New Year resolutions on drugs, alcohol and tobacco

By Jonathan Power

After the orgy of food, drink and presents at Christmas we will have a week to think of our sins before the New Year arrives and we have to make our promises to be better human beings in 2013. What resolutions will you make?

For each person there are probably a good dozen of things to consider but my humble suggestion is that we concentrate on drink, smoking and drugs. Should our governments ban them or limit them or shrug their shoulders and say this is a free society and you do what you want, as long as you only harm yourself?

Not that long ago in Britain, Sherlock Holmes could quite legally sit by the fire with his pipe and sniff cocaine. His companion and fellow sleuth, Watson, would have an untaxed brandy or two, maybe more. If friends wanted to join them they could, without fear of a police raid, smoke marijuana. Opium was used for those in unbearable pain. (Alas, most people in poorer countries have never been able to afford any pain relief. They die in agony. Mind you, when the British controlled India they became the largest drug trafficker the world has ever seen, forcing Chinese ports open so they could win addicts among the poor.)

Even in Islamic countries alcohol was at one time tolerated. (In Turkey and Egypt it still is.) Later it was banned and for a while, more than a hundred years ago, so was coffee

These days when it comes to drugs and tobacco in most societies the degree of control is subject to fierce debate and when it comes to drugs banning them seems to be the majority conviction. But have we got our priorities right? In the US hundreds of thousands of young men languish behind bars for long sentences convicted of possessing quite small amounts of drugs. They will be let out one day without skills for a job having learnt from the real criminals inside how to make a good living from the low life. In our hospitals the victims of car crashes pour through hospital doors and many are there because the driver was intoxicated with alcohol. Our tax money often pays the bill. Smokers with their cancers fill many hospital wards and we the people pay the billions of dollars it costs.

In Britain alcohol consumption is on the rise. “Binge” drinking is the rage among working class young men. David Beckham is teetotal but the football icon’s habits are not much emulated. “There is no other drug which is so damaging to so many different organs of the body”, writes Imperial College neuropsychopharmacology professor, David Nutt, in his new book, “Drugs Without Hot Air”. The leading health problem for men in Britain, he says, is alcohol. In a study he made, alcohol came out top as the drug that causes the most severe damage. Heroin is a much lower second. Cocaine and methyl amphetamine are much lower down the league table than heroin. Tobacco comes next followed by cannabis. Ecstasy rarely causes damage. Neither do LSD, khat and mushrooms.

He also points out that each year tobacco kills 5 million people across the world and alcohol 1.5 million. In comparison illicit drugs kill 200,000.

Public education on smoking including bans on advertising and increased taxes have seen the proportion of British people who smoke fall from 40% in 1978 to around 20% today. The same is true of other richer countries. But in the Third World the tobacco companies are having a heyday. It is the British in China all over again. But even that is changing. Many airlines in Africa have banned smoking.

Shouldn’t that be the way we treat drugs- make them legal but use every tool to cut down consumption? It is their illegality that has created the black market and the monster of drug gangs who intimidate whole societies, as in Mexico and Columbia, with their killing sprees and corruption of governments. Hundreds of thousands would no longer be incarcerated for a minor offence. Governments would receive a large revenue from taxation to pay for their public health programs.

Alcohol in the US today is legal. Prohibition in the 1920s was counterproductive. If you had money you could get it and gangsters like Al Capone ruled the roost. In 1933 Prohibition ended. How should we deal with freely available alcohol? In Sweden even the smallest amount of alcohol is prohibited for drivers. In the UK taxes are being raised. A good idea would be to make drinkers and smokers pay their own hospital bills, even if they have insurance.

We have to get our priorities and policies right. Otherwise all the New Year resolutions in the world are useless.

Copyright © Jonathan Power 2012

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