Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Too Hot a Topic

Both local and national headlines have turned to the subject of drugs this week. Undoubtedly, it is one of the key concerns of today's society. Yet, of the twenty-five candidates currently running for the States of Jersey as Senator or Constable, not one has taken it up as an election issue. However, I am not about to castigate them all for putative moral cowardice; were I the twenty-sixth candidate, I would not go there either, for pragmatic tactical reasons, despite holding firm, if complex, views on the subject.
There can be no doubt that prohibition of most recreational intoxicants is hurting without working. Do you want your children to grow up in a drug-free society? It has not delivered. Do you want to see former problem drug users pick up the threads of their lives from where they left off? It has not delivered. Do you want to see big-time gangsters growing rich, while cynically sacrificing their employees and customers? It is delivering that one. Do you want to see the most vulnerable people sucked into an expanding spiral of criminality? It is delivering that one, too.
And yet, if any foolhardy soul should raise the question of whether a move should be made toward a harm reduction based policy, the howls of indignation rise deafeningly. To show anything but the hardest face towards those who would get stoned on alternatives to traditional alcohol, will be seized upon as a sign of weak character and lax morals. Public opinion, as shaped by the pervasive influence of the popular press, demands strictness, despite so many individuals in that public liking to indulge in something or other to adjust their mood or perceptions, at least occasionally. One of the various paradoxes that make the problem so intractable.
When one looks closer, the “drug problem” starts to look like a suite of related problems rather than one thing. Firstly, some people have grim lives that feel better when they are stoned. And, moreover, many other people with good lives just have fun by getting stoned. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads them to find out, the hard way, that, sooner or later, nearly all effective intoxicants break the user's mental and/or physical health. (If one can keep to occasional use, then the worst should not happen, but that is easier said than done. The late American rock singer, Kurt Cobain once wrote a vivid account of how occasional use turns to addiction, by gradually reducing the intervals between occasions, until the sudden discovery that it has become a way of life that cannot be broken free from.) One may say “Tough, serves them right.” about those who are damaged by their drugs, but every number in the statistics is a tragic story of somebody's child, sibling, lover or friend. These are facts of life, about why people take drugs and what the drugs do to them, that are what they are, whatever moral stance is taken on them.
Then, on top of the private medical problems, there are the public social problems. One is, that, as I mentioned above, criminalisation of people who just wanted to get stoned is profoundly corrupting to the most vulnerable members of our society: Once the users have crossed the line of the law to have their drugs in the first place, it is all too easy for them to do other illegal things to obtain them. Another social problem, and challenge to the rule of law, is that the supply of contraband is a business opportunity for dishonest and unscrupulous entrepreneurs only. Yet another new question that has sprung up, is what to do about those law abiding businessmen who bring such products as sage and “Spice” to the market? Do we callously leave their customers to find out the malefits of the products for themselves, or do we extend the law and turn still more thrill-seekers and escapists into alienated criminals? Neither option is comfortable.
Although prohibition is serving us so badly, decriminalisation is not going to be a realistic option any time soon, though. A primary obstacle is that our freedom to react to the problems is constrained by international law. Various treaties oblige their signatories, including Britain, whose Crown we are a Dependency of, to restrict or prohibit internal and external traffic in common recreational drugs. We simply do not have the freedom to overtake the rest of the world on that road, even if the argument for it were won amongst ourselves. Besides, if we could and did, we would find ourselves attracting visitors, whom we would be better off without. On top of that, we are also constrained by the need of democratic governments to avoid offering easy targets to their opponents. Which brings me full circle; politicians dare not move forward, because they know it would be spun against them. And so, I believe that our candidates are right to step around this issue; any that attempt to address it will throw away their credibility for no result.
One of the difficulties in striking the balance is that a bit of almost harmless fun for the overwhelming majority can go so very terribly wrong for the few, when it does. 99.5% of hemp smokers getting away with minimal harm sounds like a case for letting them get on with it. Then you do the maths and realise that the other 0.5% of 20,000 users is a couple of wards full of human wrecks, and if even if many of them were the type to end up there anyway, no-one wants their child to grow up to join the ranks.
I am not suggesting for a moment that there is nothing that could or should be done. What I am pointing out is that the power to lead the way towards change lies with the media in the first instance. Political action is not viable until there is a clearer consensus in the community over what changes should be made. We do need to move away from viewing drug use as a law and order issue to viewing it as a public health issue, and to do so,we need people with far wider readerships than myself to work on moving public opinion where it needs to go.

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