There’s a moment in childhood when you lose respect for your parents. Maybe they’re imposing punishments for no good reason. Maybe they’re just refusing to admit when they’ve messed up. Whatever the catalyst, the child is for ever changed: their parents are no longer gods, or superheroes, but ordinary human beings who make mistakes.
The same is true of our relationship with the state, and never more so than in our first contact with the endless, arcane idiocy of the war on drugs. It’s an opportunity for young people of every political persuasion and background to observe political hypocrisy in real time, as dodging every new prohibition becomes an after-school sport.
Nowhere is public policy so profoundly at odds with the scientific and medical consensus. On 26 May, the most draconian anti-drug law ever passed in Britain came into force, threatening anyone supplying any “psychoactive substance” with up to seven years in prison, and defining the contraband in terms so hand-wavingly vague that it could include the smell of flowers or a slice of cake – anything that has a mood-altering effect on the brain.
Meanwhile, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) became the latest scientific consortium to recommend that all drugs be decriminalised and their use and abuse be treated not as a criminal matter, but as a health issue. Even the Times, in a groundbreaking leader column, agreed that decriminalisation is the only sensible step.
Here is the politically unspeakable truth: life is hard and drugs are fun. Drugs can also be dangerous, and criminalising their use and sale only makes them more so. The “war on drugs” has been a catastrophic failure, destroying lives, clogging up the court and prison systems and costing untold billions from the public purse that could better be spent helping people. “Most of us take drugs of some form on a daily basis, and appreciate the benefits they bring,” writes David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and a former chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. “Becoming more aware of the reasons we like them so much, and how we can maximise their beneficial aspects while minimising the harm they do, is a challenge that needs to be taken up by individuals, communities and governments.” This is sound, sensible advice. Unfortunately, it got Professor Nutt fired as an official adviser under Gordon Brown after he pointed out that MDMA is about as dangerous as horse-riding. Westminster is so afraid of pursed lips in the Home Counties that it refuses even to contemplate changing laws that criminalise entire generations and tear communities apart.
Instead, this government, like many before it, has chosen to double down on its nonsensical drug policy. The Psychoactive Substances Act is the legislative equivalent of trying to fix a problem with your computer by sweeping everything off the desk and screaming. It was developed to deal with so-called legal highs, new drugs that have to be added individually to lists of banned substances, and is all-encompassing to the point of incomprehension. Everything even slightly mind-altering is now illegal. Beware of describing love as a drug, because dour, frightened men in suits might send in the heavies to break up your dinner date. The glaring exception, in a clause that throws the hypocrisy of the entire exercise into sober relief, is booze.
Alcohol is the most destructive drug in Britain. The RSPH is not the first to declare it so. Alcohol, under the terms of the new legislation, is an “exempted substance”. No reason or explanation is given for this, because none is needed: this is a British law and in Britain we drink. The law could be better described as a drunks’ charter: away with your hippie highs and modern chemicals and stick to being a good old-fashioned British alcoholic like you were raised to be.
Alcohol is a hell of a drug. Being a non-drinker in a nation of soaks teaches you that. I don’t really drink, not because I’m a purist, but because I’m a thundering lightweight. I have had exactly three hangovers in my life and each one has left me mewling and whining and fumbling for the trouser leg of reality, wondering how the rest of my social circle can bear to poison themselves like this so regularly.
And yet alcohol is also a lot of fun. I don’t have to enjoy it to appreciate that for every nervous day-drinker who can’t cope with conversation until they’re a beer and a half down, for every career alcoholic staring down an early death by cirrhosis, there are a hundred happy party lushes and harmless whisky snobs. Alcohol, like every other drug, causes huge harm when it’s misused. That harm is not going to be helped by sending booze addicts to jail, along with publicans, partygoers and otherwise functioning pissheads. That is one reason the state is not only not considering doing so, but actively avoiding managing what has long been an unspoken public health crisis. The bigger reason is that Middle England loves to drink even more than it hates drugs. Maintaining a moral distinction between the two is an important enabling mechanism.
Drug decriminalisation is as socially necessary as it is politically unthinkable. There’s a paranoid, tweaked-out logic to our current drug policy, an arrogant, wide-pupilled insistence that your most idiotic choices have all been correct and the only possible course is to come down even harder. And yet, just as every child has to learn that their parents are fallible, everyone has to get to know their parents again as adults and understand that they, like you, are human beings, with the capacity not only to make mistakes, but to learn from them. That’s how you grow up. It’s time for a sober, adult approach to substance use.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain