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6 ways in which we have drugs and cigarettes completely backwards

October 18, 2013

In this delightful time when we are all blitzed senseless with grim documentaries about Troubled Youths on experimental drugs (no doubt downloaded off the internet from paedophiles, or something) and more than slightly questionable, blackly comic horror stories about students on ecstasy drowning in bird baths trying to drink them dry, it is only to be expected that I would add my two cents to the discussion.

I compare it to smoking, the obvious choice, because I feel like the decisions we’ve made in regards to the two issues are not simply wrong; they are completely the wrong way around. Here’s how:

1) Smoking is legal, drugs are not

There’s an obvious inconsistency, here. We are concerned about physical health to the extent where we impede on people’s choices, but we don’t ban the big killer.

Instead we ban the ones that don’t kill at all, on the grounds that they… Um… Sorry, what was the reason again?

At the moment, we’re in a period of movement in both directions. On the one hand, there’s “decriminalisation”, which means that something is still technically illegal, but no one will be penalised for it. It is essentially a semantic difference; unlike “legalising”, to decriminalise does not make it sound like the government is condoning drugs, which would upset the poor, fragile conservatives. If drug usage is decriminalised as is occasionally proposed, it would probably crack down on suppliers rather than users (where the distinction can be made – a murky issue in itself, since we judge possession versus dealing in terms of quantity, not actions taken).

The other question is whether or not to completely ban cigarettes. If it happens to fast, there will be chaos, hence the schemes that involve banning menthol, making packets unattractive and watching out for e-cigarette advertising (I feel a bit smug that I was so topical when I mentioned it here). We may find, eventually, that the awkward hedge bet is to make cigarettes not legal but not criminalised, and this may well happen before anyone even thinks about reforms on drug laws, since it is not on the agenda of the current government.

2) If one were to be made not legal but decriminalised, it should be drugs

If you make cigarettes illegal to sell but not to use, you will soon find yourself in the position similar to the one we are in right now with drugs, where the underworld takes over production and becomes a major threat to order and public health. The ability to smoke would obscure where people are getting their cigarettes from and would only help the underground.

Decriminalising drugs also runs this risk. It is a risk only worth taking if it will render benefits; at the moment, too many people are behind bars for drugs and not getting help. Cigarettes will never have the controlling effect on people that some currently illegal drugs do because it is simply not potent enough to bother with it. I wonder if the reason why the mild but popular illegal drugs, such as weed, have gotten stronger is exactly because of this; if you’re going to get arrested for it, it ought to be for a damn good kick.

Cigarettes probably couldn’t get much stronger without being unpalatable – look at cigars. So I doubt that if they ceased to be sold, anyone would bother buying them from the underground, provided doing so was absolutely illegal. I know I wouldn’t, and I used to smoke.

3) We think of drugs as being more destructive

This isn’t a hard one to grasp and I don’t have anything new to add. The health statistics regarding smoking speak for themselves. As for the behaviour of people on drugs and how it affects others separate to oneself, people who argue for reform on drugs laws are not suggesting that a) The effects of drugs should never be examined scientifically, b) That drug use should never be regulated, or c) That drug usage, particularly in public, should never be moderated and guided. Quite the opposite, we want all these things. What isn’t wanted is an arbitrary dictum that uses an empty term like “drugs” to demonise the entirety of chemical recreation.

Some argue that the question of the negative effect of drugs is just a question of overuse and I believe they are right. However, that doesn’t mean that if you legalised drugs, people would take as much as they currently smoke; see below.

4) We think of drugs as being more addictive

If people who took drugs did so as often as your average smoker smokes, they’d be high as a kite by 7AM and would become steadily more so as they day progressed. With the possible exception of cocaine users who experience quite short-lived highs, they would probably never be sober. You can’t live your day to day life like that, and to suggest that if we legalised drugs that’s where we would be shows an abject lack of historical knowledge relating to drugs, their availability and their effect, as well as little common sense regarding vice and self-control.

People choose moderation every day. The problem comes when we are misled (or indeed, not instructed at all) as to what “moderation” actually means in the specific context of the vice in question. When drugs are illegal, you can’t give advice about intake because you’re too busy telling people not to do them at all. It nullifies your advice when you say “Don’t you EVER do ecstasy! … But if you do, just one tab and not too much water. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW OR ANYTHING.”

5) Drugs are available nowhere, cigarettes everywhere

It’s the imbalance problem that’s in effect, here. If you paint one substance as being acceptable and another as totally unacceptable, people attempting to avoid the unacceptable may gravitate towards the “acceptable” even if it’s not that much better. People like their substances and would probably find the negative long term effects of all of them would be negated somewhat if they could spread their experiences out over a number of different types.

This you cannot do if almost all are illegal. Even though the ones we have (cigarettes and alcohol) are decidedly different, if you don’t like either, you’re stuck with nothing, which might not suit you. If you pick another which is illegal instead, it will be hard to get hold of, so the likelihood is, you’ll stick with the one you’ve found, potentially building an addiction.

As for cigarettes, there’s no getting around the fact that they are everywhere and you can get them easily. You could be tobacco-free for years; if you’ve had a bad day, you can just wander into any regular shop and start up again. You might even restart the habit, since addictions tend to stick around like that. You are usually never more than a quarter of a mile away from a cigarette – I had more difficulty finding lined paper when last I needed it. With the starting point of our current laws and anti-drug culture, it could be a century before we get to this same place with drugs… If ever.

If cigarettes are ubiquitous, the message we get told repeatedly is: this is OK to do. No one “condones” smoking, but plenty of people condone it. And why would you ever question that message? We tend to think that whatever is on sale is fair game, perhaps rightly so; in our busy lives, we rely on the government to do the legwork in figuring out what’s ethical to sell in our shops and what isn’t. There may be resistance on anything that raises price like Fair Trade products or ethical farming, but that’s because the standard has been set and anything less “fair” (i.e., tasteful to the consumer) will not do. Your average punter buys the cheapest things possible and expects prices to stay the same regardless of the economy, products to stay the same regardless of demand – everything to stay the same, forever. If the powers that be always heeded mankind’s wish for everything we enjoy to stay the same, we’d still be burning witches for Saturday night entertainment.

6) We stigmatise drugs, but not smoking

Not that I’m in favour of being judgemental, but the fact that we still hold smoking in high / neutral regard is damaging to Our Youth. That’s not an expression I’m likely to use often, but occasionally stuffy 50-something politicians have a point.

Following what the government decides is ethical, you form your choices and your culture develops in one way and not the other. If you’re a smoker, the likelihood is that your friends won’t care, nor will your colleagues or employers in adulthood. As for parents… Well, that depends. Smoking is nothing more than a mild stimulant, nothing that will lead you to lose friends and alienate people.

Yet, it is an addictive stimulant. Nobody needs it and it serves no purpose, being considerably less effective and more ridden with bad side effects than caffeine. It’s also used to de-stress, and stress is something we’re getting very good at. However, nicotine does anything but that, because the stimulating effect can make you restless and lead to sleepless nights.

Since smoking is still one of those grey areas for “rebellious” teenagers to lurk in and not purely the reserve of people in tweed suits sitting in news rooms, people don’t have the same ideas about etiquette for The Correct Time To Smoke as they do for drinking coffee. People will happily smoke before bed and then wonder why they become raging insomniacs.

Compare that to mild “down” or “happy” drugs which are currently illegal. Despite how we are starting to acknowledge that people who take too many of these have a problem (while people who smoke do not) the stigma goes to the group of people that have a problem, not to the people who are abjectly refusing to give up on a slightly irresponsible choice of stimulant.

6) We listen to smokers’ defending their right to smoke, but not drug takers’ right to take drugs

Smokers will of course defend their right to smoke, because they’re addicted. People who are addicted don’t always talk sense, or even if they do, do so from a position of bias and as such their views should be held as questionable.

This is true of drug takers, but the difference is that people not listening to them is part of the problem. There are many reasons to take up smoking, but continuing it is more a question of habit and opportunity. Continuing to take drugs can be for far more complex reasons than is usually acknowledged. Often, drug addicts are simply not heeded in their cries for help or their justifications – which is a mistake, regardless of whether we agree with their analysis of their own situation. If they were heeded, we might find that addicts had more of a support network from which to move away from harmful behaviours.

Smokers have a support network, in the form of the whole medical establishment and a good proportion of the smoking and ex-smoking public. Giving up, if people had the will, would be easy so long as they are not bombarded with the opportunity, as they currently are. People saying “I don’t want to” are victims of the consumer culture that values free choice over better judgement. It isn’t sensible and the government has no reason to pay credence to it.

However, this beats the alternative; drugs are illegal, and however much you might know that you cannot be charged for any offence simply for admitting to an addiction (though indeed, some people do not know this), that does not stop people with mistrust for the police, medical or other establishments from avoiding them like the plague. Without stigma, and without the complication of illegality, drug takers who want to stop might better be able to.

  1. I smoke. Surprised? I’m a smoker and I’m curious — curious to know what your agenda is. I could speculate, of course, but I’d rather hear it directly from you.

    Straight off, “Is it your goal that every smoker stop smoking and that no non-smoker ever starts up?” If it is — and I’m not going to base my understanding of your ideas on my own unfounded assumptions — it would then follow that part of your goal is that I stop smoking and never start up again.

    I’ll wait until you speak directly to this question before I continue the conversation.

    Peace and Humptiness,

    Charon’s Aide

  2. A difficult question. My point with the Smoking V drugs article is more how I feel politcally about drugs than smoking. I do not blame smokers for smoking and it is absolutely your right to smoke if you want. I do, however, think it is irresponsible for companies to make cigarettes as ubiquitous as they are and for governments to allow it; it may well be the difference between you smoking 5 cigarettes a week (barely a health risk) and a potential 40 a day (almost certainly a major health risk).

    I feel the same way about advertising of junk food and snack foods, not a health risk in themselves, only in excess – excess which you are more likely to have if you are bombarded with temptation every day from people who just want your money.

    In my experience, people tend to smoke when stressed (I did). It doesn’t really reduce stress, but it feels like it does, and the industry makes a lot of money from people chasing easy relief. What seems obvious is that pack warnings don’t really work. or at least not as well as we thought they would.

    It would be hypocritical of me to nag, since I took to smoking off my own back, no peer pressure, no company pressure. I also quit relatively easily. As I said, I find it more strange that we eye “drugs” (a problemtic term in itself) with such suspicion, compared to cigarettes which are a known epidemic threat to health.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you have said about smoking and drugs, although frankly I would have compared alcohol to drugs in general instead of cigarettes. Most cigarette smokers are addicted by medical standards. A lot of drug users are not, neither are a lot of alcohol users.
    I often find myself asking why drugs like alcohol and cigarettes are legal when drugs like marijuana and LSD are illegal.

    The one place I disagree. Point 6. I think we do stigmatize cigarettes a lot. I watch people glare at smokers, go up and lecture them on what terrible people they’re being. Smokers hiding the fact they smoke from employers because they are ashamed. It is definitely stigmatized in a big way. I’m not saying drugs aren’t stigmatized, but smoking is too.

  4. RE: stigma; fair enough, I think that may be right. I did spy an annoying piece about someone complaining about smokers not being allowed to go outside to smoke as often as they do. It is a bit of a privalidge to be able to get up and leave your desk – as a non smoker, if I had decided to randomly go and stand outside for a few minutes, that would have been met with some bother!

  5. Nobody loves cigarettes more than I do, but I smoke on my own terms. I don’t, as you suggest, smoke five cigarettes a week. I smoke three a week — and every single one of them is a delight. I’ve smoked for thirty five years. I’ve smoked as much as thirty a day or as little as once a week; but I’ve never once smoked a cigarette and regretted it later.

    You talk about ‘stress smoking’. There are more effective ways to deal with stress. I am a great believer in meditation. I put a lot of time into that practice, more than today’s “busy person” thinks she or he can afford. I’m quite sure I suffer less stress than most other smokers. I’m also quite sure I suffer less stress than most non-smokers.

    There’s a comment below about ‘stigma’ and I’m certainly very aware of it. People like to find a reason to feel better than somebody else. These days, smokers are the scape goat; but at other times we’ve scapegoated folks for different reasons. Smokers will be de-stigmatized soon enough and then some other group will be looked down on.

  6. If you’d like to read more about my ‘take’ on stress, check out this post from my ‘blog.

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