The late John Mortimer QC was a good lawyer, entertaining writer and renowned social reformer. He was also a fine raconteur, drawing upon a fund of Court stories, to bring colourful authenticity to his stories of his compassionate comic creation, Horace Rumpole.
He once told of an exchange he witnessed in a London Magistrate Court, when a drunk was ” up before the beak” having been arrested for being drunk and disorderly after vomiting into the stairwell of an Underground station on the commenting crowd below. It was a pretty vile occurrence.
After sentence the Magistrate attempted to counsel the drunk.
“You must not drink alcohol” he remonstrated. ” Not a drop, not even the teensy weeiest sherry before your supper”.
The magistrate plainly had no concept of the life of the malefactor, and the story raises a smile because of it. There was a complete cultural chasm which made such well meaning advice frankly comic. However well meaning, the life experiences between them made easy comparison frankly ludicrous.
Brother Ivo recalled this story to mind when hearing discussions about drugs policy and noting that it is suggested that policies adopted in other countries can be ported across to the UK with similar results. It is especially ironic when proponents describe this as “evidence based”.
The elephant in the room for such advocates is the liberalisation of alcohol sales.
There was a time when selling alcohol was restricted to a relatively small number of outlets, only selling the product within narrow time bands and at risk of having their licence renewal denied if their premises was perceived as a hotbed of disorderly behaviour.
Potential licensees had to appear before Justicice to confirm that they would not sell alcohol to those who “are or appear to be drunk”.
The reformers of alcohol laws held out the promise of liberalisation ushering in an era of Italian style cafe culture, with young people sipping an early evening proseco before walking home to Mum with whom they still lived, and who was waiting there with the rest of the family with the customary hand made spaghetti.
One only has to pay a late night visit a University city centre to note how very different our society and its young people responded to such changes.
A similar striking comparison arose out of the sexual revolution. The Dutch attitude to prostitution and extra marital sex was often called to aid during the sexual revolution in the latter part of the 20th century.
Yet today, whilst the UK now stands as the worst, in terms of teenage pregnancy, in the world the Netherlands has the lowest rate, reflecting perhaps an earlier strict Protestant culture where a child out of wedlock still carried societal disapproval. Similar laws – but very different outcomes.
In yet another field, the prevalence of gun ownership in the USA is often used to suggest a direct corolation between lawful ownership and unlawful deaths, yet Switzerland has similar widespread gun possession without US levels if murder.
Put simply, culture matters.
How the same policy plays out may vary vastly between different communities.
The issue of how we deal with our serious drugs problem is too complex for the scope if this blog, but anyone who believes that easy comparisons can be made between different cultures is misleading themselves and the debate.
The Anglo-Saxon culture has long had a culture of excess in relation to alcohol as literature testifies; Chaucer Pardoner’s tale centres upon it, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is no moderate imbiber, and Hogarth paints a surprisingly modern picture of this country’s relationship with booze.
Offered the chance to engage with oblivion, this culture appears to be drawn to making that existential choice. Even the eloquently liberal Rumpole was an habitué of El Vino’s demanding a bottle of its finest cooking claret, after his latest thumbing of the nose at the legal establishment.
The social evils associated with drugs are many, complex and serious.
The costs are both direct – in terms of health care and crime, but also indirect, in terms of child abuse, undiagnosed mental health issues, self harm and family breakdown. Those indirect costs are not only financial but emotional.
Family dysfunction is a communicable social disease which grows exponentially. Any modern Rumpole knows from direct experience that drugs run like a musical theme throughout the tragedies of most of the characters who populate the case load of any practitioner of law in the fields of crime, domestic violence, child abuse, housing law, or welfare rights.
Many with close knowledge of the devastation which drugs cause to families and, especially, children will view any proposed change with great care. Improved practice is welcome; informed culturally calibrated policy will assist; facile comparisons with unrelated cultures will not.