Tuesday, 18 June 2013 12:50

Crazy Laws Make People Crazy

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This no rant mind you. But some laws do nobody good and cause terrible harm to our whole community. What we have seen recently with the developments in the new breed of drugs - chemically constructed which are "said" to mimic the likes of cannabis, amphetamines, hallucinogens and opiates. Again, it is "said" that the original intoxicant of, say cannabis, is "altered" so that the chemical no longer fits within the clearly defined laws which prohibit cannabis and other drugs.

All of this "said"ing is done over the counter near the supermarket. No chemical analysis is printed on the packet as with Corn Flakes. And reports from major hospitals are that these new drugs are causing a significant spike in presentations with drug-induced psychosis.

For over 20 years I have been involved, as a registered nurse, in alcohol and other drugs (AOD). As a nurse specialist I was a member of a forum comprised of medical specialists, academics and other senior professionals working in the AOD field. I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, yet the consensus of the forum at the time (2000-2004) was that the laws governing the use/abuse of alcohol and other drugs left a great deal to be desired.

The recent debate over the new phenomenon of manufactured, legal drugs has caused the issue of the cost and benefits of drug illegality to flare up. And the same old usual response has been taken by politicians. Ban these drugs and drive them back into the hands of illegal dealers and crime rings.

What purpose does this serve? Lets first take a historical look at prohibition.

The common reference most people have to prohibition is the period in the 1920-30s when alcohol was prohibited in the US and a few other places. Prohibition was enacted with difficulty due to the vested interests in maintaining the status quo of business. The Temperance Societies were the prime movers behind prohibition due to the frequency and severity of intoxication and the amount of violence and crime that was associated with the open use of alcohol (sound familiar?). Despite the heavy hand of law enforcement, alcohol consumption continued to flourish, but producers of alcoholic drinks became outlaws – criminals according to the legislature!

This created an impasse as many people continued to enjoy their drink, including legislators and law enforcement professionals. Drunkenness became a greater problem than it had been before prohibition and gang wars flared along with corruption of law enforcement officers. Despite the great efforts of ‘gang buster’ officers, eventually the laws were seen as destructive and not serving the purpose for which they were enacted. So the Prohibition laws were repealed and alcohol became subject to greater regulation.

The effect of regulation had a modifying impact which reduced the harms being done to individuals, families and the community. We may note in this recent decade the reduction of such regulation as closing hours, for example, has led to a major flare up of violent behaviours and criminal damage being committed by intoxicated people once again. We have come full circle.

Currently, our laws pertaining to cannabis etc have had little impact on the use of ‘illegal’ drugs. Research released in medical journals and from top level AOD scientific bodies have shown a consistent level of cannabis use at around 20% across age groups from 18-25 and 25-40 year olds. It seems that many people are prepared to consider the law inappropriate and wish to enjoy their drug of choice.

While cannabis can precipitate an underlying psychosis, it generally causes some damage to the lungs as a carcinogen, apathy, lack of motivation (amotivational syndrome) and there are some indicators that cannabis may have some contribution to heart disease.

Alcohol on the other hand is a major factor in heart disease, liver damage and cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach and bowel. It has been understood for many years that brain damage occurs with even moderate drinkers. Also the link with violence, domestic violence, marital disharmony and divorce, child abuse, criminal damage, theft (in order to pay for alcohol) and many other antisocial conduct problems has long been well established. Long term damage, as I have seen professionally, is severe. The lives of many that I have nursed is utterly miserable and heart-breaking.

In 1985 the World Health Organisation of the United Nations did a comparative study of drugs which cause dependence. They made a list of the most dangerous drugs ranked by severity of damage. Guess what! Alcohol ranked number 1 due to the widespread harms caused. Cannabis ranked number 6 while opiates such as heroin (the most dependence inducing of all drugs) ranked number 10 of 10. According to the discussion, heroin was included in the list simply because it was illegal and the harms associated with its illegality, criminalisation and imprisonment, were considered severe. Yet still nowhere as severe as the two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

So we return to the question of the purpose of keeping cannabis and other drugs illegal. As a nurse in the prison system, I came to understand how important it was to keep up a regular flow of inmates. I won’t go into my observations and conclusions, however I will say that the prison system could not survive without the illegality of drugs. Some large businesses would have to pay employees to do the work of inmates and so they would be less profitable.

Keeping drugs illegal also helps some small sections of the community to be empowered. Some of these hire lobbyists to ensure continued illegality. This also gives some politicians a moral high ground on which to stand in order to say they are “doing something” about crime.

Now we have recently had an explosion of synthesised drugs. Chemicals created specifically to mimic the effects of much softer, less harmful drugs, such as cannabis. The result has been a severe increase in drug induced psychosis and one death that we know of from severe hallucinations or delirium. These drugs would not have come about had cannabis, opiates and amphetamine-type stimulants been legally available and governed by regulated supply.

We have recently compounded the problems associated with these drugs by making them illegal. These drugs will not go away, but they will now be sold at exorbitant prices. There are no long term health issues identified with these manufactured drugs as yet because they have been available for such a short time that research  into medium and long term impacts have yet to be done. But I feel confident that over a decade or two we will find that these are far worse than the drugs that they are made to mimic.

I have seen 18 year olds come into prison for drug offences with no other prior convictions or suggestions of criminal conduct. Some of these do well as they enter a milieu which takes advantage of their innocence. Some of these go on to thrive and become real criminals. All because the drug that they ‘experimented’ with was illegal.

I have also seen some of these young people become desperate or profoundly depressed. I have had to try to prevent some from killing themselves because of the effects of their imprisonment. Sometimes I have failed.  All because the drug that they ‘experimented’ with was illegal.

It is not enough to say “well they shouldn’t have taken those drugs in the first place”. The teenage years are developmentally a period of experimentation and challenging the boundaries of elders. People will try most things when they are young. It helps them to determine what is good and what is not good for themselves. This is an important step in the development of adult thinking.

It is also insufficient to leave this argument of mine hanging in the air without suggesting how this could be changed to remediate the damage done by drugs and their illegality.

The answer to this is brief. Legalisation, regulation and taxation! Through regulation, as with alcohol, a drug can be better controlled. This includes the source of the drug, its purity (many amphetamine type drugs are contaminated with horrible toxins which can cause serious harm) and how it is marketed/sold.

Taking a drug away from criminal suppliers also removes the link that often means that a buyer of cannabis may eventually try other, more harmful drugs. Enabling a regulated supply via legally controlled outlets also means that the quantity of drug availability can be controlled.

Allow a slightly smaller quantity to be available, yet sufficient to negate the need for unregulated supply (illicit dealers), and less will be consumed. If the drug is supplied legally, at a reasonable taxed cost, then no criminal blackmarket will become involved.

We have created this current problem of synthetic drugs through our own laws of prohibition. These laws have never had any positive impact. Nor has law enforcement been able to curtail either the importation, production or supply of drugs substantially or significantly for any extended period of time.

Finally, a brief note: - the debate over legalisation of heroin revealed some interesting results in the prisons where I worked. It was the one discussion where both major criminals and prison officers were in agreement. Neither wants drugs to be legalised or regulated. It would be the undoing of both the criminal and the prison industries!


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