I don’t know the first thing about architecture, but for some reason, somebody has entrusted me to design a building. It is going to be a house. You are closely following what I do, maybe because you want to see me fail miserably, or maybe because you are just intrigued. I draw up the plans, and they look fine to me, so building commences. Halfway through building though, mistakes become obvious.
The house is half built, a lot of money has been invested and it is looking pretty bad. The basic structure, the very foundations of the house, are not great. They will manage, the house could exist, but it won’t be a dream location. This building will certainly not be the perfect home that everyone was hoping for.
Unsurprisingly, I am sacked. The shoddy, half-built house is unfinished and they turn to you for help. It is now your job to complete the building. Time is running out and there is not enough money to scrap the whole thing and start again, you will just have to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever legacy I have left, it is now down to you to try and salvage the project.
The basic pillars of the house are not brilliant, ideally you would tear them down and construct your own, but you cannot, so you build around them. These act as your reference points for every idea that you want to implement. Seeing as they are already in place, and you cannot change them, it would make sense for everything else to be built in relation to them. You cannot revolutionise the building that you have inherited from me, but you can make changes to my design, as long as they fit in with what is already in place.
This is the situation I imagine when looking at the UK’s drugs laws. The building project is constantly being handed over to a new architect or designer, the basic pillars (alcohol and tobacco) are already in place, the design of the building is constantly going through some modification and it is too expensive, too radical and too time consuming to knock it all down and start from scratch.
Admittedly laws on alcohol and tobacco are not perfect, nobody claims they are, but they exist. They are firmly in place and accepted within society. With that in mind, and to avoid hypocrisy and contradiction, all other drugs should then be treated in relation to the laws on alcohol and tobacco.
It makes sense for this to be the case. Indeed this is the case in almost every other field that I can think of. If a food product is on the market and it contains X amount of fat, you do not then prevent another product, with less fat, being sold also. If a loan company is given permission to do business and they have a rate of interest set at 500%, you cannot then prevent another loan company, with a rate of interest at 300%, from entering the market. The standards of the industry, and of what is acceptable, have already been set, and so other products have to adhere to these rulings.
Quite simply, and in terms of drugs, if A and B are accepted, when C comes along, it should be judged on the same foundations that A and B were. Is it less harmful? Can it be produced or manufactured, and sold to benefit the economy? How much money is being spent on preventing its legalisation? These are the questions you would need to ask, and if C was less harmful but was criminalised, you should really re-evaluate the position held on A and B.
This logical way to conduct affairs is not how things are done however. Drugs laws in this country are a hit and miss of seemingly random decisions that lack any consistency or coordination. Let us look at alcohol and tobacco for instance. In 2008 “Professor Sir Gabriel Horn who chaired a special committee on drug use, warned that dependency on drink and cigarettes was spiralling out of control and urgent measures were needed to curb their misuse”. Such advice is not uncommon, but it is almost always ignored.
“Urgent measures” were not introduced, and UK citizens continued to use alcohol and tobacco in huge numbers. In 2010 they were two of the three worst leading contributors “to the global burden of disease”. According to Alcohol Concern “alcohol is a causal factor in more than 60 medical conditions” and consumption of it has risen “9% in the last three decades”. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have gone up by over 135% since 2002/03, and deaths from liver disease, in England at least, have reached a record high, “rising by 20% in a decade”.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “smoking harms nearly every organ of the body”, and according to NHS data from 2011, causes almost one fifth, 18%, of all the deaths of adults aged thirty-five and over. Data from the BBC in 2011 shows that smoking is responsible for “40% of all hospital illnesses”, and from its estimated ten million UK users, it kills 114,000 annually. Indeed, between alcohol and tobacco, they are directly or indirectly responsible for four out of the five biggest killers in the UK, playing a role in people developing Coronary Heart Disease, respiratory diseases, Cancer and Liver disease.
These are the shocking facts about the legal drugs in the UK, and if these are the substances that are legally on the market, that you can buy and sell in shops, and consume on the street and in bars, then surely all the illegal ones must be truly horrifying. The truth is though, that some of the drugs classified as illegal, are far, far less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco. So not only are some of the most harmful drugs accepted, and actually promoted, other drugs, less harmful drugs, are not treated in relation to alcohol and tobacco. It seems their legalisation has no impact on the status of any other drug, as if alcohol and tobacco exist within a bubble and should not be considered when discussing other drug policy.
Ecstasy is considered a Class A drug and being found in possession of it could result in up to seven years in prison, and yet according to the aforementioned BBC data it is only responsible for twenty-seven deaths per year out of the 500,000 users. To put it into context, alcohol is responsible for 500 per 500,000 and tobacco 5700 per 500,000. In a Lancet journal published in 2010, which ranked twenty drugs according to the overall harm they caused, Ecstasy was in seventeenth place. Alcohol was ranked first and tobacco was in sixth.
Like Ecstasy, LSD is considered a Class A drug, again if you are caught in possession of it you could face up to seven years in prison. Once again using the BBC data, LSD is used by 83,000 people in the UK, and there is not one recorded death. In the Lancet journal ranking, it was in eighteenth place. Quite clearly then LSD represents one of the least harmful drugs a human could put inside their body and yet the UK drugs laws do not reflect this.
The most popular, and most widely used illegal drug is Cannabis. This is a drug I have written about previously in this blog, and it is estimated that there are upwards of three million users inside the UK. Like LSD, Cannabis has not been responsible for a single death in the UK. Just to clarify, none of the three million Cannabis users have died due to using the drug. This drug however, is considered a Class B and you could receive five years in prison if you were caught in possession of it. The Lancet journal ranked Cannabis as the eighth worst drug, which still places it behind both alcohol and tobacco.
The illogical and hypocritical nature of the UK’s drugs laws is evident for all to see. You would think that policies and legislation would follow some form of structure, and be based around scientific evidence and fact, but this does not seem to be the case. To return to the architecture metaphor, the main pillars seem to have been left standing but they have been utterly ignored in terms of building the rest of the structure. Rather than integrate these pillars into the building it seems they have been abandoned and a confusing, over-lapping structure has been built around them.
The UK’s drugs policies are farcical, not just for the punishments and the class ratings, but also the complete hypocrisy with which drugs are treated. A blind eye is turned towards alcohol and tobacco, whilst all other drugs are demonised, despite the fact the large majority of them are far less harmful than the drugs currently legally available.