Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
A while ago I wrote in this column that the only redeeming thing I had ever heard about Mo Mowlam was that the Ulster Unionists couldn't stand her. Since then, three other slightly mitigating facts have emerged about her.
Firstly it appears that Tony Blair and his coterie of 'men in the dark' also dislike her, which has to be a point in her favour. Secondly she took cannabis when a student, and thirdly she admits to doing so, although needless to say she didn't enjoy it.
Actually, with all this lack of enjoyment, you can't help wondering why the drug ever became popular at all. The 1960s apparently spawned a drug that wasted your money, and depressed and bored you, but hey, if you can remember that, you weren't there--you were too busy getting miserably high.
I know all this is not much to go on, but by squeaky clean New Labour standards it borders on something human. Take Jack Straw, happily going about his day to day work, abolishing juries, freeing mass murdering dictators, launching wars on the poor and vulnerable with drug tsars and homeless tsars, and the like. Jack can apparently do all this rotten work without having to resort to any form of drug whatsoever. Where you or I might need a blast of something mighty powerful if we'd spent the day kicking the homeless about the pavement, Jack gets his buzz from the kicking itself. Jack is very proud of his drug free youth, and is now in favour of drug testing anyone arrested for serious crime--just to punish them that bit more, I suppose.
Nor is Jack alone. One of the saddest, albeit funniest, sights I have seen recently was Clare Short on Question Time. The question of drugs came up, and Clare just lost the plot. She went on a meander not dissimilar to one someone would go on if they had just smoked two big joints. Clare, you may remember, had somewhat blotted her copybook in the past by calling for a royal commission on drugs. This moderate call had unleashed the full force of wrath of the squeaky clean Blairista, who would probably prefer a royal commission on the culling of the children of the poor to risking tabloid wrath by trying to deal seriously with the drugs question.
So Clare explained that she had to be very careful because in the past all she'd done was call for a commission made up of retired bishops and retired policemen to look at the question. Well, her original call had not been about bishops and policemen, but never mind. Clare obviously thought that this gave her original call a new found measure of respectability.
Personally, I can hardly think of two less appropriate or more ill informed sources on the question of drugs than bishops and cops. My father is a retired policeman. I remember him once back in the 1970s threatening me with prison or worse because my brother and I lit some joss sticks (embarrassing, I know, but we were victims of our time). Once we had finally convinced him (we took him in uniform into the shop while we bought them), he would wander round the house cursing the stink of joss sticks whilst my brother and I puffed happily on a joint in the sitting room. Somehow I don't think he'd be much use on a drugs commission. As for retired bishops, I can't help feeling even the most happy-clappy of them get that way on a natural high and a large dose of illusion.
Still, at least Clare was saying something on the question. Or was she? Well, no--actually, like St Paul, Clare had had a blinding conversion. She no longer wanted a commission, not even one with ageing bishops, cops and Barbara Cartland, for she had seen the light in the form of drugs tsar Keith Hellawell. He is, according to Clare, a wonderful man, and he's 'been all around the world', she gushed. Indeed, the tough Birmingham politician gushed so much she began to sound like a schoolgirl discussing her latest crush.
So brave Clare also abandons the field, and joins the massed ranks of parliamentary politicians who believe that repeating the mantra, 'Just say no,' is the politically safe thing to do. Here is an important difference from the past. Unlike 20 or even ten years ago, parliament is now packed with people who must have smoked dope, or at the very least had a number of friends who did so. When the Colonel Bufton Tuftons of the past said things like one joint and you're an addict, or if you smoked 'pot' on Monday you'd be on heroin by Friday, they probably believed it. Today's politicians know that's all crap, yet hardly one will speak out.
So we are still going down a road in which people who take a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol are acting illegally at one end, while at the other end people desperately in need of help are treated as criminals and left exposed to disease, crime and ruin.
In the middle come the totally useless campaigns against youngsters taking what are known as 'leisure drugs'. The death of Leah Betts was tragic, but every raver with even a little knowledge is able to tell you that as many people die from a peanut allergy as from taking E. The campaigns that try to tell them they are dicing with death simply don't work, as every week they and the hundreds of others in the club they were in come home safely, with no major side effects.
None of this is to say that drug taking isn't (depending on the drug) harmful, that some drugs aren't habit forming or addictive, that they can't impoverish you and wreck your life, but the truth is that none of these things happen to the vast majority of users. As for the damaged minority, they can never really be helped as long as spineless Blairites and Tory tossers just keep shouting about a war on drugs, and urging the rest of us just to say no.
It appears that a war on political cowardice and opportunism is the vital prerequisite to an effective drugs policy.