Monday, 14 July 2008

Tom Brake, Dwain Chambers and drugs hypocrisy

I must say that, until alerted to it by my brother over the weekend, I had missed the fact that last week Lib Dem MP Tom Brake had introduced a 10-minute rule bill in the House of Commons to ban the sale of cannabis seeds. For some reason, it didn't exactly get much coverage up here.

Also over the weekend, convicted athletics drug user Dwain Chambers won the British Olympic 100m trial and, if his legal bid to overturn the British Olympic Association's lifetime ban on drugs cheats is successful this week, he will now be able to represent this country in next month's Beijing Olympics.

Two unconnected events? Well, not entirely. I think both show up the hypocrisy of much of society's attitude towards drugs.

Let's deal with Tom Brake first. I have blogged before about his protest against a shop in his constituency which sells all sorts of legal drugs paraphernalia, including cannabis seeds. This latest move is clearly a continuation of that illiberal nonsense.

Brake's majority over the Conservatives in his Carshalton and Wallington seat at the last General Elecion was 1068, down from 4,500 in 2001. His constituency must therefore be considered under threat. It seems to me that Brake is adopting a populist "Woo, drugs, scary" line in order to try and appeal to Conservative voters. The trouble with that is that he may alienate people in his constituency who take a more liberal line, as I'm sure many do.

Brake is therefore proposing to ban something solely so he can appear 'tough on drugs' to a small minority of his constituents who really care about this issue. Now, as a liberal, I have great suspicion of people who want to ban things and believe that there should be clear and direct evidence that something is causing significant harm before it is banned. I really don't think that such evidence exists in the case of cannabis seeds. I also think that any harm there might be is likely to be far less than with many perfectly legal drugs such as alcohol. I share Gavin Aubrey's concerns about Brake's stance, especially in the light of Lib Dem policy on drugs and the position that Brake holds within the parliamentary party. Also, although Brake's bill stands no chance of success, I suspect it would be completely unworkable anyway - a Google search on "cannabis seeds" gives more than 50,000 hits, for example.

So how does this relate to the Dwain Chambers situation? Well, again, the question needs to be asked what harm to others Chambers has done with his misuse of drugs. Yes, it might well have allowed him to gain a competitive advantage over fellow athletes who weren't taking such drugs.

But the whole regime regarding drugs testing in sport is an absolute mess. It's not uncommon for sports reports to mention that an athlete has had to have a painkilling injection such as cortisone before competing. Given that injured athletes probably wouldn't compete without such injections, why is cortisone not considered to be a performance-enhancing drug when substances like ephedrine and stanozolol are? And what's the difference between some drugs and the perfectly legal dietary supplements that many athletes take? And what do we actually mean when we say that a substance provides an 'unfair' advantage?

Now, I'm not suggesting that athletes should be able to take whatever substances they like, although that is a position that some people adopt. Nor am I suggesting that every single substance you can think of ought to be legalised - I don't think it would be a terribly good idea for people to be able to carry round polonium-210 with impunity, for instance. But I am saying that both drugs in society and drugs in sport should both be subject to clear evidential requirements that their use directly harms others.

I'm also not saying that Chambers should be able to go to the Olympics - as Stephen Glenn rightly says, he knew that he was breaking the rules as they now stand and I don't think that a lifetime ban from the Olympics is an unreasonable sanction.

However, both Brake and Chambers illustrate the need for a complete rethink on our policy towards drugs - based on a rational approach, not just knee-jerk reactions. Until we do so, our current arrangements will remain a mess.

1 comment:

Lois said...

I too have concerns over Tom Brake's actions - however regarding use of drugs in sport..we are talking about young people who might suffer long-term damage as a result of use (abuse) of such drugs.

In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe I recall that a number of former East German athletes took legal action claiming they had suffered lasting damage as a result of the steroids they were given.

So I think the rules regarding use of drugs by sportspeople should remain in place.

I do think you have a valid point about painkilling injections. If the body is hurting to the point where competition becomes impossible without painkillers, then Nature is saying the body should be rested - not subjected to further abuse, possibly making the original injury much worse through the athlete continuing to complete when they are not fit.

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