Let’s have an honest discussion about drug use
Forty years on from Nixon declaring drugs ‘public enemy number one’ and launching what some call America’s longest-running war, could the UK be about to declare a ceasefire? Last week reports from the EU drug agency declared the UK the drug-taking capital of Europe, yet at the Liberal Democrat conference this autumn, the party voted to establish a panel to consider decriminalising the use of all drugs. The likes of Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins and experts in the area, such as Roger Howard of the UK Drugs Policy Commission, have long been making the case, which has now been reflected by a shift in the mindset of the global elite. On June 2nd, the Global Commission on Drug Policy – made up of ex-presidents of Mexico and Switzerland, the prime minister of Greece and ex-chairman of the US Federal Reserve – called drug consumption to be decriminalised.
For those who have campaigned for a more ‘rational’ drugs policy, this is seen to be an important victory. Yet there is good reason why both those in favour of recreational drugs legalisation and those who oppose it should reject the new calls for decriminalisation: nobody has instigated, let alone won, a moral argument with the public. Considered morally rather than medically, is there anything wrong with seeking altered states of consciousness? There hasn’t been any kind of shift in the public conscience about the ethics of drug use; instead decriminalisation is on the table as a response to the challenges of policing drugs.
In fact, decriminalisation represents a failure to those who have traditionally been in favour of the legalisation of drugs. Nobody is any more convinced than they were previously about people’s freedom to choose to take drugs or the benefits of escaping every now and again into a high. Equally, decriminalisation is also a failure for those who have always opposed the use of drugs. The promise of better management and control of the trade is not the same as ‘winning the war’ on drugs and obliterating the black market: as Nixon first set out to do in the 1970s, and every prime minister this side of the Atlantic has sought to do since.
Decriminalisation is nothing but a pragmatic response to the recreational drugs market. It may seem to sit ill with the intensified government sanitisation of lifestyles and the regulation of legal highs – think smoking bans and the non-stop stream of reminders to limit our alcohol consumption – but actually this is not as contradictory as it seems. If ‘illegal’ drugs are decriminalised, but as highly regulated as tobacco is increasingly becoming, ‘where’s the harm?’, some might ask. Indeed it has recently even become fashionable for some pro-drugs advocates to preach that we should ban booze but pass the Dutchie. Meanwhile advocates for evidence-based drugs policy, such as controversial former ‘drugs tsar’ David Nutt, observe that we should be far tougher on regulating and limiting the consumption of more dangerous drugs such as alcohol, rather than cannabis or LSD.
These tangles over drugs policy should remind us that the trade and use of drugs is not just a policing or crime issue: there is an important moral dimension too. The impact of drugs is not just quantifiable through its impact on police time and the social security cost of addicts. The legal status of drugs says something about how we think young people should spend their free time: it says something about how we define sociability and our relationship to freedom. The reason that drug use has always been such a grey area is that we tacitly accept that our children will hit their teenage years and want to experiment, but we do not want young people to think it’s okay to spend their weekends getting high, or ‘out of it’? These difficult moral issues can’t simply be resolved by tinkering with the law.
And there are many other points that require more than technical interventions. The public remains unconvinced about the positive use of drugs but, equally, it is not particularly keen to give up hedonism. Having an honest discussion about the place of narcotics in society will have far more of a lasting cultural benefit, one far greater than the quick fix that decriminalisation promises. To let decriminalisation slip through the back door would rob us all of the opportunity to develop a position on drug-use fit for the modern world.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Suzy Dean is a writer and journalist. She produced the debate ‘Your mind, your high: is recreational drug use morally wrong?’ organised in partnership with UK Drug Policy Commission, at the Battle of Ideas festival.Tagged in: drugs, opinion
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