Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Land of Hypocrisy

By Andy Zieleniec

It’d been a strange summer, weather wise that is. Warm and wet but not too much of either to bring out the doom merchants complaining of meltdown, drought or trench foot.

But, as is usually the case, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no body no good’. It’s mushroom season again and by all accounts it may well be a bumper season. In woods, gardens, hedgerows, verges and playing fields mycelium have been at work in ideal conditions and the evidence is in the fruiting bodies that spring up seemingly miraculous underfoot. So far, and I’m no expert, I’ve seen shaggy ink caps, puff balls, fly agarics, boletus, oyster and parasol. I’ve also noted the near death experiences of two separate cases of people mistakenly eating poisonous wild mushrooms.

But, I digress.

I spotted a company of three, heads down hoods up, combing the football pitches in search of bounty (magic mushrooms or psilocybin I presume) and it made me wonder again about the hypocrisy and bias inherent in the drink and drugs laws not to mention certain prevalent social attitudes concerning the consumption of mind altering substances.

There is a long list of substances that are proscribed and that carry with them judicial penalties. If you’re tempted you should be aware of the potential consequences, social and financial as well as time-served at Her Majesty’s pleasure (see the following links for key facts about drugs and penalties for possession and supply.)
Yet it is also clear that the worst offenders in terms of medical and social consequences as well as mortality are those that are not only legal but also which provide large tax returns for the state. Alcohol and tobacco carry with them restrictions on where and to whom they can be sold (hence the current political and public debate over their advertising and sales, as well as consumption, specifically but not exclusively to young people) as well as advertising campaigns to deter consumption or at least to consume ‘responsibly’.

However, despite the evidence for the catastrophic consequences on the physical and social health of the nation from tobacco and alcohol use it is those ‘drugs’ that are not licensed and legal that carry a stigma and a penalty that appears to outweigh their effects.Tobacco kills far far more that cocaine and heroin. Alcohol fuels much more violence, domestic and social, and destroys more families than ecstasy or cannabis. Yet both are legal and very accessible. There is more than a smack of hypocrisy here. Whose interests does the current law protect? There are regular reviews of the categorisation of illegal drugs and the penalties associated with their use, possession and sale. As recently as last week the governments Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was considering the reclassification of ecstasy and has aroused strong resistance from amongst others the police whilst support from other quarters (see below for a selection of arguments and opinions)

Indeed, last year in a study, published in The Lancet, scientists from The Academy of Medical Sciences called for a new classification scheme that would rank all drugs by the harm they do
As social scientists we need to question some of the unpalatable ‘truths’ that pervade political, judicial and social rhetoric concerning amongst other things what people take as their ‘drug of choice’. We need to search beneath the seeming ‘reality’ of legal and social constraints and norms that penalise the pursuit of pleasure from some substances whilst promoting or tolerating the use of others. This is not just a personal question of whether one prefers to open and consume a bottle of wine or roll and smoke a ‘spliff’ with friends in the privacy of one’s own home. How and why we choose as individuals this, that or the other is always done in a social context. That context has been for 150 years or more one of vested interests. Whether, for different but overlapping reasons, including the state, business and/or moral (religious) groupings the outcome is the same. The promotion of some pleasures at the expense and restriction of others is in part about moral judgements as it is about medical, social and judicial ones.

I make no statement of personal preference here nor do I want to give the impression that I think all drugs are the same or that there should be a ‘free-for-all’ attitude. What I would suggest though, is that we can tell a lot about our society and ‘the state we’re in’ by our ‘official’ as well as by the unofficial, common, popular attitudes and practices to those substances that large numbers of people choose and use, for whatever reason, as part and parcel of their social life. In this, we as social scientists can make a contribution to social and political debates that affect, one way or another, most of us.

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