Easing up on drugs; toughening up on alcohol

By Jonathan Power

August 19th 2014

Not that long ago in Britain, the great detective Sherlock Holmes, could quite legally sit by the fire with his pipe and sniff cocaine. If friends wanted to join him, without fear of a police raid, they could smoke marijuana. Opium was used for those in unbearable pain. (Alas, most people in poorer countries have never been able to afford any pain relief. Too often they die in agony. Mind you, when the British controlled India they became the largest drug trafficker the world has ever seen, forcing Chinese ports open so they could win opium addicts among the poor.)

Even in Islamic countries alcohol was at one time tolerated. (In Turkey and Egypt it still is.) But in most Islamic societies it was eventually banned and for a while, more than a hundred years ago, so was coffee.

These days, when it comes to drugs and tobacco, in most societies the degree of control is subject to fierce debate and when it comes to drugs, banning them seems to be the majority conviction. But are the priorities right? In the US hundreds of thousands of young men languish behind bars for long sentences, convicted of possessing quite small amounts of drugs. Meanwhile, in American and European hospitals the victims of car crashes caused by alcohol pour through the doors. Tax money often pays the bill. Smokers with their cancers fill many hospital wards and taxpayers pay the billions of dollars it costs. A good idea would be to make drinkers and smokers pay their own hospital bills.

In Britain alcohol consumption is on the rise. David Beckham is teetotal but the football icon’s habits are not much emulated. “There is no other drug which is so damaging to so many different organs of the body”, writes Imperial College professor, David Nutt, in his book, “Drugs Without Hot Air”. The leading health problem for men, he says, is alcohol. In a study he made, alcohol came out top as the drug that causes the most severe damage. Heroin is a much lower second. Cocaine and methyl amphetamine are much lower down the league table than heroin. Tobacco comes next followed by cannabis. Ecstasy rarely causes damage. Neither do LSD, khat and mushrooms.
He also points out that each year tobacco kills 5 million people across the world and alcohol 1.5 million. In comparison illicit drugs kill 200,000.

If drugs were legalised the drug gangs who intimidate whole societies, as in Mexico and Columbia, with their killing sprees, would be undermined. So would the income of certain Western banks. The giant HSBC was recently fined $1.9 billion for, among other things, laundering drug money.

No one needs a more enlightened attitude than the Nato forces now operating in Afghanistan where for years they have been committed to destroying the peasants’ main source of income. Afghanistan produces more opium that anywhere else in the world. The Taliban now support the growing of poppies. It wins the peasants’ favour.

Before the US invasion the Taliban with their rigorous, fundamentalist, viewpoint were against the growing of poppies and that effectively ended poppy growing. But after the invasion they turned 180 degrees and encouraged it, mainly for the purpose of providing revenue to buy military equipment. This clearly goes against Islamic teaching.

The wise senior statesman of Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agriculture in this part of the world than anyone else, told me that it might be more sensible for Western governments to help buy the Afghani poppy crop. Besides undercutting the Taliban it would help deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates.

There are many practical problems with the idea of buying up the crop. If the price were set too high, it might encourage more farmers to grow opium poppies. If it were not high enough, they would go on selling at least some on the black market. Nevertheless, they would probably rather sell their crop legally than to the mafia.

Interestingly, Muslim theologians have usually not been too critical of opium, if carefully used. It is seen as an antidote to sorrow. Insome places iced poppy tea is traditionally served at funerals. But for the most part it is Islamic practice only to use opium for medical, not recreational, purposes.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who lived 460-357 BC, concluded that diseases were naturally caused and were cured by natural remedies. Opium, he wrote, was one. However he was also of the opinion that it should be used sparingly and under control.

Conclusion? We should tolerate alcohol less and drug use more. The twin policies would reduce the reach of crime and the profits of the drug gangs. It would reduce the amount of pain in the world. But at the moment sheer ignorance and prejudice forbid change.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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