Sunday, August 21, 2016

The lingering consquences of idealistic 60s liberalism

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 19.

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.


Neville Lowry said...

The work by the Otago Uni's team is challenging. If you have not perused, it's at

Jigsaw said...

Yours was certainly the first generation to have to deal with drugs. Growing up in the late 50's and early 1960's we had alcohol to content with but no drugs as such. If they had been around I would have heard about it. We were the children that had been born during the war- a small population recruited to deal with the much larger population group that were the baby boomers from 1946 onward. Looking back we grew up in a NZ world little changed by the war but going into much more change.
Personally I see the huge contradictions of young people who want to smoke cannabis but want NZ to be smokefree by 2025, who are incredibly fussy about food 'are these eggs free range?' asked my step-grand-daughter but who don't seem to think twice about popping pills when they have no idea what they contain. A generation who are concerned about the environment but litter on a grand scale......

Richard McGrath said...

Prohibitive drug laws can be liberalised without necessarily endorsing recreational drug use. There are several issues at play, not least of all individual sovereignty over one's body and the right to put things into it. By banning the use of some drugs, the right to self-medicate is gone. However I agree that a person's right to self-medicate should not infringe on the equal rights of others.