07 November 2004

Spinning Wheel Blues

Inconsistent policies on drugs and gambling demonstrate Government confusion on both habits.

Amidst all the sound and fury regarding the Government's plans to reform gambling, few commentators have spotted the obvious comparison between Government's approach to gambling and to drugs.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard, was one of the few. He noted "If any law is in urgent need of reform, it is the thus ineffective 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. It does far more harm to minors than do fruit machines. Yet Ms Jowell and her colleagues will touch it."

Looking at the arguments put forward by the Government in support of it's reforms of gambling, one would be hard put to fault exactly the same arguments if put forward for drugs reform.

In an article, again in the Standard, Tessa jowell defended her bill thus:
"if adults nake the rational informed decision to gamble, they should be allowed to do so. They should be encouraged to do it in places tha are crime free and properly regulated. Above all else, children should be protected from the temptation to gamble."

A key thrust of the Govenment's thinking is that a lack of control has created greater risk to young people. The arrival of high-prize gaming machines in venues used by young people exposes them, the argument goes, to temptation and risk. A licensed and regulated market would remove these machies from these arenas, and limit them to venues where only adults would access them.

If one substitutes "use drugs" for "gambling" in Jowell's argument, the argument is all but identical to the arguments put forward by drug policy reformers.

Fear has been expressed, both in terms of drugs and in terms of gambling that proposals to change the law will result in an increase in problem gambling and gambling addiction.

Here, Jowell offers a different analysis, and again one that is wholly appliable to the drugs field. She argues:
"to judge an entire industry by the people who can be addicted by its product is similar to closing down every pub in the country because of the lif story of an alcoholic. It is not possible to close down an industry and prohibit people from what they consider a pleasure because of the tragedy of a few."

Again, these are sentiments that most drug reformers would recognise and applaud.

After this, however, the Government's approach to gambling and the vision of the drugs reform lobby go in sharply different directions. While the current spin put on the gambling reform is one of "protection through regulation," the other is one of "profit through expansion." The licensing and development of larger casinos, the facillitation of local authority licensing and the projected profits for local and state profits are aspects which demand an increase in the number of gamblers and, by association the number of problem gamblers.

This is where the approach to gamblig and to drugs part company. Drug reform proposes control and safety through license and regulations. A key model is distribution through medical routes for some drugs and controlled and regulated markets for others, notably cannabis. Most drug reformers would abhor an approach which saw big corporations take over this market and actively recruit new users.

The Government is, on the one hand, right to think that regulation is safer than a absence of safeguards. This applies to drugs as much as gambling. But to then actively promote and expand such a market would be indefensible to both too.

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