The 'war on drugs' makes a comeback, says Eddie Ford
Almost enjoyably, we have had a whole procession of senior Labour politicians - including home secretary Jacqui Smith and chancellor Alistair Darling - sorrowfully admitting to smoking cannabis during their heady, youthful student days. But naturally, that was a long time ago and they are grown-up, mature boys and girls now.
So, first off the confessional starting blocks was Smith in her interview with GMTV, which - maybe it was a thin news day or something - tried to make it out as "scoop". Smith, now a sensibly aged 44, told the doubtless shocked British public that she had smoked cannabis while at Oxford University during those crazy 1980s. Yes, she sighed, she had smoked it "just a few times" - though, apparently, she had "not particularly enjoyed" it (well, that's not so bad then - serves her right) or taken any other sort of illegal drug. Most definitely not. However, continued Smith, when all is said and done, "I did break the law" and "it was wrong" - as, obviously, "drugs are wrong". Totally wrong.
Then, in what The Guardian rather primly described as a "shock admission" (July 19), Darling came clean, put on the government-issued sack cloth and told us he had "occasionally" - enjoyably or otherwise - taken cannabis when he was an irresponsible youngster. All piling in now, home office minister Tony McNulty informed the BBC that he had "encountered" the weed "once or twice" when at university - and he also made the unremarkable observation that "not many people" who were at university with him "didn't at least encounter" cannabis at some stage.
Whether shockingly or not, Charles Clarke, one of Smith's predecessors, has also joined the club - yes, he had done it as well. More than once. Not to mention Ruth Kelly, John Hutton and Andy Burnham, the chief secretary to the treasury, all of whom have now confessed to "experimenting" with the drug. And, of course, both Hazel Blears and Yvette Cooper had previously owned up to their disgraceful drug-taking past.
Not that the Tories are immune to a spot of public breast-beating. We all remember how in 2005 David Cameron, then a hopeful contender for the post of Tory leader, cryptically informing a fringe meeting at that year's Conservative Party conference that he had had a "typical student experience" - which upon further elaboration in a television interview came down to the fact that he did "lots of things before I came into politics which I shouldn't have done". But in partial defence, "we all did" back then, said the hoodie-hugging Cameron - just as we all "err and stray".
However, patently, the 'war on drugs' is back - and it is as ugly and irrational as ever. There is a Whiggish view of history, shared by some who claim fealty to Marxism, that social and cultural progress is inevitable - that it is the natural evolutionary destiny of 'bourgeois democratic' societies to progressively clear away superstitious nonsense, and hence the democratic gains which the bourgeoisie has supposedly so nobly bestowed upon us are immutable and eternal.
Well, communists do not share this view - in fact, we think it is pernicious bollocks. Bourgeois-capitalist society is, by definition, prone to irrational spasms and panics, dependent on the ceaseless ebb and flow of the class struggle.
Therefore, it is far from impossible - to put it mildly - that gains, or social-cultural attitudes, thought as irreversible can come under sudden siege. Or even be rolled back altogether, to paraphrase Thatcher's crowing comments about socialism. Homosexual and abortion rights, for example, can and might be whittled away - unless we militantly defend and fight to advance these partial gains.
And exactly the same can be said for cannabis. There is no iron law of history which decrees that the bourgeoisie will finally see sense and legalise the drug - so therefore there is no point making a political fuss about it. The conditions exist in UK society, especially given the dismally low state of working class politics and organisation, for the 'war on drugs' to be intensified, not diminished.
Clearly, we have had intimations of this with this recent round of mea culpas. There are those, most notably in the rightwing media and the police, who want to 'roll back' the 2004 reclassification of cannabis - when the drug was downgraded from class B, which included things like amphetamines, to class C, alongside substances like anabolic steroids. From then to now, possessing cannabis has been largely a non-arrestable offence.
For the 'class B-ers', the 2004 rejigging of the drugs laws was a scandalous concession to the 'promiscuous' agenda of the liberals and politically correct left. Something had to be done.
Step forward then the ever reliable, but half-barmy Daily Mail pundit, Melanie Phillips - always willing to fight the good fight. True, the flaky Phillips is not exactly an advert for the joyous benefits of drug-free sobriety, but she does perform the handy (albeit perverse) function of neatly summarising the prejudices of the most reactionary - or rotten - elements in society.
So Phillips lets righteously forth in the pages of the Daily Mail that the "reclassification of cannabis" has been "ruinous". Recent studies, she claims, "have shown a huge jump in cases of cannabis-induced psychosis and schizophrenia" and "medical researchers have demonstrated the way marijuana destroys the brain's safeguards against insanity".
And who are the main villains of the piece, according to the vexed Phillips? Obviously, this terrible state of affairs is the "direct result of the lethal irresponsibility" of what she terms the "drug legalisation lobby" - who have acted in "taking off the law-enforcement brakes". Regrettably, she concludes, the British "establishment has been comprehensively hijacked" by this lobby.
Therefore, she concludes: "Drug use can be tackled successfully only if the message is clear, consistent and totally uncompromising: all drug use is totally beyond the pale because no society can tolerate the harm it does .... No amount of cabinet confessions or political point-scoring alters the fact that 'harm reduction' is taking us down that catastrophic road. Mr Brown must unequivocally change direction" (July 23).
Well, Melanie might just be in luck. Brown has indicated that he might indeed be willing to "change direction" when it comes to the UK's drugs laws. He has announced to parliament that the newly contrite Smith would be heading a substantial "review" of the government's drugs strategy - including, of course, the laws relating to cannabis/marijuana. Part of this review, Brown declared, would involve giving "support for communities who want to chase out drug dealers". In other words, the current laws regarding cannabis possession could be reversed, with the drug returning to its class B status.
In conjunction with Brown's parliamentary statement, the home office has confirmed that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - and one of the objects of Phillip's ire - is being asked to investigate reports that the "danger" from cannabis is "increasing" due to the "wider availability" of more potent strains such as skunk. And if we are to believe some of the wilder stories that have appeared in the press, one puff of the evil skunk is guaranteed to get you off your face ... and, before you know it, plunge you into the dark pit of psychosis and schizophrenia.
Now, communists do not deny for a minute that skunk - or any other drug, for that matter - can under certain circumstances have a deleterious, or even disastrous, effect upon certain individuals. It would be idiotic to say anything else. But, surely logically, this possibility only serves to make the case for the legalisation of all drugs stronger. At the moment, given its illegal and thus unregulated status, drug-taking is a far more risky venture than it needs to be. Quality control, needless to say, is hardly the prime concern of the criminal gangs that control supply. To a greater or lesser degree, you could be taking anything.
After all, just imagine if you went into your local pub one day and all the drinks were utterly unfamiliar - all the bottles contained absolutely no information as to the strength or quality of the contents. That 'beer' in your hand could be 3.5% or it could be 15.5% - how on earth would you know? Under such conditions, it is not too difficult to imagine yourself getting utterly smashed. Essentially, skunk is no different to lager, cider or red wine. If you know what you are taking, then you have the chance to treat it with respect - or at least some degree of caution.
Socialists and communists aim not to fight an unwinnable 'war on drugs' - just look at the human disaster zone that is the United States - but to integrate drug-taking into society, making it just as much a normal or mainstream pastime as drinking alcohol or coffee. This is the only rational approach to a habit that millions indulge in on an almost daily basis.
It is a straightforwardly undeniable fact that people take drugs for stimulation or relexation, and always have - whether they are students, journalists or professional politicians. From the broader historical perspective, drug-taking of various sorts has never been unusual or deviant - far from it. Mind-bending substances have always held an appeal for human beings. As a consequence, we have been swallowing, eating, smoking, snorting - you name it - psychoactive drugs since the dawn of humanity and there is absolutely no reason to believe that this will change in the foreseeable future, including the communist future.
Rather we need to humanise and socialise drug-taking, just as we need to humanise and socialise all aspects of human relationships.