Change of minds: our drug ‘habit’ besieged from two sides at once

Read the papers, watch the news, and you witness a monumental change in the way we deal with psychoactive food stuffs.

This change manifests itself in two different ways.

On the one hand, the call for the legalization of cannabis is getting louder and louder. It forms part of a worldwide campaign to turn the ‘war on drugs’ into more effective means of breaking the power of drug barons and preventing and alleviating addiction, which also asks governments to consider the regulation of other types of recreational drug. This call is greatly aided by scientific studies that sort out the beneficial effects of drug use from the harmful effects, the more dangerous substances from the less dangerous, and the more sensible ways of consuming them from the more stupid ways. This is only possible because doing this kind of study in the first place is slowly gaining acceptance. In Britain for example, to publicly discuss consumption of hash has until recently been taboo. A show on Channel 4, based on research by Val Curran of UCL, shows this no longer to be the case now. (Coincidentally or not, at the time I visited their website a frozen-vegetable producer was advertising on it with the slogan ‘Stir your senses’.) In other countries, this process of acceptance has been going on for longer. In Uruguay, where both at-home and state-controlled production are now legal, it has even taken some definitive steps.

Interestingly, the same inquiring spirit has had quite the opposite effect on attitudes towards alcohol and nicotine, and to some extent even on caffeine. We are starting to get away from some of the deeply ingrained views on substances that made particularly alcohol a commonly accepted drug –  in many settings even an almost obligatory drug. Still, it firmly belongs in the category of ‘hard drugs’, in the sense that it induces physical dependence. The same applies to tobacco. This knowledge has been available for a long time (it is what I learnt at school), but state policies have only started to act on it more consistently over the past few years. In the Netherlands for instance, buying alcohol and drinking it in public have first been made illegal under age 16, and now up to age 18. Even though criminalisation is not necessarily the best remedy against the risks substances pose (this is the whole point of the cannabis story), at least these new policies give out a clear message that to drink and to smoke is no longer the norm, let alone a rule.

Our consumption habits are shifting. What we drink and smoke and sniff as a matter of course, is being challenged in the same way as the things we are not supposed to use. A knowledge that many people already possessed from experience, is now being formalized and improved by researchers. This article in the Lancet neatly summarizes current professional opinion about a range of substances and their harmfulness to both individuals and society. It shows how uninformed the legislation in most countries has been up till now. But, and this is the second important step, these researchers’ messages are now being listened to by politicians. Perhaps the generation of young Europeans that began (re)discovering certain drugs in the 1960s – drugs such as LSD and hash which have since been banned in most countries – are by now in a position to reassess this ban: as scientists, as intellectuals, as legislators. I am therefore optimistic (an unfashionable thing to be among historians) that this growing formal knowledge about the actual dangers of specific drugs will, during the coming years, continue to help reform law.

On a lighter note, this supermarket chain still ignores the dangers of two traditionally accepted drugs, in particular when combined:


If drinking gives you a headache, this may be the most effective way of selling painkillers in a supermarket.


Photos taken recently in British retail chain.


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