We need to talk about… Attitudes

Why are widespread libertarian views on issues like vaccine passports usually at odds with the same people’s opinions on drug prohibition, asks Nick Goldstein.

Nick Goldstein is a service user

Just when you thought it was safe to read DDN again… I’m back! Harm reduction is as much a chronic relapsing condition as addiction, and after being hopelessly involved in harm reduction for far too long I’d decided I deserved a sabbatical, maybe even a permanent vacation.

So, I’m on sabbatical/vacation minding my own business and everything is tickety boo, but early in 2021 I started to feel uneasy. Something was bugging me and I couldn’t figure out what. This seemed more than your average pandemic blues, and I noticed the unease intensified whenever I watched the news or read a newspaper. Everyone feels mildly nauseous while watching the news these days, so I put it down to general anxiety. But this felt different.

Epiphany and diagnosis finally came while watching the Beeb’s one o’clock news with, of all people, Andrew Bridgen MP discussing public health laws in the form of vaccine passports, which he harrumphed were ‘a major infringement of civil liberties!’ I was fairly amazed by his attitude, as anyone who’s been arrested, charged or even imprisoned for breaking another of those public health laws, like, I don’t know, a drugs offence perhaps would be.

Ironically, I remember, back in the day, meeting my old friend Jimmy on his way to court. I asked how he thought it would go and he replied ‘nothing good’s going to happen. Whatever happens my civil liberties will be flouted’. He was joking, but the judge saw it differently and told him so – while flouting his civil liberties. This was long before Mr Bridgen saw the light, so no one was there to question the court’s approach to civil liberties and public health.

Public health laws are government, at various levels, trying to improve the health of the general public with policy and legislation involving environmental health, community health and epidemiology, among others. Public health laws are never popular because they amount to a blunt tool that inevitably limits behaviour, but up until recently they were accepted as necessary for the greater good. Public health laws have been introduced for a wide range of issues ranging from tobacco and alcohol use to zoning and quarantine laws and, of course, drug prohibition, employing policy tools from taxation to criminalisation.

No one likes being fined or jailed, but public health laws and the penalties they engendered were accepted as necessary – the price we all paid to be part of a society. That was until recently. You see Mr Bridgen’s not alone in his re-evaluation of the relationship between the state and the individual, and its impact on public health. Mr Bridgen is just one of what appears to be a growing group of people with a very libertarian take on events – a whopping 126 MPs voted against the public health legislation around vaccine passports. MPs across the political spectrum voted against enacting a law the primary aim of which was the protection of their constituents’ health – ranging from Jeremy Corbyn (natch) to Sir Graham Brady to Caroline Lucas. They were cheered on by a large section of society, from hardcore anti-vaxxers to lapsed Nazis to aged socialists all protesting public health laws as infringements that compromise their liberties.

None of these people seem to have considered how their attitudes to public health might impact other areas – like drug prohibition. I mean, we have laws to protect everyone’s health. You can’t claim that one deadly disease should be prohibited and punished with criminalisation and then claim another should be ignored because action infringes your liberties. It’s simple, we either believe in protecting society or we place an individual’s rights before all else. It appears that a little consistency in our elected representatives’ attitudes to public health laws is asking too much.

I guess on the plus side that inconsiderate comments from our political masters regarding the iniquity of public health laws and primacy of civil liberties reveal a sea change in attitudes to the ethos of the state and the individual – or to put it another way, you can’t talk shit about rights without it impacting on other areas of public health policy, like substance misuse treatment. With a little luck this change of attitude and growth of libertarianism might spark a wider discussion on civil liberties and public health laws. Well, I feel a lot better for working out what was bugging me. Now… back to my sabbatical.


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