A heroine amid the drugs hysteria

The vilified social worker who claimed Ecstasy is relatively safe should be praised for being sensible; Public people cannot speak honestly about drugs and hope to live

Polly Toynbee
Tuesday 16 April 1996 23:02

The lynch mob was still at the door baying for blood yesterday when I talked to Mary Hartnoll, Glasgow's director of social work. She has just endured the full wrath of the media after her internal memo about drugs to the chief executive of Glasgow City Council was leaked. She says ruefully, "I would never have expected this furore," but others could have warned her. Public people cannot speak honestly about drugs and hope to live.

Paul Betts, father of the Ecstasy victim Leah Betts, was first among her critics, calling her "totally irresponsible" and "absolutely stupid", claiming she had set back his campaign by a decade. The local Labour MP, George Foulkes, declared himself "absolutely astonished" by her comments. Tory MPs jumped in with glee. The Glasgow board that licenses clubs and pubs, about whom she was writing, retaliated by claiming that her remarks "flew in the face" of everything they were doing to stamp out drugs. From the reaction caused by her letter, you might imagine she had called for heroin to be on sale in primary school canteens.

What she actually said was straightforward, factual and sensible. "The irony is that Ecstasy, for example, is a relatively safe drug - risk of death has been calculated as one in 6.8 million (the risk of dying of aspirin is very much greater) - and young people tend to know this. For every highly publicised death, those who use regularly balance their experience of their own and friends' experience of frequent, safe and enjoyable usage."

Admirably, she stands by what she wrote and she has not been panicked into saying things she does not believe to be true. Although she has the firm support of her council leader, she is plainly aghast at what has befallen her. After all, she is not some trendy new arrival but a 56-year- old who has been a director of social services since 1978. She speaks from a depth of experience of running social services in several areas, and now in Glasgow with its many drug rehabilitation programmes and anti- drug campaigns.

This is the story: undergoing local reorganisation, Glasgow council, like many other areas, is in the throes of drawing up new policies in new committees. The controversy started when the Glasgow Licensing Board initiated a hardline anti-drugs policy in the granting of licences to clubs and dance events.

In her letter she was not suggesting anyone should be soft on drugs. "Tough law enforcement is essential," she says. But she was calling for higher safety standards. She wants all licensed dance clubs and events to provide chill-out areas and supply free water. There should be accurate information on drug misuse in these areas, with stewards trained in first aid in case anyone collapses. These "harm reduction measures" are designed to reduce the number of collapses or deaths caused by over-heated dancers on Ecstasy. But the licensing board rejected this proposal, as it seemed to them to be a tacit acceptance, or even approval of young people in these clubs taking drugs. Mary Hartnoll was writing a memo to try to persuade the council to overturn the board's intransigence, in the name of safety.

These "harm reduction measures" were drawn up by a working party two years ago, set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland following the tragedy in the Hanger 13 nightclub in Ayr, where three young people died after taking Ecstasy. If the aim of drug policy is to reduce the number of deaths, then these measures are widely regarded as life-savers.

But the licensing board's refusal to introduce them reveals another agenda lurking just beneath the surface in much official thinking or non-thinking about drugs. This agenda suggests people should be punished for taking drugs because drug-taking is in itself wicked - and it frightens the life out of older people who have never encountered it. The public is encouraged to panic at the very word "drug" and mass hysteria drives out reason. So the vital difference between "relatively safe" and extremely dangerous drugs disappears in a cold sweat of terror, as evidence and facts are cast aside. There has never been a recorded death from cannabis, so prosecuting 56,000 people a year for it blurs the crucial difference between such "relatively safe" drugs and those which destroy not only their users, but also to the community around them.

Miss Hartnoll was blasted for saying Ecstasy is "relatively safe", but those words are used by most of the experts, including the man who collates most information on Ecstasy deaths, Dr John Henry of the National Poisons Information Service. It is not safe, he says, for no widely used drug is safe. He fears it may cause increased depression in later life, but as drugs go, E is "relatively safe". Nothing like as dangerous as drink and tobacco, for instance, and three time more people die of paracetemol, while thousands more young people die driving their first car.

Miss Hartnoll says the young know a great deal about drugs - though often not enough. The "Leah Betts - Sorted" posters invite disbelief from a generation where millions take it every Saturday night without obvious bad effect. She says a recent survey in Glasgow - the city with the most drug deaths, at 100 per year - found half the young women and two thirds of young men took drugs. Six per cent were on heroin, 8 per cent on cocaine or crack - frightening numbers. But for the great majority taking soft drugs was a recreational social activity that did not interfere with their jobs or education. (By far the commonest drug was cannabis).

So in the face of this widespread drug-taking, what kind of effective anti-drug warnings do you issue? "Just Say No" doesn't work, but Miss Hartnoll says, "honesty matters if you want to be believed."

Now she is setting out to persuade her new council to adopt a practical and realistic approach. She says what worked best in the past was a scheme called Operation Eagle, which combined tough law enforcement against drug dealers by the police, a health promotion campaign with truthful information about comparative risks, and good youth clubs involving local adults. Undaunted, she believes she will persuade the council to overturn the Licensing Authority's rejection of harm reduction measures in clubs.

However, people like her who talk honestly about drugs can expect nothing but trouble. It is not OK to suggest that millions of young people take drugs at the weekends and suffer less than they would from a heavy night in the pub. It is not OK to point out that no Ecstasy or cannabis-crazed madmen smash bottles in each other's faces at closing time. Anyone in authority even hinting at this these facts can expect the same bucketful of media ordure that was dumped on Mary Hartnoll in recent days. Drugs are an increasingly important aspect of our national life, and yet none of our law makers or law enforcers are allowed to debate the facts openly: across the parties lips zip, jaws clamp, eyes shut and ranks close.

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