Pubdate: Sun, 16 Oct 2005
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Minette Marrin


"We know of no spectacle so ridiculous," Lord Macaulay famously said,
"as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." We
seem to be in the middle of a particularly absurd one right now.
Although there are many hugely important questions in public life
generally, and even a few in the Conservative leadership struggle,
what obsesses the media is the attempt to force David Cameron into
some sort of confession about drugs. It is ludicrous and shameful.

Cameron has said quite enough about this to satisfy anyone with a
proper interest in his past and quite as much as any public figure
could be expected to disclose, yet he has been hounded for days.
Goaded yet again on Thursday on BBC1's Question Time, he admitted that
like many people he had done things in his youth that he should not
have done.

"I'm allowed to have had a private life before politics, in which we
make mistakes and do things we should not," he said. And then he went
on to make a perfectly reasonable distinction between his life before
politics and his responsibilities now. To any fair-minded person, that
should be that. It's perfectly clear what he means.

To insist that he ought to say more - and I am astonished by the
number of liberal and libertarian types who cry out that he must - is
in itself rather dishonest. In fact what we're seeing is not so much a
periodic fit of morality as an even more common fit of hypocrisy.

Cameron's adversaries are hypocritically trying to whip up an anxious
moral frisson about drugs to make him look unelectable. I think they
are making a mistake. It won't. Public attitudes to drugs have changed
greatly and if the Conservatives are smart they will recognise that.

Almost everybody in this country who is under 40 has been ceaselessly
exposed to illegal drugs - at school, at college, in clubs and pubs,
at parties and even at work - and there can be hardly any of them who
haven't at least had a tiny puff. People who never have are either
unconventional or else older and belong, like David Davis and Ken
Clarke if not quite Liam Fox, to the generation in which drugs were
still tried only by a tiny avant-garde minority. These days anyone who
knows nothing personally of drugs must seem like a total dinosaur to
the younger generation; the Conservative party's problem is not that
it's nasty or stupid, but that it's extremely middle-aged.

One thing that young people all think is that most middle-aged people,
who have no close up and personal experience of drugs, don't know what
they're talking about. If middle-aged politicians boast publicly of
their inexperience of the drug-taking scene as if that were some sign
of moral superiority, they make themselves look foolish as well as
ignorant. There might well be some interesting blowback in this
moralistic attack on Cameron.

Taking recreational drugs is not in itself a moral matter. It has
always been one of the greatest pleasures and greatest consolations of
humankind, found in all civilisations. Plenty of recreational drugs
are legal in Britain, despite their real risks.

It's true that since some recreational drugs are illegal here it is by
definition a crime to take them, and for that reason responsible
public figures certainly should not do so. But that does not mean it
is necessarily immoral to do so and most younger people don't think it
is. Drug taking is illegal not because it is wicked, but because it
can be dangerous.

For many years I did not appreciate how dangerous drugs could be or
would become; my generation used to think cannabis was harmless and I
have known plenty of people who've played around for years with
cocaine or with even more alarming drugs without becoming addicts.
Fashionable London is said to be thickly sprinkled with the devil's
dandruff. People joke that the lavatories in bars and clubs are
crowded with queues of people desperate for a line and we hear lurid
tales about celebrity coke heads, but given the millions of times that
people take drugs, it is surprising how few addicts there are.

It always seemed to me that the few who drifted towards addiction were
driven there by other problems - some by their own addictive
personalities, others by the poverty of their lives or their
expectations. It is one of life's many injustices that the people most
likely to get into serious trouble with drugs are those who are
already in some other serious trouble, and the law does not seem to
protect them.

That is why for years I used to be firmly in favour of decriminalising
drugs; I thought that despite the increased risk involved - possibly,
to some - it put an end to drug pushing, to habit-supporting crime, to
contaminated drugs and to the vast evil empire of the illegal
narcotics trade.

All the same, as my children have been growing up I have gradually
realised that drugs seem to be getting nastier and evidence of the
long-term damage they can do has been mounting. Even contemporary
cannabis, grown hydroponically, is several times stronger than the
gentle weed of the 1960s and 1970s, and skunk can quickly trigger
psychotic episodes in a small minority of susceptible people. It even
has a name - skunk psychosis. I've seen it in someone close to me. It
is terrifying and it has made me suddenly much less sure about
decriminalisation. With the democratisation of drugs, the privileged
trips of the 1960s have turned into a dead-end highway.

The question of what to do becomes more pressing. The law as it stands
does not seem to protect the vulnerable, rather the reverse. Yet
nobody seems to know and perhaps there is no way of guesstimating
whether decriminalising drugs would make things better or worse.
Understandably nobody is willing to make the experiment. All one can
say is that ignorance and moralising merely obscure the problem.

Last Friday it emerged that a close relation of Cameron's has been
receiving treatment for heroin addiction; some commentators may claim
that this, too, will somehow count against him in the leadership
contest. On the contrary, compared with the professed ignorance of his
three rivals, his more youthful knowledge and experience so far from
being a mark against him should be a mark in his favour. Hypocrisy
doesn't always prevail. 
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