Drugs, Morality, The Law & Peter Hitchens

I expect I have more time for Peter Hitchens than many libertarians.  Credit where credit’s due, I say; the man has been on the right side of a great many issues over the last few years, such as the defence of habeas corpus, jury trials and other hard-won limitations on state power; he has been resolutely against ID cards and other ‘Big Brother’ measures; and he has denounced the foreign military adventurism of this and the last government with greater logic and principle than the likes of George Galloway and the far left. So far, so good. This is the part of the journey which the libertarian shares with the Burkean conservative. That journey does however start and end in different places.

Nothing is more indicative of this than Hitchens’ lone knight attack on the state’s failure to prosecute a war on drugs.  Perhaps this is not a solitary tilt, but Peter breaks away and makes his primary targets cannabis, not crack or heroin, and users, rather than suppliers. Judged solely as a strategy to win the drug war, his logic may well be correct. With regard to the latter target, he is identifying the demand, not the supply. If the demand could be curtailed, through draconian law enforcement, then the supply ceases to be problematic.  As for cannabis, perhaps it is the generally-held view that it is not harmful, and that it is tolerated by a large part of society, which saps the moral fibre of those required to enforce the prohibitions.  Therefore, Hitchens’ has set himself the task of presenting the case that cannabis is far from harmless, most notably with regard to the evidence of a link to mental illness, but above all his denunciation of drug use is on the grounds of immorality.

Let us accept this latter charge for the moment, and define drug use as immoral. Without wishing to fully make the case, I will suggest that this could be based on drugs as a deliverer of pleasure, where no pleasure has been earned. Without drugs, we must strive to achieve goals, and when we do so, then we feel happiness. We may of course feel happiness due to good fortune, but even in this case, the happiness derives from a rational appraisal of our situation. The drive to improve our situation is the basis of all rational human action, but with drugs, no such effort is required, and pleasure can be attained notwithstanding the absence of the conditions a rational mind would see as satisfactory. The junky may be living in squalor, but feels on top of the world, at least for a while.   The drug user melts away the lack of satisfaction in his everyday life, and dissipates his motivation to better himself, and thereby wastes his talent and fritters away his life.

Furthermore, a drug abuser can cause a great deal of mental anguish to his family and friends, who see him harming himself but they cannot stop him, and upon whom he makes himself a burden, incapable of supportinghimself, and by extension of supporting others, for whom he may be obligated to support.  How is this wastrel’s life not immoral?

So, as before, let us accept without further quibble, that drug-taking is immoral. The question is; so what? That does not make it a crime. To be a crime, there is a higher bar to jump; namely that you have committed an act which aggressed against someone else’s physical person or property, or that you threatened to do so. It’s not a crime to give yourself over to cheap pleasure, and no matter how harmful that may be, if you do it to yourself, if it an act of informed consent, then no crime has taken place.

Back from this likely come two ripostes. The first will be the link between other crimes and drug use, i.e., crimes committed under the influence of drugs or the influence of a drug addiction.  This becomes irrelevant, if the actual, proper crime is properly dealt with. It is this failure of the criminal justice system to punish actual, proper crimes which needs addressing. The same story plays out over and over again:

Criminal: I’m sorry for the string of burglaries, I was out of my head at the time, the drugs made me do it, but I’m trying to clean myself up now.

Judge: That’s very brave of you to face up to your issues. You know, prison doesn’t work anyway, so I’m going to give you another chance.

When judges stop treating a claimed drug addiction as a mitigation, then criminals will stop claiming it is. This isn’t to say that there aren’t criminals with drug habits which would benefit from treatment, but it should be a separate matter to the necessity to punish them for their crimes, and seek restitution for their victims. Contrary to what the judiciary may believe, crimes like robbery and burglary are very serious, not least because everyone has a right to defend themselves and their property even unto death.  How more serious could something be? The law should recognise this and treat such vile acts accordingly.  But what equivalence can be found between the act of house-breaking or putting a knife to someone’s ribs and demanding their money when compared to someone taking a pill or smoking a joint?

I’ll give you a choice of neighbours; one is in his parlour, smoking himself a rung up the ladder to serenity; the other is breaking down your kitchen door and plundering your possessions.  There’s not even a choice. The first, you don’t even know about it, except by perhaps a faraway smell.  The second, you will know about it. It will change your life, at least in the short time as you patch your place up, cancel everything, get the door fixed etc.  It may make you hate the place you live. You may be coming home for months to come, nervous of what you will find. A weak parry of this point could be; it’s probably the same neighbour! The guy smoking the drugs is most likely the same one who robs you. The answer is above; punish the real crime.

What, then of the second moral argument? Have I not admitted that drug abuse does indeed harm others, such as the family and friends of the abuser? Here, the key word is ‘harm’.  It does not at all mutilate the English language to say that a drug abuser harms his family, but when we are dealing with the law, we must be clear in our definitions.  There are degrees of harm.  If the ‘harm’ we are considering comprises a criminal act of violence or theft, or perhaps in the case of a drug-addled parent, one of child neglect, then we have the laws already written expressly to deal with such occurrences. But if we are talking only of the mental anguish that is inflicted on caring relatives, this alone, immoral though it is, is not enough to constitute a criminal offence.

This in no way belittles the reality of the suffering families of drug addicts, but drug abuse is just one on a list of things that if you do them it may cause your family anguish. We can add alcohol for a start, and gambling. We could add adultery and divorce. We could even add converting to another religion, or terrifying your mother by buying a motorbike. They can be dangerous too.

So, surely we all agree that there is a limit below which causing mental anguish ceases to be a matter for the law.  I say; let that be the limit already given, by the ordinary criminal laws against violence and theft.

All that aside, is Peter right about cannabis being so very dangerous? I certainly wouldn’t say it was harmless, but unlike heroin, cocaine and alcohol, you can’t take too much and die. Yes, you may fall off a balcony, but you’d have to eat your own body-weight to risk overdose.

The link to mental illness seems to be closely linked to a particular type of cannabis, high-strength grass, broadly called ‘skunk’.  It crops up in the politician’s cliché, about smoking once when they were a student, but they didn’t like it and they didn’t get stoned, but this new stuff the kids are smoking nowadays is something else entirely.  Indeed it is different, but if anyone claims you couldn’t get high in the ‘70s and ‘80s smoking Moroccan black , they’re lying.  The effects of cannabis, the same as with alcohol, depend on the dose.

Prohibition led to a higher consumption of stronger  alcohol over the weaker kind .  If you’re going to smuggle a barrel of beer, it might as well be whiskey. The same applies now to cannabis, and skunk is its ‘bathtub gin’, grown fast and harvested early. This is not a product marketed on its delicacy, but the power of its punch.  Due to the way it’s grown and cut, a certain chemical preponderates, which would not be the case if the plant was allowed longer to mature, and it is this chemical balance which I believe is most responsible for the negative effects on mental health observed in many people.  But who would buy ‘bathtub gin’ if a decent bottle from a distillery of repute was readily available instead? In a legal market, people would not be buying solely for concentration and quantity, but for quality.  On these grounds, the worst of the grass would disappear.

And one final thing must be said for cannabis; that there is no more versatile plant ever cultivated by man.  It can be used to make paper better than wood-pulp; textiles stronger than cotton; plastics, fuel, cooking oil; the seeds make high-protein food, and it has medicinal uses which have been practiced for centuries.  Furthermore, the plant is basically a weed, and will grow with very little assistance, needing far less fertiliser and pesticide than cotton, it counters soil erosion, and you can smoke it and get high.  I defy any God-fearing man, as Mr Hitchens is, to refute that this is a gift from our Creator. If that merely scalps the air, let him consider, drawing upon the naval tradition which runs in his blood , if I am not mistaken, how would this island’s navy had fared without its hempen ropes and sails (and a lash and bottle o’ rum)?For all these reasons, any law prohibiting such a plant is ridiculous, nonsensical, even blasphemous!

None of the above applies to crystal meth, for which we must fall back to earlier arguments.