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Smoking ban shows it’s time to look again at drug laws

And then – nothing happened. It’s three weeks since the smoking ban hit Scotland’s pubs, clubs and cafes. We were warned of mass civil disobedience. It was an offence against civil liberties, said critics, and Scots would defend their freedoms against the nanny state. The result would be chaos.

Well, surprise surprise – the overwhelming majority of Scots have abided by the ban; there’s been not a hint of violence; and newspapers have reported soaring bar sales since the legislation came into effect. Suddenly, city pubs are pleasant places to meet, and eat, and your clothes don’t have to be dry-cleaned the next morning.

If ever there were a candidate for Private Eye’s “The Nation’s Press: An Apology”, this must surely be it. Though I have to say, as a supporter of the smoking ban, that even I am amazed that it has gone off so smoothly. When you think how deeply ingrained is Scotland’s drink culture, and how belligerently those loud-mouthed defenders of personal liberty threatened defiance, it is scarcely believable that there was no trouble. Not a single arrest.

It’s a tribute to the Scottish Executive of course for having had the bottle to promote this legislation – though of course they’ll get little credit for that. By definition everything Jack McConnell does is either sleazy or dumb, so expect no plaudits for the First Minister. People are already saying that, well, what was all the fuss about?.

Well, fuss there certainly was. It took guts for McConnell to put his name to this anti-smoking legislation, which could easily have gone wrong. Look at England. Half the Scottish media has been on smoke watch for the last three weeks looking for evidence of the civil unrest, however trivial, that they forecast.

For some it will be confirmation that people have become powerless before the all-controlling nanny state, determined to regulate our lives. But for me it is confirmation that Scotland remains a law-abiding country – in the best sense of the word. We accept and support restrictions on our freedom provided they have been the result of evidence, debate and proper democratic process. It’s what the Scottish parliament is there for.

But the smoking ban is a reminder also of the fragility of the law. You realise that laws don’t work on their own, or because the police are there to enforce them; they only work when the people accept them and effectively enforce the law themselves. The reason the smoking ban worked was that hundreds of thousands of people in pubs and clubs quietly made sure that those minded to break the law did not do so.

But what of the other poisonous and addictive substances that are so much a part of modern social intercourse? The laws on drugs are not being enforced by the same public who make the smoking ban a success. Quite the reverse: for people under the age of forty, there is almost universal transgression of the laws on drugs. Everyone either breaks the law themselves by taking illegal drugs like cannabis or ecstacy, or knows someone who is breaking the law and does nothing about it. And we are talking, quite literally, of millions of acts of illegality. So, how do we square that?

Officers in the Strathclyde Police Federation caused a massive row last week by suggesting there should be a debate on the legalisation of drugs – and not just soft drugs, but class A substances like heroin. They were accused of defeatism, of irresponsibility, of being soft on drug barons. But we are asking the police to enforce laws which we – the public – reject. It is OUR hypocrisy, and the Strathclyde police officers are right to call time.

The war cannot be won. The only way to deal with this problem is to cut it off at source. Either people agree to stop abusing drugs, or else, after a proper national debate, we are going to have to look at alternatives.

Now, I have argued for legalisation of cannabis in the past. I have always hated it myself because it turns me into a zombie, but I could never see any reason for it being illegal. Though recent evidence of the harmful effects of dope, on the functioning of the brain as well as on behaviour, certainly made me think.

As for hard drugs, it would have been irresponsible for any newspaper column to argue crack cocaine and heroin – some of the most addictive substances ever synthesised – should be made freely available. However, something has to be done. Scotland now has 51,000 addicts where we had only a handful in the 1960s, before the government outlawed the prescription of heroin to addicts. Methadone is no solution.

For the reality is that the present regime is only benefiting the criminals. The pushers exploit public tolerance to promote a vicious and predatory expansion of their trade. Just as prohibition benefited organised crime in the 1920s, so prohibition is creating a global criminal infrastructure which is becoming a political force. The drugs industry is is now worth £300bn a year worldwide -equivalent to the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. The British and American army defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in a matter of days – but they haven’t been able to defeat the poppy growers.

But perhaps the smoking ban shows a way forward. It accepted the right of individuals to take a dangerous drug – nicotine is just as addictive as heroin – but only within a responsible social context and with strict rules which protect the health of others. Perhaps we could start exploring ways to modernise the drugs laws, allowing people to use drugs in the privacy of their own homes, provided the state regulated their to protect vulnerable young people and those who become addicted.

It is a scary thought – the state licensing the sale of cannabis, ecstacy, cocaine. But at present we have the worst of both worlds. We have uncontrolled mass consumption of narcotics and we have laws that are openly flouted by a criminal industry which is free to devop its trade in the most pernicious way. The Scottish Parliament has made history with the smoking ban; perhaps it should turn its attention now to Scotland’s second biggest drugs problem.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


7 thoughts on “Smoking ban shows it’s time to look again at drug laws

  1. The smoking ban here in Scotland has shown us many things, but lets leave hard drugs out of the argument for now. As a smoker, THIS is what the smoking ban has shown me:1. That Jack McConnell ignored the poll showing that 76% of Scots were in favour of restrictions, not a full ban.2. That Jack McConnell is a dictator, with no Upper House to keep his monomanaical power in check. “It is for us to lead” he said, of the ban. Meaning “I have decided”.3. That The SE, like many others, leapt onto a bandwagon with dodgy wheels. Smoking bans are being rescinded in many states in the US. 4. That the Irish ban failed to curb smoking, (this was the real plan there, and its the only plan here) as they now have an additional 15000 new smokers. Mostly in the 18-23 age bracket.5. That MSP’s, local councillors and health bodies ignore emails and letters when they get too tough to answer.6. That no-one, especially Andy Kerr, has any idea of the science involved with this ban. I heard him say on national television that cigarettes contain 4000 carcinogens. Scientists have so far identified less than 20. There are more carcinogens in a cup of coffee.7. That the S.E, the English government, the Welsh assembly et al have fallen for the SHS/ETS hoax hook line and sinker. All the science says it is harmless. None of them looked any further than ASH and other rabid anti-smoking zealots for evidence that the science supporting bans was weak, at best.ASH, Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation have all been proved to be liars of monstrous proportions. CancerCampaigns were caught falsifying an online poll. The press, largely, have gone with the rest of the sheep, presumably because it’s the “PC” thing to do.And if you, Mr MacWhirter havent seen the harm this ban is doing, and has done in other countries, then I can only suggest that you are looking in the wrong place.Look harder.

    Posted by Colin Grainger | June 2, 2006, 7:04 pm
  2. It’s only two months into a smoking ban and everyone seems to think that it is accepted. Think again! There are huge numbers here in Ireland that think a smoking ban is ridiculous. What it has done is made smoking cool again and attracted people like flies. It has also encouraged a new audience for the drug lords and younsters are having a field day with all this new experimenting. My own daughter has been approached a massive 12 times since the smoking ban came in to buy drugs. Six hundred pubs have closed in Ireland of which 400 are directly attributed to the smoking ban. It has caused untold isolation for people who could enjoy a smoke when out and who can no longer do it. The smoking ban has made them a prisoner in their own homes. There will be great problems in our society in the future and people will forget that the smoking ban was the main cause of it.

    Posted by Anonymous | June 2, 2006, 10:26 pm
  3. In Ireland, we have had – for two years now – the same apparent loss of journalistic objectivity that is ably demonstrated here by no less a personage than a Chief Political Correspondent. Amazing how selective, how subjective, political hacks can actually be. It is not that long ago since Iain wrote an article headed “Parliament’s failed us, so let’s challenge Blair’s police state ourselves”. Yet, as in Ireland, the Scottish Parliament has potentially criminalised one-third of the electorate and we hear nought but joy from the Clothes-and-Hair chapel of embedded anti-smoker correspondents.What is actually gobsmackingly incredulous is the fact that the article is so buzzing with success noises a mere three weeks into the ban, and the accompanying syrupy-sick paean to McConnell, a clamour for approval perhaps, has to raise wonderings about cozy cartels and favours for friends.The Irish Vintners Federation, that yellow-bellied excuse of a representative body for pubilcans outside the Dublin area has recently been quoted as stating that over 600 pubs and 12,000 full-time pub-jobs have been permanently lost in Ireland since the introduction of the Irish ban. That does not include figures for the greater Dublin area, so you can add in a realistic 25% more on the figures quoted. They are already out of date. In my immediate area two more pubs have closed in the past six months – one in January, the other last week – and the losses continue to happen two years on. Elementary objective journalistic research would have shown this, but those days are gone aren’t they Iain?It gets worse. When reports of a 50% drop in tourism for most rural areas appeared in last summer’s press, the usually sharp journalistic analysis failed to mention that the smoking ban was the probable cause. No. It was a “change in trends”. In fact it was anything but the fact that smoking tourists – including native ones – decided to desert the territory. Watch out for this one in Scotland. Iain won’t tell you.The smoking ban is about much more than smoke. It is about loss of community and friendship. It is the wipe-out of hundreds of once-friendly and welcoming hostelries, it is the loss of work, the medicalisation of society, state control, the loss of tourists, the ostracisation of a huge minority, totalitarian rule, the criminalisation of ordinary decent people, and yes Iain, the stripping of people’s human rights. There is a deep unspoken rift in Ireland since this obnoxious abuse of political power was imposed. Journalists, almost to a man, have gone deaf blind and dumb. Realisation has dawned that we cannot any longer trust them, or our politicians, or our medics or our scientists or our pollsters, all of whom have dirtied their hands perpetuating a fraud. But one thing is very clear. Smokers and their friends will vote with their votes at the next opportunity. I imagine the same will happen in Scotland. The fight for freedom is only beginning Iain. Parliament’s failed us, and we will challenge the police state ourselves.

    Posted by Donal McCarthy | June 2, 2006, 11:02 pm
  4. I am amazed you are surprised. Do you not think the lack of what you were expecting from the Scots rather alarming. You have demorolised people with so much propaganda it is scary. Ventilation or non-smoking venues would have been the way forward not dictatorship- I smoke, my hubby does not and never has. We only go out together so in a way we are both exluded. He does not want to sit in the pub like a larry while I go outside to smoke.There are many couples like us too. Parties will never be the same, with smokers and tolerant non-smokers (and their are many) outside. The rest inside. Ventilation not segregation and a choice of non-smoking pubs,

    Posted by vincent1 | June 2, 2006, 11:16 pm
  5. Yes the Scottish Parliament has made history with the smoking ban, and history will show how every country in Europe (with the possible exception of France – again) have once again followed the U.S.A. like good little doggies without asking hard enough questions regarding the true motive behind the invasion. In this case, the invasion of freedom. It is astounding how easily people roll over and accept the erosion of their freedom of choice, and doubly-astounding to find the press marching in line with the health fascists and perpetuating the myths of second-hand smoke with no investigation whatsoever; no actual analysis of the real figures, and no awareness of the fragility of freedom and the fact that a very dangerous line has been crossed here. All that was ever required was decent ventilation – but the government chooses to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.I live in hope that some great journalist lurks out there somewhere… someone who is still hungry for the truth… someone who will finally expose SHS-GATE for what it really is.

    Posted by Fran | June 2, 2006, 11:41 pm
  6. How I long to find just one honest reporter,columnist or TV Station that is prepared to tell the truth about second hand smoke but alas these days that is like asking for an honest politian or doctor of which there are non. Whilst I have no objection to non smokers having non smoking pubs can you tell me why in this so called free democratic country smokers are being denied the right to smoking pubs staffed by smokers?. Democracy dont make me laugh. the politicians of this country have forgotton that they are supposed to be the servants of the people not the masters and the media tamely tags along bowing to their will in the name of political correctness. Free press has gone and the BBC and others can no longer be relied on to print the truth. None of them have any credability any more. Day after day all you here is government propaganda with no challange. Is it any wonder that people are turning to organisations like the BNP. Everyone knows that there is not a shred of truth of truth about Second Hand Smoke, the EPA said it and so did WHO. The property rights of publicans are being removed, the rights of smokers are being removed all in the name of health. There are some things in society that are more important than health it is called FREEDOM. We no longer live in a free society today it is called Soviet Britain run by zealots for zealots with only their own agenda that is important. If you realy want to know about Second Hand Smoke read the following links and investigate for yourself but take the blinkers off first if you are still able.http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/diesel_lung_cancer.htmlhttp://www.sho.com/site/ptbs/prevepisodes.do?episodeid=s1/shshttp://www.davehitt.com/facts/epa.htmlhttp://cleanairquality.blogspot.com/2006/03/doctors-comments-regarding-smoking.htmlhttp://www.pro-choicesmokingdoctor.blogspot.com/http://www.houseofdiabolique.com/archives/smoking012603.htmlI am 59, I have smoked for 40 years, I am perfectly healthy, I have worked for 43 years, paid all taxes ect and law abiding. From next year I and 15 million others will be excluded from society and expected to stand outside pubs like lepers including servicemen who have fought for freedom and their country. Democracy in Britain forget it, it doesent exist. This once great country is full of corrupt greedy politicians and a media that mutely follows behind.

    Posted by Anonymous | June 3, 2006, 8:33 am
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