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Why won't politicians admit the truth: life is hard, and drugs are fun?

True, drugs can also be dangerous - but criminalising them makes them even more so.

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. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.