We are, finally, debating one of the last taboos. Why don’t politicians join in?
Is the media kicking its habit of whipping up public anxiety about drugs? Over the last three weeks newspapers have injected a stream of headlines into policy discussions already stimulated by the appointment of a drug czar. We have been told that Ecstasy causes brain damage, that cannabis has proven medical value and that heroin addicts should be given paramedical training to help them save the lives of friends who overdose.
The most extensive coverage centered on a Demos/Joseph Rowntree Foundation report by myself and colleagues which shows that most young people who use drugs have similar values and outlooks as their non-user peers. The reaction to the report has proved instructive, and in a surprising way.
To be expected was the Daily Mail’s wildly inaccurate front page: “Shock report says drugs are OK”. This is a newspaper pursuing a conservative moral agenda and which can’t quite make up its mind how happy it is about Tony Blair. “The young country, of which ministers are forever blathering, has never been in greater need of old-fashioned moral stiffening,” raged its leader. The Sun laid into “think-tankers who spout liberal bilge”. TV and radio stations lined up liberals and conservatives to debate whether drug users are deviant or normal.
Over the past decade we have grown used to such reactions. Politicians and journalists have rarely discussed drugs without wrapping themselves in layers of ideology or moral sententiousness. The usual way is to make sure that “menace”, “scourge” or “war” are not more than four words from any mention of “drugs”. Figures on the extent of drug-taking are used as a proxy for moral decline.
But what struck me about this recent burst of media agitation was not the surface frenzy but the current of more serious debate underneath. On Talk Radio – possibly the largest focus group in Britain – and on local radio programs across the country, callers were more interested in understanding drug use than stigmatizing drug users. “What can we do about the problems?” was the frequent, genuine question, even on shows that are usually a platform for howling prejudice rather than a forum for probing complexities.
Not much of the media followed the Mail’s ranting. The Times included a feature that opened with the words: “At last someone is talking sense about the way in which recreational drugs are used in Britain.” The Telegraph covered the findings of our report in detail, without spin. The Express ran two pages on “Are drugs normal?” without taking sides. The novelist Sophie Parkin asserted that “we mustn’t say that drug use is in any way compatible with a normal life”. But Sir Peregrine Worsthome, arch high Tory, argued: “Sometimes it may do less harm to tell lies, but it hardly behooves those who like riding a moral high horse to criticize Demos for refusing to brush the truth under the carpet. And the truth is how the think-tank says it is.” The Express, by the way, is about to appoint a drugs correspondent, “to open up the argument and to try to get really experienced and wise people to start talking to us about it,” says its editor.
Television and radio stations that went looking for outraged pundits to condemn drug-taking often failed to find them. Instead commentators wanted to think through the difficulties of getting messages across to young people. Compared to the tone of reporting in the wake of Leah Betts’ death or, indeed, pre-election statements by Jack Straw, the debate appears to have taken a more mature turn.
An important underlying reason may be that stigmatizing people simply because they take drags is incompatible with the values of an ever-increasing number of British citizens. Increasingly people see their identity based not on a single attribute, such as their class, gender or nationality, but on an array of interests and behavior: “the personality equivalent of digital compression . . . multiple identities in one life”, as one writer has put it. Such people are less likely to characterize others by one aspect of behavior, from the music they enjoy to the drugs they take. Maybe the press is starting to realize that their own readers reject simplistic views based on stereotypes such as “the druggy”.
A second possible reason lies in the Conservative Party’s revisionism since May. Now that the likes of Michael Portillo and William Hague have backed away from knee-jerk hostility towards lone mothers and homosexuals, perhaps drug-takers will be the next group to receive a more thoughtful hearing.
On the Today program last week Professor John Strang, a leading authority on drug use, said: “It’s no longer good enough for pop propaganda to determine drugs policy.” It was encouraging to hear Keith Hellawell, the new drugs tsar, agree.
A political space may be opening up to develop policies, based on serious analysis, which help reduce the harm that drugs can cause. Political leaders, please note.