Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jun 2006
Source: Sunday Herald, The (UK)
Some issues are so serious it takes a comedian to tell the truth about them. Ben Elton didn't tell the MSPs on Holyrood's drug and alcohol committee anything they didn't already know last week. They are acutely aware that hard drug abuse is one of Scotland's key social problems. So why did they feign shock and surprise when he proposed a radical solution: the end of prohibition. It's not as if they haven't talked about it themselves.
Well, it's our old friend political acceptability. The voters would be appalled to know the truth: that far from combating hard drug-taking, the present laws are promoting it. Politicians pretend to fight the war on drugs, even when organisations like the Strathclyde Police Federation tell them it's a lost cause.
There are more than 50,000 known problem drug-users in Scotland, and they're getting younger: nearly 30% of pre-teens have been exposed to drugs, according to Glasgow University. The casualties include the 11-year-old girl who turned up at primary school high on heroin. The Scottish Executive is threatening to take up to 50,000 children of drug- abusing parents into care in what might be called the Pol Pot solution.
Up to three-quarters of property crimes are thought to be drug-related and 70% of prisoners enter jail with a drug problem. The jails simply become smack universities dominated by drugs barons. Of course, prisoners are offered help to get clean and some do. But the final idiocy of our system is that - as BBC Scotland revealed in 2002 - - some prisoners who have broken their habit are being given hard drugs by the prison authorities to "retoxify" them before release, so they aren't killed by their first fix of high-strength street heroin.
When we are putting prisoners back on drugs for their own safety, only to take their children away when they get home, it is surely time to start asking if there is in fact a better way. There is, but it needs economics, not zero tolerance.
By allowing the criminal underworld to retain a monopoly on the supply of drugs we have allowed it to build a unique trade. Narcotics is the only busi ness in the world selling a commodity that creates its own demand. Consumers become salesmen as addicts turn into pushers to finance their own habit. The result: a UKP300 billion-a-year global industry that is spreading like a disease.
The underworld mystique of drugs, captured so well in the film Trainspotting, is highly seductive to troubled young people in the West who find that, perversely, addiction gives their empty lives a kind of meaning. It is something to do. A chance to opt out of the world of work, pensions, mortgages - all the numbing complexities of modern life.
To break into this, two things are necessary: the market for drugs has to be tackled at source, and those afflicted by this disease must be prevented from spreading it. Tackling at source doesn't mean bombing poppy fields in Afghanistan. Four years after the allied invasion of that country, it is producing more opium than ever. Market forces are far more devastating than explosives.
Take the money out of drugs and you take the criminals out, too. This requires an alternative supply regulated by the state. As soon as addicts leave prison they should be put under medical supervision and provided with heroin under prescription, as was the case in the 1960s . We already dope them with methadone, so why not give them the related chemical, diamorphine, which is widely believed to have fewer side-effects?
The NHS could provide a reliable, safe supply, in registered premises, provided the addict agreed to voluntary rehabilitation. Regulating heroin like this would prevent addicts falling back into the cycle of dependency that turns them into criminals . It would wreck the business model of the drug industry, ending its monopoly and dispersing its sales teams.
As for the mystique, only by medicalising this problem can drug addiction be exposed for what it truly is: a debilitating psychological dependency rather than a bohemian lifestyle choice. It is a medical condition which can be managed - but is unpleasant, often painful and ultimately life-shortening. Addicts are like any ill person, they need help.
Most people I speak to who have any knowledge of the problem believe something like this must happen eventually. But, unlike Ben Elton, I would not immediately legalise all drugs. Non-medical use of heroin should still be a serious offence, and pushing a very serious one. This way the law would help the detox programme by increasing the incentive for addicts to use state heroin rather than street heroin. This way abusers can be monitored and targeted to help get them off drugs. But in the end, it is up to the individual : if someone is determined to kill themselves, by drugs or other means, society can't stop them. But society can protect its children .
Now, the obvious objection is that voters wouldn't buy it. I mean, turning the government into a drug supplier? Monstrous idea. Well, it might have been 20 years ago, but attitudes change. Drugs are part of popular culture, as Ben Elton said, and everyone under 40 has either taken illegal substances or knows people who have. The clubbing scene runs on ecstasy and amphetamines . Cocaine is everywhere; in politics, business, the arts. Cannabis is virtually legal already.
The present generation knows the score: that drugs aren't going to go away and that pious hypocrisy is the last refuge of the politician. I bet half the MSPs in Holyrood have taken drugs. Which means this is the first generation of politicians that could demonstrate that the drugs really don't work.