Monday, February 07, 2005

Drugs are a class issue

There's been lots of stuff in the press recently about the use of illegal narcotics. Most commentators dismissed Sir Ian Blair's remarks about getting tough with middle-class cocaine users as impractical and silly but, while largely agreeing with this, his remarks were refreshing in one respect: drugs are too often like pornography, gambling, cars, and government money - the middle-classes only get worked up into a lather over these when the working class get their hands on them.

This can be seen, I think, in the reaction to the research published by the "Cally" recently, which showed what all of us with even a passing acquaintance with the drug culture knew already; not all heroin users become destitute house-breakers with HIV but that "results also showed that some heroin users can maintain occupations and achieve educational qualifications, which are comparable with the general UK population".

Shona Robinson of the SNP criticised the research - not on the grounds of its veracity - but because it was published at all. It seems here that it's just too risky to give the plebs information because quicker than you can say "moral panic", deranged neds from our housing estates - armed with the Cally's latest research - will then rush out to buy a half gramme bag and promptly kill themselves.

The patronising approach is done for the best of motives no doubt - but I agree with Matthew Parris, who argued that while drugs are certainly dangerous - so is the mendacious piety of so many politicians and pundits, and I speak - not as some naive libertarian - but as someone who has seen two of his contemporaries die as a result of the heroin explosion that hit Glasgow in the 1980s.

Both conservatives and libertarians need to grow up: the former have to accept that all societies from time immemorial have had consciousness-altering substances in some form; the latter that all societies have felt the need to control the use of these in some form or other. We're talking harm-reduction here - and the harm that needs to be reduced is not so much to do with the impact of the particular chemical on the health of the consumer but it's social effect. For example, following the Caledonian University's research, a number of people have pointed to the link between drugs and crime but depressingly, they tend to focus on how this affects middle-class neighbourhoods, rather than those Glasgow estates where the rule of law is but a faint rumour. I'm not one of those who pretends to know the solution but it has to be understood that the most significant criminal activity associated with drugs has to do with the fact that it's a multi-million pound illegal industry - rather than junkies stealing cars or shoplifting.

I'll close with a lyric from the great John Martyn (who's done a considerable amount of personal research of his own) that kept floating around in my head from the song Dealer while I was writing this: whether you're rich or poor, if you take any kind of drugs, "you're just the spit and polish on a fat man's shiny shoe. I believe they hate me for it; I believe I hate them too".

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