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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 19th June 2011

Another report is published saying that current policy on ‘drugs’ is flawed and “doomed to failure”. But, this is not another in the growing number of reports saying that prohibition isn’t working and a radical change in policy is required to reduce the harm done by substance abuse. This is a report from Kathy Gyngell for the Centre for Policy Studies, the right-wing think-tank.

Though reported as news by the BBC and others it appears that there is nothing new, at all, about this report since its main objective is exactly the same as the United Nations has been seeking since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That is a ‘drug free world’.

More recently, some within the UN have acknowledged that this is an impossible ambition and, some of that ‘some’, have even tried to suggest that the UN never said that a drug free world was achievable. But, in 1988, the UN held a ‘Special Session of the General Assembly on Countering the World Drug Problem’ with the slogan “A Drug Free World - We Can Do It!"

The idea that you can put a complete end to the use of psychoactive substances, or, at least, those that have been deemed to be unacceptable, is based on a completely false understanding of why people take these substances. In my view, (I’m not medically qualified so this is my interpretation of how the human race functions), the desire for such substances is part of an essential process for the survival of the species.

amanita muscaria, fly agaric

You only have to read the stories on the Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, page to realise the lengths human beings will go to in order to achieve intoxication.

To survive, human beings have to do three things; eat, reproduce and protect and provide for our dependants. In order to encourage us to undertake these activities we have a reward system that makes us feel good when we eat a satisfying meal, engage in the sex act or apply effort to achieve some end like providing a shelter. Like everything going on in our bodies, this ‘feeling good’ response is the result of complex chemical reactions. Psychoactive substances reproduce those chemical reactions so that it is possible to achieve the feeling of reward without engaging in the activity.

There is no known way, at this time, to remove the possibility of those ‘reward’ chemical reactions and, if you did, you would also remove the incentives for human beings to survive. Thus, there will always be human beings who want to find the easy way to these reward feelings and any policy based on eliminating the use of ‘drugs’ is, therefore, bound to fail.

Ms Gyngell’s position is that drug policy should be trying to end the use of drugs entirely so her views of the operation of current policy and her proposals for changes in policy are fatally flawed from the start.

Current drugs policy, it seems to me, is based on the supposition that society should intervene in how individuals choose to lead their own lives. This interference is justified on the basis that the way they choose to live has detrimental effects on society. And, in a prohibition system that link between addiction and harm to society is inevitable. But, the way to reduce the harm to society is not to pursue the impossible dream of ending drug use completely.

There has to be an acceptance that the lot of some people is to be addicted to something like heroin. Drug policy needs to pursue three strands; to reduce the harms drug-users do to society, especially in relation to things like property crime, to use education and the provision of incentives (in terms of involvement in useful roles in the community) to reduce the number of young people who feel that psychoactive substances are the only way to feel happy about themselves and to reduce the harm users do to themselves.

This third requires an acceptance that some users will never be completely free of their need for drugs so the best that can be hoped for is to control their use and make them fully-functioning members of society. Some will say that ‘drug addicts’ can never be fully-functioning but that misses an important point. I have no idea how many fully-functioning heroin addicts there are because they are fully-functioning but I am sure they exist.

For Kathy Gyngell and her like, drug treatment, such as methadone replacement programmes, can only be called successful if it leads to complete abstinence. For pragmatists, getting someone’s habit under control without them needing to commit crimes is enough to be going on with.

Ms Gyngell knows how to trigger public reaction and her headline comments on her new report are about the £3bn a year ‘wasted’ on harm reduction measures because she knows that, in the present economic situation with public spending cuts starting to bite, getting the public irate about ‘waste’ is a good way to get her views accepted.

The optimist in me hopes that, by opening a debate about the cost of current drug policy, Ms Gyngell will find that the public calls, not for a saving of £3bn a year from abandoning a policy that is making some improvements in society by reducing the property crimes committed by heroin addicts, but rather for the up to £17bn a year that it has been estimated could be saved by replacing prohibition with regulation.

The pessimist, however, sees the Prime Minister willing, on a range of topics, to offer concessions to his right-wingers as the price of retaining their support for the present coalition.    

 

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