Why drugs should be legal

No-one can envy Jack Straw and Keith Hellawell in their ‘struggle’ against drugs. Law-makers, like physicians, must be seen to be decisive even in the absence of robust data, and what an awesome thing to have to legislate on matters so intransigent and intricate, and yet so significant! Whatever they do will lead to trouble of one kind or another and they, in the end, will take the blame. They deserve our sympathy.

But they would deserve it more if they gave any sign of open-mindedness. The ‘war’ against drugs has been waged as forcefully as any since the Crusades but in no sense is it being won. Indeed it is unwinnable: it is impossible even to imagine what ‘victory’ would look like. What is obviously needed more than anything else—more than legislation, policemen, or ‘education’ for four-year-olds—is to re-think all our beliefs about drugs from first principles, and our attitudes towards them. Instead the Home Secretary is determined simply to ‘stand firm’ while the new drugs ‘tsar’ asserts on the very day of his appointment that even the innocuous though sometimes beneficial cannabis is beyond countenance. For the weight of their respective offices they do indeed deserve sympathy but for their blimpishness they should already be booed from the stage. For once we truly put our preconceptions up for grabs and ask on what they are founded, the drugs ‘problem’ starts to look very different. Indeed much of the present unpleasantness may well be ‘iatrogenic’: created by the intended cure.

To be sure, the heavyweight drugs are frightening, for they take us on a Faustian journey of dreams in which we may lose sight of ‘reality’, with no apparent guarantee of return. Yet it is naive and biologically odd to suppose that it is ‘normal’, or ‘natural’, for the brain to be free of psychotropic agents all together. It is not sophistry to point out that the body itself constantly assails the brain with such substances: adrenaline, testosterone, progesterone, endorphins. These agents are the stuff of emotions. Of course we cannot feel without them but also, more intriguingly, we can hardly be said to think without them because the emotions are the ultimate arbiters of truth and without emotion our thoughts have no guidance. Certainly we are swayed by ‘evidence’ but in the end we believe what we ‘feel’ is right. Computers are stupid not because they cannot calculate—of course they can—but because they have no emotion and so do not know or care what is true. The ‘substances’ that assail our brains are part of the thinking process. Without them we can have no concept of truth.

Surely, though, we can distinguish between the self-generated agents that our bodies and nerves produce for their own purposes, and those that we introduce from outside? Well, in practice the distinction is not so obvious. Human beings, like every other living creature, are evolved, and we carry the physiological inheritance of our ancestors. Our primate forebears were largely herbivorous, and the plants they ate were wild. Wild plants are shot through with pharmacologically powerful agents, most of which evolved to repel importunate herbivores and many of which focus on the nervous system. Most drugs of all kinds and virtually all psychotropic agents derive from plants or fungi. Many of these seep through the blood-brain barrier—of course they do, or they would have no effect at all.

In other words, the brains of our ancestors over the past 50 million years evolved in the presence of psychotropic agents. If we were not adapted to them, we would not have survived. Typically, in evolution, such adaptation first takes the form of detoxification, for these agents (teleologically speaking) are intended to poison. But evolution is nothing if not opportunist, and the things that creatures at first learn to dispose of they later learn to use; and what they use, they soon come to depend upon. This is why our bodies now require the bizarre shortlist of agents known as vitamins—extraneous materials produced in nature by plants and microbes, to which we have adapted, and on which we have come to rely.

The agents we call ‘drugs’ might reasonably be seen as vitamin analogues, that happen to be focused on the nervous system. When our ancestors became full-time farmers they produced crops that were high-yielding and therefore bland—for high yield and fancy chemistry both require energy, and so are in conflict. Nowadays we consider a diet free of psychotropic agents to be ‘normal’, and any addition as an imposition. Yet evolution suggests the reverse: that modern, civilised people are in a constant state of pharmacological impoverishment. The condition we consider normal is one of deprivation. Our bodies know this. That is why the desire for drugs is so hard to contain. The absence is against our nature.

Of course, the notion that constant assault by psychotropic agents is ‘natural’ does not imply that it is right. As David Hume observed in the 18th century, ‘“Is”, is not “ought”’. Yet such a realisation encourages a shift our attitude. To ban drugs is not, as we commonly perceive, to revert to the norm. It is a positive act of asceticism: puritanism in action. I tend to be rather puritanical myself, and am no kind of druggie; brisk walks and the occasional Bell's is the sum of my indulgence. But such puritanism seems odd, in this otherwise most unpuritanical age.

Surely, though, such musing is dwarfed by the facts—the deaths, the addiction, the sheer misery? Well, I have children too, and am as anxious as anybody to reduce the dangers. But what are these ‘facts’? Of course people become horribly addicted to heroin, and die from it. But is this really typical, or even particularly common? American soldiers in Vietnam took serious drugs in the perfectly reasonable belief that for them there might be no tomorrow and yet most of them, when they got home, simply stopped taking them in the way that any of us might give up tequilla after a holiday in Mexico. Tequilla is what we drunk abroad; but at home we drink beer. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones died from too many drugs but Johnny Rotten, world champion of punks, simply gave up taking them. He says he was lucky—but perhaps it is truer to suggest that Jones was unlucky. Of course all this is is anecdotal, but that is precisely the point. For so, disgracefully, is the evidence which says that addiction and the horrors that ensue is the norm. We simply do not know how often, or how inevitably, drug-taking turns bad. This could indeed be the norm; but equally probably, it is rare. By the same token, only a relatively few drinkers become alcoholics. If we saw only the down-and-out boozers, the people past caring, then alcohol would seem as bad to us as heroin does now.

But is there really no good evidence? Surely there are hundreds of studies of heavy drugs and many thousands of cases? Indeed so; but all are deeply flawed by what statisticians call confounding variables. If medicinal drugs were judged so sloppily nothing could ever be prescribed.

Because the street drugs are illegal, they are unregulated: what is outside the law is beyond the reach of the law. All the refinements that make the doctor's drugs relatively safe are missing from street drugs. They are impure, not to say adulterated. The dose of active components can easily vary 1000 fold. Preparation and presentation are left to hazard. Every pharmacologist knows that content is only half what matters, and the other half is formulation: the refinements that modify absorption and metabolism. This is why medicinal drugs are expensive. The drugs that doctors prescribe are heavy duty and they would be horrific too if they were not so pure and administered in beautifully regulated structure and dose. So what do the studies that affect to show the horrors of street drugs actually signify? Are they better than the anecdotes from Vietnam? Is it sensible to ‘wage war’ on such a basis? Shouldn't we at least have some proper data?

Then again, because the street drugs are illegal they are unsocialised, and although the influence of socialisation is hard to judge it is clearly crucial. We might all drink ourselves into pleasant oblivion at any time and high among the reasons that most of us do not, is shame. Our friends wouldn't talk to us if we got ourselves drunk too often or unpleasantly—unless, of course, Wales had just beaten England, when sobriety would seem churlish. Social control, in short, is finely tuned; wonderfully so, in fact. But on the street there isn't any—just pressure to take more. What would alcohol be like without socialisation? Would it be better than heroin?

So what should we do? Well, to legalise all existing drugs overnight would obviously be precipitate although we should, just to set the ball rolling, lift the nonsense that surrounds marijuana. Again, this does not mean removing legal restraint but imposing it: the same kinds of regulations that at present restrict alcohol. We should, however, declare intent. Begin by framing the principle: that in general it is better to allow than to prohibit and that proscription is a mark of failure. Then we could approach the principal drugs case by case. First we have to find out what they actually do to people—the vital knowledge which at present is entrusted to anecdote. We need to know more pharmacology—find out exactly what each part of each molecule contributes, and make adjustments: perhaps enhance those parts that bring sweet dreams and remove the parts that promote addiction, for there is no reason to assume a priori that the two are ineluctably linked. Modern pharmacology could transform the picture: it is a high-class act. Image would be important though, for we are talking of social drugs. Bass-Charington might be more appropriate manufacturers than, say, Glaxo-Wellcome.

Then, in a few decades, we would able to see how the drugs that at present excite such terror behave when they are well made, sold in respectable places, and socialised. In passing we would of course eliminate huge areas of organised crime, since you would have to be very stupid indeed to pay a fortune for junk when you could get the real McCoy for the price of a beer. The results of such an initiative could hardly be worse than the present. When we have some proper facts we could take stock.

Jack Straw and Keith Hellawell are facing their respective tasks heroically. But it would be better, and a great novelty, to base political endeavour on ideas that were actually true.