Drugs debate: high on myths

The mindless hedonism of the drug culture is no more attractive than the small-minded moralism of traditional Tory Britain.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

UK home secretary David Blunkett’s indecision over cannabis reveals the crumbling of establishment support for the war on drugs, which has been fervently pursued, both by the New Labour government and its Tory predecessor, for more than a decade.

But if the anti-drugs campaigners are priggish and authoritarian, the arguments of pro-drugs campaigners are often equally unappealing. Their claims that cannabis has unique healing powers, that heroin is harmless, or that ecstasy can bring peace and love to the world, are as unconvincing as their opponents’ assertions that all illicit drugs induce brain damage, psychosis and infertility. The mindless hedonism of the drug culture is no more attractive a prospect than the small-minded moralism of traditional Tory Britain.

What is behind the current controversy over drugs policy? It is worth looking first at the failure of the war on drugs.

  • The ‘war on drugs’

Since the ‘Heroin screws you up’ campaign of 1985/6 (whose poster made an early contribution to ‘heroin chic’), successive governments have promoted anti-drugs propaganda, education and treatment programmes, clampdowns on users and dealers, bulk seizures by police and customs authorities, and measures to deter supplies from countries where illicit drugs originate. The net result is that, according to official surveys, we now have higher levels of consumption of a wider range of illicit drugs than ever before.

It seems that more and more people are taking drugs and at a younger age. The prisons are heaving with drug offenders, and drug-related shootings and other forms of criminality are rampant. For a government that has made pragmatism – ‘what works’ – its highest principle, there can be little escape from the conclusion that the war on drugs does not work.

The war on drugs cannot work because it flies in the face of one of the most cherished values of contemporary capitalism – the ethic to consume. In a society that thrives on the cultivation of new needs and desires, and recognises no barriers to the quest for personal gratification, drugs that offer instant sensation and pleasure have an almost irresistible appeal – for users and suppliers alike. If, as Margaret Thatcher told us, ‘there is no alternative’ to the market, then the demand for drugs will find its supply. The effect of state restrictions on this market has been to inflate prices and profits, creating criminal networks with the resources to corrupt systems of government and criminal justice around the world.

The war on drugs is an attempt to foster a backlash against the drug culture. Its model is Prohibition, the war against alcohol in the USA in the 1920s. Then the US government endorsed the austere rural virtues of America’s founding fathers – industry, thrift, modesty, and, above all, sobriety – against the hedonistic values associated with the ascendant urban culture of mass production, advertising and easy credit.

Yet even though Prohibition enjoyed the support of the temperance movement, a long-established popular campaign, closely linked to the powerful evangelical churches, and with a mass base in small-town America, the values associated with small-scale production could not prevail against the allure of consumer capitalism. The legacies of Prohibition were an increased level of alcohol consumption and flourishing organised crime.

The war on drugs shares the moralistic and conservative features of Prohibition. However, lacking the support of a popular movement and having a narrower base of support, it is more reliant on the state and has a more coercive character. By the middle of the twentieth century, the virtues associated with the ‘Protestant ethic and the Puritan temper’ were already a distant memory, even in small-town America. Today, despite the best efforts of the fundamentalist churches, they are virtually extinct.

The contradictions between the war on drugs and the values of the modern USA have become increasingly apparent. While the police round up young blacks in inner-city areas and the courts impose heavy sentences for the use of crack cocaine and heroin, higher quality drugs are widely used by business executives and professionals, who run little risk of facing the sanctions of the criminal justice system.

Respectable parents who were born in the post-war baby boom and came of age in the radical 1960s – like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – may equivocate over whether they did or did not inhale cannabis in their student days. But, for their children, smoking cannabis at a party or taking ecstasy at a club are as familiar as drinking alcohol.

The recent burst of public discussion over drugs in Britain reveals a growing recognition that here, too, the government is losing the war on drugs. It exposes the gulf that has emerged between a public consensus favouring prohibition (which has been officially endorsed by all the mainstream political parties, and has been dutifully relayed through the media and the education system) and the private reality of large-scale illicit drug use, particularly among young people.

Signs that this consensus is now breaking down are a serious problem for a government that has invested so much in the war against drugs. While controversy rages over whether cannabis acts as a ‘gateway’ to other drugs, there can be little doubt that the trend towards relaxing law enforcement against cannabis users opens the gates to the wider deregulation of drugs. If cannabis use is to be tolerated, then it makes little sense to continue criminalising its supply. If trading in cannabis is to be legalised, then why not also legalise ecstasy and other hallucinogens, cocaine and heroin?

  • The dangers of drugs

This latest debate has also brought forth warnings about the health dangers of drugs. According to Susan Greenfield, regarded by some as ‘Britain’s premier brain scientist’, drugs like cannabis ‘interfere with the careful interplay of chemical and electrical impulses between cells, throwing out the whole balance of the brain – either by causing too many chemicals to be released or by stopping chemical transmitters in a cell reaching the vital receptors’ (1).

Another pharmacology professor, Heather Ashton, is quoted as saying that ‘memory loss and cognitive deficits can persist years after stopping cannabis use; there is a far greater risk of developing cancer; it can precipitate schizophrenia; it decreases the sperm count; it can produce hallucinating flashbacks and it is linked with violent crime’ (2).

Such statements link together descriptions of the effects of drugs at the cellular, individual and social levels in a way that is tendentious and simplistic. Claims that cannabis causes any of the evils listed by Ashton are disputed in academic circles – as are rival claims of its therapeutic value. Yet these terrifying accounts of the dangers of drugs are presented in the popular press as though they are based on firm scientific authority.

While these scientists may be knowledgeable about the effects of drugs on neurotransmitters in the brain, this knowledge provides little insight into the effects on the human mind – let alone into the wider personal and social consequences. The recruitment of specialist scientific expertise to bolster the familiar prejudice that drugs are dangerous does little to advance the debate.

The narrow focus of the drug debate on biochemical effects on the brain misses the point made nearly two decades ago by Norman Zinberg in his influential book Drug, Set and Setting (3). Zinberg argued that, in considering the impact of any particular drug, its pharmacological properties were less important than the character (‘set’) of the individual taking it, and the social context (‘setting’) in which the drug was taken. As he observed, the same drug could have widely differing effects on different individuals, and in different social situations.

Thus, for example, alcohol has very diverse effects on individuals in the same society, and markedly divergent effects on different societies. In contemporary Britain, the majority of people periodically drink alcohol in social situations without adverse consequences, but a small minority drink compulsively and excessively in a way that is damaging to themselves and to society. In Mediterranean countries, wine is consumed virtually universally with meals, with much benefit to individuals and little detriment to society. By contrast, in aboriginal societies in North America and Australia, alcohol has had a devastating effect on individuals and on communities. What matters, in short, is not so much the nature of the drug, but the individual taking it and the drug’s role in wider society.

Campaigners for legalisation are as guilty as the prohibitionists of having a narrow preoccupation with the pharmacological properties of whatever their favourite drug happens to be. Thus advocates of cannabis proclaim its benefits in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis, and its potential for the relief of symptoms such as pain and nausea. Research suggests that these benefits may be exaggerated and the side-effects under-estimated (4).

However, these studies are irrelevant to the wider debate about deregulation. The effects of cannabis taken in the forms of tinctures or other extracts, by people seeking relief of symptoms, cannot be directly compared to its effects on healthy young people, smoking it for recreational purposes.

It may be true, as some have claimed, that heroin taken by healthy volunteers in laboratory conditions has few adverse effects (5). But this tells us as little about its impact in the real world as does the ‘heroin screws you up’ propaganda. There can be little doubt that the intravenous injection of heroin by vulnerable young people in marginalised housing estates around the country causes significant damage to health, as well as contributing to wider social problems in these areas.

Many people find taking drugs a pleasurable and stimulating experience. In terms of both benefits and risks, there are important differences among the diverse agents lumped together by the current drugs legislation. Some are derivatives of opium or cocaine, others are stimulants (amphetamines), others still are hallucinogens (LSD, ecstasy). Some, like cannabis, create a heightened awareness of sensory stimuli, others, like opiates, tend towards a soporific effect. Most produce an elevated mood and a sense of release from conventional constraints.

But perhaps the most insidious aspect of the campaign for legalisation is the claim by some of its supporters that drugs have a mind-expanding effect on individuals and a progressive impact on society. Here, for example, is an extract from ‘Confessions of a middle-aged ecstasy eater’, by a self-proclaimed, though anonymous, ‘man of letters’: ‘What happened next was that everything and all at once, while clearly remaining itself, was transfigured, transmogrified, a new self, a simultaneously deeper and higher, older and newer self – smoother and softer and rounder. The world was suddenly guilt-, and worry- and wrinkle-free, palpably, beautifully buoyant – visually, textually, aurally – transcendently right and glorious and divine.’ (6)

Though the sense of cosmic enlightenment resulting from hallucinogens has been celebrated by numerous writers over the past two centuries, it is manifestly illusory. While the occasional experience of an altered state of consciousness may be illuminating, repeated exposures appear to have a mind-numbing effect. It is a familiar experience that the conversation of people under any form of intoxication, though scintillating to them, is less so to any observer not also under the influence.

There are few things more tedious than the preoccupations of people for whom the drug scene has become a way of life. Every illicit drug now has its own subculture, with its own esoteric knowledge, its own rituals and its own argot.

The drug culture elevates ersatz experience over real experience, putting the private world of the drug-taker’s reverie before the life of the individual in society, and encouraging the passive enjoyment of mental states rather than the active pursuit of engagement with others. It is striking that the popularity of drugs has grown at a time when the scope for individual development is constrained in a society whose potential for advance appears to be exhausted.

The high provided by drugs provides a substitute for the sense of personal fulfilment that might once have been achieved through work or through artistic creativity, through passionate relationships, even through religious ecstasy. But to achieve these sorts of natural high requires effort, self-discipline, deferred gratification – all features of the traditional value system that has been destroyed by the rise of consumer capitalism through the twentieth century. Today the very concepts of work and artistic creativity have been degraded, and human relationships are depicted as inescapably abusive and exploitative. Now that any possibility of changing the nature of society has been abandoned, the offer of a drug-fuelled escape from reality finds a ready response.

The fact that many who turn to drugs for release or solace subsequently seek some form of treatment confirms that drug-taking is commonly experienced as a pathological dependence rather than as a life-enhancing quest for transcendence. The increasing popularity of the concept of addiction, covering numerous ‘substances’ as well as other forms of behaviour, reflects a heightened sense of individual vulnerability to external forces (7). It invites a growing scale of professional intervention in personal life, in the forms of counselling, therapy and rehabilitation programmes, all booming in parallel with the expansion of drug-taking.

  • After prohibition?

No doubt the UK government will continue to fight a rearguard battle against drugs, but the real debate has now moved on to the question of what form a new system of regulation might take. While few commentators recommend the abandonment of all forms of official control, most propose a more clearly differentiated approach to different types of drug. Thus, in his contribution to the debate in Ireland, Professor Tim Murphy suggests that cannabis should be regulated in a similar way to alcohol (with restrictions on sale to children, driving under the influence, etc) and that heroin should be supplied by the state to registered addicts (8).

In relation to cocaine, ecstasy and hallucinogens, Professor Murphy has recommended ‘the establishment of an innovative social service, specially designed to monitor and regulate drug consumption in as safe a manner as acceptable and possible’. Others favour a more medicalised, ‘treatment-centred’ approach (9). It is not clear, however, why replacing the police and the courts with social workers and doctors would be much of an advance.

While there is little rational case for any statutory regulation of drug consumption by adults, it is true that the consequences of deregulation are unpredictable. Given differences of ‘set’ and ‘setting’, arguments based on the effects of minor changes in legislation and police tactics in other European countries – a prominent feature of the current debate – are of little value. Yet when we look at the signs of individual insecurity in contemporary Britain, and the decline of social cohesion, it would be foolish to underestimate the potential for the abuse of drugs to intensify demoralisation and fragmentation.

This is not an argument against legalisation of drugs. Rather, it is an argument for shifting the focus of the discussion away from pharmacology towards psychology, sociology and politics. As Murphy concluded, if we want to minimise the harmful effects of drugs through legalisation, ‘that legalisation must be accompanied by other social policies, directed towards the problems that the “war on drugs” helps us to forget’ (10).

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Cannabis reform: what is Blunkett on?, by Josie Appleton

Treating criminals like addicts, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) ‘Cannabis is harmful’, Daily Mail, 11 July 2001

(2) Sunday Times, 8 July 2001

(3) Drug, Set and Setting: The Case for Controlled Intoxicant Use, Norman Zinberg, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984

(4) See British Medical Journal, 7 July 2001

(5) Guardian, 14 June 2001 and Guardian, 15 June 2001

(6) An edited version of this article, published in full in the issue 75 of Granta magazine, appeared – with an editorial disclaimer – in the Guardian, 14 July 2001

(7) See Addiction addicts, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(8) Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland, Professor Tim Murphy, Cork University Press, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(9) Guardian, 15 June 2001

(10) Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland, Professor Tim Murphy, Cork University Press, 1996, p68. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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