Scotland Yard, the House of Lords, the Telegraph – drugs have found some unlikely friends. What has happened to the doe-eyed children who wandered London 30 years ago carrying placards proclaiming “free the weed”? These new advocates of decriminalisation wear suits, sit on committees and write articles. They are what used to be called “straights”. Even if they take the stuff themselves, they do not advertise the fact. Their arguments are impersonal and statistical. That is why they will succeed.
It is gratifying to see Jack Straw turn his head to and fro in bewilderment at these new developments. But someone with a more penetrating sense of the times would not have been surprised. Last month’s Runciman report, the result of the Police Foundation inquiry into drugs, merely brought to the attention of politicians a trend that has been gathering momentum for some ten years or more. This trend can be expressed statistically. In 1988, customs seized just under 20,000 kilos of cannabis. Last year, they seized just over 80,000 kilos. And even these figures fail to capture the true scale of the increase, given that an expanding proportion of the nation’s marijuana is homegrown.
But it is not only the figures that have changed. Smoking a joint no longer has the meaning it had 30, 20 or even ten years ago. In the postwar period, drugs were forced to carry a heavy burden of significance. For moralists, they replaced sex as the archetypal symbol of temptation. Promising paradise, they enticed users into slavery and death. The association with sex was made quite explicit in the propaganda films of the period, which usually featured drugged women being debauched. Drugs were also associated with the criminal underworld, bohemia, and the orient of European fantasy.
Sociologists labelled users “deviant” or “delinquent”. All of which, needless to say, made drugs enticingly attractive to anyone dissatisfied with the stuffy rationalism of the 1950s.
What has changed? It is partly down to numbers. The unemployment of the Eighties created a huge market for heroin; the expansion of higher education in the early Nineties created a similarly large market for Ecstasy. The old sociological categories could not be applied to these new users; these were not criminals or deviants, but simply people with time on their hands and money to blow.
The other change has been the discovery of Ecstasy. It was Ecstasy that finally severed the connection between drugs and social dissent. It introduced drugs to a large number of people who would otherwise have scorned them. The appeal of Ecstasy is partly a matter of appearances. There is none of the Sixties paraphernalia of joints and bongs, let alone the more sinister apparatus of heroin abuse. There is just a little white pill. What could be more innocuous?
But more important than its appearance is its effect. Cannabis and LSD, the preferred drugs of the hippies, inculcate an attitude of irony and dissent. They are anti-capitalist drugs. Under their influence, time becomes fragmented and unreal. Things that previously seemed of the utmost importance become hilariously trivial; solemn truths turn into ponderous cliches. And this is an outlook – illusory or profound as the case may be – that remains long after the effect of the drug has worn off. No one with this attitude to life can be expected to respond to the exigencies of the market or the duties of democratic citizenship.
Moreover, cannabis and LSD demand of their users a kind of discipleship. The first time you smoke cannabis, it usually has no effect, or else it makes you positively sick. Enjoying cannabis requires dedication; it only works when you work with it. Cannabis smokers evolve a shared language and set of rituals, a shared sense of what is funny and what is beautiful. This is all the more true for LSD, a drug whose effect depends almost entirely upon the context of its use.
The effect of Ecstasy, on the other hand, is entirely uniform and predictable. Ecstasy switches on a light bulb inside your mind; it remains on for about four hours and then slowly dims. Nothing in your past life or your present surroundings makes any difference whatsoever. Ecstasy is happiness in its most abstract form, divorced from all possible objects of experience. With Ecstasy, happiness has finally become a commodity. The Ecstasy user is the consumer par excellence; he consumes not merely the means to happiness, but happiness itself. And Ecstasy reveals nothing, or at least nothing that extends beyond the boundaries of the experience itself. The sympathy you feel while it is active leaves no legacy; the friendships you make under its influence are false. The experience is completely self-contained.
There is nothing here to disrupt the logic of the market; on the contrary, the market now extends its sovereignty over the inner as well as the outer life.
Ecstasy introduced drugs to vast numbers of ordinary people – people who had no patience for the subtle pleasures of hash or LSD, not enough money for cocaine, and a healthy horror of heroin. The fact that a lot of those same people now take those other drugs – in particular cocaine – does not mean that they would have done so without the mediation of Ecstasy. It brought drugs out of the counter-culture and made them part of everyday life. It is the secret inspiration behind the Runciman report.