Pubdate: Sun, 11 Mar 2007
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: India Knight
Note: See The RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public 
Policy website and the 335 page 
report as a .pdf file at


At long last some sense about drugs. The independent Royal Society 
for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA, 
published a report last week in the hope of influencing a government 
drugs strategy review due next year. The report states that 
(surprise!) drugs policy has failed - and that it was driven by 
"moral panic" in the first place - and should be replaced with a 
system that recognises, among other things, that alcohol and tobacco 
can cause more harm than some illegal drugs.

"Whether we like it or not, drugs are and will remain a fact of 
life," the report says. "On that basis, the aim of the law should be 
to reduce the amounts of harm caused to individuals, their friends 
and families, their children and their communities."

The report, compiled by a panel composed of academics, politicians, 
drug workers and a senior police officer, also asked for jail 
sentences to be given for only the most serious drug-related crimes 
and for addicts to be given jobs and housing as part of treatment. 
Crucially, to my mind, the report calls for an end to "the criminal 
justice bias" of drugs policy, whereby addicts are treated as 
criminals and as causes of crime, rather than as ill people who need help.

Instead the report suggests treating addiction as a health and social 
problem. It also proposes educating children about drugs at primary 
school instead of, as now, in secondary school; and - you can see 
this one might be a bit contentious - establishing "shooting 
galleries", as in eight other European countries, as a way of 
avoiding overdoses and offering treatment and help to severe addicts.

Iain Duncan Smith predictably called the report "worryingly 
complacent", but I think it's nothing less than inspired and driven 
by a desire to help those who need help, instead of sticking them in 
the corner and pointing at their failures. The government's approach 
to the question of drugs is due a radical overhaul: its attitude is 
questionable at best and occasionally unintentionally hilarious. 
What, for example, is a "drugs czar"? Does it ride a big horse and 
wear jackets with scarlet braiding? Or what about the babyish idea of 
a "war on drugs"? Drugs aren't beings - they are plant or chemical 
extracts. You can't smite them down with your mighty sword. The "war 
on drugs" is a tabloid fantasy that successive governments have taken 
up with zero success: what it means in effect is that you criminalise 
users and toss them into an environment where drugs are 
super-desirable, like prison.

It's absurd and really hard to see how this approach helps anyone at 
all. You can - and should - have a "war" on the social factors that 
make people susceptible to drug taking - and by "social factors" I 
mean poverty and boredom, rather than membership of swanky London 
clubs - and a war on the criminal networks that flood Britain's 
streets with cheap drugs and bring havoc (and gun crime) in their 
wake, but you can't have a war on drugs themselves.

You would have thought this would be blindingly obvious; but this 
government, like the one before it, seems intent on viewing each 
pill, each leaf, each bit of resin as possessed of its own forked 
tail and cloven hooves.

And you know, it ain't necessarily so. Professor Anthony King of 
Essex University, the RSA panel's chairman, said last week: "The 
evidence suggests that a majority of people who use drugs are able to 
use them without harming themselves or others", which is absolutely 
true, but which one is never allowed to say without being accused of 
being dementedly irresponsible, or some kind of junkie in denial, or 
at least an obsessive recreational drug user.

The truth of the matter is that hundreds of thousands of people like 
a spliff with their glass of wine after a hard day's work, and those 
people don't have a problem. They're not in the pub necking down 
triples and getting into fights, they're not sicking up in the 
street, they don't suddenly decide to stab the person who 
accidentally bumped into them. Plus, they're unlikely to die 
prematurely of liver failure.

And while you would obviously prefer your teenager to be doing a bit 
of extra maths instead of a little extra ecstasy, there are worse 
things than feeling all cheery and affectionate for a few hours and 
then sleeping it off - like taking up smoking and dying of lung 
cancer. As for the cocaine epidemic that we're constantly reading 
about: being addicted to cocaine isn' t nice - neither is being an 
alcoholic, except that's legal - but the truth is that the vast 
majority of recreational users don't have an addiction problem.

I'm not saying taking drugs is a marvellous idea, obviously it isn't, 
but the point is that people do take them, in vast numbers, and it's 
about time our reactions stopped being so hysterical and ignorant.

The RSA report also recommends that the drug classification system 
should be replaced by an "index of harms", based on the damage that a 
drug causes the user and society, and that said index should, for the 
first time, include prescription drugs as well as alcohol and 
tobacco. It recommends, for instance, that alcohol and tobacco should 
be rated as more dangerous than ecstasy or cannabis. Heroin, cocaine, 
barbiturates and street methadone would top the list, followed by 
alcohol - ahead of ketamine and amphetamines. Tobacco would be ninth, 
ahead of cannabis (11th), solvents, LSD and ecstasy.

Responding to the report, the Home Office said John Reid, the home 
secretary, had no interest in scrapping the current system, whereby 
you can drink yourself to death freely. He has done no better than 
his predecessors when it comes to imposing a degree of intelligent 
adult thinking on this subject. Our ignorance about the reality of 
drug taking - fed by a media intent on publishing horror stories of 
the kind that could just as easily be written about people dying from 
allergic reactions to penicillin - may actually have contributed over 
the past 20 years to the worsening of life for those people inclined 
by misfortune to abuse drugs.

We think, like toddlers, in exclusively black and white terms: all 
drugs are evil, all drug takers are evil, ban all drugs, lock up all 
drug takers. That approach demonstrably doesn't work - aside from 
anything else, it makes drugs seem glamorous, when frankly a lot of 
them are less dangerous than a night out in the pub. And that is 
where all this infantile thinking becomes fatal.
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