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.