After Cameron, Now For An Open Debate On Drugs


420 Staff
Nearly one in three British adults has taken some form of illegal drug in their lifetime. According to new allegations, the Conservative party leader is one of them. David Cameron is said to have been disciplined at school over an incident involving cannabis. Mr Cameron has, in the past, refused to be drawn on claims that he has also taken *******, rightly insisting the matter is private and belongs to the past.

The revelation that someone in Mr Cameron's position might, as a teenager, have joined his peers in a dalliance with drugs should neither surprise nor shock. But since drugs are central to health and criminal justice policy, it is welcome if a potential Prime Minister has personal experience to bring to the debate.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, the drugs debate is often characterised by ignorance and hysteria. A wider problem is that public attitudes to cannabis have been confused by the drug's downgrade from a Class B to a Class C controlled substance, a move Mr Cameron backed. This happened just as the cannabis on UK streets was getting more potent and, arguably, more pernicious. There is much anecdotal evidence and some clinical proof of a link between powerful 'skunk' strains of cannabis and serious mental illness. For Mr Cameron's generation, marijuana has connotations of Sixties hippy culture and harmless puffing in student dorms. But today's teenagers are smoking a strong hallucinogen, not a mild sedative.

There is still clearly a distinction to be drawn between cannabis and harder drugs. A heroin or crack addict might need hundreds of pounds per day to feed his habit. He can become a one-man crime wave. If a cannabis user harms anyone, it is most likely to be himself. Many doctors and a few police officers would like to see a more liberal approach to drug policy that recognises addiction as a sickness to be treated rather than a crime in itself. But that view all too often runs up against kneejerk horror at the prospect of legitimising any use of a banned substance, even under strict medical supervision.

That attitude ignores one important fact: that drug use usually starts out as a rational choice. People have always sought recreation through intoxication. Uncomfortable though it may be for politicians to admit it, soft drugs, as experienced by many people, are not a fast-track to destitution. The real issue is what leads some to dabble only fleetingly while others fall into chronic use, harder drugs and crime. There are competing social and biological explanations for why some are more predisposed to addiction, but either way it is a mundane truth that not all drug users should be branded as criminals.

Ever since the Baby Boomers took off their paisley shirts, donned suits and started work, it has been a statistical certainty that many people in public life will have used drugs in their past. Public attitudes inevitably change as a result. Barack Obama, the US Democratic presidential candidate, has admitted to drug use and been spared the silly contortions that Bill Clinton went through, claiming to have smoked marijuana, but not inhaled it.

If David Cameron took drugs and emerged unscathed, he would be quite typical of his generation. His life story, insofar as we know it, and his liberal approach to the issue in public debate and parliamentary practice, suggest a modern politician well-qualified to lead an enlightened debate on the subject. This can only be welcomed when most policymakers give the impression of being hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the drug culture in modern Britain.

Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2007 The Observer
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