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Don’t talk to Frank about drugs

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

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