Cost of Conscience seeks to inform people about the Drug Scene

According to a recent article in The Economist (‘Bad Score’, January 12, 2002, p27)

‘Britain now has by far the worst drug problem in Western Europe … More people in Britain use hard drugs than in any other European country. Addicts are getting younger and younger … Addicts spend an average of £16,500 a year on drugs. More than 80% of this is financed by crime.’

It was an earlier Economist supplement ( July 28, 2001) entitled High Time – a survey of illegal drugs by Frances Cairncross which persuaded the Committee of Cost of Conscience that this was a matter about which we as Christians cannot afford to be ignorant. It is all too easy to shrug one’s shoulders at the sheer magnitude of the problem and suppose that there is nothing we as individuals can do about it. However, one thing we can do is to set about becoming better informed.

Expert Witnesses

With the experience of many John Keble Conferences behind us, we decided that the time had come to ask some of the difficult questions of people who have made it their business to be better informed than we.

Accordingly, we have arranged a Symposium to be held in London on Thursday, April 18 at St Alban’s Centre, Holborn, EC1 (see column 3). We have had the good fortune to secure the services of Frances Cairncross herself, and David Partington of the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition (ISAAC) who has had first-hand experience of dealing with the problem of addiction. In addition to these key-speakers we shall give representatives of the Police, the Legal and Medical professions, and the Social Services the opportunity to provide us with the benefit of their several experiences and insights.

This symposium will also underline the fact that Cost of Conscience and related organizations are not one-issue pressure-groups as we are often wrongly portrayed. So far as we are aware, this symposium is breaking new ground since the whole question of drugs hit the headlines in the person of Prince Harry.

There are those who strongly believe that drugs (or some at least) should be legalized and their production, distribution and control put into the hands of an authority ultimately answerable to Parliament. That view, in one form or another, is currently gaining ground rapidly, not only where one would expect, but in such traditionally conservative-minded bodies as the police. Its proponents claim that it would mean, amongst other things, the death-knell of the black-market in narcotics referred to earlier. The Economist in its January 2002 article goes on to describe an experiment in Switzerland prescribing heroin to 1,000 addicts. ‘The results have been impressive’ the article claims and goes on to say ‘The [home affairs] committee … will publish a report later this year which is likely to call for a large-scale national trial of heroin prescribing.’

Softly, softly?

Not everyone agrees. In an article on page 5 in The Times of January 23 Fred Boughton, chairman of the Police Federation, is reported as saying that the ‘softly, softly’ attitude to cannabis which is being tried by the police in South London has given youngsters the impression that cannabis use has been condoned by the police and other authorities, despite its still being illegal.

Experience in other areas also suggests that legalizing what was previously unlawful often, though not always, leads to a surge, temporary or permanent, in the practice in question. Would-be liberalizers have to be made to face that fact that their policies, if implemented, may result in permanent and serious damage to those who might have been deterred by the fact that what they did would be illegal.

Again, as those who seek a more liberal policy never fail to point out, the abuse of alcohol and tobacco cause far more widespread damage throughout society than drugs do. Policies of Prohibition, witness the USA between 1919–1932, simply do not work. Hefty taxation of the substances in question at least helps to pay for the treatment of those who fall victim to their own intemperance.

What defines a ‘drug’ anyway? If we rely on its definition as ‘a mood-changing substance, deliberately consumed for that purpose’, we would find that in some circumstances a cup of tea, coffee, or a good square meal would come under that heading as surely as tobacco, alcohol or crack cocaine!

These, and many other questions, are what we should be asking ourselves if we want to make a serious contribution to a subject which will become more, not less, urgent in the very near future.

The symposium on April 18 will be an unrivalled opportunity for us to become better informed about the answers we give. Make up your mind to be one of the participants!

Francis Gardom is Hon Secretary of Cost of Conscience and Honorary Curate at St Stephen’s, Lewisham.