Drugs: Irrational war continues

Nick Clegg is calling for a royal commission. Eddie Ford, on the other hand, demands immediate legalisation

Throwing the Daily Mail into a frenzy, Nick Clegg last week condemned the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding the futile and counterproductive ‘war on drugs’ conducted by successive governments for over 40 years. Going over the top with never a hope of advancing an inch, Clegg commented, quite correctly, that “if you were waging any other war where you have 2,000 fatalities a year” and “your enemies are making billions in profits” - not to mention “constantly throwing new weapons at you” - then you would have to admit you are losing and do something different. Maybe even call off the war.

“It’s time we told the truth,” Clegg declared. “We are losing the war on drugs on an industrial scale” - both in this country and globally. The deputy prime minister went on to say that former Mexican president Felipe Calderón had confessed to him last year that his attempt to crush the drug barons by military force had spectacularly failed, claiming 60,000 or more lives in the process. The Mexican killing fields. “We can’t win against these odds,” Calderón had concluded - and he is hardly alone in thinking this. Instead, quite predictably, the gangsters have grown in size and confidence.


Clegg, of course, was giving his backing to the cross-party home affairs committee year-long inquiry, Drugs: breaking the cycle, published on December 10. After taking evidence from “all sides” of the debate, including ‘expert’ witnesses like Richard Branson and Russell Brand (he should know), the committee argued that “more than ever” there is a case for a “fundamental review” of the UK’s ‘anti-drugs’ policy. In fact, they stated, we are now at a “critical” stage - perhaps a “now or never moment” for serious reform. Or just go grimly back to the trenches.

The committee said the prime minister should “urgently” set up a royal commission to look at every aspect of drugs policy and report back by 2015 - no hurry then. Keep filling up the prisons. Keith Vaz, chair of the inquiry, told the BBC’s Today programme that such a request was “not a big ask”. A most modest demand, actually. Indeed, Vaz was at pains to emphasise that neither he nor the committee were advocating as such the “legalising or decriminalising” of any drug - perish the thought. No hippy stoners or irresponsible libertarians on our committee. Merely that the government should “look at what is happening all over the world”: ie, moves towards various forms of decriminalisation. Hence the committee recommended that the British government should fund, despite austerity, a detailed research project monitoring the recent legalisation of marijuana in the US states of Washington and Colorado and the proposed state monopoly of cannabis production and sale in Uruguay.

Among the other recommendations contained in the report is the suggestion that home office and health ministers should follow the example of committee members and visit Portugal to examine its system of ditching criminal sanctions for drugs use. But “don’t get hysterical”, Vaz added - “we’re not suggesting ministers jump on a plane, go to Lisbon and start taking cannabis”. Understood.

Historically Portugal has had one of the highest levels of hard-drug use - and abuse - on the continent, measuring between 50,000 and 100,000 heroin-users by 2000 (with a correspondingly high level of HIV/Aids infection, needless to say). But in 2001 it became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs - defined as up to 10 days’ supply, including cocaine, heroine and LSD. Therefore prison sentences were replaced with therapy and treatment. Yet, far from becoming a drugs tourist hotspot though, as stupidly claimed by those who wished to retain the failed authoritarian policy of prohibition, after five years of decriminalisation Portugal found that the illegal use of drugs by teenagers had significantly declined. Rates of HIV infection also sharply fell, as you would expect, and the numbers of people requesting therapy to get off drugs more than doubled. By any yardstick, a definite and measurable achievement in terms of public heath and general societal well-being. Surely any rational government would want to emulate such a policy success and take seriously the inquiry’s advice that legalising possession of small amounts of ‘soft’ drugs “merits significantly closer consideration”.

Absolutely not. “Drugs use is coming down,” Cameron maintained without any qualification or evidence, and the government’s “emphasis on treatment is absolutely right” - despite the fact that drugs treatment and education is almost impossible to find. And will become even rarer, as the cuts intensify. Just say no and don’t break the law - that is the government’s real policy. Cameron claimed too that the government “can really make a difference”, which is true enough - its reckless and bigoted policies have made things far, far worse. More mendaciously still, if anything, Cameron could not prevent himself from uttering pious nonsense about the “need to do more to keep drugs out of our prisons”. Yet anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with those barbaric, chronically over-crowded institutions knows full well that its inmates turn to drugs - even if they have never been users before - in order to find some release, or temporary escape, from their hellish existence. Alternatively, they can riot.

Meanwhile Theresa May, the home secretary - like the monstrous hypocrite she is - lectured us about the necessity of maintain a “tough stance”. As if closing your eyes to reality means you were dealing with the problem. Let the addicts go untreated and the professional criminals further enrich themselves. Retreating into total fantasy, May claimed that the government was making “good progress” on drugs but, of course, was “open to imaginative thinking” - so long as it does not involve anything even hinting of decriminalisation or legalisation. Nor a royal commission either, which Cameron completely ruled out. Too expensive. A waste of time.

Ed Miliband, naturally, was equally opposed to any decriminalisation of drugs. Just like previous Labour leaders. He is a responsible politician, after all, seeking public office. Tiresomely obliged to put a distance between himself and the government, however - some clear water - he waffled on about how the government’s approach to drugs needed “re-examination” and how the Labour Party will “look in detail” at the home affairs committee report and then “come to a conclusion”. Seeing how any measure of decriminalisation has already been dismissed, such an exercise would be a charade, as only one conclusion is possible - continued drugs prohibition.

Whatever they might secretly think in the middle of the night, both Cameron and Miliband are running scared of the rightwing press. They both know full well that, were they to propose the decriminalisation of cannabis, let alone anything more radical, they would immediately be portrayed as being ‘soft’ on drugs - and probably as lunatics as well. Electoral suicide, in other words.

Risk taking

Trying to get an accurate picture about the nature and frequency of drug use is obviously not a straightforward task. Evidence indicates, though, that it has been falling since its 2002 peak - although that was after a significant rise across the previous two decades. According to the British Crime Survey, which by definition has to be treated very cautiously, in 1996 just over 11% of adults had used an illegal drug in the past year and by 2002 that proportion had peaked at just under 12%. In 2012 it sits at just under 9%. But it would be profoundly mistaken to deduce from these figures that Britain is getting bored with drugs. Drug use remains both higher than in 1990 and than in the rest of Europe and by no means are we witnessing a decline in use across the board.

The prime mover behind the downward trend is cannabis, still the most popular illegal drug (reclassified from class C to class B in October 2009). Now 6.9% use it, as opposed to 10.9% in 2002, so it is a drug which seems to be going relatively out of fashion - possibly because the cannabis market has become saturated by the more potent skunk (though this is debatable). Yet there is no way that this can be attributed to any domestic policy, enlightened or otherwise, pursued by this or that British government. Rather, it appears to be a European-wide trend that has been going on for more than a decade. Class A drug use, however, is higher than it was 15 years ago. Despite falling from a peak in 2002, ecstasy and cocaine are still extremely popular drugs taken by many thousands of people in a wide range of venues, with anything between a quarter and a half of club-goers estimated to take illegal drugs on a night out.

Furthermore, the established dance drugs have been joined by a growing array of new substances, such as mephedrone, ketamine, GHB/GBL, as well as a near bewildering profusion of legal highs (some of which are as potentially dangerous as illegal drugs). Mephedrone, in particular - cheap, easily available and potent - is increasingly becoming an ‘everyman drug’, whether swallowed orally by teenagers or subcutaneously injected by more seasoned heroin-users looking for a bigger fix. For those going on a night out there is an expanding menu of legal and illegal highs to chose from, with users often having very little idea - if any - as to the exact nature and composition of the white powder they are trying (mephedrone, for instance, has a plethora of street names). Every time you pop a pill in a club, therefore, you are taking a risk - no matter how small the probability that you will come to any harm (or even die).

Of course, the same is true of legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco - which by any objective or scientific measurement are highly dangerous substances. But, being legal and regulated, they are subject to quality control and you effectively know what you are taking, weak or strong. If you are drinking whiskey you restrict your intake and if you are on the beer you can be more lax (most of the time). Unlike illegal drugs, where to a greater or lesser degree you could be taking anything - quality control, it goes without saying, is hardly the prime concern of the outfits that control supply. They just want to make a profit by any means necessary (a bit like investment bankers or hedge fund managers).

But at the end of the day drinking a pint of beer or smoking a joint poses no unacceptable dangers, either to yourself or society as a whole. Any more than horse-riding, rugby, mountain climbing or driving a car. You will not automatically die a horrible death nor will civilisation collapse. Hence for communists the crucial struggle is for the socialisation of drug-taking, whether it be alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy - you name it. Far more harm and social destruction has been caused by ‘anti-drug’ laws than by their actual use. Something no royal commission study will tell you, no matter how long the deliberations. Logically then, all drugs should be fully legalised - not just decriminalised or grudgingly tolerated. At a stroke, the gangsters’ lucrative businesses would be wiped out.

There is another very important point to be made. The UK government, like many others, propagates the absurd viewpoint that all users are pathetic addicts enslaved to drugs due to some fatal flaw in their personality - maybe due to a lack of moral or intellectual fibre. Or bad parenting when young. Yet we know that, even with the most addictive drugs (heroin, crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine), most users do not actually become addicted, even under today’s conditions of severe alienation. And, of course, in the beginning nobody is addicted, with almost everyone who tries out a drug doing so through personal choice or a desire for experimentation, rather than having it imposed upon them by an ‘evil’ pusher - a largely imaginary villain found in mainstream Hollywood films and suchlike. The guy you buy your bit of weed off in some London pub or from a friend of a friend is also probably a user like you who deals purely in order to subsidise his own ‘recreational’ drug-taking. No Mr Big, that is for sure.

All of which shows that one of the most important motivations for taking drugs is one which cannot easily be acknowledged by governments and a perpetually fearful bourgeoisie - namely, personal pleasure. People like getting high and have done since the dawn of human history. The hope of finding a higher state of mind or a new beginning, escaping from grievous circumstances or the chains of an unwanted self. Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, the Rigveda describes Hindu priests chanting hymns to a “drop of soma” - the wisdom-inducing plant that “make us see far; make us richer, better”. Philosophers in ancient Greece used to gather at the symposium, which literally means “drinking together”. Seneca, the Roman Stoic, celebrated Bacchus’s embrace as a liberation of the mind - “from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it and emboldens it for all its undertakings”. Omar Khayyam, the feted 12th-century Persian mathematician and astronomer, drank wine “because it is my solace”, allowing him to “divorce absolutely reason and religion”.

David Cameron’s ‘war on drugs’ is a war against human nature. Once we have put an end to the dull, one-dimensional existence of class society, the consumption of ‘drugs’ will not be regarded as a problem. Who knows, it might even contribute to the living of a full, rounded, joyful life.