Watching Ridley Scott's American Gangster recently, I was struck by the moral compartmentalisation practiced by the two leading characters. Denzel Washington's crime boss advocates a black consciousness as he immiserates his own community through heroin and kills fellow black rivals, while Russell Crowe's detective is sexually incontinent while standing up for integrity against corrupt cops and shooting the crap out of drug dealers. This is not a complaint about inconsistency. The film is only tenuously based on reality and functions best as a polished riff on gangster and cop tropes. What struck me was the assumption that there are different and isolated scales of values for drugs, guns and sex. The thought resurfaced this week.
The slow move towards the decriminalisation of drugs has received another nudge with today's report on a 6 year study by various eminent worthies from the fields of science, policing and academia. They conclude that current policy is ineffective and inefficient, and that drugs should be treated primarily as a public health matter. Despite the emphasis on the monetary waste entailed in the unwinnable "war on drugs", estimated at £3 billion a year, this is unlikely to stimulate enthusiasm in a government whose Home Secretary subscribes to the belief that cannabis is a "gateway drug", a claim that has been assiduously promoted by the Daily Mail in recent years. Public spending on the war on drugs, like the war in Afghanistan, is currently off-limits, which means the burden of austerity must fall on the feckless who are even now exchanging their benefit money for skunk.
The whole "one thing leads to another" idea is cobblers, of course. You'll not hear Theresa May advocating the banning of shotguns on the grounds that they are a gateway to AK-47s or RPGs, even though a rigorously conducted empirical study would no doubt show that current gun owners are more likely to buy additional and more powerful guns than non-owners. Even within the sphere of drugs, the gateway logic is simultaneously rejected. Surely cigarettes are the gateway to cannabis? How many impressionable teens would even consider toking a spliff if they hadn't already learnt how to smoke? If we really want to crack down hard on the wacky-baccy, shouldn't we just ban rolling tobacco and cigarette papers altogether?
The biggest drug, by level of use and the cost to society, is alcohol, but the idea that a liking for beer will inevitably and inexorably lead to a liking for first wine and then spirits is patently absurd. I like both beer and wine but I've never developed a taste for spirits. I have bottles of whiskey and rum in the house, received as gifts over the years, that already have the dusty look of heirlooms. My appreciation of real ale has never led to a taste for strong lager, and my wine drinking has not gradually hardened into an exclusive focus on port. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. How do you freebase a pint of bitter?
The political difficulty in advocating drug decriminalisation in the UK is mirrored by the similar sensitivity of the issue of gun-control in the US, which has been notable by its absence from the presidential election debates. You might have thought my use of the gun analogy earlier was stretching a point, but there are parallels. In the UK, guns are almost illegal outside of controlled environments such as gun clubs, grouse moors and one-off affairs like the impending badger apocalypse. Some farmers still keep a shotgun for wild pests and small game, as much as a homage to a disappearing lifestyle as a practical tool, but personal weaponry is not a feature of modern agri-business. Though this is very different to the prevalence of guns in the US, both countries have in effect a framework based on selective decriminalisation, it's just that the US is a lot more liberal in its attitudes, i.e. in the literal sense of imposing fewer constraints.
One of the classic arguments in favour of gun ownership is the idea that "guns don't kill people, people kill people". This serves to distract from the systemic and focus on moral agency. It's the fault of individual people, and because these people exist, but their identity is unpredictable, everyone else should have the right to defend themselves. This is logically incoherent because if we ensured that everyone had a gun, thus maximising self-protection, we would not be surprised to see the number of gun-related deaths increase, despite there being no change in aggregate morality.
The pro-gun lobby gets round this by making gun ownership a mark of virtue, hence the appeals to patriotism and the constitution. Good people should be allowed access to guns, bad people should be denied access. Even the anti-gun lobby accepts this tactically, advocating tighter background checks for gun buyers. The irony is that if self-protection really were the objective, then criminals should be allowed easier access, as they are more vulnerable to attack by their peers than the average citizen. Of course, the reason they don't get preferential treatment is the fear that they will attack non-criminals, even though such "stranger crime" is statistically rare. This is where the systemic reality is revealed, i.e. we make judgements about particular classes of society based on prejudice as much as fact.
With drugs, the gradual move towards decriminalisation is the result of a similar calculation. The public health tack is recognition that drugs kill people, or more accurately, that badly-cut or overly pure drugs lead to avoidable deaths and that drug users are not moral cripples who will their own destruction. This increased empathy arises because drugs have become more middle class and simultaneously less popular. The classic gateway to cannabis use is further education, with magic mushrooms also on the menu; clubbing has gradually raised its price point, with ecstasy the crossover hit; cocaine has long been the young professional's drug of choice, though its popularity among bankers has tarnished the brand; while the use of "heavy shit" like heroin and crack is in slow decline. The drop in overall popularity is a little misleading as it includes leakage out of the illegal category. The drug choice of the poor has shifted to the legal highs of cheap booze and the lows of prescription pills. Perversely, the demand for a minimum price for alcohol may reverse this trend, which highlights the class basis of establishment concerns. What offends is the sight of plebeian indulgence.
One the features of the currently developing Savile affair is the sudden groundswell of long-suppressed complaint, not just over a specific man's abuses, but over institutional sexism and bullying more generally. Many women who worked in the media are aghast that they tolerated such behaviour for so long, while men who connived in the abusive atmosphere sheepishly duck for cover. You get the sense that this may be a watershed moment. The decriminalisation of drugs is likely to require something similar: a moment when we look nonplussed at each other and ask "why didn't we do this years ago?"