Drugs are an established part of our landscape. But how do we reconcile the apparently happy experience of the casual user with that of the addict? And how do we win the unwinnable 'war on drugs', asks Andrew Anthony
Andrew Anthony Like televised sport, taking recreational drugs seems to require running commentary. In fact, two commentaries. First there are the banal observations that accompany drug consumption - 'This is good stuff', 'I'm completely out of it', 'I'm not feeling anything', etc - and then there is the meta-commentary, the ceaseless debate about the role, meaning and desirability of the massive socio-economic phenomenon that falls under the expansive title of 'drugs'.
In the first case, very little changes. Drug conversations, or the conversations of people taking drugs, are no less dull now than they have ever been. The very subjectivity of the topic, its relentless me-ism, makes for a self-indulgence that is consistently uninteresting ( though there are no shortage of transfixing first-person drug narratives in literature ).
By contrast, the public discussion about drugs is constantly evolving. Forty years ago, people were still imprisoned for the possession of minor quantities of cannabis, and the houses of rock stars were regularly searched by the police for the same drug. Twenty years ago, whole fields full of people thought that they had found a drug - ecstasy - that bridged the divide between individual hedonism and communal unity.
Both examples now seem like ancient, even embarrassing, history. Very few people would nowadays support the idea of the police raiding the homes of casual cannabis users. Similarly, even its most ardent cheerleaders of yesteryear would probably see ecstasy as a door to memory loss and anxiety, rather than any kind of new social utopia.
If naive optimism is the thesis and moral panic the antithesis of each new drug trend, in practice the synthesis tends to be a sort of critical pragmatism. Society adjusts to specific drugs in much the same way that the body does: it becomes more tolerant. That's not to say there is widespread sympathy for, say, heroin and crack use. But while their deleterious effects are well-known, the idea that they amount to a kind of super-virulent pandemic has been modified by experience. We know they can be addictive, and we know addicts are often desperate people, but we also know they form a tiny minority in society.
If you're under 40 and walk the length of Oxford Street in London, you might hear ( if you listen ) a solicitation to buy heroin or crack. It's a little shocking at first, especially if you're in the market for leather goods or a new electric toothbrush, but after a few occasions, you realise that it doesn't actually affect or inhibit the main business of the street. For the vast majority of consumers, 'white goods' will never mean cocaine.
Oxford Street is a microcosm of the parallel worlds that operate in every city in Britain. But the divide is not just between drug users and non-users, it's also between types of use. For a growing number of people, drugs form part of their portfolio of leisure: gym on Tuesday, cinema Thursday and cocaine Friday. Drugs, by this measure, are just another consumer choice for hardworking people with disposable income. This is the shiny, if not always happy, side of the equation.
Then there are people whose lives, rather than income, seem disposable. The crack-addicted street prostitutes in almost every major city, the hopeless junkies on sink estates, the criminals who feed their habits with burglary and mugging, and the dealers who criminalise youth and kill one another. There's nothing glamorous nor appealing about this picture: it's a grim, monochrome advert for abstinence.
But is it possible to have one without the other? Does consumer choice necessarily entail social casualties? Is the price of our pleasure inevitably someone else's pain? These are questions that we can't ignore, but at the same time are not easy to answer.
When he became Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Ian Blair tried to address the issue by announcing a plan to target middle-class cocaine users. 'There is a group of people [in London] who think they are doing harm-free cocaine,' he said. 'I'm not interested in what harm it is doing to them, but the price of that cocaine is misery on the estates of London and blood on the roads from Colombia.'
This was a reasonable point, but it raised the question: was it the trade in cocaine that caused the misery and bloodshed, or the fact that the trade was illegal and therefore run by gangsters? To put it another way, were the customers who frequented speakeasies during the American alcohol prohibition of 1920 to 1933 responsible for the St Valentine's Day Massacre and other gangland murders of the period, or was it down to ruthless criminals exploiting an unworkable law?
Every society has its methods and rituals of psycho-physiological release or transformation. In Britain, the preferred means of intoxication has traditionally been, and remains, alcohol. Yet while there are millions who can enjoy a regular glass of wine, or even an occasional binge, without any serious effects, almost every high street and park in the country contains the broken-veined faces of tragic alcoholics. Does one man's after-work Sauvignon blanc necessitate another's breakfast Special Brew?
The consensus in this country seems to be that two legal intoxicants are enough. Most Britons think that illegal drugs should remain illegal, but not that illegal. Ian Blair's vision of dinner-party police raids never really caught on. However, there are signs that what might seem a counterintuitive development is under way in our attitudes towards drugs.
The poll the Observer commissioned shows that just over a quarter of all adults have taken illegal drugs at some point in their lives. That's a large number of people, but it only tells a quarter of the story. Almost half of those in the 16-34 group have consumed illegal drugs, while almost all of those aged over 55 have not.
It might be expected that as young people come of age, bringing more drug users into the democratic realm, and older people die, reducing the number of non-users, attitudes to drug use will grow more permissive.
Yet in the survey the Observer conducted in 2002, 30 per cent of adults thought that the law was too strict. Six years on and that number has dropped to just 18 per cent. There are several explanations for this change. One is that the overall image of drugs has worsened. The high-water mark of social liberalisation may have been reached in this country, for the time being, with the extension of licensing hours.
The backlash against binge drinking and antisocial behaviour in urban centres speaks of a belief that the British cannot be relied upon to control themselves, especially after nine pints of lager. With such public reservations about the sale of alcohol, it follows that there would be a more conservative approach to other drugs.
Another possible reason for the shift in attitude is that there are now more adults with negative experiences of drugs. It could also be that people think that in recent years there has been a liberalisation of the law that now needs tightening. One other possibility is that the publicity generated by various high-profile murders attributed to drug dealers has hardened public opinion. Most likely it's a combination of all these factors.
In any case, the survey shows that six years ago, 66 per cent of adults believed that street crime and burglary would be reduced if hard drugs were decriminalised. Today, that figure has fallen to 56 per cent. It's estimated that around half of all crime that warrants a custodial sentence is drug-related. But the number of people who believe there is a link between the illegal drug market and street crime is dropping.
Still, a majority of adults appear to believe that the decriminalisation of drugs will reduce general crime. That's a startling statistic, because a majority of adults are against decriminalisation. Does this mean that the public would prefer more crime to more drugs? That's doubtful. Instead, it probably points to a realistic appraisal of what is a confused and compromised drug policy, not just in Britain but across the world.
As we have learned from the banking crisis, in the era of globalisation no country is an island. Against the backdrop of the US-led 'War on Drugs', decriminalisation is a misleading and limited enterprise.
At best, it produces the Dutch model, in which liberalisation leads to drug tourism. Yet this kind of initiative does nothing to change the underlying criminal nature of the business, which remains in the hands of international gangsters and their local distributors and henchmen.
The War on Drugs was a phrase, or policy, coined by Richard Nixon in 1971 during his first term as President, as a conscious echo of Lyndon B Johnson's 'War on Poverty'. Never in the history of warfare has a campaign been waged for so long with so few tangible results. Just look at the example of Colombia: it's estimated that between 2000 and 2006, the US government invested $4.7bn on Plan Colombia, a joint US-Colombian project to eliminate coca production in the global capital of cocaine. The net result was that, although production was dispersed to more remote areas of the country, cultivated acreage remained the same.
At the same time, the illicit trade in cocaine funded the Farc guerrillas, renowned for their kidnappings. Similarly in Afghanistan, the Taliban have lucratively exploited the heroin trade, which has dramatically expanded in the years since American intervention. It's no exaggeration to say that the War on Drugs sustains the very people identified as enemies in the 'War on Terror'.
Taking all of these contradictions into account, it's perhaps no surprise that no coherent vision exists of our relationship with drugs. Rather than challenge global policy, we've settled for a more flexible pick-and-mix approach to questions of morality and personal pleasure.
The truth is that very few consumers stop and wonder about the effects of cash crops on developing-world societies when they purchase coffee, and there's no reason to believe drug consumers are any different.
Leaving aside the ethics and economics of drugs, another area of worthwhile inquiry is definition. What makes a substance a drug? Which is to say, why are some drugs proscribed and others prescribed?
One of the most popular recreational drugs of the past decade is completely legal, although in theory available only on prescription. The drug is known to have side effects, including, in rare cases, hearing loss, stroke, hypotension and heart attack, and more commonly, headache, dyspepsia and impaired vision.
Yet millions of pills of sildenafil citrate are sold each year. The drug is also increasingly popular on the club scene, where it is often mixed with cocaine or ecstasy. Its best-known trade name is Viagra.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why Viagra is legal and, say, cocaine is not is that the former, notwithstanding the stated side effects, is deemed to be safe, while cocaine is deemed to be unsafe. In fact they both place stress on the heart, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees, but whereas Viagra was subject to extensive and exacting medical trials before it gained a licence, cocaine has enjoyed no such scientific scrutiny.
Cocaine's physiological effects are known mostly as a result of coming to medical attention. So, by definition, it is the excessive and even lethal aspects of cocaine experiences that have gained the focus of scientific study. Of the many millions of comparatively harmless examples of cocaine ingestion, there are limited data. If nothing else, it does not make for a sensible basis for risk analysis.
However, perhaps the key distinction between cocaine and sildenafil citrate is that they primarily affect different organs. It's drugs that influence behaviour, rather than ability, that really concern the authorities.
You can see why. If someone is passive, law-abiding and responsible in normal circumstances, but becomes violent, reckless and irrational having taken a certain drug, then it has potentially far-reaching social implications that require a social, or political, response. The problem is, though, different drugs affect different people in different ways. Some perfectly pleasant people become obnoxious and aggressive after a couple of drinks, but on the whole we don't define alcohol in terms of this minority experience. In this matter, more than most, it is a question of perception.
As Barack Obama has not stated any plans to alter drug policy, and the US determines international drug policy, the chances are that our holistic experience of drugs will continue to be defined by their illegality. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that in one respect at least we are developing a more mature outlook towards drugs.
Until relatively recently drugs, as depicted in countless songs and films, were viewed as symbols of subversion. To light up a joint, or to slip into the lavatory for a line, was in some vague and unexamined way an anti-authoritarian, or countercultural, act of defiance, and not just because it was illegal.
By dint of the fact that drugs were mostly restricted to an urban elite, they also represented a kind of informed transgression. But the great democratic march of global markets and consumer choice has spread drugs across classes and cultures, and not infrequently to ill-effect. However, this expansion in use has at least demystified drug-taking. It may sometimes be fun, but it's never clever.
Author: Andrew Anthony
Pubdate: Sun, 16 Nov 2008
Source: Observer, The (UK)
UK: Series: Drugs Uncovered: The Agony and the Ecstacy