Brave Louise, and Britain's collective drug-damaged brain
Published in: Daily Mail
The Conservative MP Louise Mensch raised eyebrows last week when she talked candidly on BBC’s Question Time about the effects of having taken hard drugs in her youth.
Previously, she had said that claims she had used drugs at a nightclub in Birmingham were ‘highly probable’ and ‘not the only incident of the kind’.
On Question Time, however, she admitted having taken Class A drugs — while refusing to say which ones, in order not to ‘glorify’ them — and said these had ‘messed up her head’ and left her with long-term mental health problems.
She went on to say she opposed the legalisation of drugs, since making them more easily available was ‘exactly the wrong way to go’.
If Ms Mensch had said she supported drug legalisation, you can bet she would have provoked a warm reaction in the media and been applauded for her courage in confessing her past misdeeds.
Instead, she has been subjected to sneering, scorn and a cascade of spiteful remarks.
Well, in my opinion, Ms Mensch should, indeed, be cheered to the echo for her courage — and her remarks should be disseminated far and wide.
Though having taken illegal drugs is certainly nothing to be proud of, she has told an important truth about what they do to people — a truth that is all too commonly denied or brushed aside.
For the menace of drugs is not confined to the effect they have on people while they are using them. Nor is it simply that they are addictive. They also often have other long- term and possibly permanent ill-effects.
When Ms Mensch says they mess up your brain, that is exactly what they do. They interfere with its functioning and alter it, sometimes for ever.
In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health and Drug Abuse say that illegal drugs change the composition of the brain and can kill off areas of its activity. After taking cocaine, for example, the brain is affected for a long time — to such an extent, they say, that it may have permanently changed, even after the drug use has stopped.
Long-term effects of cocaine use — apart from addiction — range from irritability and mood disturbances to paranoia, psychosis, depression and auditory hallucinations. Withdrawal symptoms include depression and anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and an inability to feel pleasure.
Yet cocaine may not be as bad as another drug commonly trivialised as a nightclub stimulant. According to Professor Andy Parrott, Britain’s most distinguished expert on Ecstasy, the effects of this drug — quite apart from the fact it has killed people — may be more serious even than those of cocaine.
Professor Parrott has written that long-term effects of Ecstasy include impairment of memory, damage to reasoning ability such as the competence to take decisions or organise complex material, loss of sexual interest and pleasure, sleep disturbance and damage to the immune system.
In a review in 2001 of 15 years of research into Ecstasy, he concluded that many of these ill-effects persisted long after people had stopped using the drug, suggesting that the damage to their brains might well be permanent.
Nor is it just Class A drugs that have such long-lasting and devastating effects. Study after study has warned of the harm done by cannabis.
One such report in 2004 reported growing evidence that early and regular marijuana use was associated with increases in depression, suicidal behaviour and psychotic illness, and may bring forward the onset of schizophrenia.
In 2007, the Lancet published an analysis of 35 medical studies, which warned that using cannabis could increase the risk of developing a psychotic illness later in life by more than 40 per cent.
A systematic review by the University of Queensland, Australia, last year of more than 5,000 medical studies found that cannabis has been implicated in many major long-term psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety, psychosis, bi-polar disorder and an absence of motivation. It is known to affect bone metabolism and — perhaps most terrifying of all — damage the brains of unborn babies if their mothers are using it.
Given all this, it is almost beyond belief that anyone can argue drugs should be legalised. Yet the ludicrous view that the problem is not so much illegal drug use but the law that makes it illegal is steadily gaining ground.
The Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is stuffed full of decriminalisers and legalisers. The Home Affairs Select Committee — whose session last week was dominated by legalisers and drug law-enforcement defeatists — is openly flirting with liberalising drug policy. Similar arguments have even been heard from a number of senior police officers.
Such views are staggeringly irresponsible. They contribute to a culture of relative indifference to illegal drugs, which are then increasingly normalised, sucking more and more young people into using them.
Louise Mensch is by no means the only politician to admit to having taken drugs. Recently, Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, admitted to smoking marijuana — but claimed people are no longer bothered if politicians have used it.
Such a casual dismissal of the dangers of drugs illustrates precisely why Britain has drifted into such a spiral of drug harm.
The argument from the legalisers is that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed. But in recent years there been no war on drugs — in fact, quite the opposite.
Having failed to understand that drug policy was failing because of the fundamentally flawed division it created between soft and hard drugs, users and dealers, Britain under the Labour government increasingly abandoned law enforcement and set out instead to manage the ill-effects of drug use.
But under this strategy of ‘harm reduction’ — a Trojan horse for legalisation — drug use has rocketed skywards.
The legalisers’ arguments are wrong-headed, historically false and often absurd.
Saying prohibition doesn’t work, for example, ignores the fact that smuggling, the black market and other crime associated with alcohol did not disappear when it was legalised — nor, indeed, have they done so with tobacco.
But the most powerful argument of all against legalisation is that it would increase the number of people taking drugs.
All those pushing legalisation are therefore trying to bring about a situation where millions more people, mainly young, will become addicted to mind-altering substances that will cause damage, maybe long-term and even permanent, to their brains and bodies.
That also means damage to those around them, to family, friends or colleagues hurt by the mood swings, depression, aggression and worse — and damage in turn to society in general.
That damage is increasing because of the steady drip-drip of drug normalisation.
A recent study suggested that more than one million UK employees are working with drugs — including cannabis, opiates and cocaine — in their systems.
Since this report was based only on those companies carrying out drug testing in the workplace, these figures are likely to be a considerable underestimate.
Given the impairment of reason and judgment caused by these drugs, not to mention all their other dangerous effects, such a finding should cause the most intense alarm.
Indeed, when one considers the increasing incompetence, sloppiness and demotivation of our institutions, not to mention the mystifying and spreading inability to process factual information in public debate, one is tempted to conclude that the nation is already displaying collective brain damage resulting from the spread of illegal drugs.
Of which the country’s drift towards the legalisation precipice — so courageously resisted by Louise Mensch — might itself be thought to be a conspicuous example.