has been a success, there are now only 3 drug overdoses per million people in Portugal, compared with 44.6 per million in the UK. (5).
However the overall picture worldwide shows very little willingness to alter current policy. The other extreme is the situation in the Philippines where the current president Rodrigo Duerte has overtly encouraged citizens of the Philippines to kill drug dealers and addicts (6).This is of course an unusually brutal example but it highlights callous nature in some parts of the world towards the subject.
Barriers to change
The policy implemented by most governments across the world regarding drugs clearly isn’t based on logic or reason, so they’re must be something else preventing change. Former Prime Minister David Cameron is a good example of this, in 2005 he boldly stated drug policy had been failing for decades and criticised politicians continued nonsensical policy approach. However when in power the Prime Minister of the UK not only went quiet on the subject but he oversaw a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances to eradicate legal highs, extending the exact same approach he had himself criticised.(7)
This idea has been coined as the politics of electoral anxiety by academics; whereby politicians are fearful of tackling possibly controversial reforms, so instead steer towards the existing irrational ideas, for purely political reasons (8).So why should it be so controversial? And why is the average voter not ready to hear a balanced argument for reform?
There is certainly an element of morality concerning general attitudes to drug use. It is, to many seen as self-indulgent, showing lack of restraint and generally a poor life choice that shouldn’t be tolerated. Despite this, these same almost innate responses don’t seem to surface when dealing with comparable forms of consumption, such an unhealthy food. We are all aware that food with high levels of salt, fat and sugar are not a good lifestyle choice, yet few people begrudge anyone for having a takeaway at the weekend. Moderation is righty accepted as a personal choice.
Research has shown that there is near universal stigma towards drug addiction and drug consumption throughout the world. In a survey measuring social disapproval to various conditions; obesity, criminal record for burglary, being HIV positive, lack of care for children to name a few, drug addiction topped the list for 9 out of the 14 countries studied and was 2nd or 3rd for the remaining 5. This of course encompasses a broad spectrum of drugs and the concept of addiction may be interpreted differently by different people, but the general trend is clear. (9).This underlying stigma is a serious threat to any rational debate going forward.
We live in increasingly individualistic societies where the myth of meritocracy prevails; making excuses for one’s misfortune is viewed negatively. In the context of drug use and addiction this is amplified as it is regarded as completely self-inflicted. Any suggestion of relaxing drug laws always attracted the same responses along the lines of ‘sending out the wrong message’. There is a rejection of something that isn’t seen as productive. As long as the general public retain this view on the whole, drugs remain demonised as the cause of many of a society’s ills and not a symptom. The view that anybody who messes with drugs will become addicted is unhelpful; it makes the idea that anybody would do so appear moronic. We should not look at drug users as reckless deviants and we should not view drug addicts as expendable wastes of space, tolerance of the former and compassion for the latter is essential going forward.
It has to be said, it will take a bold politician or an overwhelming change of consensus for serious change to occur. This is understandable, there has been a great deal of propaganda for generations that has shaped opinion, as well as the very real dangers of drugs is a terrifying prospect for anyone in power. The urgency stems not from the idea that drugs are 100 per cent safe but because they are dangerous; open, honest and stigma free dialogue will reduce this danger enormously. This is the greatest hope going forward, the more debate and the more that progressive arguments are given exposure, a change in public consensus enough to change policy is possible.
- Info taken from Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt (2012)
- Info taken from Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (2015)
- Melrose, M. (2006) `Young People and Drugs', in R. Hughes, R. Lart and P. Higate (eds) Drugs: Policy and Politics, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Room, R (2005) Stigma, social inequality and alcohol and drug use, Drug and Alcohol review, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09595230500102434 ,