Frustration and disgust

Mary Ward reviews ‘Drugs and the party line’ by Kevin Williamson

For me this book sums up everything I knew to be the case about the phoney and hypocritical “drugs war”, but I never had the facts to back up. Now, thanks to this unemotive book which oozes with truth and clarity, the facts are there for all who want and are prepared to see them.

The 36-year old ‘war against drugs’ costs world governments at least £69 billion per year. It funds anti-drugs agencies who are fighting a battle that was lost before it began. This book starts by looking at the first attempts at alcohol and tobacco prohibition. It concentrates on the lessons that should have been learnt from the Great Prohibition in America in the 1920s. “Virtually overnight the Land of the Free became a land of smugglers, gangsters, pirates, moonshine liquor, police and judicial corruption, and political chicanery, with the whole sorry mess dancing to the tune of speakeasy madness and machine guns on the streets” (p13).

Prohibition, Williamson argues, does not stop substance use; it only criminalises the users. He shows that attacks on recreational substances have gone hand in hand with attacks on the culture they are part of. Cannabis was banned as the result of vested economic interests reacting against a ‘threatening’ youth culture which they seemed unable to control. This often had racist undertones. Not only were there hysterical attacks on the tablet Ecstasy, but also the 1997 Criminal Justice Act banned illegal gatherings which played “loud repetitive beats”. Ecstasy, techno and dance culture were demonised in one fell swoop.

Prohibition and abstentionist messages are the ones the bourgeois reactionaries - Labour and Tory - feel most comfortable pedalling. It suits their pseudo-morality and ‘Christian values’. It gets them elected through playing on irrational fears and makes them appear strong law and order types. Yet in reality they are hypocrites who willingly suppress the facts while young people, particularly working class youth on the council estates, are crimialised as a direct result of their ‘drugs war’.

Williamson provides the reader with facts and statistics which cannot rationally be argued against. Despite the expenditure of billions, illegal drug-taking is inexorably on the increase. The people who benefit from prohibition are the anti-drugs agencies set up to ‘tackle the problem’ and the gangsters whose trade in illegal drugs is worth £400 billion per annum.

Decriminalisation along Dutch lines would be a positive step (from the point of view of users), but still leaves control in the hands of gangsters.

The facts point to the logic of the legalisation of all drugs, thus reducing drastically drug-related deaths, wiping out the black market and cutting property crime (a heroin addict on the Castlemilk estate in Glasgow needs £300 a week to feed their habit - crime becomes inevitable).

Williamson shows clearly that prohibition/abstentionism does not work, but believes that there is much more to harm reduction than needle exchanges and methadone programmes. One of his most convincing arguments is when he details the Widnes experiment, where Dr John Marks provided pharmaceutical heroin to registered addicts. The results were phenomenal and have subsequently been suppressed by government agencies:

The addicts were able to stabilise their lives and function as part of their communities. Real harm reduction was taking place. All of this has been reversed since the experiment was closed down, allegedly through lack of money. Drug tsars are apparently more Sun and Mirror-friendly than a ‘free drugs to junkies’ policy.

As you read the book, you cannot but help be filled with a sense of frustration and disgust. Disgust that the ‘debate’ goes on without working class people being given the facts or a voice. Instead, salacious and sensational media stories are where working class people are expected to get their ‘facts’ about drugs. Frustration, because if the real facts were made clear and prejudice and moral panic were taken out of the debate, the ‘great British public’ would be demanding the legalisation of drugs.

While the politicians lie, it is our young people who are criminalised - not Sir Elton John and Bill Clinton. When children as young as 10 are injecting heroin in Glasgow’s estates, then clearly current laws protect no one. Williamson shows harm reduction as a package of education, facilities and legalisation, but sets the problem clearly in the context of alienation under the death throes of capitalism.

Williamson’s work does a service to us all and should be compulsory reading for all those who simplistically think the message should be ‘just say no’ to drugs.

Mary Ward