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Legalisation of drugs in the UK
In this essay I shall try to investigate the impact that the legalisation of drugs in the UK would have on our society and culture. The argument for and against legalisation (and more recently the classification) of drugs has been openly debated since the Opium Wars in the nineteenth Century, with differing views from different groups of society. I intend to draw conclusions from what history has shown us and interpret my findings into a view of the future.
One of the most important things to identify is the difference between the certain types of drugs. In the UK drugs are legally classified into three main categories, known as Class A, B or C. These drugs are classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Class A drugs are seen as being the most harmful to the user (and arguably to society); these include heroin, methadone, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines (if prepared for injection). A conviction for possession can lead to a seven year prison sentence; a conviction for supply or intent to supply can lead to life imprisonment and a fine. The drugs categorised as Class B are still seen as highly illegal but do not seem to have the social stigma of the higher class. Class B drugs include amphetamines (in powdered form such as speed), barbiturates and codeine. A conviction for possession can lead to a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine; a conviction for supply and intent to supply could possibly see a prison sentence of up to fourteen years and a fine. Class C drugs are still seen by the law of the land to be harmful to society even though medical studies have shown that, within reason, a lot of the drugs in this classification can help the individual and in turn help society. Class C drugs include cannabis (recently reclassified from being a Class B drug), anabolic steroids and benzodiazepines (tranquillisers such as Valium and Temazepam). However, as before with the other classified drugs, possession is still frowned upon and a conviction of possession could result in a maximum of two years in prison; and the legal system still identifies anyone supplying or intending to supply these drugs as a menace to society and the maximum prison sentence has increased to fourteen years and a fine.
It is an interesting scenario that the UK finds itself in regarding drugs, and the legalisation of drugs. There is an unambiguous black and white ruling when it comes to defining the legality of drugs (narcotics) in this country; they are illegal to possess and illegal to supply. I would like to go into great depths on the subjectivism of drugs within society but I shall focus on just one drug for this argument; cannabis. On 29 January 2004 cannabis was reclassified from a Class B drug to a Class C drug. However, Alan Buffry of the pro-legalisation action group the Legalise Cannabis Alliance states that this reclassification has clearly failed; the government’s approach of saying that cannabis is less dangerous than previously thought and reducing the maximum sentences for possession is offset against an increase in the maximum sentences for anyone growing or supplying the drug so that the penalty is actually equal to the Class B category that it was reclassified from. This confusion is widespread throughout the country. It is not hard to see why people are confused over the reclassification, and it is evident to see why people feel that the government are controlling something that many people believe should be up to the choice of the individual. This is when the questions of society and choice arise. How can something as natural as cannabis be illegal in one country and openly available in another? What makes one society accept something that another rejects? A typical argument is the one about alcohol; why is it socially acceptable (for adults) to consume a legal substance that is harmful to their bodies and, if too much is consumed, becomes a social problem that regularly demands policing?
This argument is fuelled by the inconsistencies not only of the government but of the medical profession as well. In the London Evening Standard, journalist Isabel Oakeshot raised this question of inconsistency in her article about the legalisation of drugs. She reported that at a time when the head of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Professor Robin Murray, stated that cannabis is already a leading cause of psychosis in the UK, the British Medical Association is backing radical moves to make illegal drugs including heroin and cocaine available from authorised government outlets. These contrary viewpoints highlight the problems of this sensitive issue; if the medical professionals and elected government cannot agree on the best course of action should it not be left up to the individual to decide?
Drugs in Art
One of the major arguments for the legalisation of certain drugs is the influence that the drug has on art, or more specifically the effect that the drug has on the artist. This is not an entirely new idea but one that runs concurrently with art movements of any era. Possibly the most easily identifiable examples were the calls to legalise cannabis to a background of reggae music in the 1970’s (led by the iconic symbol of a Bob Marley poster on almost every students’ bedroom wall) and the ‘make love not war’ sentiments of LSD-users in the 1960’s. There have been many more examples through history and up to the current era; the late 1980’s and early 1990’s seeing the introduction of the chemical drug ecstasy (MDMA) that was the driving force behind the new subculture of raves and house music. There is an obvious link between drug culture and music culture, but that is not the only example where the two ingredients mix to form a hybrid culture. One of the greatest painters of all time experimented with an alcoholic drink that was used as a hallucinogenic. Vincent van Gogh was well known to sample the potent delight of absinthe; some art critics say that it was the effects of absinthe that might have shaped van Gogh's art, for instance by causing him to hallucinate the halos and auroras that often surround light sources in his paintings. Whether this is truly the case is impossible to verify, but the fact remains that van Gogh combined the drug (absinthe) and the art (painting) to create some of the most famous works in the history of art.
Although the fine arts and music steal the limelight for active combination of art and drugs, literature has also blossomed from the experimentation of a number of influential authors, poets and playwrights. In contemporary terms there have been the books written by Howard Marks (Mr Nice), Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Robert Sabbag (Smokescreen), but the tradition of writers wishing to free their minds from the constraints of everyday life goes further back than the 1970’s.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire in 1772. He was a poet, critic, writer and philosopher. Working alongside fellow poet William Wordsworth, their collection of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798 and marked the beginning of the English Romantic Movement. His poetry introduced a soft, beautiful style of writing that was appreciated by his peers and the public of the time. However, Coleridge suffered from neuralgic and rheumatic pains, and had become addicted to opium. This dependency on opium was at a time when Coleridge was at his most vulnerable. After contemplating suicide he decided to continue writing and penned one of his most famous poems in 1797 and published in 1816; Kubla Khan. The poem describes in whimsical detail the palace of Xanadu and opens with an enigmatic but precise description of an emperor's pleasure dome located in an enchanted land (as demonstrated here in the first five lines):
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
The poem is perhaps one of the greatest fantasy works ever written and it is documented that Coleridge proudly admits that it was inspired by a vision brought on by an opium induced dream. In 1817 Coleridge devoted himself to theological and politico-sociological works and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824. This is an astonishing feat by a man who in today’s society would be labelled a drug-addicted, common criminal.
Another writer intrinsically linked with drug culture is Aldous Huxley. Born in Surrey in 1894, Huxley will perhaps be best remembered for his novel Brave New World (1932) in which he wrote about a future where ‘World Controllers’ had created the ideal society through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing, recreational sex and drugs for all its members to become happy consumers. Considering this was written over seventy years ago it seems somewhat disturbing how poignant his predictions have been. But his views on society changed in his later years and a friendship with the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1953 led to Huxley experimenting with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. After this period of experimentation Huxley wrote Island (1962). This was the contradictory novel to his previous Brave New World. Whereas his 1932 book demonstrated a dystopian society, Island revelled in a brave, new utopia; drug use for enlightenment, and self-knowledge and not pacification; a trance induced state afforded the individual to ‘super-learning’ and not indoctrination; and sex became expressive and not meaningless.
Huxley’s investigation into hallucinogenic drugs afforded him the ability to look at the world that surrounded him in a totally different way than he had previously. It is no coincidence that his new outlook on life coincided with the hippie movement of the 1960’s; a period of mass social change that asked individuals to look into themselves and recognise that the problems of the world should be faced head on and rectified. It was a time of free love, but at the same time social change and human protest. There was a sense of intense optimism that could be associated with the psychological effects of LSD. Huxley was a great writer before he took mescaline, and he was a great writer afterwards. The fact is that the drug did not hinder (or improve) his literary talents but influenced his perception on life in a positive, optimistic manner.
It is still an absorbing argument whether or not to legalise drugs in the UK. If it was solely up to each individual to choose there would be anarchy. As such the government must make a consistent, well researched decision and stick to it by enforcing the law. Unfortunately this means that the freedom of choice of 60 million people in the UK is decided for them by a handful of civil servants. Individual cases will be ignored in favour of a mass decision. However, research and consistency is not something that the current government seems able to adhere to. This is apparent in the debacle of the reclassification of cannabis wherein the classification changed but nothing much else did.
The argument that some drugs can improve society (as in the cases of art, music, literature, etc) is often shouted from the rooftops of universities and colleges around the UK, but falls on deaf ears in the workplace and suburbia. The biggest flaw to this particular pro-legalisation attitude is the fact that only a small amount of people will agree that all drugs should be legalised. Some people will agree that some drugs should be legalised; but most people will agree that most drugs should still be banned. It is all very well blaming the government for not being consistent, but you can excuse them when you realise that the whole nation is just as inconsistent on this subject matter.
In conclusion; if the question is “should drugs be legalised in the UK?” I would personally answer that they should not be legalised. If the question is “should some drugs be legalised in the UK?” then I would answer that they should. I would point out that if cannabis can inspire music, opium can enthuse literature and LSD can instigate revolution then the world would be a better place where people would work together “…to make the best of all the worlds – the worlds already realized within the various cultures, and beyond them, and the worlds of still unrealized potentialities."
- Breunesse, Caroline (1997) Visiting van Gogh Prestel Publishing
- Buffry, Alan (2004) The Essential Question About Drugs London Evening Standard (23 November 2004)
- Cole, M. (2003) The Analysis of Controlled Substances: A Systematic Approach John Wiley and Sons Ltd
- Grunenberg, Christophe (2005) Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era Tate
- Huxley, Aldous (1962) Island Harpercollins
- Oakeshot, Isabel (2003) Doctors in Radical Call to Legalise All Drugs London Evening Standard (2 July 2003)
- Perry, Seamus (2004) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Oxford University Press