Not for the first time, I am motivated to comment on Peter Hitchens’ campaign for tougher drug laws. As I’ve noted in the past, I often agree with his diagnosis of the problem, but less so his recommended course of treatment. It is possible that some good will come of Peter’s efforts. He is attacking the status quo, so I can agree with him on that. He is pointing out how false most of the discussion of the issue has been for a long time. I can agree with him on that too. If he is initially successful in his campaign, perhaps this will clear away all the rubble from the field, and enable a rational debate to take place, and we can finally sweep away this disastrous relic of the Progressive Era.
As the title of his book “The War We Never Fought” indicates, part one of his case is that the drug policy of the last forty years has been liberalism under the counter. There has been no draconian punishment, and as such, no effective deterrent in particular for drug users. He asserts it is a nonsense to go after dealers but leave users alone, because without the users, the dealing would cease. The large number of people in the audience of the debates in which he has been taking part who volunteer that they have taken illegal drugs proves to him that there is no war in process.
The second part of his case is to assert that cannabis is not at all harmless, and that the case for its legalisation insofar as it is based on the relative harmlessness of the weed does not stand up in the face of the many people whose mental health seems to have been gravely effected by cannabis use.
The third part is to argue drug-taking is immoral. The fourth is to deride any comparison between drug prohibition and alcohol prohibition in the US under the Volstead Act, to the extent that the very use of the term ‘prohibition’ is mocked. Perhaps he would prefer us to argue for ‘re-legalisation’? Possibly not. The fifth is that those of the bourgeois establishment who are pushing for legalisation are doing it through selfish hedonistic reasons, based on the fact that they have enjoyed or do still enjoy to dabble, that they don’t want their children arrested and that they are oblivious, and wilfully so, to the devastating harm drugs do to the lower echelons of society. That is probably not the sum total of Hitchens’ position, but it’s enough to be going on with.
As for the war on drugs, it is indeed true that this has not been prosecuted in this country to the degree that it has been in a number of other places. In many countries, convicted drug smugglers face the death penalty. This sometimes enters the mainstream consciousness when it is a westerner facing the rope in some faraway ex-outpost of Empire. The United States also yields copious examples of hard-line policing, where people caught with drugs can face decades of jail time. It is the drug war which has enabled the establishment of a ‘prison-industrial complex’ where the largest incarcerated population in the world compete with the Orient’s sweatshops in the supply of cheap labour. Turning south, we come to Mexico, and here the drug war loses all metaphorical sense. There really is a war going on, which has claimed the lives of over 60,000 people in the last five years. The vast sums of money generated through drugs has fuelled a war for control of the trade between the various cartels and their government backers. One of Obama’s scandals, which his kool-aid swilling followers like to ignore, has been the weapons his administration has supplied to the Sinaloa Cartel. To what extent this is bad policy, incompetence or actual side-taking in the war, is not clear.
What can we learn from these foreign examples? Quite possibly, draconian laws can suppress drug use. A real threat of serious jail time or execution would no doubt put off a lot of casual British users. But would such policies have public support? In order to implement, for instance ten year sentences for possession of cannabis, would HM Gov need to bypass the jury system, for fear of perverse verdicts? I am only speculating, but, if a seriously tough drug policy were to be implemented, it’s possible that it would require special, non-jury courts to ensure conviction.
In any case, recent years have seen a massive growth in ‘legal highs’, and the government has had to play ‘whack-a-mole’ as it runs to keep up with the proliferation of substances which have not been specifically banned, usually following the death of one or more users. In such cases, not only is the now established cliché ‘legal doesn’t mean safe’ indeed true, but these new drugs have proven to be more dangerous than the old ones. The only way to escape this game would be to drive another nail into the coffin of England’s legal traditions, by reversing the maxim ‘everything is permitted which is not specifically forbidden’ or else to pass some kind of general law against substances with psychoactive effects of a certain kind, which would by necessity be subject to arbitrariness.
As to the harmlessness of cannabis, I think Peter is correct up to a point. Whether or not the causal link has been properly established, I do not doubt that a minority of users have been seriously harmed in their mental health. It may well also be, albeit impossible to substantiate, that a far larger number of users have been harmed to a lesser degree, and that the drug has caused them to waste their potential. All those days they never got out of the house, because they started the day with a spliff … The line between use and abuse is not clearly marked, and many people, if they were honest, would admit that at times they were the wrong side of that line. The same thing can be said of alcohol. For every hopeless middle-aged drunk, there are many more who are not, but who can recall wild nights of excess from earlier years. People change as they get older and take on responsibility. In the words of St Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child: I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Individual liberty cannot be separated from individual responsibility. They are almost synonymous. The question; “are you responsible for X?” contains within it the necessary idea that there is freedom to act. Duress and coercion negate them both together.
Returning to the weed, as I have no doubt stated before, the method of cultivation under prohibition is exacerbating the risk of mental illness to those who are more susceptible. The harvesting of immature plants leads to an imbalance in the chemical make-up. If growers were concerned with quality rather than quantity, they would wait a couple of weeks from the point that the plant reaches its maximum bulk before harvesting it, but that’s fourteen extra days they may get raided, and fourteen days lost to the next cycle, and given the enforced scarcity in the market, there is little economic reason to justify the wait. As was the case in alcohol prohibition, the tendency is toward stronger products; from beer to whiskey, and from milder forms of cannabis to super skunk, the bathtub gin of the marihuana world. But is the existence or prevalence of bathtub gin an argument in favour of prohibition (see how dangerous this filthy stuff is!) or in favour of legalisation (there would be no market for such an inferior product without prohibition)?
This brings us to the issue of morality, because if the driving force is to extirpate immoral behaviour, rather than minimise the physical harm of drug-taking, then the answer to the above question may be the first rather than the second. But that’s enough for now.