Legalise the lot
The Tories think it is a good idea to put a blanket ban on legal highs. Paul Demarty wants some of what they’re smoking
Writing an article about drugs policy poses, every time, a significant literary burden at the outset. To wit: how do you communicate in words the sheer, teeth-gnashing insanity of the task the ‘international community’ has set itself - to fight, and win, a war on drugs?
This time, we have got off lightly. Those words have already been written, innumerable times across the front pages of the yellow press in recent times - ‘hippy crack’.
Of all the ridiculous moral panics to have blighted the free press of our fair country, this one really takes the cake. At issue is nitrous oxide - a chemical, gaseous at room temperature, used variously as a medical analgesic and to aerate the cream on a childish coffee. It can also be fired into a balloon and inhaled for a very short-lived dissociative high.
With a tag like ‘hippy crack’, one would expect first of all its primary users to be acid casualties in the crowd at a Grateful Dead show, and secondly for it to be a highly addictive stimulant. In fact, its primary market - so far as I can tell - seems to be teenagers who lack the pocket money for an eighth ounce of bad hash, or the facial hair to get served in a bar. Nor is it a stimulant, or indeed addictive - although, ironically, one of its medical uses is to treat addiction.
It is to be banned - along with amyl and butyl nitrite (‘poppers’), popular on the gay scene - as part of a blanket ban on ‘legal highs’, generally understood to mean chemical compounds similar to popular psychoactives, but different enough to circumvent existing laws, presenting successive governments with an undignified game of legislative whack-a-mole.
The legal high ‘problem’ first hit the aforementioned terror headlines when two party-goers were found dead, allegedly having taken the then legal stimulant, mephedrone. The latter was banned so rapidly, it was heading for the statute books by the time the toxicology reports came back reporting that not less than five different questionable substances were to be found in the unfortunates’ bloodstreams, none of which was mephedrone. Law-making at its finest.
Unsurprisingly, the tide was not stemmed; a month or two later, in fact, your correspondent was offered something almost identical called ‘bufodrone’ by a friend (fear not, dear reader: I did not inhale), no doubt only one of hundreds of mephedrone clones produced when all that press attention exposed how much money there was in designing your own uppers.
We admit to some suspicion at the push, among more enlightened members of the bourgeois commentariat and many medical professionals, towards ‘evidence-based drugs policy’; such initiatives can too often become just another technocratic wheeze for unaccountable quangos. It does, however, get at the most striking feature of actually existing drugs policy, which is that it is utterly resistant to all evidence, and even basic logic.
So we arrive at the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which has been drawn up as widely as possible so as to include the all-but-harmless nitrous oxide balloon. It outlaws “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect” - a sentence perhaps intended to promote disbelieving laughter among the historians of a more enlightened future. It then has to have the obligatory and utterly arbitrary exceptions - alcohol, tobacco, caffeine - tacked on the end, making it a law that contains within itself the evidence of its own hypocrisy.
In many countries, the line of march is in the opposite direction - Uruguay, Portugal, even some American states have begun decriminalising some drugs, particularly marijuana. Not so Britain: among us, madness prevails.
Capital and cocaine
Every piece of irrationality, however, has its historical logic; thus must we explain the prima facie bizarre historical contingency of puritanical drug laws.
A common mistake among - especially - Hegelian Marxists is to confuse the underlying logical structure of social relations in a given society with the concrete societies that support those relations. This leads, in the extreme case, to the identification of all ideology in capitalist society with the commodity form and the fetishism immanent to it.
To put things concretely: from the point of view of capital, the illegality of drugs is nonsensical. Here is a whole sector of productive industry that could be profitably organised on a fully and officially capitalist basis. There is effective demand; the labour and means of production required to meet that demand are not esoteric or exceptionally expensive to employ; and the technical expertise of biochemists is not rare either.
To explain it, we need to look at actually existing capitalist societies, and the manner in which they are reproduced. The capitalist class is a minority: it cannot rule on its own votes, nor with pure, naked dictatorial force (you need to get soldiers and police from somewhere). Popular support must be obtained, one way or another; and this in turn requires a legitimating ideology, which can be shared by subordinate classes.
Part of that ideology is, of course, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’: a liberal ideology of individual freedom. In Anglo-Saxon countries especially, however, there is equally the ideological and political tradition described in Max Weber’s The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Capitalism was brought to maturity under the dominance of pietistic Christianity.
We should stress that there was no necessary reason for it to have done so; most other limbs on the tree of global religion have proven themselves, in the intervening centuries, perfectly amenable to business-friendly interpretations. Yet we are where we are; the two great recent epochs of capitalism, British and then American imperialism, inevitably take on a flavour of their hegemonic powers.
This puritanical streak in Anglo-American culture, perhaps surprisingly, has not always been most in evidence among its reactionaries. In antebellum America, particularly, there were substantial overlaps between abolitionism, support for labour organisations and the temperance movement. Their political descendants achieved alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
By that time, however, the former progressivist leanings among this milieu had all but disappeared. Today, so has the overt religiosity; but there remains, in its place, a deep moral suspicion of fun: a taboo in the reactionary mind against indulgence for its own sake, and most especially the sexual and chemical indulgence that so horrified their forebears.
Despite the obvious and catastrophic failure of alcohol prohibition, criminalisation has ever since been extended to drug after drug, with - if anything - worse results. Drug usage, if we insist on viewing it as a problem in itself, does not decrease; indeed, there are more heroin addicts in Britain today since the full criminalisation of the drug (as we would expect after alcohol prohibition in the US, which saw pre-existing drunkenness-related offences soar).
That is hardly the point, however. Humans have taken drugs for many thousands of years - perhaps even as long as the species has existed. The essential feature of human consciousness is its reflexivity; it is a malleable material, that can alter itself. What else is education, or the synthesis of experience in memory? Drug use - recreational or instrumental, sacred or profane - is simply one more way to do so.
Banning it, however, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - the prohibition itself renders that which is prohibited pathological. Drug users are forced to form enclosed, exclusive subcultures; they thereby, inadvertently, take themselves out of the subtle regulation of social and peer pressure. In a crack den, there is no bartender to tell you when you’ve had enough.
On the side of production, things are far grimmer: the risks of business soar, but so do the potential profits. Unable to rely on the ordinary mechanisms of commercial law, large-scale operators need the ability to apply force themselves. The result is the militarisation of the industry, most starkly obvious today in Mexico, parts of which are now essentially lost to cartels who make Islamic State look like the Chuckle Brothers.
Just as inevitably, the state response has to be military. Between the two, tens of thousands of people are murdered every year. If things continue to get worse, Mexico will join a frighteningly long list of failed narco-states, from Colombia to Afghanistan - each one a bloody rebuke to drug prohibition.
If nothing so terrible is likely to befall British society when this fatuous, incompetently-drafted bill - with dreary inevitability - makes it to statute, it is only because the pre-existing illegal highs will take up the slack. We can be quite sure that the journalists and MPs so keen to lock Britain into a war against human nature will face no great difficulties obtaining their Colombian marching powder; only the downtrodden suffer for this madness.
The communist - the rational - answer is simple: legalise the lot.