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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis


ENDLESSLY, OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, THE ISSUE HAS BEEN DEBATED; should cannabis, or mescaline, or LSD, be legalised? The record of history suggests that the question should be put the other way round: should such drugs be banned? For then, the answer can be given unequivocally: no. Prohibition has always failed in free enterprise societies—free, that is, to the extent that consumers who have the means can exercise freedom of choice. If they choose drugs, no law can stop them. Prohibition may restrict supplies, for a time, but that will only drive up prices, bringing in fresh supplies—or different drugs. And this flouting of the law breeds disrespect for it, alienates otherwise law-abiding citizens, and corrupts the law enforcers.
    The question needs to be re-phrased: not, shall we legalise? but, how shall we legalise? And to this, unfortunately, history gives no satisfactory answer. It is easy to say, as drugs cannot be suppressed, they should be regulated; but at this point the same difficulty arises as with prostitution. The kind of man to whom drugs, or prostitutes, are anathema, whether he be an Anslinger or a Muggeridge, finds the prospect of regulating them distasteful. It implies recognition, and they do not want what they regard as a vice to be recognised. They consequently cling to the illusion that drugs can be suppressed, if only the law is enforced.
    This leads to a further error of policy. Unwilling to accept the existence of a distinction between, say, cannabis and heroin, they justify banning both, by claiming 'soft drugs lead on to hard'. They sometimes do; but not nearly so inexorably as the prohibition of soft drugs leads on to hard. The reason is obvious; hard drugs are both easier and far more profitable to smuggle. The most striking example is what happened in Hong Kong when opium smoking, which had been tolerated for a century, and had never given the authorities any worry (the rate of addiction to opium among the Chinese, reports often pointed out, was far less serious than the rate of alcoholism among the Europeans on the island) was banned. After the ban, opium was squeezed out of the market by heroin; and by the 1970s, according to the Commissioner of Police, four-fifths of the men in the island's penal institutions had been involved in drug offenses.. Much the same happened in Vietnam, according to the investigator sent by the Pentagon to examine the drug situation there. The only beneficiaries from a campaign against marihuana, he reported, had been the heroin pushers.
    But governments have ignored the evidence that prohibition cannot work. And this is not surprising, as they have a powerful financial interest in maintaining a situation in which certain suppliers are allowed to keep their hold over the legal drug market, in return for their massive contribution to the revenue. Legalising cannabis, admittedly, might have augmented the revenue; but there was always the risk that it would provide a diversion, reducing the quantity of liquor and tobacco sold. It is never wise to attribute calculation, in such matters, to ministers. Individually, perhaps, none of them may realise how the policies they have followed have come to be formulated. But revenue has tended to be the overriding consideration; and anything which has threatened it has been discouraged.
    This has been illustrated recently in the elaborate efforts which governments have made to appear to be campaigning against cigarettes, as a danger to health, while in fact making very certain that their campaign will not, and cannot, succeed. Governments, in fact, are the real drug-pushers of our time. They seem to know—by the instinct of financial self-preservation—that the 'safe' drugs from their point of view are those on which users come to depend, socially as well as psychologically—drink and cigarettes; and they cling to the two of them, in spite of the ugly evidence that has been building up against them. Cannabis and LSD, which do not exert the same hold, would not serve the exchequer nearly as well.
    State licensing, therefore, though less disastrous in its consequences than prohibition, is an unsatisfactory method. It controls drugs, but to ensure their profitability rather than their safety. And even where a measure of safety is sought by handing over responsibility to the medical profession, the results (though again, better than prohibition) have been discouraging. There is little in a medical student's training to qualify him to dispense drugs wisely, and, as the medical journals frequently complain, the lavish prescribing of drugs in recent years suggests that doctors are often more concerned to save themselves time and trouble, than to find the cause of the patient's disorder. Just as governments are the pimps of the tobacco and liquor interests, so the medical profession has allowed itself to become a licensed drug-peddler for the pharmaceutical industry.
    There is little to be hoped from State intervention, therefore, until the electorate begins to grasp the lessons of the past. But as Hegel once complained, what experience and history teach is that 'peoples and governments never have learnt anything from history, or acted on principles derived from it'. And in the case of drugs, there is an additional reason why the lessons have not been learned; the existence of a deep irrational fear of them, which leaves otherwise sensible and intelligent members of the community unwilling to accept that there can be a case for legalisation, let alone to listen to it—even when the objective is the reduction of drug taking.
    Such people will not accept the realities of the situation—for example, that alcohol is a drug, and a much more dangerous one than most of those which are banned. On the other hand, they will swallow the corniest fantasies about other drugs. They believe that heroin, say, has a built-in addictive attraction, so that anybody taking it once can be enslaved for life. Yet this was exploded years ago by Louis Lasagna, researching into addiction in America: most people given heroin for the first time, he found (other than for the relief of pain), were either not interested, or actually disliked the experience. As the Le Dain Committee put it, 'the once popular notion that opiate narcotic experience is intrinsically pleasurable, or that physiological dependence develops so rapidly that most who are subjected to it are promptly addicted, is without support'.
    Then, there is the persistent myth that drugs can turn the ordinary citizen into a maniac. It is as old as Marco Polo's tale of the Old Man of the Mountain; it has been told of almost every drug; and it still crops up. In 1940 the rumour spread—Evelyn Waugh recalled it in Put Out More Flags—that the German infantry then sweeping across France was composed of teenagers, drugged before battle to make them oblivious of danger, so that they advanced unhesitatingly even when being mown down by allied machine-gun fire. It later transpired that these drugs were amphetamines, issued in case the soldiers needed to stay awake. A quarter of a century later American troops in Vietnam brought back pills found on allegedly drug-crazed Vietcong, who had been wiped out in an insanely reckless attack. On analysis the pills turned out to be antibiotics, sent to Saigon at the expense of the American taxpayer, and then discreetly diverted by the minister who received them to the enemy, for the usual consideration.
    This is not to dispute that a drug—any drug—may precipitate a character change; the gentle, quiet man who gets aggressive when drunk is all too familiar a figure to publicans. But the disorder lies in the individual, or in his life pattern; not in the drug. Most of the troubles which have arisen are due to society's failure to make this distinction. Yet a last line of argument in favour of the status quo remains. Drugs may not be the cause—any more than cars are the cause of road accidents; but in irresponsible hands drugs, like cars, can be lethal. Does this not require intervention, by the State or some duly authorised body, for society's protection?
    Looked at from this point of view, drugs have three main dangers. Unquestionably the most serious is intoxication. In the long term, though man has an astonishing capacity to survive his chosen poisons, certain drugs can be shown to have deleterious consequences, on the evidence of mortality statistics; and in the short term, people under their influence—whether at the wheel of a car, or at the heel of a drunken argument—can be very destructive. But as the intoxicant which has the worst long-term health record is tobacco, and the one with the worst short-term accident record is alcohol, this represents an argument for stricter control of established drugs, rather than of those which are illegal.
    The risk of addiction—the second reason commonly given when a repressive drug policy is being defended—has now been shown to be less a drug problem, in the strict sense, than a psychological disorder. Unless drugs of all kinds, including nutmeg and paint remover, could be removed from the market, there is little point in hoping that it can be dealt with by legislation.
    It is the third common consequence of drug-taking which presents the real challenge; the personality change which some people undergo as a result of introduction to cannabis or LSD. Their record in other respects is much better than alcohol and tobacco. They do not intoxicate, unless taken in improbably large doses; they are not addictive; and their adverse effects on health, so far as can be judged on the evidence available, are relatively insignificant. But they confront society with an issue that it has been unwilling to face. People may need these drugs; not in their own right, but as a preliminary to restoration of the link, largely lost, between man's consciousness, and all that lies beyond it. The personality change may be for their benefit.
    The positive values people find in the drug experience—as the Le Dain Committee put it—'bear a striking similarity to traditional religious values, including the concern with the soul, or inner self. The spirit of renunciation, the emphasis on openness and the closely-knit community, are part of it, but there is definitely a sense of identification with something larger, something to which one belongs as part of the human race.' This theme was taken up by Andrew Weil in his The Natural Mind. Weil argued that to think of drug-taking, or even of drug-addiction, as something to be prevented or cured is a mistake. The sensation, and the craving, are symptoms of a psychic need. He produced evidence which indicates that there is no great difficulty in getting people off even heroin, provided they have, as it were, something to look forward to—which suggests that withdrawal symptoms may represent not simply the body's resistance to being deprived of a drug, but the mind's resistance to being deprived of its effects.
    To Weil, however, this does not entail believing that cannabis, say, should be legalised. On the contrary, in his testimony to the Shafer Commission he opposed it, on the ground that it would be used in ways as unintelligent as tobacco and alcohol ordinarily are. The drug scene cannot be changed by tinkering with the law, he argued, because it is 'a manifestation of useless ways of thinking at all levels of society—among users of drugs as well as of non-users'.
    Drug use, and drug abuse, are a reflection of society, its tensions, its values, and its needs. To punish drug-takers is like a drunk striking the bleary face which he sees in the mirror. Drugs will not be brought under control until society itself changes, enabling men to use them with discrimination, and perhaps in time to dispense with them.


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