Did Keith Moon really die so that pop stars could take over the role of Tufty?

Sometimes it's best to tell lies. Most of us learn this lesson fairly early in life, beginning with minor social fibs and working our way up to graduate-level mendacity by the time we reach voting age. But every now and then someone forgets the arrangement and hideously, unforgivably, blurts out the truth. Brian Harvey, former member of East 17, did it last week when he cheerfully admitted that he took ecstasy and believed that it was a safe drug. "I don't see the problem," he concluded with blithe ingenuousness.

He does now. Within hours the tabloids and the more vocal backbenchers were in the grip of an epileptic fit of moral rectitude. Panicking radio stations banned the group from their playlist, as though exposure to the very chord changes might prove fatal to listeners, and other group members expressed their rage and indignation (despite, in one case, having uttered almost exactly similar sentiments about the benevolent effects of the drug). Harvey offered an abject retraction and a health warning (did Keith Moon really die for this? So that pop stars could take over the role of Tufty the road safety squirrel?) But it was too late - he was out of the band.

Now, none of the cliches that you might normally apply to the victim of a moral panic like this will really stand up here - Harvey can't realistically be described as "unfortunate" or "hapless". He should have remembered that he wasn't really a rock star - more a goateed version of My Little Pony, a commodity aimed directly at pre-pubescent children. Part of the franchise deal is a guarantee of decaffeinated stimulation and given the amazing gullibility of these particular consumers such caution isn't unreasonable - my wife recalls that she and her schoolfriends doggedly forced down a mixture of tea and coffee for a time, on the grounds that this was reported to be the favourite beverage of David Cassidy. So, even if, like me, you believe that prohibition probably kills as many people as the drugs themselves, Harvey's suggestion that you could take 12 tablets of ecstasy and drive yourself home seemed unhelpful, to say the least.

But none of that quite accounts for the feral nature of his punishment. In the Daily Mirror Tony Parsons called him "an ugly little troglodyte" and said that it would be no loss if he choked on his next tablet; the MP Nicholas Evans gravely charged that "it's quite likely that youngsters will die by Harvey's words". John Major and Virginia Bottomley, offered the opportunity to add a spasm of indignation, obliged with practised ease. And finally, formal anathema was pronounced by "the father of Leah Betts", the media-consecrated Pope of drug bereavement. That Mr Betts is treated as an expert in these matters, largely by virtue of his own sad loss, says everything about the stupefying level at which drugs are discussed in this country. It is as if the victims of a gas explosion were to be invited for their comments every time British Gas announced a new pricing policy.

Leah Betts, as thousands of young drug-takers know from their own experience, was a rare exception, not the rule - unhappy proof, if we needed any at this end of the century, that the brain is not universally tolerant of chemical tinkering.

And maybe there are grounds for saying that a single death is one too many, that it justifies the apparatus and expense of control. But if that is so why is it that MPs and tabloid leader writers do not similarly vilify the dealers and users of motorbikes, a teenage thrill with a much higher casualty rate than ecstasy? And if Brian Harvey is guilty of criminal irresponsibility in making his statement then what about the radio station that first broadcast it and the newspapers which ensured that it reached every impressionable fan in the land? If his words were killers then why did so many respectable citizens help them on their way?

We have been here before of course - not so long ago another band member nearly lost her job for a similar offence. Clare Short - percussion and vocals for The Shadow Cabinet - had the temerity to suggest that the question of whether current drug policy was actually working might be worth discussion by politicians. She too had reckoned without the paralysing terror that the subject seems to evoke and had to go through a humiliating somersault to get out of trouble.

What goes missing in such duplicitous exercises is any kind of useful honesty. There are many varieties of lie told in its place, from the suggestio falsi of the high profile drugs busts (taking out some drug dealers to increase the profits of the rest) to the suppressio veri involved in lumping all illegal drugs together in one seamless demonology (when asked recently what substance he would ban if he wanted an easier life, one experienced Washington policeman replied "alcohol" without a flicker of hesitation - not crack, that useful urban bogey-man, but the drug most of us use, every day).

I won't lose much sleep over it but Brian Harvey was treated with gross hypocrisy. We don't have any realistic grounds for demanding common-sense or social forethought from pop stars; indeed you might argue that part of their function is to behave with reckless and self-destructive abandon precisely so that the rest of us don't have to. What should induce a certain amount of insomnia, though, is the cowardice and evasion of people who are paid for their judgement rather than their hip movements. The cost of keeping quiet, however advantageous it is for one's career or electoral prospects, is much greater than the odd injudicious honesty.