Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Drugs: the missuse of law

So ‘the war drugs’ opened up a new front last week with the popular press turning its attention to legal highs and the strangely named meow-meow, following the sad deaths of two young men from Scunthorpe. Again the tabloids are chasing controversy with the Sun lambasting the government for having not banned the “lethal” substance and the Mail with its tales of teachers having to return it to school children in their classes – for it is legal you see. This seem s a little improbable, I doubt children are allowed to take paint thinners or bleach, or any other number of ‘legal’ yet dangerous substances to school, but the Mail rarely lets reality ever effect the construction of a good story. It has also yet to be proven that meow, or mephedrone as it is properly called, actually caused these deaths until the post-mortem of the two young men have been concluded. In so far as I have been able to research, there have been a handful of suspected deaths in Scandinavia and one confirmed fatality in the UK; by this rational the Sun would have to describe peanuts as the “lethal” bar snack.

The press and politicians have called for their only tool in tackling the misuse of drugs – a ban. This is symptomatic of the misguided war on drugs successive governments have been fighting for three decades now, at immense cost with little to no success. Prohibition has never worked; if someone has decided to take a potentially harmful drug for recreational purposes then I suspect the draconian laws of their elders aren’t going to change their minds. They are usually rebelling against the rules of their parents or authority and the illegality of it only serves to give it greater appeal. Banning Meow will not reduce the number of people taking it, this will only serve to put another substance into the unscrupulous hands of criminals, who will cut it with worming tablets to increase their profits, will force young and otherwise law abiding citizens to mix with the underworld and criminalise them in the process. The only winners in our enlightened war on drugs are the criminal gangs who control the black market, which is in many cases far more dangerous than the drugs we are seeking to control.

If we take heroin as a case study then we can see the futile and harmful prohibition of the war on drugs. Heroin was used as a field medicine during the First World War and a consequence of this was that following Armistice Day there were relatively large numbers of veterans who had become addicted, many for the rest of their lives. The medical handbooks and studies of these veterans from the 1920s tell us that heroin has no significant side effects.  Nausea and constipation are cited as the problematic harm caused; heroin was even injected into premature babies during this period with no adverse reactions recorded. For essentially political reasons, following a highly publicised case of a doctor selling heroin, it was made illegal in Britain. Following this change in the law, the supply of the drug is controlled by the dealers who mix it with any number of severely toxic and dangerous substances, which apart from their inherent dangers results in the purity of the heroin varying from 20 to 90%, leading to accidental lethal overdoses.

Portugal in 2001 changed their drugs laws, decriminalising the possession of street drugs, instead of chucking users into their criminal justice system they offered training and rehabilitation; dealers and traffickers are still jailed as before. The result of this was a reduction of street drug deaths from 400 per year in 2000 to 290 by 2005 and a reduction in HIV infections from 1,400 to about 400 over the same period.

So we have a choice, we can continue with our present system of prohibition; a system that helps no one except the criminals, causes many of the street drug deaths, does not serve our society, but a system that allows politicians to pretend that they're tough, with our newspapers who whip up fear with lies or disinformation and conveniently for them, sells their papers to a gullible public. On the other hand we could adopt a sensible and rational system like Portugal where society tries to help those trapped by drug use. Personally I’d go a step further than Portugal and take the supply of drugs into the control of the state, as in Holland, and thereby end the destructive black market once and for all.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating drug use and believe they can in some circumstances cause a great deal of harm; however I believe that if an individual knows the risks of taking drugs, but still chooses to, then that is their right so long as they cause no harm to anyone else. I don’t see why we can’t have a system that actually reduces crime and makes people much safer than they are now, rather than this shameful drug policy created by the ignorant and self-interested supported by unthinking sheep?

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