Thursday, April 17, 2008

Signs of The Times

Two comment pieces from the Times this week:

Are our leaders drugged to the eyes? By Daniel Finkelstein

Who'd chuckle about drugs? By Libby Purves

Both articles are revealing about the way that commentators portray drugs in the media. Finkelstein’s piece uses an attention grabbing headline to discuss a wide range of issues, that stem from his reading of Lord Owen’s book In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years.

Finkelstein suggests that the press were obliged to report on Charles Kennedy’s drink problem. He fails to say why this was so important, given that Kennedy was hardly the man with his finger on the nuclear button, but he’s clearly very cross about it:

"Now this was a genuine, and shaming, scandal.”

It would appear to have some link with John F Kennedy who, Finkelstein tells us was

“The man who later dealt so capably with the Cuban missile crisis made a total hash of the Bay of Pigs.”

The fact that JFK brought us within hours of nuclear annihilation, Finkelstein finds less worthy of comment. He also finds Kennedy’s case more noteworthy than Blair’s state of mind in the run up to the Iraq war (as quoted in Owen’s book):
“A senior official recalls that when Blair was advised about the difficulties ahead, he would respond: “You are Neville Chamberlain, I am Winston Churchill and Saddam is Hitler.”

What is it about politicians using drugs (including alcohol) that gets columnists so exercised, at the expense of real scandals? In 2005 Transform reminded the press that David Cameron had sat on the Home Affairs Select Committee when it called on the Government to initiate a debate on alternatives to prohibition at the UN. Almost immediately the story had changed as Andrew Rawnsley began asking Cameron if he’d used drugs ‘I may have done him a favour’, thereby replacing the political story with a potentially scurrilous drugs expose. In fact Rawnsley did him a far bigger favour than he realised by taking the attention away from Cameron’s once rational take on drugs.

Finkelstein continues:
“There is one case after another of vital decisions made by sick leaders under the influence of drugs. Often in secret. What can be done? We need regular medical bulletins on heads of government and those seeking to be heads of government.”

Dos this mean a report on JFK’s: “Constant and acute diarrhoea and a recurrence of his urinary tract infection.” Or the fact that someone called Dr Feelgood was overprescribing him amphetamines? Finkelstein’s diagnosis:
“And they need to be independent. They can't be provided by the politician's personal doctor since the duty to tell the truth to the public conflicts with the duty to keep patient information confidential.”
I love the idea of an independent medic getting the PM to succumb to a sobriety test before taking part in significant meetings – closing his eyes and touching his nose with his forefinger whilst whistling Land of Hope and Glory perhaps. Better than that, let’s make him explain to an independent consultant how international drug prohibition is good for planet earth before making statements in parliament talking up the war on drugs. For here is the real scandal: politicians who are not under the influence of drugs are lying to us about the success of the war on drugs, and keeping schtum about the overwhelming human and financial costs of global prohibition.

Transform has always been clear that, outside of certain safety critical positions, drug use per se is not the key issue in the workplace, it is fitness to do the job. We have, in the past, called for competence testing rather than drug testing in the workplace. It is up to all of us to hold the executive to account on the basis of their political competence, rather than their drug use. And support for failed absolutist prohibition is a clear indication of lack of competence.

In the light of the deaths of Natasha Collins and Mark Speight, Libby Purves asks us to condemn drugs: “Damn the drugs, and damn the culture that accepts them with a cheeky wink”. She concludes:
“We know all this (that the cocaine supply chain is dirty and dangerous). Yet we are scared to be “judgmental”. Even I, dull middle-aged trout with a decorous media career, know perfectly well that I have just offended several people I count and value as friends. I am sorry. And intensely sorry, too, for the Speight and Collins families. But it has to be said. Damn the drugs.”

Purves’s anger and frustration comes through very strongly, but you have to ask whether damning drugs is of any use. Damning drugs has the effect of pushing them into some nether world, along with those who use, sell and produce them. It is demonisation in action and it is singularly ineffective, unjust and inhumane. Ultimately it is what led us into our contemporary drugs prohibition in the first place and to a great extent provides the glue that holds it together still. We rarely hear commentators crying out: “Damn the wine”. But we did in the US in the 1920s and, as a result the US suffered for thirteen years from the horrors created by alcohol prohibition.

In the past I have suggested that the process that many go through when talking about drugs, mirrors the oft-quoted process people go through in response to receiving traumatic news – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Purves appears to be oscillating, as she adds: “
I accept many of the arguments for legalising recreational drugs. If you had to queue up at the Tesco pharmacy counter behind coughing pensioners and hand over a chit from your GP with all the other losers, drug crime would abate and drug glamour would tarnish.”
Acceptance of the reality of drug use, the full spectrum of behaviours from beneficial through to problematic (including drug-related death), is key to developing a rounded and rational attitude to both the substances and the policy that surrounds them. I have nothing but respect for anyone who is grappling with the internal contradictions that many experience when they tackle this emotive area, something I wrote about in the Observer in 2002 , ‘Legalising drugs will save lives’.

Lastly, the letters page in today's Times contains three letters under the title: 'Should we ban drugs, or just regulate supply?' . You can submit comments below the letters.

No comments: