There are few home affairs which ignite polarised debate in Britain quite as readily and with such wearisome frequency as drugs, drugs law and government drugs policy.
Only recently, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales, sent the tabloids into apoplexy with his claim that aspirin is more harmful than ecstasy, while the most recent word on the ground in Westminster circles is that the Home Office is limbering up to reverse the 2004 downgrade of cannabis back from Class C to Class B.
In the exchanges generated by the latest governmental stance towards Cannabis, it’s interesting to note that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), now conducting its own study into the substance and due to issue a report in the spring, has been told by ministers to take public attitudes into account as well as medical evidence in framing it’s recommendations. Popular opinion, in this area at least, if not others like civil liberties, or foreign policy, is something the government seems to consider significant enough to be taken account of. And that, despite the fact that mass perception of the issue, in the lack of personal exposure, is largely determined by the misinformation of a reactionary press.
The manner and means by which the subjects of our nation are able to indulge their recreational habits and how the authorities seek to regulate them have long been an area where governments adopt a firmly populist approach. And it’s an easy ticket. Tobacco and alcohol are well established substances of abuse and the duties exacted on them pay the treasury handsomely. Other minority tastes in mood management, regardless of their actual harm, are without the benefit of a controlled market supply nor the advantage of common acceptance and therefore present a soft target for criminalisation with no electorally significant interest group or lobby to worry about. The government’s respective policies on drinking and drugs may follow the grain economically and culturally, but they are a crude distortion of the state’s purported obligation to legislate for the wellbeing both of individuals and wider society.
It’s not just the arbitrary distinction between legal and illegal which irritates, but the sheer lack of finesse in distinguishing between all the different stuff which does lie outside the law. Heroin and Cocaine are powerfully addictive substances, and their corrosive effect, both psychologically and physically is well documented and indisputable. But to take Brunstrom’s cue, the hazards of MDMA, the main active chemical in the Class A dance drug Ecstasy, are negligible and the sheer weight of statistics bear this out so utterly that it’s legal classification alongside the planet’s top-ranked destructive narcotics is nothing short of ludicrous.
The myths about ecstasy and illegal drugs in general are legion but it’s not my intention to trot them all out here. Nor will I repeat all the various myth-busting numbers. Martin Samuel writes an enlivening and informative piece on the subject in his Times column dated 04/01/2008
All of which tempts me onto my soapbox in defence of another illegal, although entirely natural and physically harmless substance, psilocybin, the active chemical in our very own seasonal crop of psilocybe semilanceata, the liberty cap, or magic mushroom, growing profusely as it does on the grassy uplands of Britain during the autumn months of each year.
Psilocybin has long been a Class A substance, putting it alongside Heroin and Cocaine in the league table of very bad things, but a legal loophole, allowing magic mushrooms to be sold fresh led to increasing use of the substance through it’s availability at so-called head shops, those new-age- tinged retail outlets for all things countercultural that are now a common feature on the shopping streets of the nation’s larger towns and cities.
In 2005, this loophole was closed, meaning that knowingly picking, possessing or consuming these indigenous funghi is now a criminal offence.
As a long time enthusiast of the annual mushroom harvest, I set out to put together my own multi-media tribute cum protest regarding this extraordinary natural substance. The short film which came out from this project both draws on my own experience, which is very much personal, and attempts to touch on a few social and ethical issues which deserve consideration, not only in regard to the much-maligned magic mushroom, although it is especially worthy of attention in this context, but in the wider debate about drugs policy.
My short film is viewable on YouTube in two parts:
If I Picked Them (Part 1) - The fieldwork
If I Picked Them (Part 2) - The wider issues
Given the trials and tribulations of the Scottish Socialist movement in recent years, with brother turning against brother in the feud surrounding it’s one time all conqueroring charismatic hero Tommy Sheridan, the nearest it comes to a common cause for group activity must surely be the celebration of past glories. And none could be more glorious than the Bolshevik revolution itself, whose 90th anniversary yesterday was marked by a concert night of discussion, comedy and music, organized by Edinburgh People’s Festival and held at the Stand Comedy Club.
As a willing apparatchik to the wider organisation for political and social justice, but never comfortable with the formalisms of party membership, I went along as a non-affiliated paying punter, more than happy to lend my own support to a movement increasingly isolated in the vast inhospitable and homogenous wilderness called the centre ground, but also curious to guage the morale of the far left after such a torrid year in Scottish politics.
Any such voyeurism was quickly subsumed by engagement with an evening which proved remarkably good value for money and proof that not all entertainment events organized by festival bodies within Edinburgh are charged for at eye-watering rates.
The appearance of scriptwriter and director Trevor Griffiths, a man long-time soaked in left wing politics, drama and history, provided the serious thematic core to the evening, the sermon to set the congregational mood, and if the combination of an ill-deployed microphone and less than fully well Mr Griffiths demanded especially high levels of attentiveness to get the full benefit of his discourse, it was worth the effort. Much of what he had to say was drawn from his involvement with the film Reds, a 1977 Hollywood production he co-wrote with Warren Beatty and whose finished product, despite an Oscar nominination, and due to script compromises enforced by the demands of the American cinematic mainstream, he remains ambivalent about to this day.
The stand up comedy part of the evening culminated in an excellent routine from the stirringly animated Mr Vladimir McTavish, a long established act on the scottish circuit whose non-stop barrage of observational wit and caustic satire would ignite any occasion, but it was Griffiths who, with his quietly articulated political intellectalism provided the main ballast of the proceedings. Whilst the Beatty anecdotes addressed the prurience shared by many for the world of Hollywood and it’s panoply of celebrities, it was Griffiths’ more serious general insights that remain in the mind. The Q&A format for guest speaking events of this sort featured the inevitable moment or two of ranting from the floor, and host Colin Fox, no doubt aware of his guest’s indifferent health kept the grilling short, but one question from the audience, and it’s response, bears repeating.
It was mooted that in a world where knowledge and opinion is now so controlled by the media, a media itself increasingly concentrated in the hands of a manipulative few, it was to the Internet and the World Web where attention must switch for the effective dissemination and exploration of radical thought and the mobilization of it’s adherents. Trevor Griffiths, in his modest but slightly provocative way suggested that an alternative to the online world as an agent for change might perhaps be the public library. Given the paucity of such civic amenities in modern times, and the miserable stints of enforced familiarity I associate with such places from my younger years, I would prefer to take his recommendation more figuratively. But the point he was making is nevertheless profoundly astute.
Too much of what passes as collective political impetus is based on a mutual reinforcement of a group agreement or shared values without the depth of conviction that comes from a strong personal grounding in the history and ideas behind them.
This was a call for greater inculcation through self-education. An appeal to those old-fashioned virtues of wide reading and independent thought. Only through the insight gained from deep familiarity with the issues, and the history underpinning them can individuals form together with enough legitimacy of purpose to become an effective body for political change. No revolution is possible without key knowledge that is widely shared. If knowledge is power, and knowledge is attained through studious familiarity with our institutions, our systems and the story of their development, then the goal for those who would aspire to change the world must begin with the obliteration of personal ignorance. This sounds like hard work, but who said that changing the world order would ever be as simple as a facebook full of friends.
One of today’s thornier subjects is the granting of political asylum to all those Iraqi nationals who have been employed by ourselves to act as translators or other assistants in the course of our invasion and subsequent occupation.Many hundreds of such people, and their families, now face a very real threat of death from within their country for their collusion with us. The British government is beholden to these people.
With Parliament reconvening today, Gordon Brown is expected to declare the government’s policy on this, and there should be no half measures.The moral case is clear and to fall short of unqualified assurances to every single one of these people would be yet another example of our growing tendency to drag our feet, or even act at all, on some of the less convenient obligations that result from our foreign policy. On this, as on so many issues, it is the role and duty of the people to apply pressure to the executive to discharge it’s moral responsibilities.
And morality is the crucial issue here. Because increasingly it seems, our government, the body of people who are selected by us, to act on our behalf in managing the complex functioning of society, ignores or bypasses the ethical considerations inherent in much of it’s policy and decision-making. Living as we do, by a system of economics where the creation of wealth is the ultimate guiding principle, it is the corporate sector, quite naturally, whose activities are most crucial in this wealth-creating mechanism, whose vested interests are therefore paramount and whose spokesmen consequently exert huge leverage at every level of government.
New labour, which likes to see itself as modern Britain’s natural party of government is frequently dubbed by more socialist critics, both inside and outside of the traditional labour movement, as the party of big business. But the reality is, that in a liberal market economy as committed and muscular as ours and against the wider global application of the same principles, there is little alternative, so long as the electorate are so bought into the benefits. In short, it is big business, not big Gordon, that runs UK plc.
But be that as it may, our elected government still has a crucial role in representing a moral authority that represents the decency in all of us. At this point, it’s instructive to recall the 2003 documentary “The Corporation”, in which, using an innovative conceit based on established methods for ascertaining a person’s psychological profile, the same criteria, when applied to the attitudes, actions and behaviours of the legal “person” otherwise known as a “company”, produced a paranoid and homicidal schizophrenic. So while as sane individuals we might be moral beings, capable of acting on conscience, with intrinsic abilities to empathize and co-operate beyond ourselves, such qualities disappear when acting together within a framework of operation incorporated merely for collective gain.
In other words, while the capitalist drive of the business world may well be the government’s, and thereby the country’s indispensable tool for competing successfully and prospering in the world, it’s judgement and integrity cannot be relied on in matters of plain decent morality. In this, it is us, through our governments, who must persist in maintaining this crucial indicator of our humanity.
Every week seems to bring with it a new exposure of Old Europe’s imperial or colonial legacy. At the same time the right wing British press continues to notch up popular hysteria about the uncontrolled rate of immigration.
That there is an issue with a burgeoning incoming tide of economic migration is without doubt, although the costs to Britain arising from this don’t necessarily follow the patterns or ethnicities often cited. It is a phenomenon heavily compounded by an ageing population and a dwindling public purse which is less and less able to fulfil the socially supportive obligations of the state.
And yet, as I often reflect when confronted with the subject, Britain has surely become the victim of its own success. On the one hand we have non-Europeans seeking the indulgence of the mother country or some equivalent supplication of vassalage, attempting, quite understandably, to escape the political persecutions or economic privations of a home turf which over time Britain has first laid claim to, exploited and then largely abandoned to its fate. And on the other hand, we have the populations of recently acceded but relatively poor, EU member states for whom, due to the freedom and prosperity accruing from the aforementioned exploitation, Britain stands out as perhaps the choicest venue for exercising their EU-sanctioned right to roam. It all adds up to a manifestation of that age-old biblical truism that you reap what you sow.
Of course, to acknowledge this is not to deal with the challenging practical problems thrown up by all these people, some desperate and opportunistic, but many more industrious and aspirational. But I am astonished and dismayed by the almost entire absence of such an acknowledgement.
Were such a big picture perspective of things to be made clear to the population, it might at least contribute to a more rounded discussion of constructive remedies. It might also help to counter some of the less savoury aspects of a British mentality which having driven the foreign conquests of the past, is now reluctant to concede any advantage that such an enterprising spirit brought with it. The current enthusiasm of government for celebrating Britishness not only hampers any such attempt to question it’s own values, but actually reinforces the perceived right to enjoy the manifold fruit of our enterprise, however attained historically, on the basis that such behaviour is part and parcel of what we are.
But it simply wont do to apply the same reasoning to our collective nature as does, say, Gordon Strachan in a recent interview about his nation’s football prowess. In reference to Scotland’s way of doing things in general, but of playing football in particular, he draws attention to the national trait of hurrying things. He contends that the robust “up and at ‘em” attitude is inherent in the psyche and that it will never change. It can only be adapted.
The more cynical and fatalistic among us might readily take the same attitude with regard to Britain’s sense of it’s role in the world; an established natural assumption of dominion which encourages us to participate in social and political patterns of thinking based on the supremacy of self-interest. It is, after all that very “up and at ‘em” spirit which drove our 19th Century expansionism, together with all the trade, and subsequent wealth which followed.
The Celtic manager, that most quick-witted apologist of Scottish self-deprecation, is quite right in implying that his country’s confrontational, spirited but rather hasty approach to life is cultural, in the same way that the long mealtimes and languid football typical of Spain is also cultural. He is also correct in asserting that these characteristics have much to do with the way we are brought up, because upbringing is the main conduit of our social cultural continuity. Hallmarks of national personality such as how, when and what we eat, our chosen vehicles and subjects for humour, our taste in music, and, yes, the way we play football, are all healthy expressions of our differences, passed down through all the institutions of a nation from mothers knee to the bastions of the media corporations.
If, as Strachan suggests, we are never going to change the way we do these things, it’s not simply because that’s the way we were brought up, but because there is no compelling moral or practical case to do so. But as the world changes, or more pointedly, as the consequences of it’s misuse in human hands become more acute, then certain ingrained attitudes and behaviours will simply have to change, and in ways that render any hapless appeal to our cultural mores, or the immutability of how we are brought up, null and void.