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14 December 2021

From the NS archive: Drugs: the synthetic crisis

1 July 1967: More people are going to use drugs anyway, whatever we do.

By Bruce Page

“More than any society before, our Western society is a drug-oriented society,” Bruce Page writes in this article from 1967. The growing public concern around the rising number of recreational drug users, particularly heroin and cannabis, led the UK government to pass several acts in the 1960s. Page discusses the complicated arguments around drug regulation in relation to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1967. The act, or a “hasty response to the panic atmosphere”, required doctors who treat addictions to be licensed by the Home Office and inform the government of the patients undergoing treatment. It also established drug dependency units across England to provide specialist care. Yet as Page points out, “the Ministry of Health stubbornly refuses to grant the hospitals any extra money to set up the centres,” and he cynically dismisses that anyone familiar with “the present dilapidation of the National Health Service can guess what these ‘centres’ will turn out to be in practice”.


So many confusing, over-excited, moralistic and wrong-headed things have been said about drugs in the past few weeks that it is hard to know where to start an article which sets out with the idea of disinterring a few of the basic propositions. For 18 months I have taken a fairly close journalistic interest in the mounting – and in my view largely synthetic – crisis over drug use. It is not an entirely willing interest, since I find it hard to be at ease with either of the two main kinds of people involved: on the one hand the incoherent advocates of the Turned-On Society, and on the other their blackish opponents in the police force, the magistracy, the News of the World office and suchlike reservoirs of the greater British decency. A certain weird fascination which comes from watching the efforts of Authority to grapple with a new and unwelcome social phenomenon maintains one’s interest, but there is little to justify one’s hopes that there may, eventually, be a rational discussion.

The subject of drug use, somehow, seems to afflict people with a secular version of invincible ignorance. It would certainly be my contention that nearly all the official thinking on the subject is done in an atmosphere carefully drained of reality. To take a case in point: pronouncements about hashish usually include somewhere in their logic, explicitly or otherwise, the conception that we might be able seriously to control – even eliminate – the supply of hashish entering Britain. This is clearly not so. Hashish is a light, compact substance which can be simply prepared from the widely-distributed plant Cannabis sativa. This plant grows particularly well in North Africa, the Middle East and the West Indies, where there are large numbers of poor people who, far from disapproving of hashish, use it regularly themselves. All these countries are today easily accessible to the representatives of the British young, who can offer very good prices to the growers. In these circumstances, the law can make it awkward and expensive to get hashish into Britain, but it can’t stop it. This misconception over hashish is only a particularly obvious example. It seems to me that the great debate over the unrespectable drugs is generally being conducted along the wrong lines, in that most of the time is spent arguing about ways of restraining the use of certain drugs, instead of discussing the real situation, in which society does not have any means of significantly restraining their use.

The thing which all the drugs under discussion have in common is that they are all, by their nature, easy to procure. The case of heroin is rather similar to hashish: it can be made by a fairly simple – and if necessary clandestine – decoction from the widely distributed opium poppy. Barbiturates and amphetamines may be harder to make, but as they have to be produced in considerable quantities for legitimate medical reasons, it is always going to be possible to divert a proportion of the supply. This is the essential point: in order for a drug to be visible to stipendiary magistrates as a ‘menace’, it must be easy to get hold of, and therefore essentially uncontrollable. If people were getting high on uranium 235, we could stamp it out, because U235 can only be made from rare materials by a very complex process. The knowledge that the opium poppy can be made to yield the dangerous pleasures of heroin, or that lysergic acid can be turned into LSD, cannot be concealed from people of even fairly simply mental quality, any more than Moslem society could hush up that simple and elegant trick with the yeasts and sugars whose results so many of us find enjoyable. (I think, by the way, that it is a good idea for writers on drugs to declare their own interests. I write as a considerable user of alcohol and an ex-smoker. I once sampled and thoroughly disliked marijuana, and I have no more intention of risking the unrespectable thrills of an LSD trip than I have of chancing my life respectably in a racing motor-car.)

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When I say that the drugs under discussion are essentially uncontrollable, I don’t of course mean that socio-legal distinctions wouldn’t have any results on the way they might be used. If we made our attitudes to heroin far more permissive, up to the point of allowing hoardings saying HARRY’S HEROIN SATISFIES and having it available in supermarkets in cleverly-designed packs, then no doubt more people would use it. And no doubt this would be a bad thing. But more people are going to use drugs anyway, whatever we do: I’m not in favour of allowing the pressures of commercialism to accelerate the trend, but I’m not in favour of believing we can reverse it. More than any society before, our Western society is a drug-oriented society. We use drugs to cure our infections, stifle our pains, revive our energies, resolve our neuroses and calm our sleep. Certain puritanical noises have been made about all this, but it is really one of the better things about our civilisation – one of the things that make a fortunate life more enjoyable in the 20th century than ever before, and make an unfortunate life more tolerable.

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The extent of barbiturate use, for instance, is now very considerable; a recent survey at Hammersmith Hospital has produced the estimate that around 2 million people in Britain are using barbiturates at any one time. This context, one in which the modification of consciousness by chemical means is quite commonplace, is the one in which we should consider the fact that we now have about 2,000 heroin addicts.

Heroin, until the unlucky day when someone discovers a yet more potent product, is the end of the line, and a certain number of people are going to want to go to the end of the line in any society. Heroin is certainly a remarkable substance, the most addictive known; but its properties have been somewhat over-dramatised lately. To hear people talk about the chances of young people ‘getting hooked’, you might think it had the property of eliminating free-will in advance.

This, of course, is not so. It is true that it takes less time to acquire dependence on heroin than it does to acquire dependence on alcohol: but it still takes more than one injection. When less was known about heroin and its ‘ancestor’, morphine, quite a number of people became addicts accidentally, through the use of the two drugs as anaesthetics. This rarely happens today: generally speaking, anyone who is hooked on heroin got hooked in the first place because it was something he wanted to do. Clearly, the state of mind in which a man or woman might turn for relief to anything whose dangers are so obvious and well-advertised as heroin would be a desperate one: and a little reflection on this point will show why so few cures can be permanent, even after the immediate physical dependence has been eliminated.

In a sense, heroin addicts are comparable to the people who are destroyed by another essential ingredient of our civilisation: the motor-car. Our use of motor-cars is responsible for the fact that a certain number of people use them for a journey to the end of the line. The motor-car analogy is useful to some extent in talking about ways of dealing with the drug phenomenon. We realise that the motor-car is potentially dangerous, but we do not make the mistake of thinking we can prevent people using it. We have some controls over its use, of course – speed limits, traffic-lights, places where it mustn’t go, and so on. But we have long ago given up trying to ban it: the most important aspect of our policy towards the motor-car is a series of regulations designed to make sure that everyone who comes to use it has a reasonable idea of what they are about.

At the moment, however, we do not seem to be reacting with equal sense to the increased move towards drugs: The Dangerous Drugs Bill, now wandering through Parliament, bears most of the signs of a panic measure. Acting on the belief that over-prescription by a few impressionable GPs has been responsible for the sharp increase in the number of heroin addicts, it proposes to remove the right to prescribe heroin (and the less important cocaine) from GPs, and give it to hospital ‘treatment centres’.

The theory is that these centres will prescribe with more accuracy, and so eliminate the surplus which established addicts sell off to neophytes. In this way, it is thought, the problem will be contained and the increase of addiction slowed down – perhaps halted. This might be true if the centres are properly conceived and handled: that is, given adequate psychiatric staff who can be available 24 hours a day, and are given time to specialise. But this is unlikely to be so: the Ministry of Health stubbornly refuses to grant the hospitals any extra money to set up the centres. Anyone familiar with the niggardliness of our general social policy and the present dilapidation of the National Health Service can guess what these ‘centres’ will turn out to be in practice. They will be scantily-equipped subdivisions of general psychiatric out-patient clinics, manned by overworked doctors whose minds are on other things half the time. It is extremely doubtful whether this will be any better than the old system of treatment by GPs, and it might be a deal worse if the general attitude is just to cut down on the amount of heroin handed out. This would simply result in an extended black-market. Without any financial provision for the centres, this section of the bill is very hard to take seriously, and leads one to think that the only part of the bill which means anything is that which gives the police the power to detain and search anyone whatever on the suspicion that he or she might be carrying any of a large number of drugs, quite apart from heroin.

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The bill is really no more than a hasty response to the panic atmosphere whipped up by an enormous amount of hysterical publicity, chiefly in the popular papers. Large numbers of ordinary people up and down the country, who have never been anywhere near a junkie and would not know a purple heart from a Disprin tablet, have been advised that a huge national scandal has been engineered by malevolent drug-pushers, and that their sons and daughters are in mortal danger every time they go into a discotheque. The facts are that British society is not being shaken to its foundation: even the hippiest teenagers do not as a rule become silly enough to try heroin: marijuana and hashish may have some ill-effects, but if they do they are not dramatically obvious yet, and if such ill-effects are found, then neither drug is all that hard to give up.

There is no need to panic. What there is a need for is some cool thinking about ways of handling the increasing popularity of drugs other than alcohol and tobacco – and to take an obvious point, we need to make sure that they don’t become vested commercial interests on that sort of scale. This is the mistake we made with tobacco: we have now discovered that it is a very noxious drug, but it is so deeply embedded in our economy that we have to let people go on promoting its use vehemently and publicly. (The awkward thing about tobacco is that the dangers it poses are remote in time, so people can easily allow themselves to ignore them.)

There are, surely, some rough estimates we can make in trying to work out a sensible drug policy. One is that very few people are going to want to poison themselves with anything so obviously deadly as heroin: this drug is something of a case apart, and we should help the people who are ensnared by it without drawing melodramatic conclusions from their plight. Another is that we should call a halt to the present stupid and ill-informed police campaign against users of marijuana and hashish. It will hardly be possible to accede to the hippies’ demands and legalise cannabis and its derivatives immediately. But we shall have to devise a means of controlling its importation without handing it over to private enterprise, and this will require some investigation. Suitable places to look for experience might be the nationalised liquor industries of Scandinavia, and those North African countries which have realised that untrammelled use of a confusing drug like cannabis does not go with running a modern economy, but that eliminating the use of the stuff is impractical. It hardly seems impossible, if only the hysteria-mongers would shut up, to work something out.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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