The drugs debate is one which is consistently marred with misinformation and poor research. I would like to comment on a recent feature titled “An injection of common sense?” to show how this lack of research can lead to undesired results. The article highlighted some very important issues and had a sensible anti-reactionary message, arguing that recreational drug use, though existent, is not a huge cause for concern at the University of Sussex. However it was disappointing to note that as another instance of this endemic lack of research, it ended up unintentionally supporting and engaging in some of the conservative rhetoric and attitudes which I assume it sought to oppose.
The author’s welcome call for a calm and mature response towards drug use was somewhat undermined by the unwitting employment of similar practices to the tabloid press. The article referred to a 2006 report by the International Centre for Drug Policy (ICDP) accompanied by a BBC article which dubbed Brighton the “drugs death capital of the UK”. The ICDP has in fact released an updated version of this study and whilst it shows that Brighton still has the highest rate of drugs deaths in the UK, it is important to note that this actually has little implication for the University of Sussex and the type of drug use which the rest of the article refers to.
It shows that heroin, methadone and sedatives accounted for 60 deaths whereas cocaine, ecstasy (and similar substances) and amphetamines (recreational drugs which the article refers to) accounted for just 5; an unremarkable number when compared with similar sized cities. What the author says then, is not exactly wrong, it is simply irrelevant to the topic at hand. Drug deaths from opiates and sedatives have little or no bearing on either Sussex’s students or its apparent bohemian reputation. This conflation of recreational and chronic drug use obscures the issue at hand and is misleadingly alarmist. This is somewhat at odds with the message which the article for the most part conveys.
Furthermore the article seemed to endorse the governmental campaign FRANK. This recommendation was in the context of a sensible warning about the potential danger of obtaining information from unreliable sources which is why it was somewhat ironic. Although its relatively open attitude is welcome and it offers some useful information, the author’s implication that FRANK can educate students so that they might become “fully aware of the risks involved” is dubious. Danny Kushlick is director and founder of Transform, a UK charity with special consultative status at the UN which campaigns for drugs policy reform. He criticised the campaign for its disproportionate focus on the penalties for drug crimes.
Further, he argued that even this information was misleading; the website lists the sentence for the supplying of cocaine as life imprisonment, which, whilst theoretically possible is realistically implausible. He points out that even major traffickers do not receive such harsh sentences and the campaign of course is hardly aimed at big suppliers; it is aimed at teenagers. The assertion that “supplying… your friends, can get you life and an unlimited fine” (without any indication of a more likely sentence) is quite simply scaremongering. But this focus on the punitive reveals a deeper problem with FRANK; it simply ignores harm reduction.
Though on the surface aiming to appear otherwise, substantively the campaign takes an ideological approach rather than a pragmatic one. Instead of recognising the fact that many youths will experiment with drugs and offering advice to minimise the harm which will inevitably effect many, it ignores this valuable opportunity. Though there are small snippets of advice on some of the pages, these are few and far between and are not highlighted by having their own section. This unpragmatic approach hinges upon an underlying conservatism; the abstract notion that one should not be taking drugs in the first place. Worryingly, whilst it mentions the risks of HIV and hepatitis on the heroin page, there is no mention of needle exchange schemes. In implying that this campaign is a reliable source of information the author inadvertently weakens his balanced approach by supporting what I believe is, despite appearances, essentially a regressive organisation.
The article raised many important and sound points but was let down by the perennial lack of research which undermines arguments on all sides of the debate. Through this, it contradicted itself by supporting and engaging in similar tactics to those which its author presumably opposes. The accompanying picture (which was probably not chosen by the author) perhaps best captures the pervading irony; it displays heroin use which is wholly incongruous with a piece not only about recreational drug use, but about an anti-reactionary and calm response to its existence.