Photo: Claude Sauvageot
AS a child I used to suffer from acute asthma My most vivid recollections are of the nights - my chest would get worse as darkness fell and I’d be left alone with my wheezing, fighting for each breath as the small hours dragged on. The pills I was most often given for relief were ‘ephedrine’ and they certainly helped me to breathe. But years later I discovered that it was probably the ephedrine rather than the asthma which had kept me awake through all those lonely hours. Ephedrine is a mild form of ‘speed’ and thus makes you alert rather than sleepy - the amphetamines which are normally called ‘speed’ were developed as substitutes for it.
Some 15 years later in the hills of northern Thailand I came upon a village of the Lisu tribe where I was offered opium. I accepted - I wanted to understand what was an everyday part of these people’s lives and I was curious anyway about opium’s effects. The result was intriguing though not particularly pleasant - I only felt halfway comfortable when I lay on my back motionless.
Two things link these experiences. For a start both ephedrine and opium are drugs, though since the former is legal we tend to think of it less as a drug than as a ‘medicine’. The second link is that in neither case did I even begin to understand what the effects and dangers of the drugs were before I took them. I was stepping into the dark.
We are always stepping into the dark. Doctors prescribe drugs without saying exactly what they will do to us. And how many of us know exactly what are the effects on the body and mind of drugs like alcohol or caffeine - let alone all the illegal drugs we may encounter?
We think of ‘the drug problem’ as something out there - we think of junkies shooting up in derelict buildings or kids sniffing glue down by the railway track. Yet it is our problem too. We drink our coffee, our tea, our wine or beer; we take pills for our headaches, tranquillisers for our nerves and a third of us still smoke. We take these drugs for any number of reasons - to keep us going, give us a lift, relax us; to dampen our pain; or sometimes just to escape. Surprisingly enough, people’s reasons for using heroin or cocaine are not usually very different.
‘Ah,’ you might say, ‘but the illegal drugs are banned because they’re much more dangerous and addictive than the ones we use every day.’ Unfortunately this isn’t true - wouldn’t it be comforting if we could rely on our governments to ban only those drugs which are most harmful to our health? The truth is that two of the most harmful and addictive drugs — alcohol and tobacco - are also the most widely available.
Tobacco has been established as a killer drug - yet it is still sold openly in every high street, still pushed at us by advertisers. Can you imagine the panic that would break out if, say, cocaine were so readily available? Yet cocaine is nowhere near as addictive as nicotine and has been associated with only 40 deaths this century - while tobacco kills a million people worldwide every year.
There are complex reasons why some drugs are banned and others aren’t— and they have very little to do with harmfulness or addictiveness. One reason is certainly that so many people use alcohol and tobacco that prohibition would be both unworkable and unpopular. Many other drugs were banned before they could gain such a strong hold.
This is the charitable explanation - but there are others. First that governments take a lot of money through taxing legal drugs. Second that there are powerful business interests pushing them. The pharmaceutical industry, for instance, gaily goes on promoting addictive drugs like tranquillisers and barbiturates - and it even presents itself as a force for good as it does so, driving back the Dark Ages with its patent medicines. As Brian Inglis has said: ‘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.’ Focussing attention on the widespread problems of valium or barbiturate dependence instead of on the relatively tiny one of heroin use would however mean challenging the very basis of Western health care.
Why is it that many relatively harmless drugs are illegal? Take cannabis. Government-sponsored commissions all over the world have concluded that it is not physically addictive and carries fewer health risks than alcohol or tobacco. By 1981 4.75 million Canadians (one in five) had tried it - this makes it hardly the drug of a tiny minority on the fringe. Yet it is still banned and more resources are poured into combatting cannabis than any other drug.
One possible reason is that prosecuting cannabis users is a good way of criminalising people whom society considers to be a threat- the most regular cannabis smokers in the UK, for instance, are black. Political radicals, too, are quite likely to ‘smoke dope when they might otherwise be completely law-abiding and thus untouchab1e.
But whatever the reason for illegality, the fact is that the prohibition of drugs has never stopped their use. The American attempt to ban alcohol between 1920 and 1932 proved totally unworkable - people carried on drinking but had their needs supplied by gangsters instead of corporations. Pushing alcohol underground didn’t only mean that money from the trade went into the most ruthless hands around. It also meant there was no control over what went into the bottles - and moonshine whisky was a lot more dangerous than the legal varieties.
It is just as futile to prohibit drug use today as it was to ban alcohol in the Al Capone era. People will always be able to buy their particular drug if they want it enough. Even with the vast resources allotted to drug control, police and customs only manage to intercept between three and ten per cent of any shipments entering a Western country. They have a hopeless task. Yet the kneejerk reaction of any government faced with a ‘drug problem’ is still to pour more money into enforcement programmes and crack down on the traffickers who are ‘corrupting our kids’.
There is a new scare at the moment about heroin. Heroin is the big bogey, the killer drug that looms large in everyone’s imagination. Who can look at one of those photos of junkies injecting themselves without flinching? It has always made wonderful sensationalist copy for the popular press, partly because it panders to a notion that people seem to have held for centuries - namely that things aren’t what they used to be and the young are going to the dogs. Heroin is sensationalised even by intelligent journalists, who turn out shock-horror stories with no less panache and no more understanding than they did in the Sixties.
The plain facts about heroin are that it is less addictive than nicotine; people use it regularly without becoming addicts; those who do become addicted can stop using it much more easily than can alcoholics; and it causes no long-term physical damage.
This is not to underestimate heroin’s power— it is a dangerous drug, not to be taken lightly - but it’s worth repeating that it causes no long-term physical damage. Heroin addicts often deteriorate physically - but it is due not to the drug but instead to the lifestyle they are forced into. They have to live like criminals, perhaps stealing to pay exorbitant street prices, and their supplies are almost always mixed with more damaging substances such as talcum powder. And the more they are marginalised, the more unhealthy their living conditions become —their needles get dirtier and they contract more infections, caught in a downward spiral.
So banning heroin is not only futile — it actually harms the people the law is supposed to protect.
Society fails to recognise this partly because it needs a scapegoat — it is much easier to blame all our ills on an alien plague than to look at what caused the ills in the first place. Clearly one reason why people are taking more and more drugs (and alcohol consumption is rising fastest of all) is that life for them is becoming increasingly intolerable without them. The more alienated our lives become, the more our support systems like the extended family or state welfare break down, the more likely it is that we are going to turn to the artificial support of drugs. To reduce people’s need for drugs you would have to change the social system that caters so inadequately for their needs. Small wonder that our leaders and opinion-makers are not prepared to make this kind of analysis - how much easier it is to blame everything on the criminals and drop-outs!
The ‘foreign producers’ are also blamed. Unable to cope with ‘the drug problem’at home, Western governments (especially the US) are trying to stop peasants growing the drug crops at source. Since 1971 the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control has been attempting to persuade Third World farmers to grow alternative crops to poppies or coca in programmes that, in many cases, come out of official development aid budgets.
The very assumption behind this policy is arrogant. How would workers on a Californian vineyard feel if the Thai government came along and told them they couldn’t grow grapes any more because wine was causing health problems in Bangkok? There are good reasons why Western governments can’t conquer ‘the drug problem’ at home — but there are even better reasons why farmers in the South can’t stop growing poppies or coca.
Hunger is one. In the marginal upland soil of the Andes or the Golden Triangle it’s impossible to find alternative crops that will earn anything like the same amount of money. The difference between growing poppies and growing less valuable alternatives can be the difference between a reasonable diet and malnutrition. Why should peasants struggling to survive suddenly be landed with the responsibility of protecting us? Have we ever concerned ourselves about conditions for plantation-workers as we’ve drunk our tea and coffee?
Another good reason is that the ban on growing opium is selective. The world needs 197 tonnes of morphine for medical purposes each year and certain countries are licensed to grow opium to supply that. Among these are Australia (37 tonnes), Spain (15) and France (9), while India produces half of it because of its historical position as the supplier of opium for its British rulers to smuggle into China. Meanwhile Burma, Thailand and Pakistan are not allowed to grow any.
From the peasants’ point of view it is probably better that the drug crops remain illegal. Although they are still powerless and relatively poor, they actually receive a fairer income from the traffickers than they would if the trade were legalised — because then the multinationals would move in to treat them just like any other cash crop farmers. The only way forward within the law is perhaps the one proposed by Bolivian peasant leaders — that they are allowed to develop a legitimate pharmaceutical industry of their own.
The drug problem is not a simple one —everywhere you look it is clouded by prejudice, propaganda and plain fear. But a few basic principles are clear:
1. We all seem to need drugs to make our lives tolerable — we should understand that need and try to reduce it by working towards a society that cares for us all, especially the poor among us, better
2. One drug is not ‘better’ or less harmful than another just because it is legal.
3. The more refined a drug is, the more problems it is likely to cause—thus heroin is more of a problem than opium and whisky more than wine. And the more unnatural’ the method of taking the drug, the more difficult it is for the body to deal with it — injecting is more dangerous than smoking, which is more risky than eating.
4. We should know what a drug is going to do to us before we take it.
The most important principle of all is the last. The consumer guide is a small step in this direction — it is not an encouragement to take drugs but rather an encouragement to choose the ones we do take carefully. No more stepping into the dark.