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Wednesday, March 04, 2015 

Drugs, sensationalism and paternalism.

I didn't watch Drugs Live, mainly for the reason that like most people my age I know fairly well how cannabis affects those who use it.  It doesn't instantly make you an utter prick, as say cocaine does, nor is it unpredictable in the way alcohol is.  I've also known people who've been smoking it for so long it has almost no effect on them whatsoever, or seemingly doesn't.  David Nutt then ranking hash, as opposed to skunk at the very bottom of his harm index doesn't come as a major surprise.

You can't though have a television programme in this day and age purely discussing the effects of drugs or even just how they impact on the brains of Mr and Mrs Average Punter, as that's boring and not going to get Twitter, err, blazing.  No, instead you must have Jennie Bond and Jon Snow (the other one) getting baked, purely for scientific reasons, of course.  I did happen to catch one moment when the former royal correspondent's "pleasure sections" of her brain lit up while listening to music after taking a good long pull, which was instantly declared as definitive proof that weed does make shit music sound better.  It reminded me and no doubt only me of the Monty Python Planet Algon sketch, or at least the presenting style did, so the more things change etc.

Any chance the programme had of being more than just a typical Channel 4 stunt, coming after the previous show on ecstasy and Mariella Frostrup asking couples who had just finished shagging in a box in the studio how it was for them was rendered all but academic in any case by the advance promotion.  Jon Snow declared he found being on skunk while in the MRI scanner to be more terrifying than when he'd been in war zones, to which one response is he should try it while in any smaller town's excuse for a nightclub.  Post-traumatic stress disorder would no doubt instantly descend.  Regardless of Snow's intentions, this was the cue for the likes of the Mail to declare that if someone as unflappable and worldly wise as Snow could be reduced to such a state, just what is it doing to the immature and less refined?

Coupled with the other new research into psychosis and use of high strength cannabis, the government was quick to declare it had no intention of changing the law, unless of course there's enough of an outcry to think about tightening it further.  What better time for of all people, Richard Branson to renew his call for the government to follow the example set by Portugal's decriminalising of possession, only this time joined by the man who's turned many of his own party to drink if not drugs, Nick Clegg?

Had Clegg been as explicit in his support for decriminalisation earlier in this parliament, as opposed to simply making noises in that general direction he might just have made something approaching a difference.  Leaving it this late invites cynicism that his conversion to the Portuguese model is less out of genuine belief it would reduce drug usage overall and help addicts and more about trying to retain some of the votes his party has lost.  To be fair, the Lib Dems have long called for a rethink on drugs and they did succeed in getting their comparative study published, even if it did little more than just reinforce what most already knew.

We also shouldn't get carried away, just as it was advisable not to after said report.  Branson and Clegg write that as well as remaining illegal drugs should also remain "socially unacceptable", to which the obvious response is why?  Why should it be socially acceptable, even felt to be obligatory in some circumstances to drink fermented vegetables and fruits but not smoke or chew the extracts of a plant, when the effects are often far less damaging?  Why should it be unthinkable that MDMA could ever be legal, when the real danger from "ecstasy" is from adulteration, or when the supplied pill or powder doesn't contain MDMA at all?  Why should someone be arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis or any other number of drugs we know to pose a low risk and cause little overall harm, let alone then sent for treatment or assessment for a problem the vast majority won't have?  Surely If we're looking towards any model it ought to be the American one, where the effective legalisation of cannabis has taken the trade almost wholly out of the hands of organised crime.  This isn't to deny there will always be problem users, addicts and the potential for harm beyond that measured on a scale, but we have the worst of all worlds at the moment.

The answer to all the above is not just that we have a sensationalist approach to drugs and the harm they can cause, hence why journalists can be felt responsible enough to take them and tell us plebs what it's like, just as The Day Today satirised years ago, but we also have doctors who believe smoking should be banned in parks and squares.  When smoking is to be made socially unacceptable, regardless of your personal view on it, and my own isn't favourable, what chance is there of making any progress on drugs that are illegal but we know to be less harmful?

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