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Drugs on the circle line

Commentary by Allan Massie, The Scotsman, Wed Feb 12,1997

Is it wise to have laws which are regarded with contempt by so many people?

When a matter has been argued over for years, even decades, some idiot is sure to say that what we need is a proper debate on the subject. Recently this proposition has been advanced in connection with the future of the monarchy, the legalisation of drugs, and the question of the single currency and further -European integration. Curiously, devolution or home rule for Scotland seems to have escaped; perhaps even idiots realise that it has been debated till we are all weary.

Another curiousity is that arguements or debate over these other matters hasn't advanced a step. It is still exactly where it was years ago, with different people saying the same things (for example, Ted Heath) and, just for variety, the same people saying different things (all those cabinet members who used to be enthusiastic pro-Europeans, and who have now tacked to the open sea).

Take the debate over drugs, recently stirred up again by pronouncements from a couple of rock stars. That in itself is old hat. Rock stars have been speaking out in favour of drugs (and then withdrawing their remarks) for more than 30 years. And people have been responding in exactly the same way. You wouldn't think to judge from the recent hoo-hah that we have been round this course time and again, some of the early starters having been lapped long ago.

What makes it all the odder is that, with only the rare exeption such as Michael Heseltine, leading politicians now all belong to a generation when drug use first became quite common, at least in universities. They are products of the Sixties and Seventies. They must all have known people whose lives were ravaged by drugs, and people who have smoked joints or snorted cocaine, recreationally as the word goes, for years, without apparently suffering gross impairment of their faculties.

I am quite ready, of course, to believe that even in his own rock days, Mr Blair was "too pure of heart and strong of mind to indulge in drug use", but I can't believe he didn't then, or indeed hasn't since, had chums who were not so high-minded. And the same, no doubt, holds true for chaps on the other side of the House, such as Michael Portillo. Yet to hear politicians speak you would think drugs were as foreign to them as they (presumably) were to Harold MacMillan or Clement Attlee.

Of course it is hard to bring this debate to a conclusion. Legalising anything which has been illegal will have consequences at which we can only guess. Nobody knows just what would happen if drugs were legalised, or their use, as the current word has it, were "decriminalised".

But if the debate is to stop running in circles, then a guess has to be made as to what the likely consequences would be. I suspect that there would first be a considerable increase in drug use, and therefore in the number of addicts: that, eventually (in, say, five or ten years) the first enthusiasm sparked off by legislation would die down, and that probably there would be much the same proportion of addicts among drug users as there is of alcoholics among people who drink alcohol. There would be a decline in organised criminal activity, since the supply of drugs would now be legal; there would not necessarily be any decline in the number of crimes committed by addicts to pay for their habit, since many would still be rendered by their addiction incapable of earning enough money to supply their needs.

One arguement for legalisation which seems to me to weigh heavily, and even tilt the scale in favour, is that the present law makes criminals of all those who indulge in drug use, and thereby encourages in them a contempt for the rule of law, and a hostility to the police. It used to be said that Britain was one of the very few countries where the ordinary citizen regarded the policeman as a friend. I am not sure that this is any longer the case, and, if so, the drug laws must be regarded as having contributed to the deterioration in relations between police and public.

The point is that as long as the arguement revolves round the question of whether drugs are harmful and dangerous, or whether taking drugs is just like taking a cup of tea, it is impossible that it should be brought to a conclusion. It is a futile arguement. Of course drugs are harmful, as alcohol is. That is to say, excessive indulgence (itself a phrase open to different interpretation) will kill some people when they are still young, or only in early middle age; it will destroy other lives by rendering people incapable of holding a job or by causing families to break up.

Yet there is also now plenty of evidence that just as many people drink quite heavily, certainly far more than the government's guidelines suggest is tolerable, and yet manage to live purposeful and successful lives, even into old age, so too with drugs. There are many who have been using drugs for 30 or 40 years, and still seem to function not too badly. The one thing then that the long-running arguement would seem to have established that drug use, or even drug abuse if you prefer, doesn't necessarily result in horrible and early death. It often does, of course; regular drug users are likely to have more dead friends than the rest of us have. But then people who drink a lot, or who have drunk a lot, are also likely to have more dead friends than those of us who have always been temperate or abstinent.

This doesn't mean that drugs are good for you. Only a fool would claim that. It doesn't mean that they are not harmful. But it does mean that they are not so inevitably and certainly harmful that it is obviously right that the state should make their use a criminal act. Nobody of sense would advocate drugs, I can't imagine that many parents, even those with experience of drug use themselves, are happy to see their children take drugs, or even to think that they may be doing so. Not many fathers hand out a joint or a tablet with the same equanimity that they pass the boy a can of beer or a gin-and-tonic.

Nevertheless, since nobody can any longer seriously maintain that smoking the odd joint or taking some tablet on a Friday night is any more certainly going to lead to heroin addiction than a fondness for a few pints of beer will inevitably eresult in your becoming a three bottle of Scotch a day man, it is time to face up to the two questions which the debate on drugs provokes.

The first is the libertarian one: to what extent has the state the right (as it indubitably has the power) to tell you which substances you may, or may not, take into your body? This is not a simple question, but, philosophically, it is an important one.

The second is immediately practical: is it wise to have laws which are regarded with contempt and resentment by so many people as the drug laws evidently are... which criminalise so many young people, and which encourage professional criminals, as Prohobition did in the US between 1919 and 1933? That was called by advocates "a noble experiment". It failed, ignobly. How do our drug laws fare in comparison?