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March 10, 2007 - Sunday Herald (UK)

A Trip Back In Time: A Brief History Of Our 'Moral Panic'

By Paul Dalgarno

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Like promiscuity, drugs have long been linked to the underworld, the morally corrupt.

Their mind-bending qualities were embraced by ancient cultures from the Egyptians to the druids.

And today their mystical associations persist, most visibly at the end of club nights.

The artificial sunrise, whereby the lights come up for the last few songs of manic dancing, marks the end of the trip, the new dawn, even if most are too mashed to acknowledge it.

But all drugs are not the same. Substances fall into two distinct camps: the sanctioned kind, used to anaesthetise and to save lives; and the illegal sort, used to unhinge, enhance and distort an otherwise unflinching reality.

The latter are demonised, the former encouraged unreservedly. And yet under the knife, or the strobes, we continue to reach for them.

A new report by the Royal Society of Arts criticises the "moral panic" which has supposedly guided a generation of drug laws in the UK. Such laws, it says, are no longer "fit for their purpose", and may never have been fit in the first place.

It argues that the current Misuse of Drugs Act -- and its punitive ABC classification system -- should be replaced with "an index of harm", determined by the respective health risks of any given drug.

Implicit in the findings is a criticism of the practice of treating drug-taking as a crime, rather than a health problem; as the business of the Home Office rather than the Department of Health. Even then, it argues, evidence suggests that the "majority of people who use drugs are able to use them without harming themselves or others", rendering the "harmless use of illegal drugs" not only possible but "commonplace". The Home Office has already said it doesn't accept all the report's recommendations, but hasn't yet elaborated further.

Including tobacco in the index with other drugs may be problematic for a host of reasons, although historically the substance is up there with the rest. In the 15th century it was the most common trance-inducing drug for Native Americans, who would fill their lungs to reach a state of heightened reverie.

Tobacco's move from the new world to Europe, courtesy of Sir Walter Raleigh, was facilitated not by its mystic properties, but on the medical evidence of it being a "herba panacea". Amazed by the wellbeing of the people he encountered in Virginia, Raleigh noted that they "were not subject to the many grievous diseases with which we in England are sometimes afflicted". Applied externally to wounds, or taken into the lungs for pleasure, the substance's dual function marked the beginning of the West's ambivalent relationship with drugs.

Other mystic drugs fared less well. Cocaine, admired in some quarters for its ability to help indigenous people work all day, and with a smile on their faces to boot, was one of the many substances suppressed as an evil. In Peru, it was used by indigenous priests as a spiritual gateway through which they could "foresee and predict anything", and as such was a threat to Christianity. For conquistadors and puritans alike, the prevailing wisdom was the same: Jesus did wine, not a line. Like tobacco, when it did catch on in Europe it was for medical research, and most notably in 19th century Edinburgh. Freud, among others, championed the drug's use for depression, praising its benefits and professing "absolutely no craving for further use". Heroin, first drawn from opium seeds in 1898, gained even greater vogue in medical circles, particularly as it was thought to carry no risk of addiction.

The delineation of drug use into recreational and medicinal gave rise to an "us and them" mentality, whereby the dangers of exotic drugs spilled over into the cultural stereotyping of their users.

As far back as the 13th century, Marco Polo popularised the Arabian folk tale of The Old Man Of The Mountain, from which the word "assassin" was first taken. Derived from the Arabic word Hashishin -- which in the story is the name of a murderous Arabian cult -- the term was later translated as "those that use hashish", and is the origin of the modern-day "hash".

Centuries later, the explorer David Livingstone reported that the "pernicious weed" was used by African tribes to work themselves into a "species of frenzy".

Morally, the distancing of drugs and their users was a good fix. It allowed the British East India Company to exploit the full potential of exporting opium to China, while keeping it away from British shores, triggering a system of bribes and backhanders that persists in the drug trade to this day. Not until Coleridge's 18th century praise for opium's "magnifying power" did it begin to stir the domestic imagination; but it was Thomas de Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater in 1822 that really got the masses going.

Britain passed its first punitive drugs act in 1920, effectively banning cocaine after one too many reports of "crazed soldiers" who had taken the drug during the Great War. Cannabis -- unless administered under medical licence -- would follow the same path within a decade.

Like cocaine, it increasingly became conflated in the press with immigrants and outsiders.

The 1936 American film Reefer Madness further underlined the point.

Originally penned as a church group project under the name of Tell Your Children, it was a morality tale of "beatnicks" who became "hooked" on the "devil's weed", with users and pushers clearly marked out as being of Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean descent.

In the UK press and public consciousness, meanwhile, drugs continued to be seen as an immigrant West Indian problem, and as such were largely ignored.

In moral terms, things didn't get serious until the crossover of drugs into the West's indigenous white community during the 1950s and 1960s. It was only then that Britain introduced drug laws, under the UN's guidance, which rewarded cannabis users with a lengthy jail term. Traversing the race divide like the rhythm in Elvis's hips, the "black problem" became a white problem, rendering the whites using those drugs problematic. Ronald Reagan summed the sentiment up when he belatedly described a hippy as someone who "talks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah". Along with his wife Nancy -- who spearheaded the Just Say No movement in the mid 1980s -- he joined a chorus that had long since started.

The explosion of psychedelia in the 1960s, brought on by medically developed LSD, led to the reinvention of the mystical element of drugs.

Popularised by Aldous Huxley's The Doors Of Perception, and reloaded in the writings of the Beat generation, pseudo-shamanic figures emerged in the shape of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Painting them as degenerates formed the first line of government attack; continuing to point the finger overseas formed the second.

Nixon tried to explain away the number of new addicts among Vietnam GIs by saying they had been bombarded with cheap heroin from Laos and Burma.

In the interim, say critics, there has been little change.

Addicts of the Trainspotting type -- in squalor, inept, unable -- have become the new hippies: unlike us, they are paraded as a modern-day morality tale, as the unfortunates, the others.

The UK's aim of eradicating heroin production in the Afghan poppy fields, meanwhile, like that of America to eradicate Bolivia's coca production, has proven fruitless.

Like the War on Terror, the War on Drugs is floundering. Drugs are now cheaper, easier to get hold of, stronger and more pervasive.

The UN's commitment to "eliminate drug crops by 2008" -- seen as imminently achievable just 10 years ago -- is now widely considered laughable.

Somewhere along the line, the Just Say No message has been ditched, its catch-all morality lost on a new generation. Recent campaigns, such as the UK's Talk To Frank, have tried a different tack, favouring objective advice on drug use over the bogeyman messages of old. And yet the panic remains unabated, peddled by tabloids, politicians and clerics.

The irony of a society in which more people die from peanut consumption than ecstasy, say campaigners, has been airbrushed from modern history.

But there is no reverse gear, according to politicians, no way of revisiting the topic.

"Politicians have bought a lot of their own propaganda and they have their own fears about the way reform would be met by the great unwashed," says Danny Kushlick, director of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "They've pumped out an enormous amount of propaganda for a ridiculous policy, and effectively painted themselves into a corner."

The slippery slope theory falls back on an age-old mantra: that drugs lead to more drugs, and that we need to be saved from ourselves.

The theory -- based on the fact that heroin addicts invariably started out on softer drugs -- is seen by its opponents as a fraud that ignores what seems obvious.

Most people who take drugs, they say, will never graduate to heroin; most will never give it a second thought.

Most, they will argue, whether in a loved-up state or otherwise, would see little cause for panic at all.

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