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Double standards on drink and drugs

During the early half of my City career, I attended a lunchtime lecture in a church on City Road, in which drugs czar Keith Hellawell preached fire and brimstone against the evil narcotics corrupting our nation.

cannabis joint ashtrayHowever, one substance was conspicuous by its absence from his lengthy list, and I picked him up on it as he descended the pulpit with applause ringing in his ears.

Placing my pinstriped self in his path and requesting a moment of his time, I asked him if – since he believed drugs were so much worse than alcohol in their corrosive effect on society – he would prefer to walk down a dark alley full of cannabis-smoking youths or one packed with heavy-drinking teens. “It depends how much they’d been smoking,” he replied cautiously.

“Let’s say you didn’t know the details of either group,” I replied. “All you knew was that one set were smoking; the other drinking.”

“Then I suppose I’d go down the alley of smokers,” he muttered before stalking off down the aisle and out into the Moorgate sunshine.

His hypocritical – not to mention plain counterproductive – attitude was no different from that of much of the British public who, egged on by an ever more incandescent tabloid press, have swallowed the lie hook, line and sinker that drugs and alcohol are to be viewed as completely separate entities. While alcohol is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged as being part and parcel of the fabric of one’s social and professional life, drugs remain utterly taboo, and their use puts the user at risk of societal isolation.

I have encountered the same duplicity when interviewed by the press on the subject of my latest book. My admission to spending three of my six City years doing coke on a nightly basis has, unsurprisingly, been the focal point for many of those building a story around my experience. Yet the far more prevalent abuse of alcohol in the financial district is brushed under the carpet and laughed off, as though the mental and physical side-effects of drinking are no more serious than the grazes a footballer receives after a hard 90 minutes’ kickabout.

I’m neither proud of my cocaine use nor ashamed of it; while it would be foolish to say it never did me any harm, or that what didn’t kill me made me stronger, it certainly had no more far-reaching effect on my health than three years’ hard drinking would have done, nor the same amount of chain-smoking tar-lined cigarettes. Unlike alcohol, cocaine is not a depressant; unlike smoking – whether cannabis or cigarettes – it has not been proved to have carcinogenic properties.

Of course, cocaine is not without its severe side-effects, as I know only too well, but it never made me violent, aggressive or in any way a danger to others – a far cry from the results of a generation’s binge drinking on high streets the length and breadth of Britain.

When I asked Keith Hellawell my question back in my early twenties, I was still of the view that since alcohol was legal, then drugs ought to be too. While I continue to believe that to be the case from the perspective of wanting to apply the same sauce to the goose as to the gander, in fact I would prefer the law to be framed the other way round: that alcohol be added to the list of proscribed substances, since it has been amply proved to have just as devastating an effect as hard drugs on individual users’ health, not to mention society at large. Annual alcohol-related deaths are, it is often quoted, far higher in number than the total deaths from smoking and drugs combined.

Some defenders of alcohol’s legal status fall back on historical arguments to bolster their position, acceding that were alcohol to be invented today, it would be immediately banned – but that since it has been permitted since time immemorial (with some notable exceptions), it should enjoy immunity from restrictive laws.

That stance is built on such shaky ground as to render it almost entirely redundant. Plenty of formerly set-in-stone edicts have been overturned in ground-breaking legal gestures, without the sky falling in or the fabric of society unravelling. Cocaine was criminalised in the 20th century without a fuss; there is no reason – other than for the sake of political and financial expediency – that alcohol should not also be banished to the netherworld of illegality.

There is a case to be made both for and against legalising all drugs, including Ray Lewis’s impassioned article on Cif this week, but not for treating equally damaging substances differently just because it suits the status quo. As the Guardian reported yesterday, firms are cashing in on their employees’ casual drug use via random tests which allow them to fire “guilty” staff and save money on redundancy packages.

But, of course, any alcohol use is of no concern to the bosses, since its legality prevents them being able to save money when sacking the individual concerned. Their interest in their staffs’ recreational habits has nothing to do with care for their health, and everything to do with exploiting hypocritical laws for financial gain.

A good litmus test of whether a person approves of a so-called vice is deciding if they would have a problem with their children partaking in the habit. While I wouldn’t be over the moon if my kids did drugs on a regular basis, I would not have a leg to stand on if I told them that drugs are by definition evil whereas alcohol is perfectly acceptable, simply because the law says so.

Pointing the finger at drug users while turning a blind eye to drinking is as see-through as those who blame the City alone for the credit crisis, without accepting that society at large played a part in the collective bull-market madness. Laws must be set on the basis of their morality and steadfast application of legal principles, not on the back of populist witch-hunts in press and political circles.

Until that happens, the alleyways full of binge drinkers will continue to instil terror into ordinary citizens, and those of us preferring to get our kicks through a rolled-up fifty rather than a pint-glass will have ample reason to rail against the pot calling the kettle black.

By Seth Freedman

• Seth Freedman’s book, Binge Trading, is published by Penguin.