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.