Injecting morality back into the drugs debate

The obsession with measuring the physical effects of drugs means never championing the joys of reality over the black hole of drug-induced fantasy.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

According to a major new review of Britain’s drug policy, the moral condemnation of drug use is outdated and ‘medieval’. Instead, policy should be purely pragmatic, seeking only to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

There is apparently no real moral problem with taking cocaine. The problem is the 24-fold increased risk of heart attack immediately afterwards; problems sleeping and eating properly; and a stiffening of the facial muscles and a damaging of the nasal membranes as a result of snorting. Other problems include social harms such as the disruption to family and worklife, and a contribution to crime and disorder in the local community.

The commission of experts at the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) criticises the notion that ‘seeking to alter consciousness through drug use – whether for enlightenment, pain relief or simply fun – is terribly dangerous and morally wrong’. Indeed, it notes that many people experience drugs as a positive force in their lives, an ‘antidote to boredom, a route to adventure and risk-taking’ which may ‘bestow feelings of power and competence’.

This report shows the difficulty in laying down moral lines today; the inability to say that there are better and worse ways of seeking our pleasures and directing our energies. Who is to say that the satisfaction gained through popping a pill is any lesser than the satisfaction gained through working at a job or a relationship? The report notes that drug-taking has always existed – ‘Mankind has always sought doors in the wall of reality’ – and who is to say that reality is any better than fantasy?

All moral judgement is replaced by the management of harm, minimising the damage that individuals cause to themselves and each other. If looked at from the point of harm, the drugs classification system is found to be ‘irrational’. In a table ordering drugs by the ‘mean harm rating by independent experts’, heroin and cocaine are first and second, but alcohol comes in at number five and tobacco at number nine, much higher than the Class A drugs LSD (at number 14) and ecstasy (at number 18).

Indeed, if you drink plenty of water and don’t mix it with other drugs, ecstasy causes very little damage at all. Clubbers dance off their drugs in private rather than loitering around the streets, and their general sense of love makes them more personable than the average drinker (or the average drugs-free citizen, for that matter). They feel good, they behave well, they damage neither their internal organs nor other people’s property. In contrast, alcohol eats away at the liver and tobacco at the lungs, which is – in the mind of this commission – much more concerning.

Yet those on ecstasy or LSD are off their heads, in a world of their own, while smokers of tobacco could well be composing sonatas or mathematical theorems. Ecstasy offers a sense of supreme satisfaction: a sense of internal peace, unity with everybody and everything, and a superhuman power. To take ecstasy is to seek unworldly satisfaction at the drop of a pill. To have a cigarette is to have a mild head rush.

It seems policy now only talks the language of concrete effects, of heart problems and cancerous growths, monetary costs and social disruption. For example, one downside of cannabis factories is that they cause fires. The report notes that: ‘In 2005 the London Fire Brigade reported some 50 fires caused by dangerous makeshift electrical connections set up to heat cannabis-growing operations.’ Scale that up across the country, and this is likely to add a point or two to its harm rating.

In appearance, the policy of harm management looks hands off, leaving people to make their own decisions and merely ensuring that they don’t do too much damage. The report recommends that heroin should be prescribed to addicts, to keep them off the streets and away from criminal networks. Clubbers should be reminded to drink water and not to mix drugs. Offenders who have detoxed in prison should be warned of the dangers of overdose if they go back to heroin outside, and advised that they would be better off with a lower dose to start with.

In reality though, the policy of harm management is much more intrusive. It views society as a complicated network of potentially damaging actions and relationships, and sees it as the role of officialdom to keep an eye out and step in where necessary. All areas of social policy merge into one: damage limitation. So the RSA commission recommends merging drugs policy with policy on tobacco and alcohol use, as well as housing and unemployment and regeneration policy. No area of social life is beyond the purview of harm limitation.

And when it comes to treatment, it’s not just a matter of telling people to stop taking drugs – instead, treatment becomes an investigation of their job situation and family relationships, to unpick the causes of their behaviour and to measure the harm that they are causing others. We are already seeing such an intrusive approach in the ‘drugs courts’ of both the USA and the UK, where addicts are supervised through their efforts to go clean, with the judge becoming half-therapist, half-father figure.

Behind this lies a new model of the individual. The individual is treated not as a moral agent, capable of deciding right from wrong and being held to account for his or her decisions, but as a person who constantly needs to be guided down the right tracks. This means less an occasional slap on the wrist from the authorities, than the constant watchful eye and supervising hand.

Of course, the RSA commission is right that current drugs policy is a mess. The classification system makes little sense, as evidenced by the constant dilemmas about whether cannabis should be Class B or C. Authorities are torn between moral statements blaming drugs for every social problem under the sun, and pragmatic policies such as leaflets on ‘Safe Clubbing’, needle exchanges and shooting-up rooms.

The RSA commission also talks sense with its argument that drug use shouldn’t really be a crime. Drug use is largely a private matter, and most users cause very little real damage to anyone or anything but themselves – unlike crimes such as robbery or assault, which clearly interfere with other people’s ability to go about their lives.

Which is all the more reason to remove drug use from criminal sanction – and return it to moral sanction. We should be more moral about drugs, not less – because the main violence done by drugs is not to people’s internal organs or to the local fire service, but to their aspirations and their sense of reality. What is at stake is the notion that we should seek our thrills from life, from the efforts of our own hands and the love of those close to us, not from the coursing of MDMA around our bloodstream.

This is only a decision that individuals can make for themselves, though; it is a matter for internal reckoning. It should not be a matter for the police or the courts – and should certainly not be a matter for official harm-managers, examining your heart functioning or calculating your contribution to local crime statistics.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Politics


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