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Drugs, Socialists and Morality: A Rejoinder

Richard Price

JIM DYE’S article, "Drugs in Capitalist Society: A Marxist Response" (What Next? No.9) has the merit of encouraging a debate on such a central feature of youth culture. If the left discusses the issue of drugs at all, it is usually to the accompaniment of the sound of knees jerking. Indeed the left has generally either ignored drugs as a subject, or restricted itself to issuing the odd call to forsake the sins of the flesh in favour of the true comradeship of the class struggle. Here and there, a few groups have called for general legalisation, running counter to the puritan approach of much of the left, and more recently it has become much easier to argue for the legalisation of cannabis, when establishment figures and even a national newspaper – The Independent – are making the running.

Good intentions don’t necessarily add up to good politics, however. Jim clearly wants to steer a course between the Militant/Socialist Party tradition of "just saying no" and what he sees as the petty bourgeois liberalism of Workers Power. But his reasoning is at times woolly, and his conclusions contradictory. Having warned against the idea of a specific "communist morality", he appears to use just such a yardstick, and attempts to find a precedent for it in Leon Trotsky and Jim Larkin.

First of all, where does Jim stand on the issue of legalisation? In fact, you have to read between the lines of his article to find out – and even then you’re not sure. On cannabis, for instance, Jim describes Militant’s campaign against its use as "counter-productive" and "reactionary", and notes that the Socialist Party’s shift of line towards legalisation was the result of internal pressure from "more realistic" youth members. If this sounds like support for legalisation, Jim levels it off with an attack upon the view "that drug taking can be both condoned and encouraged by workers’ organisations", and a call for Marxists to be "in the front line against drug abuse".

Instead of legalisation, Jim proposes that "drug users, as victims of the trade in drugs, should not be criminalised by the state". Decriminalisation, as opposed to legalisation, normally means that anti-drug laws remain on the statute book, but that the police do not prosecute in cases of possession of relatively small quantities for personal consumption, as is the case in a few European cities. The problem with this approach is that it leaves the ultimate decision as to whether the user is prosecuted to the police and the government of the day. Not only can governments and guidelines change, but – as is the case with cannabis possession in Britain today – it leads to wildly different standards in different areas.

One of the biggest problems with the article is that it uses terms like "drug use", "drug abuse" and "drug taking" interchangeably, and repeatedly links them to addiction and what it terms "anti-social behaviour within the working class". Indeed, Jim only seems to recognise two forms of drug-related behaviour: relatively benign (albeit illegal) dope smoking, which Jim wants the left to neither condone nor condemn (if I have understood him correctly) – and heroin addiction, which he proposes to fight by all means necessary.

I for one have few illusions about the effects of heroin, having worked for nearly a decade in a public office regularly visited by smack addicts. I am aware that addiction frequently is accompanied by violent anti-social behaviour, and that heroin use among the young has been on the increase, partly as a result of its relative purity and its falling price. But despite the worrying upward trend of heroin use, it represents – thankfully – only a small proportion of drug use in Britain today.

Therefore it is not clear what much of the article has to do with the hundreds of thousands of young people who take other drugs recreationally. Jim writes: "Whilst it is true that drugs such as cannabis [?] have few harmful effects, and are physically non-addictive, this cannot be said for many of the other, addictive, drugs [?] that are available." At the risk of being accused of "condoning drug abuse", I think such an approach actually serves to alienate young people, who are a good deal more sophisticated than this allows for.

For a start, there are not many different types of widely available, non-prescription, illegal drugs. According to one widely quoted statistic, up to 500,000 people take the non-addictive dance drug ecstasy on the weekend. Of the other drugs widely available on the dance scene, LSD (acid) is non-addictive, while amphetamine (speed) and cocaine are addictive only after sustained use. Esoteric substances like ketamine are not widely available. Poly-drug use – the use of relatively small amounts of several different drugs – is increasingly common, and while that may carry specific health dangers, it does not support the idea of widespread addiction.

The vast majority of those who use such drugs are young working class people, holding down jobs, and taking drugs recreationally, from once a week to once a month. Such people see a gulf separating themselves from the squalid world of crackheads and the nightmare of smack addiction. Matthew Collin, in his book Altered State, describes as a watershed the revulsion and sense of betrayal felt by clubbers when it was revealed in 1991 that Shaun Ryder of "Madchester’s" Happy Mondays was on heroin.1 While this says something about the potency of the Shangri-la myth of early acid house, it also carries a positive message that heroin has remained off-limits for the vast majority of the chemical generation. If the left approaches this generation with horror stories of addiction, instead of clear health advice and information, it will fail. After all, people who have not been convinced by their parents warning that "just one pill can kill" and that any drug use leads directly to Trainspotting-style addiction, are hardly going to be more responsive when their local leftie gives out the same message. You simply cannot build bridges to young people, who take drugs usually in a euphoric and social setting, by telling them that their behaviour is anti-social.

Jim continues: "Simply because we realise that illegality does not stop the use of dangerous addictive drugs, does that mean we should call for legalising all drugs? No! This position would be the greatest folly we could commit on this issue." Jim goes on to compare legalising drugs with legalising prostitution, to which he is equally opposed. In both cases, he argues, legalisation would signal approval; the state would become a drug dealer and a pimp.

But this limping analogy and its conclusion are manifestly false and lead directly into the kind of moralism which Jim has told us he aims to avoid. In fact, there are a large range of activities which either are, or ought to be legal, which have neither social nor socialist approval. Most of us find hard-core sado-masochistic sexual acts a less than perfect way of relating to fellow human beings. Nevertheless, any decent liberal, never mind a socialist, should have opposed the persecution of the defendants in the notorious "Spanner" conspiracy trial. Nor does opposition to censorship signify approval for the range of violent and pornographic material available on video.

As regards prostitution, Jim is just plain wrong. Socialists certainly should be for the abolition all those laws which sustain the endless cat and mouse arrests of prostitutes. While prostitution is not in itself illegal, most methods of pursuing it are, as they are hedged in by laws on soliciting, allowing premises to be used for the purposes of prostitution, living off immoral earnings, etc. This results in the endless harassment of prostitutes, and sustains the violent rule of pimps, whose activities are part and parcel of the trade’s illegality. Women in such circumstances are victims, and we must be resolutely opposed to their harassment, no matter what the moral climate. Repealing these reactionary and repressive laws would result in legalisation, at least by default. Does that amount to approving of prostitution? The question is not worthy of an answer.

Let us return to the question of "anti-social behaviour". The prevailing climate of Tory rule inhibited most serious research into drug use during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, and the declaration of a "war on drugs" by the Blair government seems unlikely to alter that very much. It is nonetheless necessary to base provisional conclusions on such statistics as are available – even though they are often the result of inadequately funded and therefore limited research.

One of the results has been that public education and debate about drugs has been conducted at a very low level. It seems useful to start with some facts, or at least some informed guesses, about the parameters of drug use today.

Almost all surveys show that drug taking in Britain has risen steadily in the past decade, and involves ever widening groups of predominantly, although far from exclusively, young people. According to the 1996 British Crime Survey, nearly one in six young people takes illegal drugs on a regular basis.2 Other sources claim that 70 per cent of young people over 14 have tried drugs, with 25 per cent becoming regular users,3 and that 40 per cent of teenage girls have tried drugs by the age of 16.4 An NOP poll of 1,000 girls aged 11-18 found that a quarter had used drugs.5 British teenagers are more likely to take drugs than most of their European counterparts. A study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that recorded levels of drug use were up to five times higher than other European countries. According to the report, 35 per cent of British teenagers regularly smoke cannabis, compared to 25.7 per cent in France and 21 per cent in Germany.6 At opposite ends of the female magazine market, Sugar found that a third of teenage girls had taken drugs,7 while a survey of drug use among Cosmopolitan readers found that 85 per cent owned up.8

The high level of such estimates are supported by research looking at the economic activity they represent. The illegal drugs market may be worth as much as £9.9 billion per year – 2.5 per cent of GDP – and is probably the biggest illegal economic activity in Britain. It also represents up to 2.5 per cent of all consumer spending. Spending by recreational users has been estimated at £1 billion on cannabis, £208 million on amphetamines, £135 million on cocaine and £125 million on ecstasy.9 One source puts business connected with drugs as the third largest "industry" on a world scale.10

These statistics don’t sit very happily with the usual stereotypes of drug use – City traders high on coke; people shooting up smack in squalid tenements; stoned old hippies. In fact, all the evidence suggests that drug use has percolated throughout society. While who uses which drugs may vary between different areas and be affected by economic factors, drug use cannot be easily attributed to any particular class. Research carried out by Glasgow University found that among 11-12 year olds, the children of well-heeled professionals were nearly twice as likely to have tried drugs as those of manual workers.11 Over 10 per cent of pupils at top independent schools admitted drug use.12 This however suggests simple economic opportunity, and there is little hard evidence for the social breakdown of those over 18. The proportion of young women among drug users seems to have risen.13 Drugs are no longer mainly a phenomenon of big urban areas, and are widely available in smaller towns and even rural areas like the south-west.

These facts ought to underline that drugs are all around us and drug use cannot be easily attributed to some clearly defined social grouping of "other people" – moral degenerates, hapless victims, lumpens and bohemians.

It is all too easy for Marxists to react by throwing up their hands in horror at what Jim calls a "caustic poison that eats away at the social bonds between workers". This confuses effect for cause, and lacks precisely the historical perspective which Jim promises to supply. Drawing examples from the Peasants’ Revolt, Ireland before the First World War, and the Russian Revolution, Jim reminds us that: "All revolutionary events are marked by the emergence of a strict code of revolutionary morality that acts as the basis for discipline and unity in action."

But the examples he gives have – sadly – little direct relevance to today. Jim Larkin was particularly concerned that Dublin workers should not drink their wages on pay day and leave their families destitute. But this was at a time when most men had families by their mid-twenties. Clearly this is hardly comparable to the situation of most young people out on the weekend today. Nor are we – regrettably – in the midst of great revolutionary events, and the discipline which becomes necessary in a civil war or a revolution is impractical in the here and now.

The question of Marxists advocating a specific personal morality is itself dubious. The class morality of a picket line is clear enough. Marxists also have a duty to oppose oppressive racist and sexist behaviour. But once Marxists appoint themselves the guardians of every aspect of personal morality, they run the risk of looking ridiculous or worse. The record of the far left on this score is far from edifying. There have been several groups on the left which have made it a condition of membership that members must report who they have sexual relationships with. There have been at least three international "Trotskyist" tendencies whose chief guru has decided – no doubt in the interests of "the movement" – that the organisation should operate as his personal harem. Gerry Healy’s former hatchet person in chief, Sheila Torrance, took upon herself the role of poking her nose into every aspect of WRP members’ private lives, attempting to break up what she saw as "opportunist relationships", while justifying Healy’s grotesque and oppressive attitude towards women members on the grounds that he had given years of service to the revolutionary movement.

In addition to hypocrites and morality police, the revolutionary movement has also suffered from too many aggressive drunks on the one hand, and temperance fanatics on the other. Perhaps the left should put its own house in order, before prescribing codes of behaviour for the working class. Of course, every serious militant needs to be in command of his or her faculties when on duty in the class struggle. But groups which conduct every aspect of their activity on a war footing inevitably become crazed sects inhabited by the lonely, the socially inadequate and the messianic.

A historical materialist approach to drugs would begin by recognising that, far from being a recent factor of bourgeois oppression, drugs have been taken throughout human history. For those who can struggle through its counter-culture utopianism, Terence McKenna’s book, Food of the Gods14 offers a fascinating history of hallucinogenics. He argues for their centrality in most societies from primitive agriculture onwards, and that their suppression took place at the hand of "dominator" (i.e. class) societies, which replaced them with other drugs – especially alcohol – which were depressants rather than stimulants. He sees distilled alcohol – both addictive and deadening to the senses – as the pre-eminent drug of developing capitalism. Indeed, the clamour against stimulants, while much more dangerous depressants are officially tolerated and encouraged, echoes down to today, and it is not necessary to sign up to McKenna’s world view to recognise he is on to something.

Every age since the sixteenth century has had its drug enthusiasms. No less a historical authority than the late Fernand Braudel wrote that: "In reality every civilisation needs dietary luxuries and stimulants. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the craze was for spices and pepper; in the sixteenth century for alcohol; then it was tea and coffee, not to mention tobacco. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were destined to have new luxuries of their own, their good and evil drugs."15 Opiates became widely used among sections of the intelligentsia in Western Europe from the early nineteenth century onwards, while synthetics such as cocaine and heroin made their appearance in the second half of the century. A recent history of New York low life emphasises that: "A sort of historical amnesia governs the popular view of the use of drugs, making it seem like a recent phenomenon and obliterating its deep roots in American culture. Drugs came into American life in a substantial way at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Boston-based traders broke the monopoly on opium exportation that had formerly been held by the British Levant Company out of Anatolia, Turkey, and the British East India Company out of China."16

While recognition of the long-standing nature of drug use isn’t a cause for complacency, it should enable us to avoid surrendering to hysteria. The health risks involved in drug taking – which the current climate is obscuring rather than illuminating – must also been seen in perspective. There are no very reliable statistics, for instance, for deaths from ecstasy. One estimate puts the number of fatalities at 60-70 for the decade to 1997.17 Another group of "experts" puts the figure higher, at perhaps 20 per year.18 Although there will probably have been other deaths not correctly attributed to an adverse reaction to ecstasy, some of those included are likely to have more attributable to contaminated amphetamine taken with ecstasy. It is not hard to have at least some sympathy for the father of one young man jailed for a drug offence, who wrote to the press contrasting the fact that "only nine people died last year [1996] from reactions to ecstasy. Forty thousand people died from the effects of alcohol".19 Some 330,000 deaths in the ten years to 1997 are attributable to alcohol, including 10 drink-driving deaths per week.20 The comparable figure for premature deaths attributable to tobacco is well over a million.

If we consider the periodic hysteria which has arisen over ecstasy, it has much more basis in the need to socially control young people than it has in scientific fact. The dangers involved in ecstasy have not been proven to be any greater – and are probably less – than they are for adverse reactions to over-the-counter medicines such as pain killers. As for prescribed drugs, even the Medical Defence Union acknowledges 35 deaths between 1990 and 1996 as a result of errors made by doctors in prescribing medicines.21 If this sounds suspiciously low, a survey carried out in the United States found that up to 2.2 million patients could have been affected by adverse reactions to prescribed drugs, leading to an estimated 106,000 deaths.22 Meanwhile, it is a sad fact that legally prescribed methadone kills more people every year in Britain than heroin, crack, amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy combined.23

It is clearly impossible to justify the present licensing and drug laws on any rational statistical or medical basis. This is not to argue that illegal drugs can’t be dangerous; merely that their danger has to assessed against other dangers. Around 150 people, mostly young, die every year in motorbike accidents in Britain. Over 70 people have died in the Alps this winter. Yet nobody, so far as I am aware, has proposed to ban motorcycling or skiing. (How many schoolchildren over the years have collapsed and died as a result of taking part in compulsory cross country running, I’d like to know? Two at my old school for starters.)

Then, of course, there is "the cost to the public" argument. Of course, drug treatment, including hospitalisation and incarceration, is expensive, but it is a fraction of the cost of treating the victims of alcohol and tobacco. Many people engage in dangerous pursuits which from time to time cost "the public" money. But of course, when a rich man’s sport like yachting or ballooning goes horribly wrong, as it has done several times in recent years, no expense is spared, with ships and aircraft mobilised over huge areas.

The worst thing about the "war on drugs" is the public ignorance which goes hand in hand with it. New Labour is to drug education what the Tories were to sex education. The same teenage magazine which found that a third of its readers took drugs showed a majority who thought that ecstasy was more dangerous than both crack and heroin.24 Despite all evidence to the contrary, many parents continue to believe that LSD leads to large numbers of people throwing themselves off high buildings thinking they can fly – an urban myth which has been doing the rounds for three decades. The "Sorted" campaign around the tragic death of Leah Betts actively set back public knowledge by obscuring the fact that she died from drinking vast amounts of water.

Most people are forced to rely on the television for their drug education. Whereas adult drama can now portray drug taking in a fairly realistic way (policewoman doing speed after a night’s clubbing before going back on duty in Mersey Blues; lawyer doing cocaine at work in This Life), the mass consumption soaps, including Eastenders, mostly portray drugs in a stupid and unrealistic manner. Nobody, it seems, does drugs because they like them. They are either spiked, forced against their will, or hoodwinked by sinister "outsiders". The "community" then wakes up to the evil in its midst, and the nasty piece of work is either seen off, or occasionally allowed to repent. And the moral of the story, children, is ...

Meanwhile, young people are also bombarded with very different messages, from adverts borrowing dance music imagery to "heroin chic" waifs on the catwalk. These seem to say taking drugs is both big and clever. This schizophrenia lies at the heart of the capitalist dilemma. Drugs are something many people do, but you can’t talk about it; they make lots of money, both directly and through related industries (music, fashion), but they can’t be seen to do so. Whatever gains there are for capitalism in derailing the class struggle through drug use, there are equal and opposite fears. According to one recent article, the state’s main fear in relation to drug use is not the medical, social and policing costs, but "the way illegal drugs degrade the institutions of politics and society".25

The last refuge of those, including the government, who seek to maintain the ban on cannabis is the unproven assumption that it leads to the taking of "hard" drugs. Of course, it may well be the case that those who take heroin have previously smoked cannabis. But even if this were true, it would not prove a causal connection. It is probably even more likely that they will have previously drunk alcohol and smoked cigarettes, but a government which derives vast revenues from tobacco and alcohol duties does not want these possible causal connections explored, in spite of calls from the charity Alcohol Concern.26

I cannot agree with Jim in seeing drug use as simply "caused by the degenerate capitalist society in which workers’ lives are destroyed by endless fears and worries". Marxists seem to have a problem acknowledging that many people actually enjoy doing drugs, at least at the initial stages, and an even bigger problem accepting that the desire to explore other states of consciousness is older than civilisation itself. The argument that drug use is merely the expression of false consciousness is itself an idealist rigmarole.

All socialists know that Marx described religion as "the opium of the people". Many have misinterpreted the phrase to mean that religion is used to block out the world. This is not what Marx meant, as is clear from its context: "Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."27

Religion could not be understood as a set of wrong ideas or replaced merely by a better set of ideas. It was an attempt to grapple with genuine oppression with the only tools to hand. Marx’s analogy between religion and opium is also intriguing from another angle. Had Marx wanted to compare religion to something which obliterated the world, then surely he would have used strong liquor. Yet he chose opium, a stimulant used by the romantic intellectual rebels of the early nineteenth century.

At the close of the twentieth century, in an era seemingly devoid of great causes and lofty ideals, amid the apparent invincibility of capitalism, have not drugs to an extent become the religion of the people? If so, we cannot simply dismiss drug use as the product of reactionary ideas, but explore its contradictions. Many young people freely admit that drug taking is a form of escapism from the drudgery of everyday life. Such sentiments can clearly lead in both reactionary and progressive directions.

Little confidence can be placed in Jim’s vision of working class communities banding together independently of the police to drive out drug dealers from working class areas. The likelihood of such vigilante groups sustaining their activity for any length of time is small, and of their having progressive policies even smaller. The impact on overall drug use would probably be negligible. Shifting dealers out of one neighbourhood normally results in their relocating to another.

Jim obviously sees his proposals as realistic as against the fantasies of Workers Power and the law-and-order drum banged by the Militant/Socialist Party tradition. But what he fails to recognise is that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and nothing – at least nothing short of a complete transformation in workers’ consciousness – can put it back. Illegalising drugs has no significant impact upon the level of drug use. Neither Jim, nor even sections of the police, believe that it does. Jim believes drugs should remain illegal as a sign of social disapproval.

What illegality does do is encourage gangsterism and profiteering in the endless re-selling of drugs. It leads to drugs being sometimes cut with other more toxic substances. It causes wild variations in quality which in turn can lead to overdoses and death. It leads to a climate of hysterical ignorance, where there should be all-round education about the effects and potential dangers to health of drug use. It inhibits serious scientific research and strangles reasoned debate.

Socialists should oppose the crude and unscientific division of substances into therapeutic "medicines" and harmful "drugs", and recognise that both can have the capacity to be beneficial at some doses and toxic at others. Comprehensive testing and research into the properties, both harmful and potentially helpful, of widely taken drugs must be commissioned by the health service. MDMA (ecstasy) was originally developed to assist psychiatric patients in developing empathy; LSD showed promise as a treatment for schizophrenia, autism and depression until it was outlawed in 1966;28 cannabis is steadily gaining ground among MS sufferers and in the treatment of some intestinal complaints; amphetamines have been used as a slimming aid; coca leaves are chewed by peasants in South America as an antidote to cold, lack of food and high altitude, and they maintain "coca no es un droga, es comida" (coca is not a drug, it is food); cocaine was hailed in its day as a wonder drug.

More that at any other time in history, relationships between people are mediated by drugs. The history of the last quarter of a century is the history of a quantum leap in drug taking, and there are no accurate historical parallels. Legalisation is not the "answer" to the question of drugs. But it does, combined with mass education, at least offer the best possibilities of combatting the worst effects of drug use, both social and physical, while lifting the threat of criminality from recreational users. More liberal drug policies in the Netherlands have led to lower levels of drug taking than in Britain. Workers and youth in their everyday lives do make common sense distinctions between different forms of drug use. They need to be able to make them in the most informed way. Socialists should demand that drug advice and treatment centres are developed in every town and city, and that many more resources are channelled into understanding the physiology and psychology of addiction.

The superiority of treatment to repression is backed up by serious research. One of the few extensive studies of the treatment of long-term drug abusers acknowledges: "For every extra £1 spent on drug misuse treatment, there is a return of more than £3 in terms of cost savings associated with victim costs of crime, and reduced demands upon the criminal justice system.... The true cost savings to society may be even greater than this."29

Prohibition offers no such hope. It has no more chance of succeeding than the prohibition of alcohol did in the United States in the 1920s. It perpetuates misery and gangsterism at home, and the imperialist gangsterism of the US "war on drugs" abroad.


1. M. Collin, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, Serpent’s Tail, 1997, p.161; see also my review in Workers Action No.2, April 1998.

2. Guardian, 19 September 1997.

3. Express, 7 September 1998.

4. Independent, 14 May 1997.

5. Express, 28 January 1998.

6. Guardian, 18 December 1998; Times, 2 January 1999.

7. Express, 26 February 1998.

8. Express, 14 August 1998.

9. Guardian, 10 July 1998; Independent, 15 July 1998; Independent, 16 July 1998.

10. Independent, 22 February 1999.

11. Sunday Times, 1 November 1998.

12. Express, 16 January 1999.

13. Independent, 14 May 1997.

14. T. McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, Bantam, 1993.

15. F. Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800, Fontana, 1974, p.188.

16. L. Sante, Low Life, Granta, 1998, p.141.

17. Guardian, 1 December 1997.

18. Daily Mail, 4 August 1998.

19. Independent, 19 August 1997.

20. Guardian, 8 June 1998.

21. Daily Telegraph, 4 June 1996.

22. Times, 15 April 1998.

23. Sunday Independent, 7 February 1999.

24. Express, 26 February 1998.

25. Independent, 21 February 1999.

26. Independent, 3 June 1998.

27. Marx, A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

28. McKenna, p.240.

29. Michael Gossop et al, The National Treatment Outcome Research Study at One Year, Department of Health, 1998.