A phony war

It's not a war on drugs, it's a war on drug users, most of whom have no health issues associated with their use.  

I am now of an age where I can gaze back in time and clearly see the oppressive manner in which the so-called ‘war on drugs’ impacted upon my youth. In particular, I can see how, like many other young people, I took the state’s draconian approach toward illicit substance use in my stride as if the ‘war on drugs’ was part and parcel of society and not to be questioned. I use inverted commas with respect to the ‘war on drugs’ as it is really nothing of the sort. Indeed, there cannot be a war on drugs.

Drugs - be they morphine, quinine, cocaine, MDMA, beta-blockers, LSD, alcohol or Ibuprofen - are inanimate substances devoid of volition. Claiming to be fighting a war on drugs is like claiming to be fighting a war against small pebbles or strong gusts of wind. Neither drugs, nor pebbles, nor gusts of wind, possess wilful agency. Therefore the ‘war on drugs’ is actually a war on the people who use drugs (I must here thank activist Darryl Bickler for forcefully driving home this point).

Given that about 5% of the worldwide adult population have used prohibited drugs, this means that a civil war is afoot. This civil war, waged upon hundreds of millions of citizens, is wholly unjustified, because personal drug use is a health issue and not a criminal issue warranting martial oppression. Let me elaborate by delving back into my youth. 

When I was about 20 years old I lived in a house where cannabis was routinely smoked. This was a typical house share with young people all under the age of 25. For a few years I lived in various places like this where cannabis was used recreationally. It was what you did when you were young and free spirited and trying to find out things and think for yourself. Note that I said cannabis was ‘used’ and not ‘abused’ or ‘misused’— a point I will return too shortly. Anyhow, being young and, I suppose, feeling somewhat rebellious, my house mates and I would often use cannabis whilst listening to music and watching videos and that kind of thing. Now, on one occasion I travelled to Southall in West London to acquire some ‘gear’. This involved going to a rather shifty looking mini-cab business and whispering to the guy at the window that I wanted to buy some dope. All very hush-hush and clandestine. So I acquired this small bag of cannabis which I stuffed inside one of my gloves. To my horror, as I was making my getaway, I was accosted by a couple of police officers who had apparently been spying on the illicit trade. I was searched and the police officers, being thorough, soon found the small bag of prohibited plant material upon my person and I was whisked off to the local police station.

I recall two things clearly about what happened next. First, I was asked who sold me the gear (just like in the lyrics to Caught by the Fuzz by Supergrass). I said that I did not know (again, just like in the lyrics to Caught by the Fuzz by Supergrass). The officer then made a racist remark about the dealers and wondered why I would care if I shopped them. At the time, and to my youthful psyche, all this seemed like normal police banter. Who was I to question their language and their operations? They then told me that they would let me off with a caution and that it was rubbish quality cannabis anyway, full of seeds and bits of stem. They kept it. I don’t know what became of it.

So, what can we learn from this sordid little incident from my youth? Firstly, let’s get back to that term ‘drug abuse’. Were the police doing me a great service by hauling me off to the police station, cautioning me, and taking away the cannabis I had just bought? Was I in danger of abusing and misusing something such that my health and well-being might be significantly compromised? Clearly not. I knew exactly what I wanted to purchase and I knew exactly what I expected from the vended item in question. So not for one moment was I ever endangering my health. Yet when it comes to currently prohibited drugs and this business of being arrested for possession as I was, it is precisely health issues that are always raised as being of great import. Cannabis, however, is not overtly dangerous, certainly no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco or certain prescription drugs. In other words then, the police, despite ostensibly acting for the state to protect the nation’s health, had no business in detaining me and cautioning me. There was no need to do that whatsoever. In fact, what they could have done instead was hand me an information leaflet that contained objective scientific facts about the various effects of cannabis. That would have made more sense and been less stressful to me than arresting me and would have been a clear indication that my health was the chief issue of concern.

Despite this kind of reasoning, the fact remains that at the time I really felt as if I was doing something wrong - at least in terms of doing something ‘naughty’. Recreational drug use was overtly secretive back in the mid 1980s - more so than it is now. The authorities were like Big Brother, or like some strict headmaster, out to catch young people up to some mischief. When you think about it, this is deeply uncivilized. Because the bottom line is that my house mates and I did nothing immoral. We did not get stoned and then sacrifice children or puppies or whatever. We did not get stoned and then go out on the rampage accosting people in the street and smashing windows. We got stoned because we enjoyed it - and nothing untoward ever came of it. Moreover, most of us, including myself, had jobs. Getting stoned was simply a pleasurable activity done in the evening in much the same way that people enjoy drinking in the evening or eating crisps and chocolates. We used cannabis because we appreciated and enjoyed the state of mind it elicited. No-one ever got hurt. Simple as that.

Fast forward to the present. Although I now hardly ever use cannabis, I have been known to sporadically use psilocybin mushrooms, the psychedelic ones that grow every autumn in the wilds of the UK. Thus far, I have written two books extolling the potential virtues of psilocybin. In terms of the law however, the psilocybin mushroom ranks even worse than cannabis as psilocybin is currently classified as a Class A drug - which means it is considered to pose the greatest potential harm to both the user and to society. The mushroom is, in fact, categorised alongside heroin and crack cocaine. Not to mince words, this is a crass appraisal by the state that, as with cannabis, does not stand up to close scrutiny, in particular to scientific scrutiny. To be sure about it, in a 2010 study by professor David Nutt and his colleagues, published in The Lancet, a table was drawn up with twenty psychoactive drugs, including all the well known ones (such as cocaine, heroin, and alcohol) plus some lesser known ones like GHB (a synthetic drug) and khat (a psychoactive plant used in the UK mainly by Somalians and Ethiopians). These twenty drugs were rated according to various measures of harmfulness. Interestingly (although obvious when you come to think about it) alcohol came out top of the table with the highest measure of harm ahead of both heroin and crack cocaine. At the bottom of the table came drugs like LSD and ecstasy. Right at the very bottom were psilocybin mushrooms which were rated as the least harmful of all. The researchers summed up their report as follows: "Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm.”

Further, another statistic worthy of mention that was also recently published in The Lancet is that an estimated 1 in 25 deaths around the world are attributable to alcohol consumption. Not only that, in the USA more overdose deaths are caused by prescribed painkillers than by heroin and cocaine combined. All this drives home the point that the state’s concerns and priorities regarding various psychoactive substances are skew-whiff.

Relatively speaking then, the illicit use of popular recreational drugs is not as dangerous to health as the government (and the media) would lead us to believe. Which brings me back to my main point. Because even if there is some degree of danger to a person who uses a prohibited drug (and it is likely that all and any drug can be potentially harmful in some way, including common ones like caffeine and paracetamol), this is a health issue and not a criminal issue. Let me say that again in a different way. It is right and proper for the state to educate people about the potential harms of various psychoactive substances; it is likewise right and proper that the state educate people about the various effects of psychoactive substances, both long term and short term; it is right and proper as well that the state control the manufacture and distribution of psychoactive substances where this is possible.

But it is not the remit of the state to criminalize citizens when the danger in question revolves around their health. In other words, for the last 40 years or so a purely health issue (the use of all and any psychoactive substances) has been corrupted into a criminal issue. It is akin to criminalizing mountaineers for putting their health at risk by using bad quality ropes and faulty harnesses. If the police were to forcibly break into a mountaineer’s home, arrest them and seize their dodgy gear, it would be absurd. Yet it is routine to see this kind of thing on the news when it comes to the arrest of people using prohibited drugs. As I said earlier, we take it in our stride. This is because the collective mind-set has become corrupted. How so? How has a purely health issue been corrupted into a criminal issue and why have we allowed that to happen?

It seems to me that the chief problem here is that the state has taken on the role of a ‘nanny’ and is wont to issue various stern moral commandments - even though, of course, that is not the function of a (secular) state. Politicians (whose wages are paid by us) are stuck in an outdated mindset which views psychoactive drug use as immoral and they feel obliged to promote their dislike of such behaviour (apart, that is, from alcohol use, the acceptance of which is evinced by the four subsidized bars in the House of Commons). Even the word ‘drug’ has become pejorative, at least in the UK. So as soon as you mention drugs, there are negative associations.

In thinking about all this, one is reminded of the hatred and malice once meted out to gay people. Being gay was (and still is in certain quarters) proffered as some kind of moral degradation, so much so that homosexuality was criminalized and punished. As a case in point, not many people know that the grandfather of modern computing, Alan Turing, was publicly ridiculed to the point of suicide on account of his homosexuality. So you get this finger wagging and demonization, as if the ills of the world are caused by a certain subset of the population engaging in a behaviour that the state views as immoral and improper. It is oppression pure and simple and no different in kind to, say, racist oppression. You pick some behaviour (or physical attribute in the case of race) that you are afraid of, or that unsettles you in some way, or that you do not really understand, or that you know nothing whatsoever about, and then you vilify and condemn that behaviour, you drag people in front of judges, and maybe you jail them for good measure.

This is classic subjugation, a classic power game that ends up supporting a veritable industry of oppression. Think of all the police manpower used chasing drug users, all the organized dawn raids, the court costs and extortionate lawyer fees, and the privatised prisons that profit from a sizable incarcerated population from which free labour can be drawn. And that is not to mention the vast webs of organized crime that thrive the world over on the back of drug dealing. The black market trade in illicit drugs is right up there with arms sales and oil sales. 

The irony here is that prohibited drugs are referred to as ‘controlled’ drugs. Yet they are well and truly out of control. There is no control over production, no control over distribution, no taxes are paid, no educational leaflets are handed out - the situation is appalling and has been so for over forty years. And yet it rolls on and on and we still hear the cry of ‘zero tolerance to drugs!’. It is an oppressive mess.

To reiterate: the central issue is health. If you are addicted to heroin you have a health problem that needs to be treated. It's the same with any other drug addiction. If, on the other hand, you don’t have health problems and you are not hurting anyone, then there is no problem (about 90% of all drug use is considered to be non-problematic). What is totally out of order and has no place in society is unwarranted oppression and demonization. Yet this is what the war on drug users entails.

I’d say almost everyone I have ever known has, at one time or another, experimented with a prohibited drug. So what? Altering consciousness through the use of psychoactive substances is human nature, no different in kind to our desire to spin around and around when we were children in order to experience dizziness. It is human nature to seek unusual sensations and pleasurable states of mind, and we have been doing so since our distant ancestors first discovered psychoactive plants and fungi growing in the environment. There is nothing to be fearful of. With drug use, all we need is objective education regarding dosage, effects and any potential health dangers that portend. We need to promote maximally safe usage and not demonization policies. Again, drug use is not, and never has been, a criminal issue.

As far as I can see, the immediate decriminalization of all and any drug use is a no-brainer. Thereafter, we would need to address how best to properly control all drug manufacture and distribution away from the hands of unscrupulous armed cartels and the like. Society needs to take back control. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a scam, a pernicious folly that does not stand up to close scrutiny. The sooner ordinary people ‘come out’ and declare drug use to be a health issue and not a criminal issue, the better.

About the author

Simon G. Powell is an author and filmmaker. His books include The Psilocybin Solution and Darwin's Unfinished Business, his films Manna and Metanoia.