Gideon Mack has asked me on my other blog what I think should be done about the heroin addicts in West Reading.
Well, much as I enjoy direct questions, I don't think this one can be answered as easily as all that. A simple soundbite is insufficient to deal with all the angles which the question raises, nor do I think a straightforward statement on what action can be taken gets to the heart of the matter.
First off, I think it is necessary to uncover what the underlying issue is.
Do we want fewer addicts, or do we want to reduce the negative social impact caused by addiction?
The popular refrain of oppositionists is that a change in the law striking from the statute books the criminalisation of various categories of substances will be a massive improvement, but I'm not sure that a policy of legalisation followed by taxation shows sufficient understanding of how society works.
This is because the law creates an implicit moral framework - all people are equal under the law (or are supposed to be), but the law itself is not neutral.
So when the state directs that something is not (or is no longer) to be controlled, behind this is an assumption that it is acceptable to promote the behaviour (albeit under certain conditions, such as age limits). Additionally, while taxation may be an economic hinderance to members of the public it creates a perverse incentive for Treasury beancounters to maximise the income from this area in order to fund unhypothecated expenditure and may - again, perversely - increase the number of users and addicts.
Although the eradication of the criminal market in illegal drugs would have highly significant benefits across the board and I think these are well enough established not to have to go into them in this post, this alone is insufficient to justify a change in the legal status of drugs.
While liberal politics harks back to the 'harm principle' first expressed by JS Mill and I think this is admirable, I also think it is not the final word.
Ask Mr Mill if he thinks anybody should be free to choose their own course of action, I completely think he would and would agree with him. But ask him again how he'd feel were any of his children to commit themselves to a lifetime of slavery and withering physical dependance and I guarantee you he'd say that would signify his own failure.
As individuals we may shug our shoulders at the behaviour of those we pass by in the streets and never meet for long enough except to discoveer they want our charity, but as a politician it is the mark of hideous failure not to accept responsibility for the reasons why any single constituent who does not meet their potential and do everything within their power to empower individuals.
And this is the problem: there is not enough information to conclude reliably that simple legalisation would have the desired effects of reducing the overall negative impact of addiction.
Secondly, we need to ask is it worth completely reversing a standing policy for only a marginal improvement?
For all the number of people who are attracted to drugs of all sorts because illegality is 'sexy' or 'cool' and would be discouraged by a change in the law, just how many are currently put off because they recognise the actual dangers and real waste and expense of illegal drugs and might be encouraged?
The legal trade in alcohol functions fairly well because there is a pre-existing infrastructure of pubs and off-licenses integrated into their host communities through a well-establish licensing framework which has the active support of organised residents who attend and participate in public meetings. Unless and until there are indications that a similar situation can be created in the drug community it is completely unrealistic to hope a change in the law will not be abused and lead to wider social problems.
So while legalisation of drugs is theoretically progressive, it cannot succeed unless the intellectual debate is conclusively won, the economic infrastructure built and every practical concern dealt with.
And currently there is just too little trust between the public and authorities for enough local people to come forward and voluntarily offer help to show there is enough will to push for change.
But ultimately it does come down to the 'trust' word.
If people don't trust their government is doing the best by them and don't see that society is getting better in the areas which the state institutions have direct control over (such as the economy) then this only encourages more people to go against official advice (such as on illegal substances) while simultaneously discouraging a majority from seeking change.
So what would I do?
For that you'll have to be patient and wait until part2 - life comes before blogging I'm afraid!
Sunday, 20 December 2009
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