Comment: Our primitive fear of drugs

We all seem to have a need to get outside of ourselves from time to time
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THE REAL problem with the debate about drugs is that it takes place across a broad front that prevents us from looking at it in purely moral terms. There is more than an echo here of the ancient culture of sin and witchcraft that held certain substances and natural activities to be wrong in themselves. Campaigners against alcohol called it "demon drink", something that was inherently wicked. There is probably an element of that, and of primitive fear, at work in the debate about drugs.

Observation suggests that human beings need food, shelter and sex, and they like using drugs in a variety of ways, such as smoking them, chewing them and drinking them. The word "drug" is loaded, of course, and it is almost impossible to purge it of its unattractive associations.

A drug is a natural substance that has psychoactive properties; it works upon the way we feel, and that is why we take it. It may act as an euphoric to put us in a good, relaxed mood, or put us up or put us down. In other words, it plays with our brain and alters its function. We all seem to have a need to get outside of ourselves from time to time. There are a number of ways of doing this, and religion has been prolific in providing them.

Drumming, dancing and chanting are time-honoured ways of achieving the state of ecstasy desired, and so is the use of drugs. Human beings always seem to have used substances to help them take vacations from the necessary routines of life, but most of us know the difference between a vacation and real life. We also know that our nature has a tendency to overdo things, to get things out of proportion, so, if we are wise, we learn temperance or moderation; we learn virtue.

We can apply the calculus of virtue to our sexuality and other appetites, as well as to the use of those psychoactive substances we use for the pleasure they give us. They are not wrong in themselves, but they can be used wrongly. And this is where the trouble lies.

The drugs that are now illegal substances in Britain and the US were gradually outlawed for reasons that have as much to do with politics, class and race as with the problematic qualities of the drugs themselves. If the moral calculus were based simply on the potential danger of any particular drug, then we would long ago have outlawed the two most dangerous drugs on the market: alcohol and tobacco.

In Britain, alcohol is involved in 65 per cent of murders, 75 per cent of stabbings, 40 per cent of acts of domestic violence and 30 per cent of acts of child abuse. There are 1,800 deaths from illegal substances each year, compared with 33,000 that are related to the use of alcohol. It is not surprising that societies have experimented with banning substances that can wreak such havoc.

But what happens when something that people want is made illegal? First of all, supply drops more than demand, so the price of the substance goes up. Because it has been forced underground, the flow of information necessary to an efficient market is disrupted, so there is less price competition for the drug. The lack of competition enables dealers to charge monopoly prices, so profit margins widen.

The big profits attract people who would not otherwise get involved in the trade, spreading corruption and contempt for law.

The American experiment with Prohibition is the classic case study. It entrenched and institutionalised crime. We saw the government lose the war against Al Capone and the syndicates who supplied alcohol to the millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens who wanted it, in spite of the iron rectitude of Elliott Ness and the Untouchables. We are seeing it all again this time through the lens of movies made about the US Drug Enforcement Agency. We know that those who do not learn from history are destined to go on repeating it.

The chronology seems fairly clear, even if nothing else is. Until 1916 cocaine and morphine could be bought over the counter at Harrods. The US led the way in trying to prohibit the use of drugs and alcohol by an amendment to the Constitution. Tobacco, however, remained untouchable. It was the great American drug, after all, and it was so domesticated and universal that it was impossible to think of it as a drug.

Everyone smoked, and no one complained. Those old enough to remember will have sat in cinemas for hours pickled in the smoke from hundreds of cigarettes, watching the light from the projection booth cutting its way through a fog that only seemed to add to the romance of the movies. In the monastery in which I was trained for the Christian ministry, any member of the community who wanted it was issued with one and a half ounces of pipe tobacco a week, or the equivalent in cigarettes. It was assumed everyone smoked.

It was the very foreignness of hash, though it is arguably less dangerous in its effects than alcohol or tobacco, that made us suspicious of it. The motive behind American Prohibition seems to have been a potent combination of Puritanism and racism. Opium was associated with Chinese immigrants, cocaine with Southern, black labourers, and alcohol with the Catholic cultures of Europe. The great American war against drugs started in 1919 on a wave of xenophobia.

Nowadays heroin addicts, unless they are in the methadone maintenance programme, are dependent on the black market. They turn to theft to buy drugs, and it is the alarming increase of drug-related crime that has brought the subject before the public Though heroin addicts are relatively few in number they are uniquely unsympathetic characters, who create disproportionate chaos around them.

The tragic heart of the debate is over what to do with them. The only model on offer for dealing with this human tragedy is Prohibition. On the other hand, an entirely libertarian approach, which may be philosophically attractive, may trap us in the law of unintended consequences by exposing weaker members of society to dangers through which the more balanced among us find it possible to navigate without too much risk. Fortunately, there is a middle way between absolute prohibition and absolute licence; we are already following it in our management of legal drugs.

We went from health warnings on packets of cigarettes to the banning of advertising and the prohibition of smoking in many public places, which is why cigarette smokers can be seen standing uncomfortably in doorways having a quick puff before going to their smoke-free offices. And, of course, we tax it punitively, thus illustrating one of the necessary hypocrisies of government.

An obverse development can be traced in the history of alcohol consumption in our society. In the Scotland of my boyhood there existed a strange combination of grudging legal access to alcohol and a semi-prohibitionist culture that limited its availability in arbitrary ways. For example, it was impossible to get a drink in a pub on a Sunday, because they were not allowed to open, while a bona fide traveller could buy a drink in a hotel. In a community in the west of Scotland this led to the phenomenon of the Sunday bus run to country hotels for the simple purpose of consuming alcohol. Alcohol abuse is still a major problem among us, but it is not the ugly and brutal thing it was in the Scotland of my boyhood, when the streets of most towns after closing-time on Friday and Saturday nights were filled with drunk men, staggering home to their frightened wives and children.

The moral calculus rarely affords us absolute guidance in complex human choices. There is more than an element of farce in the current debate about sex and drugs in our society. Mother and father are tucked up in bed in the attic reading their prohibitionist tracts, while their children in the basement experiment with stuff their parents have not even heard of. The only way to bring rationality into the situation is to acknowledge it and try to manage the consequences. The costly failure of Prohibition gives us a strong negative reason for thinking again.

The writer is Bishop of Edinburgh. His book, `Godless Morality', is published by Canongate at pounds 9.99