Injecting some evidence

Charlie Bell
The Tab Cambridge: May 3, 2014

Drugs are not something that many of us feel terribly comfortable talking about – but after hearing CUCA’s debate on the subject this week, it got me thinking. Because the main thing that simply wasn’t on the agenda is evidence – and to me, that’s where any debate on the use, abuse, or whatever, of these drugs should begin, continue and end with. Call me a boring medic, with slavish obedience to scientific method and evidence-based policy, but to tackle something like legalisation of drugs and its ramifications without it, you are an idiot.

We can all scream our political ideology and score cheap points – God knows I enjoy doing that – but drugs are too important to mess about with, and it’s time our generation started to demand the subject was properly covered. At the moment we live in a somewhat bonkers world where we all know of a lot of people who have taken, or are currently taking, illegal drugs (or their equivalent legal highs), but daren’t admit it just in case it wrecks our careers. Whilst arrests and criminalisation are very unlikely, any vicious ladder-climber who wanted to bring anyone in a profession down could do so pretty easily by alleging they took drugs.

Sometimes people get away with it – even politicians seem to be able to admit to breaking the law with drugs as kids and not getting sacked. You only have to open a copy of Closer or similar (those delicious shit buckets of gutter journalistic tripe) to read the most outlandish drug confessions or celebrity bustings. Whilst most of them are too stupid to realise the potential consequences, there seems also to be a consensus amongst the police and indeed politicians that drug abusers won’t, on the whole, be prosecuted, particularly if they use ‘soft’ drugs. Which, of course, is an entirely misleading word.

Illegal, and indeed legal, drugs often have the propensity to be very addictive – hence those who use them often become addicts. It’s not rocket science; and given the huge number of drugs that are illegal, these people immediately become criminals. Also criminals are the providers and traffickers – and you don’t have to look outside the traditional gap-yah destinations to find a nice death penalty waiting for you if you rock up with a suitcase full of heroin.


The argument as to whether people should be treated on the NHS is an old one – should patients be treated for heart disease even if they are the size of a cross-channel ferry? More pertinently, should drunken slobs be given free treatment to vacuum out their stomach on a Friday night, after they’ve quite deliberately overindulged? To many, the points are similar – if you do something stupid, you should pay, or conversely, if we live in a society where everyone pays in, you should be able to do what you like. These arguments will go on and on – but for drugs, it’s slightly different, because many of them are illegal in the first place.

But to me, all of this seems to illustrate my point – where is the evidence for what drugs actually do, for how addictive they are, and for the risks they bring? Just as importantly, where are the comparisons with alcohol, or smoking, or all the other legal substances we use to escape from the mundanity of exam term? Is history really a good enough reason for alcohol to be legal but other drugs not? What even is a ‘drug’? And how about tobacco? We know it kills, in a grim, grim way – it’s almost guaranteed – yet that’s still legal?

It’s time for us to have a proper debate about this stuff, and to re-evaluate exactly why these kinds of substances are legal or illegal. We’re not in a strong position at the moment – not that long ago, the government sacked Prof David Nutt from the drugs advisory board because his evidence didn’t support policy. Sure, it might turn out that alcohol is more damaging than other drugs – but that would already be the case if that were to be found out, and it’s better to know than to continue in dangerous ignorance. Not until we know the effects of these things can we start to decide how to properly police them – certainly not without the entirely justified allegations of arbitrary decision-making and legal laziness.

(Read the full article at The Tab Cambridge)

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