Matters of substance: Drugs - and why everyone's a user
Drugs occur frequently in today's news, often being presented as a problem that is getting out of hand. But then again there are many claims that some illegal drugs should be legalised as they are no worse than legal ones - that the prohibition is part of the problem. Griffith Edwards new book helps us to make sense of all this by putting the use of different kinds of drugs into a historical context.
There are many substances that are classified as drugs which can be bought fairly freely. Edwards has chapters on alcohol and tobacco, pointing out that they are accepted as part of everyday life despite the great harm they do. Use of some other subtances, such as solvent abuse and addiction to tranquilisers, is considered to be a problem but seem to be mostly resticted to certain groups of people. Edwards considers each drug in terms of its ecology - how it fits into different aspects of society. This helps us in seeing how a certain drug might go from acceptable social use to unacceptability (But I hope that tea and coffee will never be thought of as dangerous drugs). Edwards shows how the history of use has lead to different drugs being viewed in different ways.
Edwards divides these into two classes, the opiates (which include opium, morphine, and heroin) and the rest (cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD etc.) It is interesting to note how most drugs were first used for medical purposes, and this gradually spread to more 'recreational' use, until there was seen to be a widespread problem.
It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the idea of prohibiting drugs took hold, with international treaties forbidding the export of drugs which were considered to be dangerous, and this was naturally linked to prohibition in individual countries. 'Opium dens' in Victorian Britain are often thought to be an unfortunate influence from the Orient into a stable society, so it is surprising to learn that in fact Britain used its military might to support the supply of Opium (grown in British India) into China against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor - who with some justification considered the British to be barbarian pirates.
What to do about drugs
At the start of the book Edwards says that he will hold back from saying what society can do better in dealing with drugs. I feel he doesn't really stick to this as throughout the book there is criticism of the way the authorities have dealt with the problem. What is Edwards view on the legalisation of drugs? He suggests that some drugs, such as Ecstasy and LSD, which are current classified as Class A should be moved out of that class - it seems this is more due to social perception of the drugs than to the actual dangers. I would have liked to have seen more quantitative evidence for this - a direct comparison of Ecstasy with Heroin for example.
Edwards agrees that cannabis is probably no worse than alcohol or tobacco, but maintains that this is hardly a point in its favour - we don't want another substance causing illness and death on the same level. He also points out that it hasn't been studied to the same extent, so there may be more problems with it than known at present. On the other hand he sees the introduction of ever increasing penalties for drug use as something of a knee-jerk reaction, leading to a clumsy way of dealing with the problem. Edwards main conclusion is that the only way of dealing with illegal drug use is to deal with the deprivation which causes the use of drugs to assume epidemic like proportions. Here again I would have liked more quantitative data. This suugests tackling demand rather than supply, and I would have liked to see a more direct comparison of these two areas of drug control.
So what are the chances of this book of winning the Aventis prize? My opinion is that it isn't really that scientific, it's more a book on the history of one aspect of society. I would have expected more on the effects of drugs on the body, and more quantitative comparisons. Then again such content might make the book more technical, and discourage people from reading it. As it is it's a very readable book and if you're not looking for a specifically scientific book then it's well worth reading for the interesting contributions it makes to an important debate.