Drug Problem or Drug Solutions: Columns From the Whitstable Times
On the 29th of October 2003 cannabis was reclassified as a class C drug in the United Kingdom. This doesn't mean that it is became legal. It simply means that, as a consequence, possession of small amounts of cannabis are now less likely to result in a prison sentence; but it is still up to the discretion of the individual Police Authority to determine the exact policy.
In other words, whether you go to prison or not is dependent on which part of the country you happen to live.
At the same time, Michael Howard was refusing to say whether he ever smoked it or not, which implies (to my mind at least) that he probably did. Otherwise, why not simply say "no"?
You may wonder what all the fuss is about. There can't be all that many people under a certain age who haven't tried it. And while for people of my generation there was a degree of deliberate rebellion in the act, for younger people it is merely an everyday part of growing up, like going into a pub for the first time, or taking your first driving lessons.
It seems there is a certain amount of confusion around the subject. Is it dangerous? Well, yes. Excessive use has been known to cause a form of psychosis amongst those with a tendency to mental illness. But then again, excessive drinking and smoking is dangerous too. So is excessive eating or excessive speed while driving. No one is suggesting making driving a crime because some people have a tendency to go over the speed limit are they? For that matter, excessive home-decoration is a known killer, more people dying from domestic accidents than all the drug related deaths put together.
Maybe we should make DIY illegal then? There are probably countless hen-pecked husbands out there who are already relishing the prospect.
Mind you, there may be other, much more compelling reasons to keep cannabis illegal. In my experience it has a tendency to make you stupid. Anyone who has sat in a room full of dope smokers will know what I'm talking about. All those meaningless sentences: "Yeah man, yeah, far out, too much, yeah." The inane giggling at nothing in particular. The long periods of dopey silence. That's why they call it "dope": it turns you into one.
Also dope smokers have a problem with short-term memory loss. They tend to forget what they were talking about halfway through a sentence. As for making practical arrangements: well forget it. They live in another time dimension than the rest of us, always at least two hours late, too entranced by the cosmic imminence of the moment to notice what time it actually is.
Well I'm being facetious here. And the fact is that there are serious political and social implications to the continued prohibition of what is, in all other respects, a very useful crop, not least to third-world farmers. Just to give you one glaring example: Afghanistan, once the source of a particularly prized and almost insanely strong black resin, is now the source of a large percentage of the world's heroin instead.
I use the word "prohibition" deliberately, just to remind you of one particular legal experiment back in the thirties. And the fact is, that reclassification of cannabis does nothing to take it out of the hands of the same criminal gangs who, in that earlier era, made huge profits from their control of illegal alcohol.
It's called "supply and demand." Where there is a demand, there will always be a supply. What matters is who controls that supply, and for what purposes.
2. Human rights
I never touch the cannabis myself, having had my own vaguely psychotic experiences back in the seventies. I decided I didn't like it any more and gave it up overnight. This was after three years of smoking it all day, every day, from morning till night, and I didn't miss it in the slightest, and have never missed it since.
My sincere belief that cannabis ought to be made legal has nothing to do with the intoxicating effects, however. It has to do with the arrogance and absurdity of legislating against anything that grows out of the ground. It would be like making parsley illegal.
There are also human rights implications, to do with the criminalisation of such large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Ask yourself this: why is there more crime on this planet now than there used to be? Part of the reason, surely, is that we have made more things illegal.
Most of the arguments for the continued prohibition of cannabis are, in my view, actually arguments for its legalisation.
The fact that cannabis may harm teenage boys, for instance, is an argument for an age limit to be set on its use and, by definition, you cannot put legislative constraints on something that is beyond the law.
Prohibition of cannabis has had the same effect that prohibition of alcohol had in an earlier era, that is it has brought vast revenues to the gangsters, while, at the same time, hugely inflating prices.
I cannot imagine that those who argue for prohibition are intending to encourage gangsterism, and yet that is precisely the effect. Gangsters thrive wherever there is a profit to be made from illegal substances.
This is made worse by the fact that cannabis is so much more than just an intoxicant. It is also a food, a medicine, a building resource, a source of fibre for paper and cloth, a source for biomass and oil, a source for biodegradable packaging, good for the soil, good for the air, good for the planet.
It has a recorded history going back over two thousand years, and has probably been used, in one form or another, ever since human beings first began to work and to build.
It grows in almost every climate and almost every condition, on mountains and in deserts, in the tropics and in the temperate zones, all over the Earth.
Wherever human beings have migrated, there you will find cannabis.
What I find most intolerable is the arrogance of certain people in power, who think they know better than the rest of us what is good for us and what is not.
Legislation against cannabis is actually legislation against nature and against history.
It is legislation against farmers.
It is legislation against our future survival on this planet.
Me: I'm just fed up with being told what to do by people who really don't know all that much.
Currently there is a shortage of diamorphine in the UK. Diamorphine is the world's most powerful painkiller, used in the treatment of people dying of cancer and other dreadful diseases. The current shortage means that many people may be suffering undue pain and indignity in the final stages of their lives.
Diamorphine is the clinical name for heroin. As diamorphine it is legal on prescription. As heroin it is a Class A controlled substance. Anyone caught possessing heroin can get up to a seven year prison sentence. Our prisons are overcrowded with heroin addicts and awash with heroin.
Meanwhile the British army are fighting and dying in Helmand province in Afghanistan in order, apparently, to eliminate opium production. About 87% of the world's opium is grown in Afghanistan.
Diamorphine is a semi-synthetic derivative of opium. In other words the British army are in Helmand province in order to eradicate something that we are short of in the UK.
This is only one of the many contradictions inherent in the drug trade. Here is another.
Wars are about the control of commodities. The war in Columbia is about control of cocaine. The war in Afghanistan is about control of opium. By limiting the supply we increase the value. In other words, by attempting to eradicate heroin production we actually encourage it.
So - you have to ask - who's purpose does this serve? Who has most to gain from the restriction in the amount of heroin available?
In case you can't work it out: it is drug dealers who gain, the warlords and drug barons. It is drug dealers who reap the huge profits that are generated by turning an abundant and cheap commodity into a rare and expensive one.
What you probably don't know is that for many years the CIA were also directly implicated in the world heroin trade, as shown by Dr Alfred McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.
In other words the supply of heroin has been historically facilitated by the very organisation charged with its destruction.
Due to its controlled status, diamorphine is also becoming increasingly expensive to produce legally. This is because there are obvious security issues around its production.
You can't just set up a heroin factory like you can a sweet factory. You have to have a large security force to protect it. So, although the NHS is spending about the same amount on diamorphine as it spent two years ago, the drug companies are actually providing it with about a third less.
So we have a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. We have poor farmers fighting to prevent the loss of their only cash crop. We have warlords and drug barons. We have a shortage of expensive-to-produce diamorphine. We have large profits being made by drug companies and security companies. We have people dying in unimaginable pain. And we have junkies on our streets and breaking into our homes in order to get the money to pay for what is, in fact, an abundant substance in nature.
Hasn't anybody noticed yet? Current drug policies aren't working.
4. White Lightning
So this is my view. I think that cannabis should be legal, and that heroin should be treated as a medical rather than a criminal problem. Different drugs have their different purposes, and most of them are the by-products of nature in any case. The idea that we should spend our time legislating against what grows from the earth seems to me to be the height of insanity.
But there's one other drug that I want to talk about: alcohol.
Now I'm an old drinker myself. I've spent more hours in pubs than I care to remember, and most evenings I will have a can or two cooling in the fridge, ready to open should the occasion arise. Which it usually does: around ten-past-ten, just as I'm starting to get irritated with the inanities of the Ten O'Clock News, while waiting for Newsnight to start.
I've also taken, or watched the consequences of, almost every drug, legal or otherwise, that the world has to offer. And what I have to say now is: that alcohol is as dangerous, as addictive, and as life-destroying as any of them.
The reason I'm saying this is that I have just had a direct experience of someone whose problems with alcohol bear comparison with the worst excesses of heroin addiction.
I won't name any names. I'm sure most of you have known people like this. As for the rest, what I'm about to describe can be understood as a particular example of what I take to be a general malaise: the problem of a whole generation of lost and disillusioned youth who, for lack of any other stimulant, have turned to alcohol as a cheap, mindless and meaningless thrill.
I say "cheap" and I mean it. The joy of alcohol is the joy of the old-fashioned pub, with its atmosphere, and its company, with its camaraderie and its banter. But pubs are expensive, and there's a lot of very cheap and very nasty alcohol out there. Specifically there are those white ciders, like White Lighting or Diamond White, usually around £3 for three litres: seven and a half percent proof. That's about 50p a pint and twice as strong as anything you would find in a pub.
Actually to call them "cider" is almost a breach of the Trade's Descriptions Act. If these brews have ever even been close a cider-apple, it was probably very early in the process. Since then, who knows what other ingredients they've added, what other peculiar chemicals they've mixed in to make the hit even stronger?
This is the stuff that the kids are drinking; and not in the pub, where social pressure can usually keep the lid on the worst excesses of alcohol. No: they're drinking it in the street, or at home, and in vast quantities, and this is real trouble in the making, a real danger to our community.
So you think that a few dope-smokers lolling about in their front-room listening to Jimi Hendrix is a problem? Or a few people dancing the night away to juddering rave-music and being all lovey-dovey on Ecstasy? You ain't seen nothing yet.
So I watch a nice, mild-mannered, middle-class lad from a good background turn into a ravening monster overnight; I watch a young man (hardly older than my son) with good prospects, with a job, a girlfriend and a flat, lose everything in the space of less than six weeks because he can't even look at alcohol without it turning into a life-threatening bender, and I think that if there's a case for regulation of drugs then this is it.
White Lighting should be available on prescription only.
5. Binge drinking
Alcohol prices went up by 6% above the rate inflation in the budget, supposedly to combat binge drinking.
That's 4p on a pint of beer, 14p on a bottle of wine, and 55p on a bottle of spirits. So, now, I can already hear the binge drinkers thinking to themselves. "Fourteen pence on a bottle of Chardonnay. Clearly I will have to drink more responsibly from now on."
Anyone who imagines that this is the way that drinkers think is either self-delusional or stupid or both.
The price of alcohol is NOT the cause of binge drinking. The cause of binge drinking is the discrepancy between the price of drink in the supermarket and the price in the pub.
Alcohol from the supermarket is still very, very cheap.
I went up to Tesco to check. There was a special offer on Carlsburg: an 18-pack for £6.49. That's 18 cans of medium strength lager for the price of two pints down the pub. If that's not an encouragement to drink at home then I don't know what is. Even assuming you were planning to go out, you'd be likely to down a few cans of lager before you stepped out of your front door. Most binge drinkers are tanked up long before they hit the pub.
And Carlsburg is at the sophisticated end of binge drinking culture. If you are really interested in experimenting with the lifestyle then I would suggest cider: preferably one of those white varieties like White Lightning, 7.5 proof, strong enough to turn your brains into noodle soup.
The problem is in the quality of the alcohol, not the price.
The French get cheap alcohol, but you don't see many of them falling over on the High Street, waving their legs in the air and showing their knickers.
Wine in France is relatively cheap, but consumed with a certain savour and intelligence. The French drink from childhood, and have never felt the need to introduce licensing hours or limitations on their drinking.
If price was the cause of binge drinking then the British would already be the most responsible drinkers in Europe.
This is also one more nail in the coffin of the traditional British pub. This from a government led by Gordon Brown, the man who wants to promote "Britishness" and who would have us all taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen whether we want to or not.
The joke here is that these exhortations to patriotism come from a man who, under Tony Blair, presided over the transformation of the British Armed Forces into a mercenary army ready to serve the interests of a handful of foreign corporations in their quest to grab the Earth's resources.
How patriotic is that?
He was also - as Chancellor of the Exchequer - responsible for the on-going sell-off of our public services, most of which have been knocked out at bargain basement prices in the corporate takeover of these Isles.
It's no wonder young people want to get drunk. They've had their future sold from under them. There's been a "For Sale" sign on the door of the nation for nearly thirty years now.
Britain. Sold to the highest bidder. Too drunk to care.
© 2008 Christopher James Stone