I am not exactly ignorant of drugs and their uses, but I had never heard of something called “GBL” until I checked the news one day and discovered the government was planning to ban it. GBL is a synthetic drug similar to GHB, which induces mild euphoria and drowsiness at low doses and loss of motor function and sleepiness at higher doses. The government in its press release called it “dangerous” and “lethal”, but on reading the article it seemed that an entire drug was being prohibited, with all the attendant enforcement costs, because two people had died in using GBL in combination with other drugs – always a stupid move, but paracetemol and alcohol are also a lethal combination and neither of those are banned, or even prescription-only. So why GBL?
The answer lies in the way the government treats drugs as a political football. In wanting to appear “tough on drugs”, ministers enact harsh and sweeping legislation with little regard to the human cost involved. Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, has launched a £200,000 “information awareness campaign” that does little more than tell people that GBL will kill them and they shouldn’t take it. Personally, I doubt anyone will be listening, least of all GBL users, who know better than anyone that GBL doesn’t instantly kill most people because, well, they’re alive. Gordon Brown, however, just doesn’t seem to care about the evidence, just as he didn’t when cannabis was raised to Class B earlier this year. Despite cannabis use having fallen among 18-25 year olds by 5% since its declassification to Class C, and despite the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (the advisory body to the government on the drug laws) reporting that enforcement costs would rise by millions of pounds, disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and have little, if any impact on use, Gordon Brown claimed that we needed to “send a message” to people that cannabis isn’t safe. So cannabis was duly reclassified and users can now be jailed for five instead of two years. Nice message. How many of your friends cared?
The problem with this kind of draconian legislation is that the law does not reflect reality, and the reality is that people take drugs, and are not going to stop doing so. The earliest recorded use of cannabis as been dated to 4000BC – and we think we can eradicate drug use? The Manchester Evening News recently carried a front page article by a 22 year old who had become addicted to GBL and now wanted it made illegal – would she really have preferred to have been imprisoned to the drug treatment she is now receiving? Would it have helped her to have swapped her GBL addiction to heroin instead, the drug choice of most prisoners? Should we also imprison all alcoholics? Criminalisation is a simple answer to a very complex problem, and it just isn’t effective. By stigmatising and criminalising drug users, we basically shut them out of society and force them to crime in order to support themselves, fuelling a downward spiral of destructiveness that they cannot escape and which accordingly damages them and their community. How does this make sense?
Criminalisation does makes sense if you make a living from stigmatising drug users and use, however. My local paper ran a campaign some months ago to campaign against the opening of a drug addiction treatment centre, on the premise that “we don’t want our communities to be filled with drug addicts.” The fact that it would be better to have drug addicts committed to getting off drugs might be better than drug addicts roaming their neighbourhoods shooting up upon street corners seemed to elude them. One woman was quoted as saying “If this centre opens, I won’t be able to let my children go outside, it just won’t be safe.” Safe? They’re drug addicts, not paedophiles! But of course, few in the media are interested in making that distinction. And where the Daily Mail leads, politicians follow (in fact the BNP has a policy of applying the death penalty to murderers, terrorists, drug dealers and paedophiles). Drug use and users are just another football to sell papers and jeer at the government, which responds with ever harsher laws, that are expensive, invasive, and ultimately hurt the people they are allegedly trying to protect.
If we want to have any real effect on the thousands of people who have their lives ruined by all drugs, from alcohol to heroin, we have to stop treating drug users like naughty children who don’t know what’s good for them. We have to give people accurate information about the drugs they are choosing to take, and stop threatening to lock people up for making those choices, which is expensive and counter-productive. The political parties have to stop treating drugs like a political football to get one over on the other team, because ultimately we’re only kicking ourselves while innocent people are being crushed on the sidelines.