Thomas Sutcliffe: A short trip from Gin Lane to Skunk Alley

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The Independent Online

I found myself wondering this week whether skunk might be our gin. Certainly, a contemporary Hogarth would have no trouble replicating his famous contrast between the effects of two different intoxicants. On one side you'd have Weed Street, in which socially productive citizens shared a joint of old-fashioned cannabis with friendly conviviality. In the foreground an MS sufferer smiles, pains eased by this natural wonder-drug. In the background an allotment gardener tends a flourishing plot of home-grown dope - the very image of the natural high.

On the other side, by contrast, you'd have Skunk Alley - in which hollow-eyed zombies in hoodies shrink from unseen neurological phantoms. In the background a long queue stretches away from the door to Psychiatric Outpatients and in the foreground dealers lurk, anxious to exploit this "gateway to hard drugs".

I don't mean to be frivolous about the dangers of skunk, a form of cannabis which has been associated with mental illness and which has provoked even those who support the legalisation of drugs to voice second thoughts. Just because the recent anxiety about skunk has all the features of a classic drug scare doesn't mean the drug isn't scary.

But it is, I think, good news that Charles Clarke has resisted the natural instincts of government when confronted with a drug panic - which is to flinch back towards prohibition. The issue is not really whether skunk is a danger to some vulnerable individuals, but how best to minimise or manage that danger. And in doing that we may have to recognise that for some users the danger is the whole point. Whether skunk is a teeny bit illegal or a whole lot won't make any difference to the problem. Indeed, reclassifying skunk on the grounds of its potency would simply persuade a lot of people not to settle for second best. Whatever drug legislation should do, it shouldn't advertise the product.

The gin analogy is instructive. Between 1729 and 1751, parliament passed eight "Gin Acts" - with a variety of motives but a certain doleful consistency of result. Virtually every one created more problems than it solved, often quite unforeseen by those who drafted it. The Gin Act of 1737, for instance, sought to curb street sales of gin by rewarding those who informed on hawkers. It resulted in thousands of convictions but no drop in the consumption of gin and a considerable increase in street violence. According to Jessica Warner's intriguing history Craze, in the two years between 1737 and 1739 barely a day passed without an informer being attacked, often by a large mob.

Cue another piece of reactive legislation, designed to patch the widening hole in the social consensus. As with cannabis, public indifference to the gin laws came to be seen as almost as much of a problem as gin itself. It was only after the Gin Act of 1743 - which effectively relegalised sales of gin while raising the excise on it - that sales began to drop.

The gin craze reminds us that governments have their own addiction at times of stress - to reactive legislation which is superficially tough and decisive, but ignores the underlying complexities of the problem in favour of attacking its outward symptoms. This often leads to short-term relief (the banging headache of tabloid headlines can disappear overnight) but it does nothing to effect a durable cure. At least, in this case, the Government have resisted the temptation. They're not clean yet but, as they say in the programmes, one day at a time.

Will he fall over the daffodils?

Role bleedthrough has always been a professional hazard for the busy actor - but the recent trend for the gritty classic doesn't make the problem any easier. Watching the first episode of The Virgin Queen, the BBC's new series on Elizabeth I, I was briefly knocked out of my Tudor suspension of disbelief by the scene in which the young Queen appears to be delivered into the custody of Eugene - the melancholy Man City obsessive from Cutting It.

It wasn't half as unsettling, though, as the interference between David Threlfall's performance as Frank - the feckless anti-hero of Shameless - and his appearance as William Wordsworth in Peter Ackroyd's series The Romantics, right, which also starts this weekend. Threlfall is excellent in both, but it's still hard to shake the suspicion that he may stagger over to the daffodils, rip up several handfuls while ranting about their beauty ("foookin sprightly!") and then be discovered by Dorothy lying insensible on the floor of Dove Cottage, with his breeches round his ankles.

* The sloppiness of some criminals is amazing. Even an intermittent viewer of CSI would know that if you're going to plant a finger-tip in a bowl of chilli and sue for the resultant distress, as a Las Vegas couple did, you have to plan the job carefully, pre-cooking the digit in a sauce of exactly the same composition and coming up with a plausible explanation of why no one in the kitchen is having difficulty counting up to five.

The thought also occurs that with quite a lot of fast-food meals, a human fingertip would be a vast improvement on the meat that's actually used. It needs a bit of trimming, it's true - but at least it's free-range and on the bone.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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