With so many Government ministers making admissions of youthful dope smoking and Gordon Brown’s announcement that he’s getting “tough on the puff”, isn’t it time that socialists should once again unfurl their “Free the Weed” banners and raise them high? At least I think so.
For a start, Brown’s proposals are completely bullshit. Even with the notorious memory problems of a long-term stoner, it is possible to recall the the first problem to face Brown’s new cabinet: overcrowded prisons, caused by locking up people whose crimes are associated with... drug use. The solution to this problem cannot be longer sentences for cannabis users. Yet under the new proposals 20% of the population could face five year sentences!
Brown’s proposals are a bit of window dressing on the already ludicrous policy of drug prohibition.
It is important to get some historical perspective on the laws surrounding drug prohibition. Although, religious law has banned the use of certain drugs throughout history — most notably Islam and alcohol — laws against drug use were first enforced by the modern state in the US 1920. Alcohol was banned as a response to pressure from the Temperance movement there. This was a moralistic middle-class movement that sought to solve the society’s problems by imposing moral restraint by the rule of law. It had all sorts of dubious links with the Ku Klux Klan and other political and religious maniacs. The use of other drugs became illegal after the collapse of the alcohol prohibition laws in 1933 in the face of popular drinking.
The movement that championed drug prohibition in the US at that time was made up of frustrated religious nuts, who could not understand why the American masses wouldn’t do as they told them to.
America’s first “Drug Tsar”, Harry J Anslinger, ran a ludicrous media campaign — “those addicted to marijuana… become bestial demoniacs, filled with the mad lust to kill…” — with distinct racist overtones... “Coloured students at the Univ. of Minn. Partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy.”
And while most of America was concerned with the hardships of the Great Depression rather than what their neighbours were putting in their pipes, these repressive laws were passed. Prohibition laws then went global, being part of the small print of trade negotiations between the USA and the rest of the world.
Global prohibition, by the way, also served the interests of the American cotton industry: the hemp plant not only produces some interesting states of mind but also very high quality clothing, oils, soap etc. This plant, which literally grows like a weed in most of the world’s climates, could pose a real threat to the US economy if it was anything other than a marginalised, slightly ridiculed and outlawed part of the ecosystem.
Throughout human history different cultures have favoured different mind altering substances. Most of these drugs have acquired both sacred and profane significance and are embedded in our cultures. In Britain, community life was been built around the church and the pub, both offering communal alcohol consumption in different settings with different emphasis. Compare this to the Huichol tribe in Mexico who take a annual holiday into the desert to both ritually and recreationally eat Peyote cactus as the stimulus to a 2-3 day trip. In both cases, the type of drug interacts with the type of social setting to create a dynamic relationship between individuals in their sober and altered states of mind.
In my view the government’s criminalisation of drugs is about giving the use and trade in certain drugs a particular social space — the space of the outlawed and marginalised.
The massive problems of drug addiction blight poor working class areas and see a lot of drug addicts in prison or psychiatric hospital. Front line workers dealing with drug addicts are taught to treat them as victims of circumstance — a view that flies in the face of the logic of prohibition.
The illegal trade in drugs is a multi-million pound industry accounting for around 3 per cent of UK GDP. Drug prohibition therefore, creates enormous amounts of crime, largely because it is attempting to squash a massive industry with a paid workforce. The illegality of drugs creates hierarchies of criminals and violence as well as shit quality drugs. On the street level, it creates turf wars and escalating violence. Both the individual and social effects of drug prohibition would be alleviated, if not greatly lessened by the legalisation of all drugs.
It is useful to tell the story of skunk, the government’s current obsession. According to the media, the humble weed is turning everyone psychotic. However, this is a very modern development.
When I received my drug education at school in the mid 90s, I was told that the only dope strong enough to give you cannabis psychosis was certain forms of hashish found in India. Happily, I smoked old Pakistani soapbar and Thaistick and experienced some pretty good times. In the late 90s, this all changed as the old herb dried up to be replaced by the highly-desirable fuck-you-up shit, skunk.
Skunk is about three-four times stronger than hash and is the cause of many a broken stoner and mental health issue. Because of tighter border controls, and because of the development of hydroponic kits and hybrid seed technology, many individuals started growing weed at home and producing some very potent stuff. Nowadays it is almost impossible to score a block of hash and the market is flooded with psychosis-inducing skunk.
But just as most drinkers don’t choose to always drink hard spirits, most stoners don’t want to smoke skunk. If the government had a real interest in preventing cannabis related mental health issues, it would legalise the cannabis and create a state industry in good quality, low grade hash and weed. However, they have no interest in doing this.
In many ways it suits capitalist interests to create a large underground industry, completely excluded from mainstream society. The lack of opportunity and frustration of many working class children can be diverted from militant class-based politics to the dangerous world of drug peddling and petty crime. And the criminal underworld replicates the bourgeois establishment, promoting individual gain with ruthless violence. Faced with the two options of criminality or working at Tesco it is not difficult to understand this impulse, which requires much courage, risk and gumption. Coupled with this, is the fact that it is working class kids who are most affected and damaged by illicit drugs. The conditions of growing up in capitalist society find their expression in the poorest sections of our society getting out of their heads as a form of escape.
However, there are reasons why the ruling class might want to stop us from taking drugs.
Apart from being highly enjoyable, taking drugs can be an incredibly positive, life changing part of human existence. A successful trip can be a process of removing the blinkers and shedding much of the bullshit that shapes and limits our lives. The poisoning of our minds with weird and wonderful substances is a time-old pastime. In a classless society it is possible to imagine that current levels of drug use will be greatly reduced, or different drugs will become more popular as people experience less oppression and generally have a better time. But it is difficult to imagine a time when people won’t want to take drugs or that drugs won’t play a positive part in our own self-understanding.
In his novel The Island Aldous Huxley described his utopian vision as a society where all citizens were encouraged to take magic mushrooms. Huxley saw mushrooms as an appropriate drug for a utopian society because of his own experiences on mescaline, which he describes in his book The Doors of Perception. Here Huxley argues that in our day-to-day life the need for survival, requires us to filter out much of the sensory data that bombards our sense organs. This allows us to focus. The effect of certain hallucinogens (both organic and synthetic) is to remove this filter and expose us to all our senses in-the-moment, to pass through the “Doors of Perception”. The effect of this sensory overload is to remove the sense of subject and object — you literally become you’re the sum of your sensory experiences at the time (including any conscious thought you are having). This accounts for the usual descriptions of being able to see sounds and smell colours and also the feeling of being “one” with the universe.
Life within advanced capitalist society is particularly boring and meaningless. We are told that we want useless consumer items, that winning the lottery is the key to happiness and that our heroes are mindless, botoxed celebrities. If we were allowed to take drugs — all sorts of drugs — in safe, comfortable, socially acceptable and communal settings then it would pose a real challenge to the bullshit that passes as modern culture and would challenge some of the assumptions that capitalist society is based.
The negative effects of taking drugs both for the individual and society would be reduced, if not eliminated, by legalisation. This is evermore true with addictive substances, such as heroin and crack cocaine, that cause such misery in the poorest communities. By marginalising drug use and leaving it to gangsters and criminals to administer drugs, the government is turning its back on some of the most vulnerable members of society. It is badly failing addicts. It is creating vasts amounts of crime. And it is shutting down cultural expression, lowering people’s expectations and marginalising the dreamers.