The bars of Westminster are lined with politicians slurping their way through bottles of fine claret and the pub trade in the area does very well. As they poison their livers, they’re all too happy to use the up-surging bile in their anti-drugs tirades. Yet, alcohol causes on average 15,000 deaths per year, whilst Ecstasy causes just 30. Should we stop listening to the politicians’ anti-drug advice?
Danny Kushlick, of drugs policy think tank Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, believes many politicians are secretly against their publicly fanfared war on drugs: “Most politicians, off the record, would agree that the war on drugs is overwhelmingly counterproductive and that a system of regulation would help things no end.”
It’s easy for political expedience to trumpet anti-drugs rhetoric, even if the evidence points towards the opposite conclusion. But, there’s a deeper level to prohibition. A whole industry has been built off the back of the criminalisation of drugs, as Kushlick points out:
“We’ve had 50 years of a political rhetoric combined with a financial and political resourcing of prohibitionist empires; from prison building to the drug enforcement agency, police, intelligence services, security services, and a lot of political capitol built on that.”
There’s a heavy reliance on the status quo, with any move away spitefully criticised as being “soft on drugs”, or surrendering to organised crime. So why would any professional politician jeopardise their career?
“It provides what appears to be a very, very strong position for politicians, because it’s built on 50 years of propaganda, which is very difficult to turn around. While all the evidence shows that this is one of the stupidest things on earth to be doing, that can’t possibly engage with propaganda. This is because propaganda doesn’t deal with evidence, it deals with its own internal self-referential truth. It isn’t amenable to evidence, it’s only amenable to more bullshit.”
Kushlick points out that the approach to alcohol and tobacco is completely different to that of illegal drugs, but that we “have around 8 million tobacco addicts, and between 2 and 4 million chronic drinkers”.
“The problem with initiatives like Talk to Frank is they are built on a drug policy framework that is hypocritical to the end.” Meanwhile, he says, things like cannabis is trated as a “scourge”. Those two messages, he says, “don’t stack up”.
The skewed signals being given out by Frank can be seen on its website. The organisation states about alcohol: “For most people, if you drink within the sensible limits for regular drinking, that’s OK.”
However, its message about illegal substances, many of which are less harmful according to scientists, is one of risk and dire consequence, even in moderation. Are most young drug users acting irresponsibly?
“If you look at the rates of use amongst young people…the vast majority use them relatively safely…the significant problems with use of drugs are related to alcohol and tobacco – but that’s not what most people will think of amongst the general public. If you ask them what the most dangerous drug they know of, a lot will say pills are. This is because of all the propaganda built up around Leah Betts. Clearly there are risks associated with it, but these are relatively minimal compared with those associated with the abuse of alcohol.”
A big risk, caused by criminalisation, is you can’t tell the purity of a substance you may take. Indeed, horror stories have emerged about drugs being cut with poison.
However, the UK’s leading centre for information and expertise on drugs DrugScope said: “The idea that drugs such as heroin are commonly adulterated with dangerous substances such as scouring powders, rat poison, ground glass, brick-dust etc has no foundation in forensic evidence.
“Anecdotal evidence from drug workers, drug users, the police, and the politicians means that reports of adulteration are common but its existence is unproven. There are many reasons why drug dealers would not want to cut the drugs they sell with dangerous substances.”
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is an independent body of experts who advise the government on drug related issues in the UK. However, the government often goes against the advice of the ACMD, with the most recent example being the reclassification of cannabis from class C to B, which the ACMD opposed. The Council have also stated that the current classification system “is not fit for purpose”. In a new system they proposed, alcohol ranked as more harmful than ecstasy, LSD and cannabis.
By Shane Croucher