Drug Culture

A debate at the Hay Festival HowTheLightGetsIn
Sunday 5th June 2011 1430-1530

Talk Description from the organisers

Whilst many eastern cultures, and our own predecessors, naturalised mind-altering drugs, the modern world has rejected and criminalized these very substances. Why? Is the state right to protect us from physical and psychological danger, or is the freedom of the individual paramount? Do drugs encourage us to accept pluralistic realities and thus undermine our security in the world, or simply open the imagination? Are we heading for a mass exodus from reality or opening up our eyes?

Psychologist Susan Blackmore, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, philosopher Edward Skidelsky, and anthropologist Iain Edgar open the doors of perception.

This is roughly what I said. There followed a debate with the others and then with the audience.

Drugs can do more than just open the doors of perception. Some, such as LSD, psilocybin, ecstasy and even cannabis can be wonderful and inspiring. I was recently asked to write for the Guardian’s CiF on whether LSD can ever be a spiritual teacher. I answered with an emphatic “yes”. Over 600 people wrote in with comments, including warnings of the dangers as well as deep gratitude for having been able to take LSD. Hallucinogens can also have great therapeutic value especially for the dying. They can also be dangerous, and others, such as cocaine and heroin, are highly addictive. So what have we, as a society, done with these dangerous wonders? We have made them illegal and so effectively handed over control to the most vile criminals in the world. This is a shame on us all.

This week the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world” and recommends decriminalization and legal regulation of all drugs. Two days ago a group of Britishcelebrities called on our government to review drug policy and, if necessary, decriminalize all drug use.

Hear, hear! The drug war is estimated to cost $100 billion a year. Here in Britain the illegal drug trade is estimated at over £5 billion a year and we taxpayers spend about £1.5 billion fighting the war. Then there’s the crime caused by prohibition, that’s estimated at over £4 billion a year. What a scandal what a disgrace!

These figures are just money but think what they mean. When I lived in Bristol we were broken into many times. “Money for drugs” said the police and they could do little or nothing about it. Those of us who live in areas fought over by drug gangs pay a terrible price. Those who live in richer areas also feel insecure and threatened, and depressed at the awful thought that our homes can be trashed and our possessions sold on for a pittance to pay a long chain of criminals. What a waste.

But there’s worse. When they leave school over half of our children are technically criminals because they have used illegal drugs. And why do they use them? Because they like them. Because it’s human nature to want to manipulate one’s own mind.. Because drugs, despite their dangers, have an upside of pleasure, and exploration and fun. Last year nearly 80,000 people in Britain were convicted or cautioned for drug offences. Our prisons are full to bursting point. Just imagine if all drugs were legal. Our prisons would be half emptied and could start working on rehabilitation and training.

Prohibition is Mad!

Drugs should be sold in  shops, properly labeled, properly packaged, properly priced and properly taxed. Just imagine the effect on the rest of the world. Farmers in Afghanistan, Columbia, Brazil or Morocco could grow their crops of coca, marijuana or poppies and sell them legitimately to world markets, free from a life of terror caused by the vast networks of criminal gangs. In Mexico an estimated 34,612 have died in the drug war, over 15,000 in 2010. Think about this. Ordinary people living in terror, mass killings, mass graves, anyone who tries to stand up to the drug barons is just killed.

Isn’t it obvious what we must do? Isn’t it obvious that prohibition is the real problem, not the drugs themselves? So why won’t we do it? Because we are too afraid? Maybe, but perhaps more realistically because we, as a society, would have to learn from scratch how to use drugs properly, not just try to make them go away – which they never will. This is tough. but not impossible. Throughout human history cultures have created rituals, rules, and traditions of drug use. They have found and trained teachers to guide people through the dangers and learn how to use – not abuse – these dangerous wonders. This is what we have to do.