Turning on a chemical generation

Tobias Jones detects a shift in the drugs debate
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Between the glamour and the gutter of drug-taking, between prohibition and legalisation, there is now a serious debate about drugs. Brian Harvey and Oasis, with arrests and loud-mouth comments, set the ball rolling. Now the talk is more considered than knee-jerk. Members of the medical, legal, political and charitable professions are all asking for more informed ways of dealing with the seven million people who now use banned substances.

On Wednesday, Sceptre published Disco Biscuits, a collection of stories about the "chemical generation". Described as a "celebration of the tenth anniversary of acid house" it contains a list of iconic authors: among them Jeff Noon, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh. The book reflects a feeling of inevitability: that the drugs industry won't be wished away.

The medical community remains suspicious. GPs and psychiatrists are giving notice that many depressions, psychoses and suicides are drugs related. But Dr George Cohen, a psychiatrist, neurochemist and medical director in the Barley Wood rehabilitation centre in north Somerset, says: "The drug laws are not working. If you prohibit a substance, it becomes attractive. There is always going to be a demand, and there has to be a supply. When you ban that, the control simply goes to the crooks."

Mike Goodman of Release says: "We acknowledge the dangers, we know drugs can be harmful. But we do not believe that the police are the best people to deal with recreational drug users."

As George Cohen says, prosecution is often a matter of chance: "Over 50 per cent of minor cannabis offences get only a ticking-off. It depends on the mood of a police officer, or the county you're in."

The guru of the British drug legalisation movement is Dr John Marks, the chairman of the Drug Policy Review Group. Last week he went on the offensive against the drug legislation on the statute book: "Government propaganda is a distortion of facts. No self-respecting pathologist would say MDMA - the chemical essence of Ecstasy - causes deaths". Marks claims the family of Leah Betts have been "used by the prohibitionists", and suggests that Ecstasy-related deaths are due to contamination; the drug was invented in 1914, but contaminations have only occurred since it was banned in 1988.

Marks refers to a death in Blackpool last year when the Ecstasy tablet was found to contain warfarin, a rat poison. His solution is to license the production of Ecstasy "only to mature people" and to make "injectable drugs" available by doctor's prescription.

This argument for legalisation suggests that recreational use isn't so far away from medicinal usage. Opium and quinine are drugs deployed medically. Methadone has been used as a heroin substitute; cocaine as a local anaesthetic. Marks urges that "druggists with pharmaceutical knowledge" should be free to make assessments.

Marijuana is the least controversial of banned substances. The attempt to allow its use for glaucoma, cancer, epilepsy, nausea and appetite promotion in Aids patients is gaining respectability, with doctors comparing it to psycho-active and addictive drugs, such as alcohol.

Right-wing libertarians are equally restless with the status quo. Those arguing freedom for gun ownership realise it is illogical not to allow controlled drug usage. This notion that legislation should not curtail personal freedoms has been taken up in America by big business. George Soros gave $550,000 (pounds 340,000) to the "215" campaign, a proposal for the medical use of marijuana. Government revenue, they argue, could benefit from legislation to control drug movements.

Richard Stevenson, from Liverpool University, states: "Prohibition is very expensive. It's a major economic problem ... I would legalise everything." He has developed an "efficiency argument, advocating that Ecstasy should be taxed. Optimal taxes would be used against the most harmful substances.

Cultural figures are being enlisted in the campaign. The torch has been taken up by William Burroughs, JG Ballard and Will Self. Two of the stories in Disco Biscuits are entitled "I smile from ear to ear" and "I am blissed out". But the quality of the writing and the snap of storylines show a serious agenda. Book readings and launches frequently feature in clubs, and the Disco Biscuits anthology is being launched at venues around the country in the next few weeks.

The impetus for change may prove hard to halt. Since 24 July 1967 a message has percolated through to governments. On that day, a petition in The Times proposed research into and tolerance towards marijuana and the signatories included establishment figures like David Dimbleby, Anthony Storr and Brian Walden, nodding in agreement under a quotation from Spinoza: "All laws which can be violated without doing anyone any injury are laughed at."

Now the list includes Rupert Pennant-Rea, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Douglas Adams and Paul Merton. Perhaps the movement is beginning to turn rather middle-class and may eventually become middle- England.