Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tories vote 'drugs worse than drink'

The BBC today reports that "Conservative activists have voted overwhelmingly against a motion claiming that alcohol does more harm than drugs. Members defeated the move by 63% to 37% following emotional appeals from the father of two drug addict sons and a recovering alcoholic."

Reading this sort of guff its almost difficult to know where to start. But perhaps the first most important and screamingly obvious thing to say is that ALCOHOL IS A DRUG; it is a psychoactive substance and, like other psychoactive substances, it is potentially toxic, it is potentially addictive, and it can cause harm (and death). Its a drug, end of story, no debate; really the BBC coverage should have pointed this out.

Refering to 'alcohol and drugs' as if they were different things is entirely meaningless and almost willfully stupid, somewhat akin to talking about 'beverages and orange juice'. Unfortunately these confused activists are not alone in perpetuating this nonsensical distinction. Those in the drugs field will be familiar with the daftly named (but otherwise excellent) periodicals 'Drink and Drug News' and 'Drugs and Alcohol Today', and most of us are used to hearing politicians, media and, well almost everybody, talking about 'drink and drugs' (or variations thereof, often involving tobacco, similarly given seperate status from 'drugs'). We even have entirely seperate strategies for alcohol and tobacco (run from the Department of Health) and other drugs (run from the Home Office).

At least the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has moved beyond this meaningless distinction with its new report 'Pathways to Problems' which focuses on the 'Hazardous use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs' - the inclusion of the word 'other' making all the difference. This rather excellent report, which might usefully read by some of the party conference wonks (of all parties), makes it very clear that alcohol and tobacco are by far the greatest threat to the health and well being of young people (from the BBC report the Tory debate did not apparently feature tobacco atall).

Despite the fact that drug deaths are not a particularly accurate measure of drug harms and the collection drug death stats is riddled with methodolgical problems, a cursory glance at the stats we do have (even with a whopping great big margin of error) helps put the scale of the problems into perspective
- Annual tobacco related deaths - approx 100,000
- Annual alcohol related deaths - approx 10,000
- Annual deaths from all other drugs combined - approx 2,500 (of which around 400 are paracetamol).

Clearly the alcohol / drugs distinction is more about an emotional response to the legal / illegal distinction rather than any scientific measure of harms or risks. Moreover it is hard to see how this is something that can voted on - the stats should speak for themselves. The Tories rather pointless 'vote' on a semantically meaningless motion appear to reflect their gut response to acceptable legal drugs (available in the conference hotel foyer) vs those horrid illegal drugs used by nasty yobbos who rob old ladies. Yes, clearly illegal drugs are associated with other harms, primarily the crime and criminality associated with illegal markets, but these are a specifically a result of drug prohibition and and abdication of responsibility for drug markets to gangsters and unregulated street dealers (rather than the fact that illegal drugs are intrinsically more harmful). If you dont believe me try prohibiting alcohol and see what happens (you could ask Al Capone if he were still around).

It would be great to see a more intelligent, informed and sophisticated debate on the drugs issue taking place in the ranks of the opposition. They could do a lot worse than having a read of the latest ACMD report for starters. To be fair there have been some positive signs; The Tories are currently reviewing there drug policy and have been listening to voices from all sides of the debate, and David Cameron, despite the media focus on drugs in his private life, has made some encouraging comments and clearly knows his way around the issue from his time on the Home Affairs Select Committee . The Liberal Democrats have managed to have a meaningful debate and come up with a fairly sensible drug policy (even though they dont want to talk about it), but the Government and the Tories, with a few rare exceptions, seem hopelessly addicted into the populist rhetoric of the drug war. Lets hope the voices of reason will eventually prevail, the drug warriors can be rehabilitated and we can start moving towards a just and effective policy for regulating all drugs.


Claire, DDN said...

I couldn’t agree more about the nonsensical divide between legal and non-legal drugs – which seems to be at the root of society’s attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs. Alcohol can be as lethal as any substance I can think of. The Tory debate also struck me as completely asinine; yes it’s a drug, of course it’s a drug, like any other addictive substance.

However, to clarify about our ‘daft’ name, Drink and Drugs News… You can’t tackle the ‘populist rhetoric of the drug war’ without acknowledging it – and it’s a fact that government support for drug services has far outweighed that for alcohol treatment. You only have to look at how many DATs don’t have the resources to be DAATs – let alone how many alcohol service user groups are struggling to see the light of day. Alcohol treatment is so out of proportion with the scale of need it’s unreal.

As we’re in the business of communication, we had to approach with this in mind – that alcohol and drugs are separate agendas at the moment in too many ways to ignore. We can’t contribute meaningfully if we don’t acknowledge what people working in alcohol treatment are up against. Putting both substances in our title was a declaration of our commitment to tackle the joint agenda and make sure our readers know that we endeavour to give equal voice to both.

How else would you suggest we do this? ‘News of Substance’ sounds a tad grandiose…

Still, I’d settle for being ‘daft’, as long as we can carry on being ‘excellent’ in the same sentence!

Anonymous said...

As a street youth worker I see the harm that underage drinking does. It definately contributes to anti- social behaviour. Alcohol is the most widely abused drug by young people.

Steve R said...

claire - thanks for this - Id suggest the ACMD lingo of alcohol and other drugs news. Clunky perhaps, but makes more sense.

I quite like news of substance as it goes....

Chris said...

It is interesting that the Conservatives consider alcohol to be less harmful than other drugs, in spite of what is known about its toxicity, addiction potential, etc.

What sets it apart from the "drugs" is its legal status.

Perhaps the Conservatives would be better asking what causes most harm: drugs, or drug prohibition?