By William Mills
There has been much debate over the drugs laws recently. Whether to increase the various laws and classifications; or just legalise the lot.
What most people agree on is the 1968 and 1971 Misuse of Drugs Acts have not been a success.
Indeed rather than stop drug misuse as originally intended rather the opposite has occurred. We need to take a step back and have a fresh appraisal.
Firstly was it wise to use the criminal law as a means to regulate what is essentially a personal choice of diet, albeit an unwise one?
Surely the criminal law should stick as closely as possible to harming others and their property. Laws involving self harm have always been a walk into the moral minefield.
In 1968 Baroness Wotton’s report into drug misuse concluded the greatest dangers drug users faced were legal rather than medical.
Because trade was illegal the user had to fraternise with the criminal community, and had no recourse to law when things went wrong, which they frequently did.
The last time the state was in such a mess was surely the enforcement of Witchcraft Laws.
It is estimated some 11 million souls were executed across Europe until in 1750 the Lord Chief Justice ofEnglandfinally asked
“Has anyone actually seen a witch fly past on a broomstick?”
These laws stayed on the statute book for many years before being replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which made it an offence to trick money from customers by claiming knowledge of the supernatural.
This law worked because it sought to simply regulate an existing trade.
The law in effect had gone in a complete circle. The later day defendants seeking to convince the court they really could see into the future due to divine intervention.
The debate on whether an individual drug is or isn’t more or less harmful than alcohol is a pointless distraction from the real issues.
Virtually all the illegal drugs have been used in medicine at some time or another. Just as alcohol has.
Any substance if taken infrequently enough and in small enough quantity is unlikely to cause lasting harm.
However if taken often enough, and in large enough doses, it will eventually become toxic to that individual. At which point they are all really the same under the old adage;
“One person’s nectar is another’s poison.”
The real issue is whether of not our laws are correct, and working. When parliament has sought to control people’s minds by brute force it has rarely worked and usually made things worse.
On the other hand when parliament has taken a more realistic approach and sought to regulate trade it usually has been a success. It’s what the drugs laws badly need. Success.
It is useful to consider the most widely used drug, alcohol.
With the coming of William III in 1688 the use of distilled gin became widespread. In the early years of the 18th century one in four houses in London had a still.
This lead to a springing up of home made spirits now known as ‘moonshine’. These are somewhere between highly poisonous industrial cleaner and diesel truck fuel.
Hogarth’s 18th century pictures depict the horrors of ‘Gin Lane’. A woman so sodden with drink she is oblivious to the dead child at her breast; a bankrupt hanging himself in a ruined building in the background.
The state corrected matters with the 1751 Act. This regulated trade. The distillers had to be registered and use approved production methods.
The innkeeper to be of good character, keeping an orderly house, displaying prices and using accepted measures.
In a sober church going society this wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the unregulated times which went before. The problem of excessive drinking was curbed by the sensible use of legislation regulating trade.
Modern day drug misuse has a sordid image.
It is wrong however to blame the individual drug, and try to give it emotive names such as ‘evil’. Heroin is the usual example.
However this powerful analgesic coming from the poppy plant has many faces. Its weakest form, codeine, is openly sold in every high street chemist without prescription.
It is potentially addictive. It may cause a couple of sleepless nights when stopped. The ex-user learns to live without.
Much more powerful varieties are prescribed for painful ailments and disabilities. Some do get addicted and struggle to give up.
But because it’s legal and the dose monitored the struggle which can be as every bit as difficult as giving up an illegal, isn’t attended with the fear of arrest, the squalor of burglary, the degradation of prostitution.
We are surrounded by addictive drugs. Nicotine in cigarettes and lozenges. Alcohol and prescription drugs. Chocolates and OTCs.
They are tough to give up. But millions succeed every day. The state protects them by regulating the trade and supply.
By banning the illegals the state has created its own modern day ‘Gin Lane’. The horrors of which increasing numbers of its citizens are having to experience.
The way forward, rather than outright legalisation, is to rethink prescription rules and attitudes towards them, so that it is possible to get drugs legally with some supervision preferable than none at all.
Our society needs to clean up ‘Gin Lane’ once and for all.