A man down the pub offered me MDMA last night. I declined – politely, of course. I’ve no moral objection to drugs. I was in a pub, for heaven’s sake – a place where people go to become intoxicated. Why shouldn’t he offer me drugs? But I’ve no intention of getting bogged down in the old ‘well, alcohol is legal, why shouldn’t other drugs be?’ argument. You can debate that one amongst yourselves.
What interests me is the way there has been an absolute seismic shift in our attitudes towards drugs, drug-taking, and drug takers in the last ten years. This week’s Horizon was titled, somewhat provocatively, ‘is alcohol worse for you than ecstasy?’ The programme itself was somewhat dull – little more than a televised summary of last year’s paper in the respected medical journal The Lancet – which suggested, rather unsurprisingly to anyone with even a whisper of medical knowledge – that the current system of drugs classification is based on little more than hearsay and scaremongering.
What really caught my attention was the public reaction. Or rather, the lack of it. Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to even air something like Horizon. A decade ago, in the wake of the Leah Betts furore, it would have been controversial, to say the least. The programme received some gentle mocking in Wednesday’s Times for its ‘top of the pops’ style countdown to the most harmful drug, but no real criticism. Not even the tabloids touched it. I mean, come on – where’s the hysteria? Where’s the outrage? The BBC all but advocated the legalization of a class A drug this week, for Christ’s sake… come on! Surely that’s got to register?
Okay, so maybe you’d expect The Mail to be too busy chasing Mad Mullahs, bent traffic wardens, or whoever else their bogeyman du jour is right now. But not even The Sun went for it. They did, however, run with a front page splash about Amy Winehouse’s ongoing battle with crack cocaine. So it seems that while it’s not big news when a major, taxpayer funded institution advocates illegal drugs, prurient speculation about the self-destructive impulses of the rich and famous is still cool. In terms of attitudes, that strikes me as a big shift. Why is one big news and not the other? The answer is obvious. Drugs aren’t big news any more. But celebrity is – just as it always has been.
Why have we suddenly become so relaxed about drugs? Is it the effect of this £200 an ounce super skunk we keep hearing so much about? (Note to any journos reading this: if you paid 200 on the oz, you got ripped off.) I can’t help but wonder if it’s because taking drugs has become boring and middle class. It is, as Noel Gallagher once quipped, as ‘normal as having a cup of tea.’ If you think back to how controversial that statement was in the press at the time – and consider that’s exactly what Horizon spent an hour telling us this week – you can see just how much mainstream attitudes have changed.
Once the preserve of the very poor, the very rich, and the very dangerous, drug-taking has become, dare I say it, acceptable. Everybody knows someone who does or, at the very least, has. And society hasn’t crumbled yet. But is this complacency a good thing? Middle class dalliance means that most people – including those journalists who now shape the mainstream media – will brush with drugs but rarely see its most debilitating effects. This tends to strike those who take drugs to excess. Generally, these people are still either very poor or very rich. Either way, they’re usually pretty desperate. They’re rarely journalists.
I’m not anti-drug. I’m not pro-drug, either. I’m pro-freedom. Provided you’re not hurting anyone else, I don’t think it should be my business – or the state’s business – what you or Amy Winehouse or anyone else puts into their systems. But I am anti-complacency. I’ve seen people use ecstasy and cannabis – even heroin and crack – experimentally, without any serious long term effects. But I’ve also seen all four of those drugs destroy people’s lives. Addiction. Ill health. Insanity. All linked to one word: excess.
Some drugs, like the latter on that list, are far more likely to send people off the rails than others. But until we start treating all drugs as potentially dangerous and stop trivializing the issue with pop-culture programming like Horizon, we’ll never grow up. The nation is experimenting with drugs. Literally, and as an idea. Let’s hope we don’t push it too far.