Books: A Point of View: High Road to Xanadu |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

High Road to Xanadu : on the legalisation of drugs

(S06E03, broadcast 6th and 8th November 2009)

"Better than reality"

‘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. 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 T. S. 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 entrée 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. Here in the twenty-first century, we tend to think that the drug problem started in the twentieth century, forgetting that it acquired its most insidious element in the nineteenth 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, Professor 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 Professor Nutt was apparently all set to offer, which is that cannabis is not so bad after all. The government might even eventually want to legalize 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 criminalized 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. 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 the 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.

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 looks 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.

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, legalization 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.

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. Decriminalize 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?


Like industrial relations, drugs constitute an abiding dilemma for liberal democracy. It is hard to see how a free society can eliminate drugs and in fact no free society any longer tries: the most common plan is for a soft drug to be tolerated as a means of staving off traffic in the hard drugs, and there would probably be no returning to a state in which alcohol was permitted only so that all drugs could be banned. Certainly there will be no returning, in any free society, to a state in which alcohol was banned as well: the American experiment put the lid on that. Nobody wants to hand power to Al Capone. But the question remains of how to keep hard drugs in check. The obvious answer is to legalize them, but the obvious answer has the drawback of being purely rational; and purely rational answers to genuine dilemmas are almost always to be avoided, because dilemmas arise in the first place out of irrational needs that demand to be satisfied. Eugenics, for example, had a purely rational answer to the problem posed by handicapped children. In pursuit of that policy, Nazi Germany, by passing laws to suit itself and obeying them to the letter, had already revealed itself as an irredeemably criminal regime even before it got started on the mass murder of the Jews.

A free society is no such danger, but creates dangers of its own. One of them is the elevated position given to the arts. This narrow conception of creativity generates many casualties, because there are young people who think they have failed if they do not gain fame by expressing themselves. Intelligent and decent parents of a young addict go mad with grief and worry because they can see that there is a point to life, whereas their errant child can’t. Probably the best thing to do is let the child go to hell in its own way, but this is only a rational answer. To fight back effectively, you would have to convince young addicts that their ambitions are too high. Not everyone can be a star, and there are real, and possibly more essential, contributions to be made in ordinary life. But it’s a hard sell, because ordinary life visibly includes them, and all their pills, powders and needles. And often, like terrorists, they have gone to war not against a free society’s vices, but against its virtues. One of the chief virtues is that all are free to express what is in them. But what if there is nothing? A question to put the mind in torment, and make its owner long for sleep: the drugged sleep which is very closely allied to the totalitarian dream, in which no more thought is necessary. It’s another dubious blessing of the West: our home-grown, native-born suicide bombers spread no carnage in the streets, but detonate their explosive devices only within themselves, lacerating nobody except their parents, brothers and sisters, who pay them the generous compliment of being broken-hearted instead of relieved.