By Jonathan Power
Not that long ago in Britain Sherlock Holmes could quite legally sit by the fire with his pipe and sniff cocaine. If friends wanted to join him they could, without fear of a police raid, smoke marijuana. Opium was used for those in unbearable pain and could be bought without a doctor’s prescription. (Alas, most people in very poor countries then and today have never been able to afford any pain relief. Too many die in agony.)
Historically, it is the British who have the worst record on drugs. When the British controlled India they became the largest drug trafficker the world has ever seen, transporting opium from India to China, forcing Chinese ports open so they could win addicts among the mass market of the poor.
These days, when it comes to alcohol 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 have we got our priorities right? In the US hundreds of thousands of young black men languish behind bars for long sentences convicted of possessing quite small amounts of drugs. At long last President Barack Obama is having some success in ending this policy which shoots America in its own foot.
The leading health problem in Britain and the US is alcohol not drugs. “There is no other drug which is so damaging to so many different organs of the body”, writes Imperial College neuropsychopharmacology professor, David Nutt, in his book, “Drugs Without Hot Air”.
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.
In our hospitals one finds only small numbers who have overdosed on drugs. But the perpetuators and victims of car crashes pour through hospital doors and many are there because the driver was intoxicated with alcohol. Our tax money often pays the bill. Smokers with their cancers fill many hospital wards and we the people pay the billions of dollars it costs.
Nutt 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.
Public education on smoking including bans on advertising and increased taxes have seen the proportion of British people who smoke fall from 40% in 1978 to around 20% today. The same is true of other richer countries. Even policies in the Third World are changing. Many airlines in Africa have banned smoking.
Shouldn’t that be the way we treat drugs – make them legal but use every tool to cut down consumption? It is their illegality that has created the black market and the monster of drug gangs who intimidate whole societies, as in Mexico and Columbia, with their killing sprees and corruption of governments. Hundreds of thousands would no longer be incarcerated for a minor offence. Governments would receive a large revenue from taxation to pay for their public health programs.
Alcohol in the US today is legal. Prohibition in the 1920s was counterproductive. If you had money you could get it and gangsters like Al Capone ruled the roost. In 1933 Prohibition ended. But you can argue today that alcohol is too cheap and too easily available.
How should we deal more effectively with freely available alcohol? In Sweden even the smallest amount of alcohol is prohibited for drivers. In the UK taxes are being raised. A good idea would be to make drinkers and smokers pay their own hospital bills, even if they have insurance.
Under Obama marijuana consumption is now permitted for medical purposes. Even conservative Ireland which still forbids abortion permits some consumption of heroin as long as it is injected under medical supervision, in so called “shooting galleries”. Consumers know that this way they will get clean needles and immediate medical help in case of need.
Seven countries in Europe have “shooting galleries”. Also Australia and Canada. In Sydney the policy has reduced the number of ambulance call-outs for overdoses by 80%. There is no evidence that these galleries increase the habit.
Unfortunately no country to my knowledge has a policy of providing pure heroin to anyone who walks in – usually consumers have to bring their own illegally bought heroin off the street, which often can be impure. This undermines the attempt to destroy the drug gangs who thrive on illegality. At last some countries are beginning to experiment with providing pure heroin.
The so-called “war on drugs” should be called to a halt. As The Economist editoralised this month, “a ceasefire” is needed. It is time overdue for a more sophisticated approach.
Copyright: Jonathan Power