We Must Face The Fact That The Drugs War is Lost

We Must Face The Fact That The Drugs War is Lost
Posted by FoM on March 17, 2002 at 10:33:13 PT
By Colin Blakemore
Source: Independent UK
Just to get this out of the way: I am not one of those people who is soft on drugs. I believe that the rise of illegal drug use is one of the most corrosive changes in our society during my lifetime. In many developing countries, ruthless drug cartels control agriculture, the economy and politics. Drug supply is a major criminal activity in the developed world, while the demand for drugs fuels much of our lower-level crime. 
The full cost of drug use in Britain, in terms of policing, crime, health care, and social impact, is incalculable. We all grieve for the young lives that have been ruined or lost because of illegal drugs.Nevertheless, as one of the first signatories of the Independent on Sunday decriminalise cannabis campaign, I applaud the courage of David Blunkett for moving towards reclassification of the drug, and for lifting the taboo on debate about the drug problem. I hope that this debate will now become broader, and will consider the possibility of a radically different approach to the use of mind-altering substances of all kinds.Over the past 40 years or so, national governments and international agencies have poured enormous resources into efforts to stem the production of drugs, their distribution and supply. That battle has not been successful. Judging by the availability, the quality and the price of street drugs, as well as by the large fraction of the population using them, draconian policing has failed.Opposed to this gloomy picture of a world overwhelmed by drug use is the fact that virtually all human societies live with (and always have lived with) their own socially accepted drugs. There is no convincing rationale, and certainly no consistent scientific basis, for the choice of drugs that are considered mere social lubricants and those that are outlawed.Most developed countries tolerate alcohol and nicotine, both of which are powerfully addictive. Much domestic violence and violent crime is alcohol-related. Chronic alcohol abuse has well-documented health risks, including liver disease, and severe brain damage leading to dementia. And, as the labels say, smoking kills. It is indubitably linked to cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a host of other serious conditions. On the basis of current medical knowledge, out of the social drugs used around the world, it would be hard to choose two more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.So, we cannot argue that our current classification of drugs, and the social and legal attitudes towards them, are entirely rationally based. Many of those who vociferously condemn the use of other (illegal) intoxicants and stimulants happily indulge in alcohol or tobacco, and defend their right to do so. Can we cut through such hypocrisy and move towards a strategy that will recognise personal freedoms, cope with medical and scientific knowledge, protect people from real dangers and even eliminate the despicable criminal infrastructure of drug supply? I believe that, with political will and public support, that might now be possible.It is illuminating to consider why attitudes towards cannabis have shifted, not only here but in many parts of the world. The first reason is surely a recognition of realities. In Britain and many other developed countries, recent surveys show that about half of all school-leavers have tried soft illegal drugs  most commonly in this country cannabis and ecstasy. Most of those young people would never touch heroin or crack cocaine. Many go on to higher education. The vast majority get jobs, set up homes and become entirely responsible citizens. Most give up illegal drugs by the age of 30.Our schoolchildren are faced with contradictory evidence. On the one hand, the adult establishment (drinking and smoking, and often even confessing their own indulgence in soft drugs in their misspent youth) tell them that using street drugs is wrong, that it will rot their brains and destroy their lives. But children see their own peers using drugs and yet moving on to live decent, successful lives. It's easy to see why so many flout the law, and, in doing so, lose their respect for it.Against this background of widespread disregard for the law, it's not surprising that public opinion on cannabis has shifted, nor that many of the new advocates of change are middle-class, conservative (with a small c) parents, who know or suspect that their children experiment with drugs and trust them to grow out it, but who live in fear of them acquiring the stigma of a criminal record. Remember that it was Peter Lilley, a Conservative (with a very large C), who moved forward the debate with his proposal that cannabis should be not just decriminalised but legalised. And senior police officers are also increasingly counselling that the fight against cannabis is simply not worth the cost of the effort.The response to this argument is that it is morally defeatist to abandon laws just because they are disobeyed. Many drivers regularly exceed speed limits, but that's no reason to abolish them. I agree, but only if the law is rationally based. Speed limits are enforced for the good of the whole of society, in particular to protect people other than the speeding driver. But drug laws are largely aimed at protecting people from their own inclinations. They criminalise victims.In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection". I wouldn't go quite that far. The law has a responsibility to protect people from doing serious harm to themselves, if only because the health service has to deal with the consequences.That's another reason why attention has focused on cannabis. Despite alarmist comment in some newspapers, the balance of medical and scientific opinion suggests that cannabis is not a highly dangerous drug  certainly less so than alcohol and tobacco. Report after report from panels of experts, reviewing the whole range of evidence, has come to this conclusion. The latest, crucial report came last week from the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It concluded that cannabis "is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society".There is no doubt that the campaign for a change in the law on cannabis has also been propelled by the growing evidence that it can actually be beneficial in certain medical conditions  multiple sclerosis, cancer pain, Aids. But the medicinal value of drugs should, in my opinion, not be confused with discussion about their recreational use. After all, opiate drugs (especially morphine) are widely prescribed to treat pain, but that should not influence directly any decision about the classification of heroin.It now seems very likely that cannabis will be reclassified. That is a sensible step, but it will still leave supply in the hands of criminals; it also offers no special protection for young people and no new approaches to education. I hope that reclassification of cannabis will be the thin end of a wedge of rationality. The debate should be extended to other drugs, to the serious assessment of their harm and to the free supply of drugs (so as to eradicate illegal supply). We will need new international agreements based on proper appraisal of the experiments with cannabis law that are now happening in many countries. Those who wish to keep or even strengthen the current policy on drugs must explain what features of the present situation they are trying to preserve. Their efforts have not been a success. It is time to try a different way.Colin Blakemore is director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Oxford Note: Once cannabis is reclassified, we must have a proper debate on all intoxicants.Complete Title: Colin Blakemore: We Must Face The Fact That The Drugs War is Lost Source: Independent (UK)Author: Colin BlakemorePublished: March 17, 2002 Copyright: 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.Contact: letters Related Articles:Cannabis Report Renews Pressure on Ministers Statement of The Obvious About Cannabis Downgrade Cannabis, Says Official Report 
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Comment #2 posted by Rambler on March 18, 2002 at 06:11:46 PT
A good article
I specially like the note at the end,like a reminder on a list of things to not forget:
"Note: Once cannabis is reclassified, we must have a proper debate on all intoxicants."
Yes.We must have a proper debate!..Indeed
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Comment #1 posted by Dark Star on March 18, 2002 at 05:59:37 PT
Take That, Your Worship
I'd like to see Baroness Greenfield put this article in her pipe and smoke it.
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