Friday, 15 September 2017

Why moderation might not be the best policy for drugs

For some reason the other day I thought about this article by Mark Monaghan and Henry Yeomans.  It builds on the work of Virginia Berridge to argue that there’s a convergence in policy relating to alcohol and other drugs, despite the fact that there’s still a ‘regulatory divide’ between legal and illegal drugs.

The convergence isn’t simply the common observation that as we become more restrictive about tobacco and alcohol marketing, pricing and sales places around the world are loosening regulation on substances like cannabis.  Mark and Henry also suggest that in terms of what we condemn, we’re concerned with the same things: i.e. not ‘drug’ use per se so much as the people and the behaviour associated with them.

I'd agree that we’re not concerned about drinking in general, but (amongst other things) what I would call the carnivalesque – forever something that the middle classes can observe and play with while they define others by their participation.

And Henry and Mark argue that the same is true of drug use: although all drug use is defined by government policy as dangerous and wrong, the reality of policy is that it focuses on particular groups of drug users, seen to form part of an ‘underclass’ – whether that’s David Cameron attacking rioters in 2011, or Iain Duncan Smith questioning benefits payments being spent on alcohol or other drugs.

This isn’t a terribly controversial point in itself.  As Nick Cohen pointed out in a recent article, in certain middle class circles taking cocaine is more acceptable than smoking tobacco.  (Perhaps this is a metropolitan thing, as it doesn’t chime with my experience in Dorchester.)   And in policy terms we’re not so concerned about the use of cannabis per se so much as the behaviour of some of those who do - illustrated nicely in a recent Professor Green documentary by the different fears and freedoms experienced by people from different backgrounds.

Interestingly, Mark and Henry cite Steve Wakeman, who’s suggested that decriminalisation and certainly legal regulation is much more about middle class concerns (and, to be fair, those involved in production) than issues that affect the poorest users: “While such a shift would certainly benefit middle- and upper-class users (allowing them to indulge their chemical proclivities without risking their comfortable jobs) the effects this would have on users like Ryan would be very different. He depends upon the moral economy of heroin for so much and, ultimately, this socio-economic system currently depends upon its illicit status.”

And maybe it’s reading this from Steve – as well as watching an episode of the BBC Queers series where a (fictional) man of retirement age complains in 1967 that the change in the law is trying to make him respectable – that makes me worry for the vision of happy, liberal convergence.

As I’ve written before, any approach to regulation, or ideology, will be infused with its local context – so English alcohol policy isn’t simply about profit, economics and market models – it’s also about the kind of drinking we find unsettling, regardless of its economic ‘value’ (even if government policy seems to allow economics to trump moral or social discomfort).

That’s why I use the term neoliberal despite the fact it’s often used pretty indiscriminately and is in danger of losing its meaning.  I would suggest that in general, recent UK governments have actually been pretty uncomfortable with the kind of liberalism that says it’s your body, your life, do what you want.  You know how many pints of beer you want to drink, or cigarettes you want to smoke, so go ahead.

Of course part of the reason we’re uncomfortable about this is that no man is an island, and healthcare costs of the individual – at least in Britain – affect us all.  But there’s also all the stuff my academic work looked at: we do tend to enjoy distinguishing ourselves from other people.  Most of us, if we care to admit it, have views on what ‘good’ drinking or drug use looks like.

Thinking back to that academic stuff, I was reminded of Robin Bunton’s work on pleasure and policy: governments tend to favour ascetic and disciplined pleasure.

And this is where I get a bit worried about models of regulation, particularly in light of Steve’s point.  Are we looking to regulate and approve just a particular model of substance use?  Just a particular vision of what the ‘right’ way of doing things is?  Are we trying to regulate the pleasure out of drugs?

It’s an interesting idea, when lots of academics (and campaigners) ask of discussions of drugs ‘where is the pleasure’, taking a sociological approach of not seeing drug use as a problem in itself.  Why don’t do we seem to feel the need to describe what would happen under a regulated system as 'adult', 'responsible' or 'moderate'?  Why do campaigners feel uncomfortable acknowledging in a political discussion that using alcohol or other drugs is, for many people, simply fun?

Or perhaps 'fun' isn't the right word.  My work on the carnivalesque was trying to suggest that government isn't always uncomfortable about fun, and in fact lots of things people do when drinking aren't exactly 'fun', and certainly aren't comfortable.  But whatever it is, it isn't about rational, calculating moderation.

Of course there are all sorts of good arguments for decriminalisation or regulation of intoxicating substances, not least the effects in producer countries/communities.  But let’s just think about the effect on users for a moment.

I often complain (here and here, for example) that we approach alcohol in a weird way, where we almost deny that it’s intoxicating – no-one seems to drink to get drunk, or we think people shouldn’t.  And I don't think that's healthy.

I can see that suggesting psychoactive substances are relatively innocuous and we’d all use them ‘responsibly’ and ‘moderately’ might be a good PR move for campaigners, but wouldn’t it be a missed trick?  Wouldn’t it perpetuate stigma?  Wouldn’t we end up in just the same place as we are for alcohol at the moment, where we condemn – as Mark and Henry point out – the people as much as the behaviour or the substance?

So if there is this convergence going on, let’s not kid ourselves with a Whiggish notion of history that sees us marching forward to a utopia of ‘legalised and regulated’ substances.  That might not be such a great place to be.

And if we are converging, perhaps something like meeting in the middle would be better than everything coming over to the side of alcohol and tobacco.  It's not just that we haven't been restrictive enough with alcohol and tobacco; I'm not sure we've got the 'culture' of regulation right.  Perhaps I'm overstating it.  Maybe it's just my impression of the campaign materials I've seen.  But all the same, it's worth thinking about.

I wonder if we could take a fundamentally different approach to policy and celebrate diversity and something other than disciplined and ascetic pleasure.  It has been done in the past, and it can be done again.  Here’s to a bit of Rabelais.

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