Are we tolerating the wrong drugs?

'Cannabis isn't a gateway drug, any more than the nursery slopes are a gateway to extreme winter sports'
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Britain's governmental dream of a plain and simple solution to the myriad problems caused by the human desire to play dangerous games with brain chemistry is over. Zero Tolerance, until so recently promoted as the only moral way to tackle the use of illegal drugs, has surely had its day.

Britain's governmental dream of a plain and simple solution to the myriad problems caused by the human desire to play dangerous games with brain chemistry is over. Zero Tolerance, until so recently promoted as the only moral way to tackle the use of illegal drugs, has surely had its day.

For 30 years, there have been no modifications to the drug laws which have have not nodded in the direction of the creation of that fool's paradise. Now, a change in the status of cannabis looks certain to come. It may not be the legalisation promised in the Lib Dem's fantasy-manifesto, but it will have a similar shape to the de facto decriminalisation in London's Lambeth.

A different attitude to other drugs has been signalled too, with the government's decision to issue guidelines on safer use of ecstasy in clubs. While welcome, this pragmatic move is almost touching too in its institutional tardiness. The quintessential club drug these days is nasty, zomboid ketamine, and if there are harm minimalisation strategies for the human use of this veterinary medicament, its users seem less-than-blissfully unaware of them.

Every generation since youth culture began has had its drug of choice, and it tries to choose something its parents know nothing about. The e generation provided yesterday's moral panic. Today's clubbers are keeping one step ahead of acceptance in the usual manner, no matter how grudging that acceptance may be. Such irritating youthful stubbornness only serves to further illustrate how hopeless those visions of zero tolerance were.

At this point though, as we wave it goodbye, it is safe to point out that the idea of zero tolerance, while impractical, was also, in its own way, optimistic. It has often been portrayed as a stupid and authoritarian threat to the rights of individuals, just because it took that shape in practice. Instead it was a position which did contain a compelling, stubbornly prelapsarian, moral logic.

Drugs, their production, their trafficking and their use, cause so much human misery. Therefore, there is a genuine argument that all people who consider themselves decent and moral should simply 'say no". This is particularly obvious when looking at cocaine, and the bloody path it wends from lawless, debased and desperate economies to the recreational user's more-than-likely unbloodied nostrils.

Also obvious, when looking at cocaine use, is tremendous moral equivalence. People are perfectly capable – even rather fond – of sitting around, off their faces on cocaine, manically discussing the iniquities of globalisation, the disgusting ethical no man's land that is shopping at the Gap, and the hideous scandal that is the human cost of western decadence. Certainly this is hypocrisy. But what can one expect in a world bent on securing an entirely free market for items made in "emerging economies", and an entirely controlled one in the people actually manufacturing them?

There is a real synergy here, between free markets and free availability of this drug, which is why cocaine is such a wow in the City. Drugs are in many ways the ultimate free-market product. The more addictive they are, the more brand loyalty they have built into them. The consumer cannot resist.

Which is why, at the opposite end of this hopelessly polarised debate, the argument for legalising all drugs, completely, is every bit as as valid as the one peddled by the prohibitionist. By legalising, the criminal element is removed. Any damage to the user (much lessened by simple quality control) is the consequence of poor individual choice-making, and treatable (if appropriate) under what is still called, the world over, the British method (prescribing the addict's necessary dose).

No less moral or logical than zero-tolerance, full legalisation is similarly ham-strung by the exigencies of the real world. Even if the political will to force through such an unthinkably massive reversal were there, even if the moral majority could be bludgeoned into theoretical approval, the setting up of that global PPP to oversee the changeover would be manifestly impossible. Practically speaking, blanket legalisation is not one whit more progressive than zero tolerance, and one hell of a lot more expensive.

So what we're left with is compromise. Compromise gets a bad press in a modern world in which the pursuit of a perfect ideal of splendid, individual happiness is part of the constitution in the most successful, most admired, most envied, and most hated nation state the world has ever known. But common sense tells us, constantly, that compromise is actually a very useful tool.

The difficulty with drugs is deciding where the compromise should lie. Dispiritingly, we haven't even sorted out an adequate model for compromise in dealing with alcohol, the drug we're all most familiar with. Even though one in 13 British adults have greater or lesser problems around drink, we continue to find this a real threat only when drunk people become violent or start getting into cars.

Such a climate is hardly an encouraging one in which to release other volatile, but for the majority purely recreational, substances. No one has to make a decision on that, because the substances are out there anyway, alongside some rather less benign ones. The current debate around the relaxing of the drugs laws is centred on whether we should acknowledge that truth or not.

For many, admitting that the lump is there is when the cancer starts. It is when, hopefully, the ignorance ends and the treatment begins. Ending ignorance and starting treatment is what should be prioritised when it comes to drug use as well. But discovery of the lump, of course, can come too late as well, when the cancer is already raging.

Lesson one in the ending of ignorance really has to be that cannabis is, while not harmless, less harmful than alcohol. If it really is the magical gateway drug, then one hell of a lot of people are stepping over it without even noticing, and moving on down the logical progression of horrors to booze. But it isn't a gateway drug, any more than nursery slopes are the gateway to extreme winter sports. There is a logical progression, but it is procedural rather than compulsive. This the political establishment is finally coming to accept.

Sadly though, it's already quite late in the day for that truth to be singled out among the mayhem. Police and government are happy enough with Commander Brian Paddick's Brixton experiment in the non-prosecution of people in possession of weed for them to extend it in Lambeth, and be minded to take it nationwide.

However, the move came as a desperate measure, in response to the leap in street crime partly prompted by the falling price of psychosis-inducing crack. Now the relaxation of the cannabis laws is being fingered for this separate, frightening development. Everyone is too busy fretting over this one little cyst though, to notice that the real threat is elsewhere.

Cannabis is a recreational drug, providing a release from the everyday stresses and strains of modern life. But crack – like heroin – is much more powerful. It is a deadly, addictive anaesthetic for the troubled, nihilistic soul. Worse, while heroin induces people to steal to feed their habit, crack also prompts them to seek out violence and cruelty for the sake of it.

Almost a decade ago, when the crack epidemic was reaching fever pitch in the ghettoes of the US, Britain was braced for an invasion of the same. The invasion is finally with us now. In America, the epidemic burned itself out. Its participants – a generation of young men – just kept on stepping up the violence until they'd achieved annihilation. It would be terrible if we all found ourselves too busy squabbling about the status of cannabis, to even register that the desperate, horrific problem was something else entirely.