George Allan’s Resources Corner – Lessons from History

George Allan, Scottish Drugs Forum’s Chair, has recently published his bi-monthly resources column in Drink and Drug News, this month looking at ‘Matters of Substance’ by Griffith Edwards.

Every so often, by virtue of orginality or depth of understanding, a book will last long in the memory: for me, Matters of Substance by Griffith Edwards (2005, Penguin) is one such text.

Edwards was, of course, one of the major figures in the field during the latter decades of the 20th century and he brings a wealth of experience to the issue of how best society should handle substances. To answer this question, he explores the history of drug use and tries to draw lessons which can inform our present approaches. Drugs for Edwards are any mind-altering substances. Tobacco is given equal weight to heroin, alcohol is considered in parallel with cocaine.

A strength of the book is its focus on the cultural contexts within which problematic use occurs and how these shift over time. Culture includes attitudes, economics and the meaningof use and how these factors shape methods of control. We still place too much emphasis on the pathology of individuals with difficulties and not enough on the forces in society which shape use and problems.

Edwards is particularly enlightening on why drug epidemics emerge and then decline, the latter often occurring despite, and not because of, the measures a society has taken to address them. From the UK’s opium wars with China to Malboro Man, from prohibition in the USA to the rise of psychedelics in the 1960s, Edwards describes the ebbs and flows of use and attendant policy shifts.

In the final section, Edwards draws conclusions from history regarding how best to reduce the harms. He is highly critical of our laissez-faire approaches to the damage which alcohol wreaks; this leads him to adopt the precautionary principle in respect of loosening the law, particularly in respect of class A drugs, although he does consider the arguments for aspects of decriminalisation to be worthy of further debate.

While this conservative stance is being increasingly questioned in the west, those in favour of relaxing the law would do well to test their arguments against the evidence Edwards presents. As might be expected from its author, the book is erudite but accessible, witty and full of pertinent anecdotes. It is written for the enquiring general reader but those of us in the field should never forget the lessons of history.

George Allan is chair of Scottish Drugs Forum and author of Working with Substance Users: A Guide to Effective Interventions (2014; Palgrave)