Saturday, August 27, 2016

Karl du Fresne: The lingering consquences of idealistic 60s liberalism

My generation has a lot to answer for. Recreational drugs, for example – or as former Wellington coroner Garry Evans preferred to call them, “wreckreational drugs”.

Mine was the generation that rebelled against the values of its parents. We were smug and spoilt, with plenty of time on our hands to reflect on how wrong our elders were about everything. We rejected their dreary, conformist moral values. “If it feels good, do it” became the catch-cry of a generation.

And it did feel good – for a while. But then the casualties began to pile up. Drug abuse, serial relationship failures and, most tragically, emotionally damaged offspring are part of the price society has paid for idealistic 1960s liberalism. 

Initially, drugs seemed very much a middle-class hippie thing. Most of the dope smokers and trippers I knew in the late 60s were arty types and intellectuals. Drugs were one way of rebelling against a society they found dull and stifling.

Quite a few ended up permanently damaged, but others succeeded in managing their drug use. They were smart enough to ensure that it never seriously interfered with their lives or careers.

Most were well-educated and came from relatively prosperous backgrounds, so were buttressed against any disadvantages that might have come from drug use. But the same could not be said of the people who were caught up in the drug culture once it spread out into other sectors of society.

In fact there’s a segment of society that, from the 1980s on, was hit by a disastrous double-whammy.

The first blow came when economic upheaval wiped out many of the jobs that had previously provided poorly educated workers with a livelihood. The second came with the increasing availability – and social acceptability – of drugs.

Many of the people whose jobs disappeared in the 1980s sought escape in cannabis, glue and later, methamphetamine. Tinny houses sprouted like mushrooms in low-income areas.

Unlike the comfortable bureaucrats who now advocate liberalisation of the drug laws, these people were not insulated from the harmful effects of drugs by a good education and secure, well-paid careers. So they, and their children and grandchildren, are doubly disadvantaged.

To put it another way, it was the middle class that introduced society to the mind-expanding delights of drugs, but it’s mainly the underbelly of society that has had to live with the consequences.

It’s against this backdrop that we need to consider the current pressure to liberalise the cannabis laws. The people promoting liberalisation are from the educated middle classes. They probably live a long way from the suburbs where drug abuse causes misery.

The reformers advance persuasive arguments. They say drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than one of law and order.

The taxpayer-subsidised Drug Foundation, which is leading the charge for cannabis law reform (but which betrays an ideological bias by contradictorily taking a shrill line against alcohol), cleverly plays on public sympathy for terminally ill cancer patients such as former trade union leader Helen Kelly.

But while there are there are valid arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis, and especially for its medicinal use, the reformers can’t ignore the baneful effects of drug use.

Neither can they ignore the risk that liberalising the cannabis laws will send the dangerous message that drugs are OK. They may be okay if you’ve got a university degree and live in a good suburb, but they’re not so liberating if you’re a hungry kid living in a freezing state house where any surplus money goes on P rather than food or heating.

Many of the reformers seem blind to much of the damage done by drug use. But Garry Evans saw it in his 18 years as a coroner. He told this newspaper on his retirement that the term ‘recreational drug’ was a misnomer; put a “w” in front of it, he said, and you’d be closer to the truth.

Evans would know, and so do the people who conducted Otago University’s famous longitudinal study of 1000 people born in 1972. Drug abuse is a consistent factor among those in the study who went off the rails.

These are reasons to proceed with caution. As Massey University drug policy expert Chris Wilkins says, any change needs to be carefully thought through. “We can’t treat cannabis like we do any other commodity in the supermarket.”

A good starting point for the debate might be a more honesty. “Alcohol wicked, dope okay” – the line promoted by the Drug Foundation – suggests some ideological decontamination might be helpful.

Karl du Fresne blogs at published in The Dominion Post.


Brian said...
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Idealism not confined to the 1960’s Great piece of writing Karl. A summary of the sixties from a participant!
Yet idealism is not to be scorned, for we have all been there. I recall a very old gentleman ex-Victorian military type from his impeccable butterfly collar, Saville Row suit, down to his highly polished shoes and gaiters stating to a brash young man.
“Idealism is a virtue in the young my boy, in the old it is merely a handicap”!
My generation, the one that just missed out on the war and faced two years of National Service boredom or so we thought at the age of 18; coming swiftly to earth however on enlistment! Which is why in today’s world, I consider the abolition of National Service a detriment in many ways. However the plus for us all, was the ability at that age of being able to accept not only personal responsibly, but responsibilities for those who have to rely upon you.
Drugs are an escape hatch; the problem is that the hatch does not always allow an escape, in fact as we all know it jams more often than not. It is an affliction which did manifest itself in my generation but due to strong parental discipline, costs, a good deal of sensible laws and institutions we avoided those pitfalls. But comparisons as they say are odious, but how else can we gauge our society generation by generation?
The sixties and even the decades since, have also focussed on a “Peace at any Price”, hence the acrimony when our military returned from a Vietnam War. Which if a Truman had been in the White House would have ended probably without a shot being fired. A prime case of “Why use bows and arrows when you have a nuclear capability”?
I admit I disliked the sixties generation, their music, the absence of morality, the assumed laziness, and their attitude to life, but I will admit they woke us all up...pity is we did not get out of bed, let alone heed the warning!

david said...
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One thing about 1960's liberalism was that people did believe in liberty and didn't seek, as today's so called liberals are want to do, to impose their views on others. Do you really believe that in order to protect 'the underbelly of society' from themselves, we should incarcerate them? Perhaps they have a better understanding of the trade-offs between pleasure and risk than you give them credit for. But even if they don't, and we must make decisions for them, I would prefer to see our uneducated underbelly getting high on cannabis than on P. As for the Drug Foundation it should be alcohol and cannabis both okay - in moderation.

mitch morgan said...
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There still appears to be some confusion between medicinal and "recreational" cannabis. Medicinal cannabis is not an hallucinatory product but an effective pain relief. Another point I would like to make is that I would rather see youngsters non-aggressively high on cannabis than psychotic on P, although neither would be preferable. In states where cannabis has become freely available it is reported that teenage use has declined by 10% - no longer a symbol of rebellion against authority. Anti-cannabis hysteria directed against it's medicinal use is denying those in constant or terminal pain of an effective source of relief.

Anonymous said...
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1960's Liberals are the most conformist people I have ever met. Their millennial descendants are worse. Say something they disagree with and they will pursue you without mercy. It is death by a thousand jabs in the back.

They enforce doctrine and persecute heresy with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition. They are not good people.

Ange, Ray & Sean said...
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Karl. I favour legalisation and control of all drugs not because I want to use them or encourage the use of them but because the current system has failed miserably to address the problems associated with drugs. We pour enormous sums in the police and justice systems to prosecute the war on drugs. How successful has it been? Do we have less drugs and or drug users? If I thought prohibition worked I'd support it but to the best of my knowledge we've not successfully used prohibition at any time in history.
Wouldn't it be better to control manufacture, quality, distribution etc of the currently illegal drugs as we do for the legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol and use the money saved from police and justice as well as that raised from taxation to address the health issues surrounding drugs?
In the end I feel adults should be allowed to get wasted / waste their lives if that is their choice at the same time as society offers them assistance when they want it.

Daniel Bunn said...
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These people who advocate the legalisation of cannabis should come and view my neighbour's 15 year old son (who stole cannabis from her purse) lying in a stoned state unable to get off the mattress in their lounge, and hence missing his NCEA level 1 exams.