One law for drink, another for drugs

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The Independent Online

Exhausted by the travails of attempting to introduce "family friendly policies" to the employers of Britain, the Government has turned its hand to an easier task - creating family friendly pubs. The idea is to promote more "sensible drinking" by allowing parents to let their children experience seeing them indulging in sensible drinking, so that one day they too can become "sensible drinkers".

Exhausted by the travails of attempting to introduce "family friendly policies" to the employers of Britain, the Government has turned its hand to an easier task - creating family friendly pubs. The idea is to promote more "sensible drinking" by allowing parents to let their children experience seeing them indulging in sensible drinking, so that one day they too can become "sensible drinkers".

There is certainly a great deal of logic in this. My brother and I were brought up in a household where drinking was hardly ever done at all, and have both grown up to embrace the idea of drinking until we are strikingly insensible because, to us, sensible drinking is nothing but a waste of good alcohol. Now, with children of my own, I run a household where, because of both parents' inability to partake of "sensible drinking", alcohol is hardly ever drunk at all. I do feel a pattern emerging here, but I don't know for the life of me how to break it.

On my increasingly rare excursions into the world of booze - which remain ostensibly meeting people for "a drink" when we all know that there will be nothing singular about it - I still cannot get the hang of "sensible drinking". Obviously, I'm not going to make elaborate arrangements to travel across London for "a drink", but two drinks is hardly less pointless and three drinks is just enough to persuade me that it would be "a waste of alcohol" not to push on.

Not very pretty, and not at all sensible. But not, in my experience, an uncommon pattern. And while I'm willing to admit that I may have "issues with alcohol", I'm sure that I'm not an alcoholic. I don't have any trouble desisting from drinking, it's just that when I do drink, it seems so very, very moreish. Indeed, the acknowledged moreishness of alcohol provides for much of the impetus behind Jack Straw's White Paper on the licensing laws. Much lobbying has come from the police, who want licensing hours to be deregulated so that there aren't loads of people gulping down as much booze as they can as quickly as they can and then reeling out into the streets. Further, the police wanted the power more easily to shut down "disorderly houses" and this they have been given. They can now shut down licensed premises they don't like the look of at the drop of a helmet.

So promoting sensible drinking is only a part of the new laws. They are mainly coming in to make handling non-sensible drinking a bit less arduous. This explains why it may look as though there is a contradiction between Mr Straw's attitude to alcohol and his attitude to drugs, when there isn't really. The drugs attitude and the alcohol attitude are just nestling on different parts of the same continuum.

They may look liberal, but Mr Straw's proposals are actually about containment, about rewarding the sensible and minimising the knock-on effect that the insensible may have on others. The interesting thing here is that Mr Straw further exposes his draconian prejudices about drugs in his seemingly rather less prejudiced attitudes to alcohol.

While he is happy to acknowledge the existence of such a thing as sensible drinking - and no doubt is a practitioner of it himself - his pronouncements on drugs again and again scream out his adherence to the dangerous myth that there is no such thing as sensible drug taking.

Instead, the idea continues to flourish that, as the teacher in South Park so straightforwardly put it, "drugs are bad". Drugs are not bad, they are inanimate things with no idea of any moral universe. What is bad is that some people - a good proportion of them - are horribly susceptible to the bad effects that drugs sometimes have. But just because they have taken drugs and found themselves in trouble with drugs, it doesn't mean they are bad people, any more than the drugs themselves are bad. The stigma attached to drugs tars even the most benign of dabblers with the same brush as Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar himself. No wonder supposedly sensible people have no sympathy for drug addicts.

Instead, just as sensible drinkers deserve to be allowed comfortably and without inconvenience to indulge their little vice, so too do sensible users of cannabis, ecstacy and even cocaine. It is interesting that the present daft and draconian licensing laws, introduced to stop munitions workers from getting out of hand during the First World War (of all great projects), were introduced at around the same time as illegal drugs became illegal. This, too, was about control - inefficient, clumsy, blanket control.

Mr Straw's attitudes to alcohol suggest that he does not, rightly, believe blanket control to work. Surely he must see that this is as much the case with drugs as it is with alcohol.

Among the general public there is not much support for the extension of licensing laws, in much the same way as there is not much support for the relaxation of the drugs laws. People will come round in the case of alcohol when they see that such relaxation does work at a social level.

But at the deeper level, the level that troubles people, there will not be much of a difference. For some people, heavy drinking is something they enjoy and find irresistible for its own sake. For others, it is a compulsion, something that they must refrain from doing because the consequences of their addiction, for others as well as themselves, are too terrible.

The recent debate about drugs, sparked by the Police Federation report which called for liberalisation (which like the alcohol debate is supported for purely pragmatic reasons by many police officers) was interesting because of the way in which some people interpreted this divide as being one of class. Many commentators, most eloquently Tony Parsons, argued that it was all very well for the middle classes to want their hobbies legalised, but on the sink estates people were less able to cope with the ravages of illegal drugs.

But insofar as this perhaps mildly patronising argument is valid, it is even more valid for alcohol. If one accepts that addiction to alcohol or to drugs is a disease, then it all makes sense. All disease causes more damage, and is more difficult to fight, in deprived areas. The disease of addiction, to alcohol, to drugs or to both, is no different.

But it is increasingly obvious that the draconian banning of drugs actually exacerbates problems in the very areas which are supposedly being protected - simply because they are always the most vulnerable to everything. While many people argue that banning drugs is as silly as banning alcohol - cue the words prohibition, speakeasy and Al Capone - I'd go further. Banning drugs - which is in effect what the policy of illegality is trying to do - is every bit as sensible as banning cancer. It doesn't make it go away. It just means that it is a lot harder to find help in getting a cure for it.

And that is why drug and alcohol addiction is so much harder for the poor to bear. Support is needed for people to be able to conquer this awful, insidious disease. Instead we have laws that are framed in what appears to be the sincere belief that those who have problems with alcohol are not being "sensible" and those who have problems with drugs are "criminals". Actually, they're in the grip of a desperate illness. You cannot legislate for that. You can only help.