Drugs and the SWP

The comrades display a one-dimensional vision of socialism, says Eddie Ford

We are sometimes told by facile social commentators that there are no taboos any more. This is clearly nonsense. You only have to say "drugs" and "legalisation" in the same breath to realise that. Anyone brave or foolish enough to brazenly utter these dreaded words whilst attempting to operate within the parameters of official society is in imminent danger of being banished to the political twilight zone. To call for, even just tentatively suggest, that perhaps drugs should be legalised, or decriminalised, is to find yourself part of the irresponsible 'loony' fringe - along with those who go round 'desecrating' the Cenotaph and the Winston Churchill statue.

This was made apparent a month ago when the Police Foundation finally published the results of its two-and-a-half year inquiry on the current drugs laws. The 'controversial' Drugs and the law report made the obvious point that the legal penalties in Britain for possession of cannabis (it is estimated that 2.5 million people aged between 16 and 29 used cannabis last year) do far more damage than anything the drug itself might actually do - more than 70,000 people each year are arrested for cannabis possession, which in 1997 accounted for 78% of all drug offences. It called for the reclassification of drug offences, by making cannabis a 'class C' drug and changing LSD and ecstasy (which some 500,000 have taken over the last 12 months) from 'class A' to 'class B'. The Police Foundation reaches the interesting conclusion that if alcohol and tobacco were made illegal today they would be classified respectively as 'class A' and 'class B' drugs - ie, cannabis is "less harmful" than booze and fags, in the estimation of the report.

There was also a recommendation that there be a cut in jail sentences for heroin and cocaine possession from a maximum of seven years to 12 months - it is reckoned that up to 250,000 are addicted to these 'hard' drugs. Such reforms, says the report, would create a more accurate "hierarchy of harm" which will enhance the law's credibility, especially among the young.

Naturally, the good old spirit of British hypocrisy prevailed over logic or rationality. There were no calls for the legalisation of the 'class C' drug cannabis - but then again no demands that the "dangerous" drugs, alcohol ('class A') or tobacco ('class B'), be prohibited either. Instead, Lady Runciman, the chair of the Police Foundation inquiry, preferred a sort of halfway house 'de-penalisation' policy which would not rock the boat too much, declaring: "Change is needed, but it must come in the middle ground between unrealistic legalisation and an unwinnable war on drugs." The Guardian echoed the impeccably liberal sentiments of Lady Runciman, saying, "The ban on the therapeutic use of cannabis should be abolished", and that there should be a "liberalisation" of the drugs laws in general, citing Holland, Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland as countries where "cannabis consumption is lower" and which "have been successful in controlling hard drugs" (editorial, March 29).

The establishment response to the Police Foundation inquiry was swift and predictable. The government immediately rejected the proposals, with a Downing Street spokesperson talking about the "need to maintain firm controls" over drugs - ie, over drug-users. The so-called drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, bitterly complained that the proposed penalties for cannabis possession (cautions, treatment, fixed fines and 'community penalties') were nothing more than a woolly liberal "slap in the face". As for the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, it thundered that the Police Federation's proposed measures would send out "the wrong message" to vulnerable and clearly half-stupid young adults. The Police Foundation report was obviously the work of loony liberals living in Hampstead.

No great surprises there of course. But for communists it is the response of the left and the workers' movement in general to the 'drugs question' that is of vital importance. Regrettably, it has to be admitted that to date the left has shown a marked reluctance to call for the immediate legalisation of all drugs - not just the relatively harmless cannabis. Indeed the CPGB's insistence that such a demand should form part of a communist minimum programme has been treated as an 'ultra-leftist' joke in some quarters, providing for our critics clear evidence that we communists are utterly divorced from the 'bread-and-butter' concerns of the working class. Perhaps even proof that CPGB supporters and members are part of the "middle-class 'intelligentsia'" who are such "a problem in London", as comrade Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party so charmingly put it in Socialism Today (April). At best, the call for the legalisation of drugs is regarded by most of the currently constituted left groups as something to be hidden away in a never-to-be-written maximalist programme.

Once again, nothing unusual in this. Economism is routine fare for the left, who are scared to take a lead when it comes to high politics. However, the problem goes deeper than mere knee-jerk bread-and-butterism. Most left groups seem to have imported some of the bourgeoisie's moralistic and unscientific prejudices about drugs - if not 'human nature' and societal development in general. Rather than taking a militantly political-liberationist stance on drugs, the left retreats instead into a quasi-puritanical, one-dimensional 'health-centred' approach - drugs are bad. Just look at the terrible things that happen when you take them. Addiction. Degradation. Ruined lives. 'Capitalism drives you to drugs' is the message - which indeed it sometimes can. However, under socialism, goes the sub-text of the economistic left, people will start to become more 'normal' again. Why would you want to smoke marijuana or take LSD once you have the right to strike, a 6.7% pay increase, a 'decent' minimum wage, a job for life and a fully-funded NHS?

It does seems to occur to some of these comrades that the eating, chewing, drinking and inhaling of drugs, of one description or another, has been a marked and distinctive feature of humanity since it first started to develop culturally (ie, consciousness) and organise itself into groups, clans, tribes, etc and then more and more complex social forms. Cave paintings were executed by Shamen high on hallucagenic drugs. Animism was intimately associated with a whole range of narcotic substances. The priests of Dionyssus and prophets of Apollo used everything from alcohol to magic mushrooms. Nor were the tribe or gens averse to using the appropriate drug during the countless holy days and festivals of primitive and ancient society.

'Hard' or 'soft' drug-taking is not necessarily therefore a feature of despair and alienation. Under the communist society of the future, it will be an entirely open-ended question as to whether humanity as a whole will take greater or lesser quantity of drugs than is currently consumed, or indeed whether it will invent and develop completely new drugs, 'recreational' or otherwise. (In a similar fashion, one cannot say in advance whether population levels will increase, decline or remain roughly the same under communism. Either way, it is 'a problem' that humanity can solve - ie, a non-problem problem.)

The Socialist Workers Party's approach to the drugs question is fairly representative of the left - in that it implicitly seeks to circumscribe human freedom (or potential) by evoking 'normative' paradigms of social behaviour. So in a recent issue of Socialist Worker Kevin Ovenden complains that "the Tory and New Labour policy of further criminalising drugs has failed to stop people taking them" (my emphasis, April 8).

This immediately begs the question: why would socialists and communists want to "stop" people smoking cannabis, taking LSD or, for that matter, drinking pints of lager? These are all experiences which - depending on the specific social conditions and location - can undoubtedly expand and enhance human pleasure. When SWP members retire to the pub after a particularly stimulating branch meeting it is not unknown for comrades to drink various amounts of the drug alcohol. Why? Because they enjoy it - not because they are weighed down by the misery of capitalism and the unutterable horror of the human condition. Harmful? Only if such activity is not harmoniously integrated into the totality of their social existence. If that is true for a 'class A' drug like alcohol, why cannot it be true for all drugs - 'hard', 'soft' or indeterminate?

However, comrade Ovenden continues in his 'health-centred' vein. Quite correctly in many respects of course, the comrade lambastes Jack Straw, as "he offers little help to thousands of people driven to such despair that they become dependent on hard drugs - which truly can damage health". True, but surely the same could be said about the 'class A' drug known as alcohol, which is freely available (and advertised) on every street corner.

Comrade Ovenden is glad that the Police Foundation "acknowledges that the pressures of unemployment, increasing stress at work, and so on drive people to escape this reality through drugs". He adds: "It does endorse some policies which in other countries today, or in Britain in the past, have helped control hard drug use. For example, GPs in Britain could prescribe drugs for addicts until the late 1960s. That limited the scope for big-time drug-dealers, and helped people dependent on drugs to control their use and get off them" (my emphasis).

This comment, which differs little from the wisdom dished up by Lady Runciman and The Guardian, reveals the limitations of the comrade's non-liberationist analysis. Socialists and communists should be aiming to socialise drug-taking - as with all other aspects of human behaviour and life - not necessarily curtail it. We want the human individual to exercise full and real control over his or her (so-called) "hard drug use", not to be socially controlled by agents of the bourgeois state, no matter how benevolent they may seem - GPs, doctors, health experts, etc.

Unfortunately, this fundamental point seems to escape comrade Ovenden, who goes on to state rather direly: "The police and prisons cannot tackle dangerous drug use. The NHS and social services can help - if they have the resources and provided drug-users are not treated as dangerous criminals. Shifting resources and changing the law in that way would be part of transforming society as a whole so that the misery that pushes people towards drugs could be eradicated." Once again the comrade presents us with a skewed vision. He can only see drug-taking (excluding alcohol consumption of course) as 'a problem' that has to be sorted out by the state, not by the self-activity of the drug-taker. Nor do we get from comrade Ovenden a clear and resounding call for the abolition of the drugs laws - ie, a demand for legalisation. Frankly, what we get instead are worthy, but superficial sentiments, and an essentially unimaginative reformism (born of economism) that thinks the answer lies in "shifting resources" and "changing the law" so that GPs can prescribe 'hard drugs' to addicts. We too, it hardly needs saying, are in favour of the state providing the means to tackle the genuine misery of drug (and alcohol) addiction.

Naturally as a socialist and pro-working class organisation, the SWP cannot abide the lies, cant and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie when it comes to the 'drugs question' ... which are indeed foul, irrational and obnoxious. So almost by default comrade Ovenden edges towards a principled position, cautiously writing: "The report stops short of calling for the legalisation of cannabis. But it wants to make possessing it no longer an imprisonable offence. The police in Holland do not prosecute people with small amounts of cannabis for personal use."

Whoopee! Should we all move to Holland then? Unfortunately, comrade Ovenden neglects to tell us what the Socialist Workers Party thinks is the correct and principled position on drugs, as opposed to the practice of the police in Holland. Not for the first time, nor, we suspect, for the last, the SWP has ducked a key political question for the workers' movement for fear of being thought 'unrespectable'.