Don't look for an e-number on your envelope of coke

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I bought a packet of wine gums yesterday and found that the label listed a string of ingredients ranging from glucose syrup and modified starch through to two different glazing agents (vegetable oil and carnauba wax) and three colours (E129, E122, and E142) - the only thing they didn't seem to have in them was any wine. A colleague's pack of Silk Cut Ultra, by contrast, merely gave the formal health warnings and the fact that they had 1mg tar and 0.1mg nicotine. And I gather that when you buy cocaine it merely comes in a little twist of paper, with no country of origin, no E-numbers, no quality grading, in fact no information at all.

So the information given is in inverse proportion to the dangers involved to the user. We don't need to know the E-numbers on the wine gums or even that they are best eaten before the end of April 1998. It is helpful to know the tar and nicotine levels in cigarettes, though if you buy them duty-free you don't even get that. And apparently it would be enormously helpful to have more information about the quality of coke, because there has been a serious decline in quality in recent years - a former customer explained to me that he had given up because the quality in London had become so bad.

Why this strange inversion of information? The answer is obvious. Wine gums are food and are closely regulated, with suppliers required to give ludicrous amounts of information. Tobacco exists in a twilight world, still legal but increasingly discouraged; while it is not closely regulated in the way food is, suppliers are being forced to make the product less attractive. And the drug industries, because they exist outside the law, have no controls or regulations on them at all - the advantage of being illegal is they do what they like. The law is an ass.

Every time some sad event occurs which is associated with drugs, such as the shooting of five-year-old Dillon Hull, the debate reopens as to whether drug use should be decriminalised. The arguments are by now well- known. Hardly anyone is in favour of encouraging drug use, but the two sides differ as to the most effective way of curbing it. Advocates of decriminalising drugs point out that the law has not only failed to curb drug use, but has created enormous profits for criminals, who go around shooting people, and offers no protection to users. Opponents argue that the laws against drugs should be more strongly enforced and that weakening them would merely encourage more use.

It might seem a perfectly legitimate debate, but to say that ignores one thing. There will be no change in the law. There can be no change because any significant weakening in the laws against drugs, as Tony Blair recognises, would be seen as a signal that society was less concerned about their use. The Government cannot be seen to be soft on drugs. That was why calls this week by Labour MPs for a review of drug legislation were so quickly slapped down by Number 10.

Yet the present situation, where perhaps one-third of teenagers regularly break the law by taking drugs, is intolerable. So what gives? When some activity is damaging society, but cannot be stopped by legislating, what happens? There are at least two historical examples of just such an impasse, and the outcome gives some clues.

The first is alcohol. In the UK in the 18th century the crisis over booze was probably more serious than our one over drugs. Contemporaries chronicled the catastrophe of children neglected by alcoholic parents, Hogarth portrayed the misery of "gin alley", consumption per head was at least four times the present level. Yet it was completely impractical to legislate against it.

Instead society began to lean against excessive drinking. Beer was promoted as the healthy alternative to gin. Temperance movements sprang up. Excessive drinking gradually began to be frowned upon, rather than admired. A long, slow decline in alcohol consumption ensued.

The other model is tobacco. As with booze, it is impossible to outlaw it, but its use carries serious social costs. Here, again, society is leaning against it in a variety of ways: the curbs on advertising and on smoking in public places, the labelling encouraging lower tar brands, the law against children buying cigarettes and so on.

Expect these pressures to continue, partly by more legislation which chips away at the fringes, but more by a mixture of social and financial sanctions. For example, expect the insurance costs for drivers with convictions for drunken driving to soar even further; expect it to become more expensive for smokers to get life assurance - though they will tend to get better deals on pensions because they will be less likely to collect them.

Now apply this experience to drugs. As any economist knows there are two sides to economic activity: supply and demand. Present (ineffective) legislation focuses largely on supply. Social pressures can focus (much more effectively) on demand, just as they have in the case of booze and fags.

These pressures will show through in a host of different forms. For example, drug-testing may become a more regular condition of employment, as it has in America. Insurance policies could have a "drug clause", with higher premiums for anyone with a conviction.

The information revolution will probably help. Expect information about the costs of drug use to become more widely available, not through government- sponsored ad campaigns but through the exchange of information on the Internet (or its successor). The aim would be to make drug use unfashionable. That would not solve drug use by people outside the mainstream. But cut overall use (and the profits from that) and the problem becomes more manageable.

No legal changes at all? Well, maybe at some stage it will be possible to fine-tune the law so that it pushes hard against the really dreadful aspects of the drug trade, but casts a blinder eye toward the less damaging. A rather better distinction between hard and soft drugs would obviously be helpful. But do not expect the law to be at the frontier: legal change lags behind societal change, it does not lead it.

So do not expect, even in another generation or two, detailed disclosure of contents and quality (complete with E-numbers) on the envelopes of coke. But maybe expect some indication of quality and origin on the packets of hash.

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