Ecstasy: club drug

Drugs war and its failures

Scott Evans gives a critical welcome to the change in policy proposed by the Scottish government

Scotland’s government has proposed decriminalising personal drug possession - this in the context of the country having the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe. About 1,300 die every year, to which ought to be added the many ways drug addiction affects people and ruins their lives.

This situation is regularly described as a “drug-death epidemic”. If drug use has some epidemiological dimension, drug use and associated death and disease cannot at this point be described as some new blazing ravage ripping through the population. This is an endemic problem, symptomatic of widespread social despair and historical-geographic particularities, which make the problem in Scotland uniquely shocking.

To nobody’s surprise, this has been followed by uproar from the usual ‘war on drugs’ crowd, who act as though giving a single inch on drug policy to leniency or decriminalisation is tantamount to giving society a shove-push start down a slippery slope to moral depravity and degeneracy.

In origin, this militant opposition to drug use is at least in part a reaction by the ruling class against letting the lower orders engage in a little too much that might risk undermining their position as disciplined soldiers of capital, ideologically boosted and spread throughout as ‘common sense’ by decades of scare-mongering media and plain lies. It is an interesting example of where the discipline of the labouring classes is placed above crude economic logic, and where sections of the state operate through individual politicians to pursue a purity politics and disciplining agenda, as opposed to pure profit-seeking.

Obviously, if drugs were fully legalised and fully exploited by the market, even if it were to exclude particularly harmful drugs like heroin, it would be huge business for those who take it up, and the terrain would shift onto one in which our footing would have to change to be pushing for transparency and regulation. Even the cannabis available on the streets has, compared to the recent past, a greatly increased tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content - THC being the psychoactive component, with potential ill consequences for developing minds. In a legal and regulated environment THC strength would be declared when drugs are sold and age minimums applied for stronger varieties, as with alcohol.

But besides this general logic it is also historically contingent. The war on drugs was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and then came to the fore under Ronald Reagan, with Nancy Reagan playing a major role in the campaign. This war has been spread globally, and the UK is one loyal follower of the doctrine. “Just say no!” Nancy Reagan proclaimed, but the trouble is some of those kids may quite enjoy the experience on the whole, and come to reject everything they were told. They will be left with nothing to help them navigate the - yes, dangerous - world of black-market drugs.

But back to the topic in hand. In Scotland the story is mainly not about the issue of drugs for pleasure being clamped down on by the powers-that-be. The widespread use of opiates, particularly heroin, is due to pervasive social despair. From this comes a desire to escape, and in certain environments a turn to drugs can result in strong psychological and/or physiological addiction. This can result in over-consumption, both in one sitting and in general, and the seeking of stronger and stronger varieties - which, if widespread enough, will feed into general social listlessness and decay. So the conservative story is not without any truth, but it leaves out so much and contains so many lies. Its advocates do not really care for sufferers of drug abuse, as they pretend, so that any resemblance to truth in what they say is incidental. There is no room in this narrative for intervention other than the strong arm of the state: no harm reduction, no addressing the underlying social ills, including the inability of the current order to satisfy human needs.

It is, of course, no surprise that the Tory-lite Labour leadership has followed suit in condemning the Scottish Nationalist Party’s proposals for decriminalisation. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has been quoted as saying: “I do not think this sounds like a good policy. I find it quite stunning that this would be a priority for the Scottish government.”

“Quite stunning” for the government of a country with such astoundingly high rate of drug death and disease per capita? The only way Reeves can get away with such a ridiculous statement is because the war on drugs has been successful in ensuring that ideas like decriminalisation are regarded as propositions that only come from the ‘loony left’ and the libertarian right. Which is why a half-smirking, dismissive response like this is not itself dismissed for the insipid, callous disinterest it shows.


Of course, we should not take the ‘hippy road’ and declare that mind-expanding drug-use is the way forward for radical politics - it will feed into political artistic expression, feelings of oneness … and off to the races from there. But rejecting such wide-eyed optimism does not mean accepting any of the lies surrounding drug use generally.

The example of Portugal, which decriminalised personal drug possession in 2001, is routinely cited on this question: it resulted in lower-than-average drug-related deaths and a much reduced drug-related prison population. Any reduction in the prison population is a democratic victory as well, with prisoners often having much of their ability to participate in society substantially reduced or completely removed, including after release.

The truth is that decriminalisation must be supported, not least because it poses the necessity for the production and distribution of recreational drugs to be controlled in a way that ensures their quality, with negative effects minimised as a result. Of course, the Scottish government does not want to go anywhere near there, and explains why its proposals can only be critically supported. So two cheers, not three.

While we must continue to emphasise the facts, however, simply citing working examples is not enough. The liberal idea of ‘If only people knew and took this seriously’ (so much of the liberal approach to climate change too) is not enough. It relies on a liberal-pluralist understanding of the state, ignoring the state’s class character and how it is enmeshed in historical relationships: eg, between the UK and USA. In that light, it inevitably fails to grapple with how collective agents like the working class may mobilise both to put pressure on capitalist governments to change tack, and to organise to replace the entire system of capital.

The legal standing of decriminalisation in Scotland may be a difficult one, leading many to conclude that this is simply a way for the SNP to put the constitutional question back on the agenda again, and in a more favourable way than the clashes between the UK and Scottish governments over the right to hold a referendum, self-ID for trans people, and even bottle recycling.

But the Scottish government may have a better legal standing on this question than it did in regards to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and bottle recycling, where the former was blocked as not being a legitimate devolved matter and the latter as coming into conflict with the Internal Market Act (2020).

In theory, the treaty of union provides that there is no appeal out of Scotland in criminal law matters, so that you cannot appeal to the UK Supreme Court, and so things stop at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, the supreme criminal court in Scotland. Time will tell.

Official madness

From a political perspective, the issue is generally recognised as being downstream of the global war on drugs. The war on drugs - like the global health crisis (particularly acute in Scotland, though no less serious in many other countries) - is one of this generation’s great democratic challenges. To properly be tackled, we need an international approach which links up with similar struggles for reform globally, especially in the heart of the beast, the USA.

It is so painfully obvious that official policy is like putting a finger in each ear with regard to the facts that the issue leads many people, old and young, to question exactly what produces particular policy commitments, if it is not - at least as a baseline - simple and incontrovertible evidence. Unless one is born into an atmosphere of widespread pure cynicism bordering on fatalism, everyone must start somewhere in questioning the economic-political basis of the society, and the generalised madness of drug policy is an obvious place to start for many.

On the one hand, there are calls to treat drug use as a criminal matter. On the other, to treat it as a medical issue. In reality, it is treated (correctly!) as a leisure issue by most drug consumers. There is plenty to be said for alcohol as a social lubricant and, measured on scales of ‘harm done to oneself’ and ‘harm done to others’ caused by taking various drugs, alcohol comes out looking much worse. But, correctly, there is no support whatsoever for a return to the days of the US prohibition.

Harm reduction has to be the basis of a start to a sensible approach. One takes it as given that many people will take drugs, just as many others will drink alcohol, and they must be provided with information and resources to do so safely. Besides cannabis, a classic case of the UK’s absurd drug policy can be seen in relation to psilocybin, the ‘magic mushrooms’, which is a class A drug. That means you can be sentenced for up to seven years in prison for possession, and up to life for its supply and production! Yet in Brazil magic mushrooms are completely legal. In reality psilocybin is as close to harmless as you can get in terms of both ‘harm to self’ and ‘harm to others’, and evidence seems to suggest that it can help in the treatment of various forms of mental illness. But in our enlightened UK psilocybin mushrooms are illegal to even pick when growing naturally in a field.

Cannabis, supposedly legalised for prescription in this country, has still only been prescribed a handful of times, thanks to the limit on application - not to mention the institutional inertia of a generation of doctors either not formally educated in ‘illicit’ drugs at all, or educated to see them as outwith the medical profession and whose benefits rest only on ‘anecdotal evidence’, not peer-reviewed double-blind experiments. Never mind that the law makes it so hard to even do legal, scholarly investigations into these drugs.

With the amount of people who die or suffer serious health issues every year in Scotland as high as it is, it is difficult to see the opposition to such a sensible drug policy as decriminalisation (combined with the institutionalisation of the conclusions of a harm-reduction approach) as anything less than appalling mistreatment through wilful neglect.

To continue to deny the good sense of changing policy on this is to openly admit to treating those suffering today from this crisis as a lesser class of human beings, who can be used as disposable pawns in the game of electoral advantage and global momentum on the topic, spearheaded by the USA. Let us never forget what this corrupt capitalist system and its representatives have done to the people who have suffered, and will continue to suffer, under this punitive policy regime.