On drugs in sport (and anywhere else for that matter)

Yesterday’s shock/horror news stories about the release of the report into drugs in sport made we wonder again how, where and when we got it wrong. What we call ‘illegal’ drugs were once legal, at least, those of them that were discovered by accident long ago. You could, in the 19th century, legally acquire opium, and the USA put a customs duty on its importation. ‘Heroin’ was a brand name for an opium derivative, and babies could be prescribed drops of the company’s product. Cocaine was also easily available, and thought of as ordinary.

Alcohol and tobacco were also ordinary and easily available as well. In the 19th century temperance movements grew in strength in Britain, the USA and Australia, as did general wealth and the consumption of alcohol. In the USA the movement grew strong enough to force a total ban on the sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, a consequence of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (and the 21st, which repealed it).

The American experience with the prohibition of a desired substance ought to tell us that such prohibitions, however successful they are in preventing their use (and with alcohol the 18th Amendment was pretty useless), they lead to all sorts of evil side effects. Once something is illegal, but obtainable, wicked people will procure it for you (you become another wicked person), and then the police are corrupted (not all of them, but those who have to police the law), and we then get wicked politicians as well as wicked police. The social outcomes are bad.

Why do we do this? The same scenario describes prostitution and gambling, in the days when these activities were also illegal. What eventually happens is that the police and the politicians work out some kind of modus vivendi where certain houses and dens are permitted, small fry are largely ignored, and we all pretend that things are OK. I’ve puzzled over this ever since I became interested in politics. Why do we do it?

The only answer I’ve come up with, and I’d be grateful for more, is that once we go down the path of making things illegal, it’s hard to go back. The forces protecting the status quo are always hard to counter, and they include ourselves. We worry that some close to us might be tempted… In fact, I would argue, those likely to be tempted won’t find it hard to get whatever it is that tempts them.

When a practice or a product is legal you can see that there are people who simply can’t control themselves. The licensed clubs are trying to work out how to deal with ‘problem gamblers’, while the numbers who can’t seem to know when to stop drinking are legion. Recidivist drink drivers, a matter of concern to me in my road safety role, are alcoholics who drive. We haven’t yet imposed a rule that their cars must be fitted with an interlock device that won’t let them drive if they have been drinking. But it will come. And some of them will work out how to counter it.

The drugs, pokies, grog and cigarettes aren’t the problem. We are. We are human, and we like to experience things. The very great majority seem to be able to do so without much harm, and I’m beginning to wonder whether or not there is actually an addictive personality type that is drawn compulsively to some activity or substance — an obsessive form of the ordinary human preference for things we that we like, such as chocolate, or a glass of wine at dinner, carried far beyond that.

Imposing laws on all of us to deal with the problems of a few isn’t the right way to go, but we do it all the time. Human beings learn best from experience, especially from failure. In the case of sport the position is even more wacky, because here we are talking about substances that ‘enhance performance’. According to a television ad that I have seen, a particular breakfast cereal does that. Steroids are banned, and other substances. Guess what happens? Some of those who want to excel find ways of acquiring them, or acquire their supposed equivalents that are not banned. Mr Armstrong is only the most famous example.

I understand why sports want to establish a common base for competition: we ought then to know who is ‘really’ the best. And then (and only then) will punters also be on a fair and level surface. Of course, we could always ban betting on sporting events, which would solve that problem.

Of course it wouldn’t. My proposal is that we abandon the criminalisation of substances altogether, allow them to be available, educate people about their effects and their downside, and leave them to it. And that goes for performance enhancers in sport as well. Who is to decide what is an acceptable performance enhancer?  On what basis is such a judgment made? Why is working out at the gym acceptable but steroids are banned? If we are looking only at natural talent, why allow training and preparation at all? And so on.

Our sporting bodies will beaver away for a while working out how not to be in the public gaze for the wrong reason. But that will soon pass, I think, until the next eruption.

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