Decriminalisation: And the point is….?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

In response to my post on MCat (Maurice the Feline), and following the media coverage this week, someone got in touch to ask me my opinions on the decriminalisation of drugs. It’s a tricky one.

If you’re wanting a short, sharp answer to be able to fire off in the office or at dinner parties to make you look intelligent; firstly, you’re in the wrong place, and secondly, sorry but I have more questions than answers on this one.

The first thing that irritates me is the term ‘drugs’ (which I admit may seem odd given my job title). My dispute with the word began whilst working at a ‘Drug and Alcohol Project’ (I have an issue with this use of the word ‘project’ too, but let’s stick to one pedantic rant for now). So I was a drug and alcohol worker. How anyone working in the field could have missed that alcohol is, in fact, a drug was beyond me. I’m no closer to finding the reason for using this terminology so regularly within the field of substance misuse (another stupid coined phrase – who defines what is use and what is misuse??? Probably the same people who pretend that alcohol isn’t a drug. Idiots). The reason it tits me off so significantly is that alcohol is, clearly, so much more damaging than any other substance I have encountered, both in terms of the poisoning effect it has on the body (compared to, for example, heroin, which in its pure form causes NO damage to internal organs), and the fact that every single regrettable incident in my life occurred whilst under its influence. Therefore, the only reason I can see for separating it from other, less sociably acceptable drugs is for the purpose of corporate sale, and to enable the piss-head policy-makers to put some hazy distance between themselves and the demon drug users.

The second issue I see relates again to categorisation. To use the word ‘drugs’ to represent a homogenous group (apart from alcohol… and prescription medications… and things we drink to wake us up a bit at work…) is over-simplistic and nonsensical. And so to discuss decriminalising ‘drugs’ – well, I don’t really know what that means.

Let’s imagine, for example, that on one hand we have a 40-year-old professional who smokes cannabis at weekends, and on the other hand, we have an 17-year-old NEET (not in employment, education or training) who injects crack cocaine eight times a day. These two people have different relationships with their drugs of choice – one is likely to consider himself a recreational user, the other is likely to consider himself as dependent – and so their interaction with the substance will vary unrecognisably. Cannabis Man (wouldn’t that be world’s most boring superhero) may consider his drug as an old, reliable friend with whom he can relax and enjoy a chuckle after a busy week. Crack man (he sounds like a crap porn star) may see his drug as a possessive and abusive partner, a stalker, following him everywhere, getting into his thoughts, forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to, ruining his life. Now the relationship between the drugs and their users are poles apart; so how can they be lumped together as if we were discussing broccoli and cauliflower?

Consider again Cannabis Man, and compare his cannabis use with that of Cannabis Girl, a 13-year-old who has been brought up between her grandmother and local authority care because her schizophrenic mother is unable to parent her consistently. They are taking the same drug, but their reasons for smoking it, how they get the money to smoke it, where they smoke it, who they smoke it with, the effect it gives them, and the likely outcomes of smoking it, are very different. They may both feel that smoking cannabis enhances their lives – but it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see that Cannabis Girl is pretty much heading for the nut-house and will most likely spend her adult life receiving transmissions from extraterrestrials and ducking the invisible bats of death.

Now let’s play a little game – I’ll call it ‘Theresa May.. Or May Not Know What She’s On About’. The home secretary was quoted in The Guardian as saying “People can die as a result of taking drugs, and significant mental health problems can arise as a result of taking drugs.” Take this phrase and remove the words ‘taking drugs’, see what other phrases we can put in their place to make the sentence less pointless. (Sensible choices might be ‘base-jumping’, ‘war’, or ‘Big Macs with cheese’, but you can in fact entertain yourself for some time thinking how death-by-…. might occur – and I will guarantee it will be more interesting and less blandly stereotyped than death-by-drugs. Suggestions welcome.)

I think there are few people who believe that Cannabis Man is a criminal, or would see be any real benefit to the public spending their money labelling and punishing him, and most would see that in charging him with possession of an illegal substance we would probably be doing the country a disservice by adding him to the queue at the Jobcentre. But then wouldn’t we say the same if Cannabis Man also had the odd line of coke at a party? Or even if he had a penchant for the occasional smoke of heroin, as a reminder of his time travelling in Thailand, if he did it in the privacy of his own home and still got up for work on Monday morning?

So my point is – it’s not ‘drugs’, or even any specific drug, that causes problems, it is the context in which the drugs are used. You only need to look at the range of experiences available from the current use of alcohol to see that. Or, to drill down the point, to look at khat use amongst Somali refugees – this plant, chewed as a social custom for thousands of years in parts of Africa, and still widely so, has had devastating effects within some Somali communities in the UK. The substance is the same, the people are the same – but the environment is different, the life experiences are different, and the circumstances within society are different. It is these factors, not the drug itself, that has increased susceptibility to abuse.

So I suppose, in terms of decriminalisation, these points would lean towards the ‘yes’ argument, as the drugs that are classed as ‘bad’ are really not all that different to those that are considered fine and even normal.

I have to say though, when we look at the incredibly damaging spread of the ‘legal high’ where, as I’ve said before, ‘legal’ is often wrongly considered synonymous with ‘safe’ – and then consider a group of teenagers explaining to each other the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘decriminalised’ – I am having visions of the off-side rule. (Come on, most people can’t even define a unit of alcohol..)

One last point, which is somewhat extraneous as it is about legalisation instead of decriminalisation – bearing in mind the number of people who already buy drugs illegally, does anyone actually think that the majority this group would buy taxed goods legally? Legal, decriminalised, illegal – there will always be a black market, and it will always be cheaper than the squeaky-clean one.

7 comments on “Decriminalisation: And the point is….?

  1. Ruthiepoo says:

    I’m outraged that you’ve lumped broccoli and cauliflower together…

  2. oar8 says:

    Hi I have been following your blog for a few posts ,v interesting and refreshing to have commentary from the realities of practice rather than theories of research…I agree the MCaT phenomena has potential to be a wider public heath issue ,however there is no treatment comparison as methadone for opiates- so one wonders ,without the medical profession seeing a way to overpay themselves for pontification and prescribing will they attempt to ignore this one as a health problem,and sideline it as a social and community problem- one for big society to fix…..
    I have been in the field for a good few years and seen the hot potato of substance use fly back and forth from being a health issue to a criminal one..the truth is its neither to any degree – this is where we hit the legality issue…the consequences and product of substance use is the health or crime issue and these outcomes are arguably defined by social construct..drug use is drug use ,and as you well pointed out given gravity by its contextual use – shakespeare, byron and heroin is an interesting reflection…so this leaves me to the place of a balanced view on legalisation being based on honesty about the situation ,and looking at the pro’s and cons of either stance …my view is prohibition based on myth and hysteria fails spectacularly every time a kid smokes a joint for the first time and doesn’t turn into the media image of amy winehouse they then question the whole ability of the state to tell the truth….also worth a mention is portugal (decriminalisation) and more interestingly Uruguay who have decided to take the power out of the black market by growing and distributing their own weed.. Essentially as funny as it sounds we are in allegedly a capitalist era,the home and centre of which is a free market and this should be the basis of decisions not a misguided tory politician believing that if they state ‘we are not going soft on drugs’ in a stern way it has got anything to do with drug use -what he’s talking about is what we’ll do if we catch you – in fact look what were doing to abu q’atada (a war on terrorism -we are still housing and feeding him haha)..the truth I believe is they haven’t got the power to wage a war on drugs never mind win one- from this perspective Mcat is the first of a new strain of super weapons and the war on drugs is essentially a process of criminalising freedom of choice ..drug use isn’t the thing that needs to change -the negative consequences are the things we need to look to change and this single most negative aspect is its position as a criminal currency. Surely if we taxed and sold it as a state purity, information and distribution would be in our control to a greater degree…I know that most young people in most schools will know where to buy weed and will if they want to irrespective of some later consequence…Can we really afford to pass up the opportunity of making money rather than spending it on catching 5% of imports through customs,criminalising young people and dealing with the long term implications on public health and incarceration of a demonised and isolated group of often marginalised vulnerable people..

  3. Al says:

    It would be nice if all the narrow minded, holier than thow folk who aggressively tar all “drugs users” with the same brush could read this. I suspect that on the off chance their one track minds would allow it, well they’d feel quite stupid, maybe even a little ashamed…..good work.

  4. Josh says:

    What a refreshing blog post.

    As someone who fits into the stereotype of the world’s most boring super hero, I do reflect on my own ‘recreational’ use over the last fifteen years.

    Do I regret it? In a sense I do – I’ve wasted alot of time feeling bad for no reason, except “having a come down”. The conversations which seemed so fascinating during my smoke-all-the-time student phrase, limited me to sitting on a sofa rather than experiencing all that life has to offer. And I can’t remember most of them anyway!

    Then again. If people ask why people take drugs, the answer is the same as why people go on holiday. It isn’t economically productive. It makes you feel shit when you come back. And its joys are ephemeral.

    But it is fun. And rather like travelling, it’s best when it’s done socially. Because an experience shared, to go places where you haven’t been before, is a wonderful thing, Since the dawn of time, humans have pursued an altered state – and different ones! And that’s why the thesis of gateway drugs has certain logic – after all, not all of us want to buy a holiday home and keep going back to the same place.

    Some people like going on holiday, some people don’t. Making all drugs illegal would be a bit like not allowing people to leave the country. Instead we just let people get pissed. It’s a bit like you can go on holiday, but only to Benidorm – i.e. the 70s all over again.

    But as you say, at different times in life we all have different pressures. Sometimes even Pillhead Professional writes cheques that his mind can’t cash. We don’t always have the emotional resilience to go through feeling awful – even if on the outside we looked pretty sorted.

    For those in a vulnerable situation, whether depressed or poor or where the pressures of life become too much, drugs (alcohol included) can make a bad situation worse. They can not only reduce the drug user’s general sense of wellbeing and self-worth but the ecstatic experience it provides can provide a false haven from the world.

    And since alcohol is the most available of these drugs and also the most deleterious in effect, that seems a strong argument against legislation?

    The problem is that criminalisation puts users beyond help. We need to regulate the supply of all drugs, offer counselling to those who are struggling and make addiction support a prerequisite for the supply of the most addictive drugs.

    Rather than lining the pockets of organised crime, we need to tax those drugs, so that Cannabis man, Pillhead Professional and their recreational friends can finance those support programs – because in truth, it’s something someday, any of us could need.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Josh – a lot to think about there, I really hope you’ll carry on reading and sharing your thoughts. The analogy of holidays is a useful one.

      I do think, in the case of cocaine, ecstacy, etc – ie the ‘weekend recreational’ drugs – there may be a real benefit to controlling and taxing the supply of these – because the people using these drugs for this purpose are working, have money, and need to be on the ball when Monday morning comes around oh-to-quickly; and so would probably pay a bit more to have drugs of a guaranteed strength and quality. (And no accidental smacky pills that leave you wondering what happened this weekend, or phetty coke that plants a slight seed of doubt for the next 3 days that everyone is in fact trying to kill you.) And there could also be a market in promoting the wanging of as many vitamins and fuilds down your throat as possible before bedtime on Sunday (let’s call them ‘recovery packs’, or maybe ‘fuck what have I done to myself’ packs).

      But yes – the false haven from the world does mean that, for many people, Monday mornings are unthinkable – and lord know what the impact of this is on national productivity.

      But when it comes to regulating the drugs that are currently associated with the grimier side of life – heroin, crack, possibly MCat depending on where you live – what is your opinion on trying to control these substances, Josh? If someone cares about themselves so little that they will bypass their body’s protective filtering systems (usually the stomach and the lungs), and chuck whatever bacteria-ridden shit they can grovel together straight into their bloodstream – do we really think that offering them pure drugs for significantly more (once it is properly produced / taxed) will even be a consideration for them?

      Actually, that’s raised a whole new question for me – how much would it cost to produce heroin or cocaine legally? Could the Government produce, import and tax it for the same price that people currently pay, and so people could take safer drugs without lining the pockets of the scumbags who currently control the underworld? Does anyone have any insight into the facts and figures around this?! I may have to investigate..

      • Josh says:

        The arguments for legalising recreational drugs are fairly self-evident. But are the two really divisible? After all if you make coke legal, all you need is a teaspoon of baking powder to turn it into crack.

        There is a need to tie the availability of certain drugs to treatment programs – for example, there might be the need to:

        – monitor drug consumption
        – ensure some drugs are consumed at the point of supply
        – provide drugs counselling at the point of supply

        So I’m not adverse to regulation to ensure that drugs users are supported.

        Legalisation would also make it easier to conduct and fund research into drug use and to create synthetic substitutes to reduce harm.

        But there is a reason why there is a huge correlation between chronic drug use, poverty and unemployment. It’s because the feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness that come from being poor and unemployed lead people to take drugs – after all if your life doesn’t feel worth living, why not take drugs all day?

        To tackle drug addiction we need to make our society more equal and improve the opportunities available to young disadvantaged people.

      • Lots to respond to, thanks. Firstly, I totally agree that legalising some drugs but not others is pointless (with the possible exception of cannabis) and would be based on current social value judgements rather than any real sense.

        Now your suggestions about tying the availability of specific drugs to treatment programs – I find this a tricky concept to get my head around (which I acknowledge may be more about my head than your idea) – I think it would lead people to source their drugs elsewhere, ie the black market, to avoid the hassle that came with buying legal drugs. Some of the heroin users I have worked with spend long periods out of treatment because they can’t be arsed with it – this is bearing in mind that our service is quick access, low threshold, locally provided prescribing in order to encourage as many people as possible into treatment and to retain them there. Yet despite our open-door policy, where the only mandatory requirements of treatment are monthly appointments and a journey of no more than mile to a pharmacy to get their methadone, some of them choose to buy medication from the street instead of getting it for free from us. Heroin has such a short half-life that its consistent users rarely think past the end of the day, and for some of the more chaotic (and in-need) drug users, anything other than getting back on the hamster wheel takes too much time out of their six-hour cycle. It doesn’t make sense to you or I – surely the obvious solution would be attend once a month, get scripted, abate the withdrawals each day and spend what money you have on heroin. But then we would probably also sign bail at a Police Station instead of getting re-arrested and being sent straight back to court. We would probably prioritise our rent over a taxi to the pharmacy every time it rained. I just know from experience that the higher you raise the bar to treatment access, the fewer people bother coming – there will always be a black market, and your dealer doesn’t ask about your mental health or give a shit about whether your children are getting fed properly.

        I also wonder who would pay for these treatment programmes – the drug treatment budget is no longer ring-fenced, it is being absorbed into the Public Health budget now, and is shrinking anyway – and I don’t think that in the current financial climate it would be politically popular to take money away from other areas of health concern. I know selling the drugs would provide some revenue, but I can’t see it being a massive money-spinner once we take into account production costs, import costs, distribution costs, etc. I need to have a think about this…

        I do however like the idea of consumption at point of supply, there would lots of opportunities for harm reduction interventions there. Again, I think it would deter people due to the additional hassle, and for people wanting drugs for a night out it wouldn’t work, but at least for those who did comply it would mean safer use and less dodgy distribution for example where young people are concerned.

        I fully agree with your points about the links between problematic drug use and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. A few years ago I was involved in a consultation on a white paper around prostitution, and my response was based primarily around the state of Social Services, ie the only way to really tackle the issue is to focus on stopping child abuse and neglect of the current generation, because all these social issues – drug use, sex work, treating your body like a pin cushion until bits start falling off it – only really exist because of low self-worth, primarily as a result of crappy childhoods. Unless we invest in Social Care and parenting education and support services, there is no doubt that we are breeding the next generation of drug users. I have worked in areas where children and families social work teams have retained employment rates of 20%. This is just not good enough, and it means that many children are irreparably damaged and feel unimportant and alone before they hit double figures. And unfortunately there is rarely a way back from that (and if there is it will be a long-term, difficult, expensive piece of work).

        Really enjoying this discourse though Josh, you’re giving me loads of food for thought. It’s also making me think that some of our little community here should start our own political party… 😉

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