Real debate about drugs and addiction is considered taboo by the political class, says Andrew M Brown.
As a rule, politicians only feel able to say what they really think about drugs once they’re safely out of office. Yesterday, Bob Ainsworth, the minister responsible for narcotics policy between 2001 and 2003, called for an end to the “war on drugs”, arguing that addiction is a medical problem and that millions of pounds are being spent without preventing the wide availability of addictive chemicals. Peter Lilley, the former Conservative cabinet minister, agreed with him. “The current approach to drugs has been an expensive failure,” he said. “For the sake of everyone, and the young in particular, it is time for all politicians to stop using the issue as a political football.”
Do they have a point? After all, the purpose of banning drugs, when prohibition took off in the early 20th century, was to reduce the harm they do. On that measure, our laws have been a dismal failure. Addiction costs the British economy billions every year, while channelling billions more to criminal networks.
Simply enforcing the law more stringently, as some propose, is not much of an answer, since few people want to see teenagers filling up prisons for possessing small amounts of cannabis. So what would actually happen if the prohibition on the sale of drugs were lifted?
That’s the trouble: no one knows. The last time all drugs were legally available was the mid-19th century, and that was a more ordered era: then, you could buy laudanum – an alcoholic tincture of opium – for medicinal purposes, in your local corner shop. Some ordinary folk gulped it daily, a bit like Valium 100 years later. In East Anglia, they grew opium poppies in the fields, and used them to fortify the beer. Even fractious babies were dosed with the stuff, which caused some unfortunate accidents. Cocaine, meanwhile, was a key ingredient in a variety of invigorating tonics.
Despite such widespread availability of narcotics, society didn’t fall apart – but then, the Victorians had social pressures which acted as restraints on behaviour. These days, more people than ever before seem to struggle with their appetites, whether for food, sex, booze or drugs. It’s possible that liberalising the law would lead to a catastrophic increase in the number of addicts.
By Andrew M Brown
6:24PM GMT 16 Dec 2010