Sunday, July 02, 2006

Another toothpick

The policy wonks are looking at putting toothpick instructions on booze. By this, I refer to Douglas Adams' dude in SLATFATF who lived outside the asylum after getting pushed over the edge by reading some toothpick instructions.

As we know from Kate Sheppard and the Women's Christian Temperance Movement a hundred years ago, alcohol is bad. In contemporary technocratic language strategies, "We have a product that if used in some ways it has very real harms for both individuals and communities." Of course, the best way to solve this is to do what they did to tobacco, banning advertising and putting warning labels everywhere. Oh yeah, that'll stop the harm. "But wait," say the wonks. "This is no silver bullet. It is only part of a comprehensive strategy to address the inadequecies of the current paradigm. I'll show you the Powerpoint presentation." I've spent enough time dancing to recognise a loop when I hear one.

Earlier in the month, I'd waltzed along to the National Drug Policy forum to review their Five Year Plan. There was a good turnout of around 40 people. There were representatives from the Ministry of Health, Corrections, Youth, and other government bodies I lost track of. The Pharmacy Guild were there, almost filling up the back row. The NZ Drug Foundation had a rep and Mark Peck from the Smokefree Coalition was there. A wide variety of NGOs and public servants were at the public meeting. No-one was there as an individual.

Not a single member of the public was there. Not even Blanket Man bothered, even though morning tea was provided. Dagg knows how lively the meeting would have been if some NORML and Green Cross people hadn't turned up. As it was, we filled the many silences with our suggestions and observations while half the room took notes. There were a few other sensible people there, notably the guy from the DHB who had more relevant and practical knowledge than a hundred PUBL or MGMT courses. Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that everyone who attended meant well. The road to public policy is paved with good intentions.

Of course, it is pointless to send a submission on the Five Year Plan. While Chairman Jim has the final word on drug policy, nothing will change. Even though in his heart of hearts, he knows that prohibition doesn't work, he is too proud to admit he has been wrong all these years. This mediocre King Lear will have to go, Captain Sensible with him, before any admission of reality will be accepted.

This warning label trend is part of escaping the reality of the situation while still looking like you're doing something. It also means you can disavow responsibility for reality. "Hey, we warned you!" It's the same script that says, "You had the opportunity to consult, even if we did set the rules of engagement, the jargon and the terms of reference."

Compare, for example, three levels of warning labels for the same inflatable swim-ring:

The blunt Oz warning: "Flotation toy - Warning: Use only under competent supervision."

The moderate Brit warning: "Warning! Only to be used in water in which the child is within its depth and under supervision."

The 'don't sue us' American warning: "Caution: This is not a life saving device. Do not leave child unattended while in use. Never allow diving into this product. Never leave in or near the water when not in use. Only use in water. Follow these rules to avoid drowning, paralysis or other serious injury."

Guess which country Robert Strange McNamara came from?

(Originally posted 31/5/06)