The Right Tool for the Job

Apropos of my extended article on the irrationality of the UK’s approach to formulating public policy on the use and abuse of narcotic drugs, I find that Bearwatch has read something into the article that simply isn’t there:

Unity at the Ministry of Truth offers 15,000 words to justify the legalisation of drugs

There’s nothing in the article that calls for or even seeks to justify the legalisation of drugs, generally. The article simply attempts to explore and explain the failure of the prevailing prohibitionist approach, as adopted by the UK in the 1970s, and the role that media plays in both concealing the failures of this policy and closing down rational debate on this issue.

Nor, I might add, is legalisation the sole viable alternative to the current model of prohibition or, necessarily, an alternative worth adopting. If nothing else, the logistics of legalisation in a society in which there are currently an estimated 300-500,000 chaotic heroin users present a very different set of challenges to those that would have faced the government that had chosen to go that route in the late 60’s, when there were only a few hundred addicts.

A sensible drugs policy starts with the recognition that both that absolute prohibition is impossible and different drugs require different approaches if they are to be successfully controlled and managed, approaches which take into account a range of different factors, starting with the nature and extent of the health risks associated with each drug before moving on to look at the social and economic costs of each drug, and the dynamics of the existing black market for each of them.

Cannabis, for example, is a suitable case for legalisation, control and taxation on the same basis as tobacco. The few acute health risks associated with the drug can, for the most part, be ameliorated by controlling the quality of the supply.Cannabis has two active ingredients, THC, which gives the high and can give rise to a small risk of psychotic episodes in individuals who have a pre-existing susceptibility to mental health problems, and cannabidinol, which is a natural anti-psychotic. As for the chronic risks, these are similar to and on a par with tobacco, which suggests that we simply adopt the same basic regime of high taxation and investment in public health education and cessation services.

Heroin is a different matter.

Here, the evidence supports the decriminalisation of heroin use, but not of supplying the black market, and a return to the pre-1970’s policy of ‘policing and prescribing’ coupled with investment in effective rehabilitation services and, of course, public education. The primary objective of a rational policy on heroin, given the current scale of the problem, should be to bring existing use (and users) under control in order ameliorate the health risks and social problems associated with chronic, chaotic, heroin use and break the link to the black market, which is where the real problems are created. Do that, and then you have a base from which you can work both to reduce the existing numbers of users and prevent new users entering the market, managing out much of the existing problem over time.

Set again that rational approach, Bearwatch cites ‘Theodore Dalrymple’, who parlays his experiences as a former prison doctor into the crass and grossly oversimplistic assertion that ‘it’s criminals who turn to heroin, not heroin-users who turn to crime’, ignoring the fact that its half-baked moralising of precisely that variety that created the current mess in the first place. In the real world, beyond the prison walls, things are nothing like that simple, for all that Dalrymple is correct in much of the rest of his commentary on both patterns of pre-addiction usage and on the subject of withdrawal itself. Chronic heroin use is most prevalent, and strikes most damagingly, in poor communities where is serves as a means of self-medicating away the depredations of poverty and the sense of hopelessness this engenders by deploying the age-old right-wing canard of blaming the victim for their supposed moral defects rather than tackling the real problems that are to be found in such communities; low aspirations, low educational standards and a lack of suitable employment opportunities.

Prohibitionism has it roots in the same brand of Victorian lower middle-class class-hatred that prompts its adherent to witter on endlessly about the evils of liberalism, welfarism, the 1960’s, and the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor, a credo that sits squarely at the heart of Britain’s sustained and unenviable history of policy failures on drug use where, as the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee correctly noted, there is no solid evidence to support the view that the current system of classification and criminal prohibition of drug use has any deterrent effect on either drug users or those who supply the existing black market.

Adopting a rational, evidence-based approach to formulating public policy on drug use is not, as the title of Bearwatch’s article suggests, ‘a rope to hang ourselves’, it is nothing more than a sensible and honest means of addressing, controlling and managing out a very real set of issues and problems by seeking out and adopting policies that actually work.

And that’s all that I’m actually advocating here, and in my previous post – using the right tools for the job.

  • john gibson

    I have just read the post in question and I can’t see what Bearwatch is on about.

  • “Chronic heroin use is most prevalent, and strikes most damagingly, in poor communities where is serves as a means of self-medicating away the depredations of poverty and the sense of hopelessness this engenders by deploying the age-old right-wing canard of blaming the victim for their supposed moral defects rather than tackling the real problems that are to be found in such communities; low aspirations, low educational standards and a lack of suitable employment opportunities.”

    I think the real question that we need to ask is “why are these aspirations, etc. so low compared to, say, 60 years ago?”

    60 years ago, incomes were lower, benefits were lower, many things were more expensive, the jobs that were available were, let’s face it, utterly shit (working down a mine, for instance, was not a barrel of laughs), etc. Why then, should people turn to heroin now, and not then?


  • Philip I
  • Unity, if I misunderstood, I apologise. Though in your rebuttal above you give a couple of instances where you would indeed legalise, it seems: “Cannabis, for example, is a suitable case for legalisation”; “evidence supports the decriminalisation of heroin use”.

    And having seen a kind, noble-spirited, talented personal friend lose (through the persistent use of cannabis and its more potent version skunk) his business, his clever and beautiful girlfriend (who also suffered a cannabis-related psychotic episode), his mental peace and ultimately (by his own hand) his life, I am not inclined to regard even cannabis as a harmless indulgence.

    In the lively response to my own post, there have been some that appear to be very enthusiastic about decriminalisation of all drugs (I can’t of course, hold you responsible for their position on the subject.) And that is certainly an issue worth debating, with both practical, evidential and moral aspects to consider.

    I think it’s fair to use Theodore Dalrymple, since he has had very considerable experience of dealing with drug abusers at the lower end of the social scale. I understood that his point about crime and heroin was a factual observation of his, not a moral opinion.

    I also think it is fair of Dalrymple to observe that changing the law could have undesirable consequences not expected by the advocate of decriminalisation – you will recall that a fundamental medical principle is “First, do no harm” and a conservative (small C, please) approach in these matters is entirely laudable.

    I agree with your point that drug abuse is as much a consequence as a cause of the user’s problems; but the relationship between drug and abuser is like two facing mirrors, since once on the habit, the problems appear to become more entrenched, more complex and worse. I’ve suggested that drugs pickle the victim in his misery; and this is the view of many of the black community, who see liberalisation as, paradoxically, an oppressive form of social control on their fellows.

    DK, I think your question really strikes to the heart. Like Unity, you look for underlying causes, but the solution of these may not begin with the liberalisation of drugs. I can’t say what things were like 60 years ago, but my memory of the mid-sixties to early 70s is that there was a general sense of hope and excitement; and although the jobs themselves might not be that exciting, there was some sense of collective identity and purpose. Call out the instigator, etc. We didn’t know where it would lead, but it was going to be good. The new frontier was artistic and psychic, which is why Timothy Leary could entitle his book The Politics of Ecstasy (a book that thrilled me). And things were going to get better materially – as they had, dramatically, since the privations of the 50s. There was plenty of employment, people could start to afford cars and holidays, their children could go to university – it was all opening up. A town planning office I worked in for a while, had a 25-year-old in a 40-year-old’s job – the public sector was expanding, promotions were coming fast. The Baby Boomers hit the wave just right, and they’re stepping off their boards now. Those born after have, in many cases, jumped up in the trough and been overwhelmed.