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Better than reality

Coleridge was an enthusiastic quaffer of laudanum


Even if you accept the idea that the war on drugs cannot be won and that legalisation could be the answer, persuading people that real life is better than narcotics is not an easy job, writes Clive James.

"Weave a circle round him thrice," raves Coleridge in the last few lines of his poem Kubla Khan, "and close your eyes with holy dread/For he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of paradise."

Coleridge is talking about himself. This, he is saying, is the impression he would make on anyone who saw him while he was all fired up by the excitements of Kubla Khan's pleasure dome in Xanadu, where there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, and the earth breathed in fast thick pants.

Clive James
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Even to modern ears, however, the fast thick pants are the only discord in the poem, which is indeed as fabulous as it was meant to be, a ride on a rocket sled into the lyrical sublime.

Coleridge, by his own account, was high on opium when he wrote it. He was in the early stages of an oil-burning habit which would rule him for the rest of his life. Opium, in the liquid form of laudanum, was legally available at the time, but it's a miracle that anybody else got any, because Coleridge was drinking it at the rate of two quarts a week.

Since, in his last years, he managed to write Biographia Literaria, which TS Eliot later hailed as the work of the greatest literary critic in the English language, the question of whether drugs ruined Coleridge, or else helped him to express his genius, is not easily answered.

But one thing we can say for sure. Even more than his contemporary Thomas De Quincey, who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Coleridge was the one who established the romantic connection between getting wasted on drugs and yet being granted the entree to a deeper reality than the rest of us get to see.

Later on, in France, Baudelaire and Rimbaud followed Coleridge down the same road, but even if they thought they were opening up a French autoroute, they were in fact only extending a British motorway, the road to Xanadu.

If Trainspotting was about normal people doing the shopping it might have fallen short

Here in the 21st Century, we tend to think that the drug problem started in the 20th Century, forgetting that it acquired its most insidious element in the 19th Century, with the notion that the world of drugs might be more exciting than the real world. That notion has bedevilled the whole discussion ever since. What do you do if people actually want this stuff?

The discussion never ends and probably never will, but it's been especially hot news in the last week or so after the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, fired the chairman of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Prof David Nutt, for talking out of turn.

I won't go into details, because the newspapers have been going into nothing else for day after day, but broadly we can say that this particular brouhaha would never have arisen if the government had not put itself into a position of asking for advice that it might not want to take.

If the government is still there after the next election, it might eventually want to take the advice which Prof Nutt was apparently all set to offer, which is that cannabis is not so bad after all.

The government might even eventually want to legalise cannabis, or at least follow the example of California, where you can buy it for medical purposes. But suppose one or more of the panel offered the advice that a much more powerful drug, namely heroin, would be less destructive to society if it were made legal?

It's not impossible to imagine that advice being given, and given by an expert, because there was a time within living memory when heroin, in Britain, was legal. Heroin wasn't criminalised until 1968, and when I arrived in London in the early sixties you could still see the famous midnight queue at Boots in Piccadilly, where the addicts gathered to get tomorrow's allowance of their prescribed heroin pills.

Nowadays, however, when the stuff is banned, even the less privileged look glamorous if they are sticking needles in themselves

The point was that there weren't many addicts. There weren't many in the whole country.

After the drug was banned, however, it became more popular. The gangsters got in on the act, and whole thing escalated until now you not only have thousands of adults shooting up with needles, you have children shooting each other with guns. The reasons for this disaster have been analysed to shreds, but one factor hard to rule out is that it makes a story.

Drugs aren't humdrum. There is danger, special kit, a racy vocabulary, a ritual. That was already true for Sherlock Holmes, whose creator, the physician Arthur Conan Doyle, for some reason equipped the world's greatest detective not just with a super brain but with a taste for the needle.

Way back before World War I, there was an element of the young upper crust that fooled with morphine. It was legal and available, but the fact that older people frowned upon it made it look glamorous to the bright young things.

If you read the diaries of Duff Cooper, you find Lady Diana Manners and her glittering friends getting off on the stuff all the time. Nowadays, however, when the stuff is banned, even the less privileged look glamorous if they are sticking needles in themselves. Nobody would make a movie like Trainspotting if the characters were just holding down jobs and going to the supermarket.

With exotic powders in the picture, the drug world can so easily be made to seem more intense than the real world.

The Man With The Golden Arm
Sinatra had a poor time of it in The Man With The Golden Arm

In America cocaine was banned in 1914 and heroin in 1925. Traffic in the banned drugs quickly became a major theme for crime fiction. In some of the pre-war crime movies, and in almost all of the post-war ones, drugs are fuel for the action.

It's been said of modern Hollywood that it's a factory where people high on cocaine make movies about people high on heroin, but somebody must have his head screwed on because people want to see the movie even when it makes drugs look awful.

Back in 1955 The Man With the Golden Arm should have finished off heroin's career as a desirable product - Frank Sinatra got so strung out he could barely react to Kim Novak. Fast forward to the 1983 version of Scarface, and you can see Al Pacino destroy his criminal career with a nose-dive into a pile of cocaine bigger than his head.

But no amount of didactic condemnation from the big screen has ever slowed the trade down, and on the small screen it's doubtful if even that magnificent series The Wire has done much to persuade the corner boys that they would be better off trying to improve their grades.

The Wire is a test case. If you haven't seen it, it's about how the whole black inner city of Baltimore is turned into a war-zone by drugs. It's a tremendous piece of work, The Wire. It's got everything, including a precision of language that you have to call poetic. And it's got an unpalatable message - the war on drugs can't be won.

Sherlock Holmes
The pipe wasn't Holmes's only vice

To coincide with the last episode, the creators of The Wire published an article in Time magazine which recommended that nobody should be jailed for a drug crime unless violence was involved. If the work of art they had created was true, and it seemed terribly true, then this advice was in conformity to the facts. To the minds behind The Wire, legalisation is the only answer.

But in addition to that article they have also published a couple of books, and one of the books, called The Corner, has a couple of pages that don't quite fit with the rest. Almost every character in the book is sucked into the system. But there is one character who volunteers for it. He makes only a fleeting appearance, but I can't get him out of my mind.

His name is Gary McCullough and he has brains, energy and a gift for organization. He assembles all the necessary equipment for busting out of the free-fire zone he was born into. But he tries a taste of the stuff and he is lost. His previous life was exciting, but not as exciting as this.

Religious vacuum

Here, I'm afraid, is a way through to a further fact that we might still be faced with even if the whole vast mess of drug crime could be made to go away. Decriminalise all the drugs, put things back the way they were before the roof fell in, and you might still be stuck with people for whom real life simply isn't thrilling enough, even when they are otherwise quite good at it.

I think they're wrong, but it isn't easy to make a case. Western civilization is up against it in that respect. Now that religious faith is so weak a force, how do you convince people that ordinary life is worth the effort?

It's not just a matter of persuading the young in America's black inner cities that it's worth going to school even if it leads only to some boring everyday job such as the Presidency of the United States. It's a matter of persuading young people in all the liberal democracies that the real world has a glamour of its own.

Charlie Parker, the wonderful saxophonist who ruined himself with drugs, tried to tell his fellow musicians that they were fooling themselves if they thought they could play better when they were high.

Few musicians listened to what he said, so why would anyone listen to Nancy Reagan saying "Just Say No"? She sounded so square.

Even when all the drugs in the world are freely available at a special booth in every block, to advocate the opposite of self-destruction will always sound square, unless we can summon the language to persuade the candidates for a waking sleep that real life, with all its complications, is the only worthwhile mystery, and drugs are an escape to simplicity, which is no mystery at all.

But finally it would be up to them. Would fewer choose oblivion if all were free to do so, at the booth marked Xanadu?

Below is a selection of your comments.

An interesting article but its worth stressing that the heroin addicts were getting their fix from Boots the chemist. It was clean, pharmaceutical grade drugs of known strength and purity not the street rubbish cut with rat poison. Decriminalisation, where we turn a blind eye to criminals selling the dodgy stuff is the worst possible outcome. Drugs either need to be banned outright or sold by pharmacies.
Peter, Notts

Unlike most criminal activity, the use of illegal drugs is largely a victimless crime, and yet there must be thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens who have had their lives ruined, not by taking drugs, but by being caught in the act of taking them, and then being subject to the often draconian processes of the so-called justice system. That injustice alone is sufficient to justify legalisation. Furthermore, despite the possibility that legalisation would cause some casualties, just as the ready availability of alcohol also causes some casualties, for the vast majority of users, legal drugs would be a positive thing, a life-enhancing experience. Anyone who has been to a "rave" under the influence of ecstasy, or discovered new depths to a piece of music under the influence of cannabis would agree. There's a world of difference between "use" and "abuse" - most drug users are hard-working people who hold down regular jobs, contribute positively to society and use drugs sensibly and recreationally on an irregular basis. Legalisation wouldn't change this, the money currently wasted on prohibition could be better spent on helping people to make informed choices via education (without Alan Johnson's political prejudices please!) and people need no longer get criminal records for choosing to do something that's less dangerous than riding a horse.
John E, Southampton

Yes, the war on drugs may be lost, and decriminalisation is possibly the only way out of this social, political and economical mess the illegal drug industry has brought upon us. But, still, drugs are NOT glamorous - and drug users should not be glamorised. Drugs are a tool of alienation, self-destruction and ruin of others around. It affects everyone in a chain, starting by those countries which have been completely wrecked and demoralised by drug production - only to satisfy the desire of self centred and ignorant individuals who think being high is cool.
Julie, London

It appears to be in human nature to want an escape or release from what is for some the tedium and stress of existence - how many of us have a glass of wine or beer when they get home from work? How many have a guilty cigarette? If you include these then the number of drug users in the world is huge - I suggest it is a deep need in many - perhaps genetic? Therefore, drugs should be legalised & given away to people who want them, along with help quitting for those who want that too. That way there is no glamour attached to drugs & addicts don't have to turn to crime to fund their habit. The only losers are the dealers. People who want recreational drugs and can afford them should be charged for them. The evidence shows that we will get the drugs we want whether legal or not.
Marco, Northampton

Losers will always be users. Don't make drugs legal. Users want all barriers and responsibilities removed - they become parasites. Permit a smoker to smoke and he will do so in your face - everywhere. Toughen drugs laws as much as possible - everywhere possible.
Ian Beveridge, Aime, France

Drugs usually give you a pleasant experience, at first anyway. That is why they are taken. And not everyone is a brilliant musician or actor and they may be stressed and poorly paid if they are. With a drug you can give yourself the sensation of reward that you feel that you deserve and the world denies you, although there's a probably over-simplistic point of view that that only gives you a neurological overdraft that leaves you in debt afterwards, like spending the money for Christmas at the pub. As for oblivion, though, plenty of that waits for us at the end of our lives, unless you have the sort of religious belief where the supernatural powers that be recreate you after you die just in order to punish you as they decide you deserve.
Robert Carnegie, Hamilton, Scotland

Everyone looks for a means of escape, you just have to look at the front page of this very website to see why. There is nothing positive in this world. The stories of hope and strength are few and far between, and they look so unattainable. It isn't just the so called hard drugs that people are using, alcohol of course is another but also so are online games. Immerse yourself in another world, another life, one where you can make a difference, fight for something greater than yourself, feel like a hero. It sounds so good it is unsurprising that millions of people all round the world play games in universes from fantasy and science fiction. Different people react to the world around them in many different ways but it seems no matter which route you take to escape it seems clear that the real world is needing to improve in order to get its inhabitants back into living a real life.
Tori, Scotland

If we're quoting from TV shows, I like the final view of the great series Traffik, which says explicitly that as we can't stop people trying to escape from society, we ought to be spending our energy making society better. It should be stressed though that not every adult in Britain is on drugs - in fact a tiny minority even use cannabis regularly - and I suggest that most people seem quite happy with their lives.
John Gammon, Brighton, UK

I heard someone say that intoxication is the fourth great human need after warmth, food/drink and sex. And why shouldn't it be. We are a species given the dubious delight of a self conscious intellect. For every pleasurable treat life can give us, we are aware it can be equally painful. Ultimately we know we have no control of the end of our life. Is it not a surprise some seek distraction? The lawmakers and the newspapers still cling on to their puritan morality that pleasure for its own sake is sinful, hence the "war on drugs". Why has another individual got the right to stop me doing anything to my self that would not hurt another? The hideous hypocrisy that allows a government to make a vast amount of its revenue through a tax on cigarettes and alcohol whilst at the same time proclaiming these to be deadly, shows quite clearly that it's not drugs that are bad for your health, it's politicians.
Mara, Blackpool

It is quite possible to dabble in exotic substances. Much as enjoying a few drinks doesn't necessarily lead to alcoholism or an occasional flutter at the races doesn't always lead to gambling addiction. Addictive personalities are a problem, a day trip to Xanadu isn't.
Dave, Kuala Lumpur

See, the problem with all this is the idea that a choice must be made - that somehow an entirely sober life is more REAL than an (even occasionally) inebriated one. In fact, this is deeply questionable - Coleridge's Kubla Khan is still beautiful to those of us who have never tried an opiate. It is fairly clear, from the statistics during America's Prohibition period and countries that have different attitudes to substances (Saudi Arabia and alcohol, for instance) that illegalisation causes the concentration of the most base "high" within a substance. Witness the hype around skunk for example. Cannabis should be illegal, we are told, because it is stronger now than 30 years ago - a very consequence of the initial illegality. But, in fact, it is just certain potent elements that have become concentrated - THC, which causes paranoia and intoxication. Other elements that would previously have been part of the enjoyment have become reduced. Similarly, millions of South Americans chew the coca leaf for a similar stimulating buzz to coffee. They do not all suddenly turn to crack cocaine.

What I am trying to hint at, is the idea that, given the free, legal, and informed choice, perhaps many would not turn to the most dangerous form of a drug - but to alternatives with different characteristics, just as wine buffs do not constantly enquire as to a vintage's alcohol content. We need to think differently about what human beings find enjoyable in substances, before we can reach any kind of resolution with them....
Daniel Johnston, Aberdeen, Scotland

In the 80s I had purchased a Scientific American which ran a series of articles based on studies into drug related problems. After reading these articles there was one interesting fact which has remained with me. Long term addicts who managed to survive and extricate themselves from a dependency all gave the similar reason for doing so. "They just wanted to feel normal again." I guess that after a while even Xanadu becomes boring.
Clive, Melbourne/Australia

After the novelty wore off, yes, eventually fewer would "queue at the booth", but there would always be a line. Keeping it acceptably small would be the challenge. An egalitarian society, providing a mind opening education, would enable all people who crave excitement, to work at "new frontiers", such as science and technology. Currently the vast majority, at best, get a monotonous job at the wrong end of an ever growing rich-poor divide. That's not enough for the random "pioneers" that nature creates and distributes regardless of class.
Huw, Mildura, Australia

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