Why Politicians Lie about Drugs

Phil Chan (flikr)

Politicians lie about drugs because pretty much everyone else does.

Along with a few trades union colleagues, I recently had a chat with President Santos of Colombia and the subject of you-know-what came up, as it does there.  It turns out that Scotland is the highest per capita consumer of cocaine in the world.  Scotland also happens to be the fifth highest per capita consumer of heroin with pretty much all of it coming from Afghanistan (which is also, naturally, in the top five).  Around 99% of heroin destined for Scotland actually makes it to the streets.

But hang on.  Isn’t there a war against drugs on; from Colombia to the place where there’s a regular war going on too?  And aren’t the prices of cocaine and heroin, both pretty pure markets where price is a strong indicator of availability, both stable – some say declining even?  In other words, regardless of what governments the world over say they’d like to do about drugs, the simple fact is that they flow freely to wherever the demand exists and there seems little we can do about it.

Looking at the issue from another perspective; last year over 15000 people in Scotland died directly as the result of imbibing nicotine and over 1500 died directly of alcohol poisoning.  That’s leaving aside all the ill-health caused by smoking and the fact that cops I know report that 95% of the violence they encounter at the weekend is alcohol-fuelled.  On the other hand, while around 500 people died from heroin abuse, the figure for cocaine (actually, where  cocaine was at least present in post-mortems) was 3o.  For ecstasy, a class A drug up there with heroin, it was (maybe) two – again other drugs were apparently present when those post-mortems were conducted. So  how does our treatment of the various drugs available widely for public consumption, legally and illegally, in any way reflect the risk to individuals or society at large? Of course it doesn’t.

The banning of methodrone just before the general election, agreed by all parties, was a perfect illustration of how the drugs lie operates.  Two people were found dead having consumed a bunch of substances; methodrone, legal at that point, was one of them.  But the legal high provided by ‘drone’ was always an easy target – who, after all, is anyone to have a legal high?  A legal high, put in those terms, is really a pejorative designed to strike a moral distinction between certain types of (legal) consumption by certain  types of people (mainly young) and the consumption of other options (the choices on the whole of the less-young).  It turns out that neither of the post-mortems in this case revealed a even a trace of methodrone.  The legislation was of course simply designed to make everyone feel good about fighting the scourge of drugs while actually doing nothing of any real value about it.

Doing something of value would involve ending the lie.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to allow drugs barons and terrrorists the world over to profit from the drugs trade.  We’ll criminalise some of the most needy people in society and we’ll continue to pretend to chase cocaine amongst the middle-classes.  I don’t advocate drugs legalisation; but a bit more thought and honesty from politicians and, more to the point, the public, would yield worthwhile advances – I’m addicted to that idea.

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Class Drugs

The Home Secretary’s sacking of Professor Nutt, erstwhile advisor to the goverment on drug classification, strikes me as interesting for two reasons.  First, he’s saying little new by pointing out that cannabis is less dangerous than nicotine; that Ecstasy seems less dangerous than alcohol.  Scientists and sociologists, and probably most laypeople (i.e. most of us) can probably readily agree with that.  The question is really more about how people want society to deal with substances which are not very good for the people who consume them.  That in turn is related closely, I think, to how people choose to manage risk in their lives and in the lives of those close to them.  There are many activities  like horse riding(climbing, rugby, boxing) which are inherently risky, yet because they’re perceived to involve ‘endeavour’ most folk would prefer sensible precautions to banning.  Drugs are not generally seen as involving an element of endeavour (although a few users behave like it does) so the question for most is, it seems to me, how risk is reduced to them and their families.  Some folk think it’s best to ban (or increase the penalties of use) and others think it’s best to recognise that many people use soft drugs from time to time and to encourage folk to be sensible with it.  That leads me on to the second point, which is that many would agree that the final decison on how society ought to tackle the issue through public policy should be made by democratically accountable politicians.  I read that Prof Nutt felt that the government was ‘undermining (his) advice’, yet it’s hard to see how advice can be undermined as such.  I think, more likely, he feels that where there is strong scientific evidence it should be followed without question by politicians.  That would, of course, involve politicians abrogating responsibility and experts making public policy in effect as of right.  Yet surely that wouldn’t be right?  In many ways, the science inthis case isn’t that complicated – it’s interpreting what the public want to do about it which is, and that’s surely the job of the bloke who’ll lose his seat or appointment if he gets it wrong.  That’s democracy, isn’t it?