Drugs: child’s play

In today's culture, it's cool to play with drugs - while those who want to be grown-up about their leisure activities are treated with an unease previously reserved for young ravers.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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There has been a softening of attitudes towards drugs of late. And it’s not just with cannabis, either.

A recent spate of ecstasy-related deaths was covered, not with screeching tabloid headlines or get-tough postures by the UK Home Office, but in a more muted, medical tone. Even when the parents of Leah Betts, who became prominent figures in anti-drugs campaigns after their daughter’s death from ecstasy poisoning in November 1995, publicly criticised Eminem for glamorising the drug, they were virtually ignored.

Meanwhile, everywhere you look – advertisements, radio, TV programs, films, books, the internet – drug culture is staring you intently in the face. Previously, drug use was largely restricted to those who didn’t have to bother with responsibilities – rock stars, students and dropouts. But in today’s culture, where adolescence is permanently embraced, it seems that to be somebody you have to be ‘on one’. By contrast, those who want to be grown-up about their leisure activities are treated with a level of official unease previously reserved for, well, young ravers.

Look at the ongoing saga about the antiquated English licensing laws. For a few years, New Labour has promised to reform the licensing laws, and before the general election it even sent text messages to the nation’s youth promising longer pub hours. But yet again, the promised bill has been sent to the bottom of parliament’s list of priorities. Youth-dominated house clubs will quite rightly sell alcohol until the early hours – but not your local pub. Yet the Independent newspaper hasn’t campaigned for changes in the licensing laws, UK home secretary David Blunkett hasn’t called for ‘an intelligent debate’ on the matter, and the Metropolitan Police definitely won’t be ‘turning a blind eye’ to landlords serving lager after 11pm.

Instead, pubs and the ’demon drink’ are often cited as to why drugs and clubs are socially more ’acceptable’. There is a widespread belief that, compared to cannabis and ecstasy, excessive alcohol causes people to be aggressive and get into fights. Such blandly rehearsed arguments may say more about prejudices than reality, but there’s no denying the differences between the two. Whereas drugs heighten an individual’s sensory isolation, alcohol lowers our social inhibitions. It fuels conversation. It helps us get closer.

But that, it seems, is the problem. A culture that considers ‘getting closer’ to be potentially dangerous quite naturally eulogises the cushioning effects of drugs. Much has been made of MDMA’s dubiously ’empathic’ qualities (read: mawkishness), but ecstasy users really mean it makes them feel ‘safe’ and – rather ominously – ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ (1). New Labour, you feel, could almost sympathise.

The contemporary empathy with ecstasy lies in stark contrast to the bad press dogging pubs and drink. Traditionally, the high-minded have scorned public drinking as a bit uncouth, while pop counter-culturalists have viewed it as a bit uncool. After all, pubs just let any old adult in. What’s often ignored, however, is the bonding value of pubs. Unless burdened by booming PA systems, they are places where the premium is on discussion. They are places that focus our full attention on people. And they are places where CCTV cameras and bouncers aren’t quite so all-pervasive (yet). How many super clubs have that going for them?

But for some, even pubs could do with being a little less ’social’ and a lot more sedate. A few weeks ago, for instance, some establishments have reportedly banned drunken hen parties. Not only is the sound of excitement and laughter ’intimidating’ for others, but apparently the women might become ’vulnerable’ to predatory men. Are these landlords suggesting that the drink they sell is harmful? Only, of course, if it’s mixed with friends and strangers. Elsewhere, one pub’s solution to the unrest caused by kicking-out time is to play the theme-tune to the cult kid’s TV show Magic Roundabout.

There definitely has to be an overhaul of present drug laws, and the decriminalisation of all drugs remains the best way forward. But when drug campaigners suggest that we’d be much ‘nicer’ on drugs than we are after a drink, not only does it make current licensing laws seem sensible – it expects adults to act like gurning rave kids forever.

Neil Davenport is a freelance writer.

Read on:

Drugs law: deregulation or re-regulation?, by Frank Jordans

(1) Arrested Development: pop culture and the erosion of adulthood, by Andrew Calcutt. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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