The War on Drugs is as pointless as it is immoral; obviously it must continue. - Spectator Blogs

10 December 2012

3:29 PM

10 December 2012

3:29 PM

Like Tom Chivers I’d not planned to write anything about the latest suggestion our drug laws are sufficiently confused, antiquated and beyond parody that at some point it might be worth reconsidering them. It’s not that I’ve tired of reform, rather that I’ve pretty much tired of making the case for reform. I have precisely zero expectation that this Prime Minister, who once seemed unusually sane on drug issues, will fulfill the naive and youthful promise he showed on the opposition benches.

But then, like the redoubtable Mr Chivers, I saw Thomas Pascoe’s views on the matter and found myself sufficiently provoked by his argument that I was stirred to action once more. Mr Pascoe has had enough of all these utilitarian and empirical arguments in favour of reform (ie, liberalisation) and wants us to return to first principles. This, he thunders, is a moral issue. And you know what, I kind of agree with him. Consider this passage:

Reading is a moral issue. The fact that large numbers of young people feel the need to obliterate reality through books says something both about them and us. First, reading feeds into a culture in which people take refuge in imaginary lives, rather than taking practical steps to remedy their problems. Second, it implies that as a society we can offer nothing else to these people, that release from the crushing boredom of many people’s daily existence cannot be found in charity work or education or self-betterment.

Legalising books endorses both of those viewpoints. Whether you want to build the New Jerusalem or simply improve your own lot, one way to ensure you fail is to turn inwards and seek the solitary consolation of a fantasy world. To take such a despairing view of people’s prospects is a moral tragedy.

You may notice that I have cheated a little here, substituting “reading” and “books” for “drug use” and “drugs” in Mr Pascoe’s own copy. This is not meant as a cheap-shot. Or, rather, is meant as rather more than just a cheap-shot. Mr Pascoe is on to something: many people do take drugs because they find drugs a welcome relief from the grim tedium of everyday life. There is a measure of escapism to this.

Mr Pascoe takes a dim view of this. Heaven forbid that the common man be permitted any means by which he may, however temporarily, escape the shackles of his dreary existence. Up with this we shall not put. Like Mr Pascoe I consider this a moral matter; unlike him I wonder if it’s really all that morally-virtuous to insist upon limiting other people’s opportunity to enjoy themselves.


It is true that some people use presently illegal drugs in ways that are detrimental to their own health, the well-being of their families and the health of their neighbourhoods. But the fact that some people misuse a pleasure or a particular narcotic is hardly reason to prevent others from using it. Because if is true that some people are ill-equipped to use drugs sensibly it is also true that these people are very much in the minority. Most users of presently-illegal drugs are perfectly normal, functioning, members of society. You probably share an office with some of them. You almost certainly share a train or a bus with some of them. You have no idea who they are, what they look like or what they do. They are all around. They are normal.

This is obviously true of cannabis and ecstasy. It is also true of cocaine. It is probably also more true than you imagine of heroin. That is, there are some heroin users capable of combining heroin use with a “normal” life. (A minority, possibly, but that’s a different matter.)

In the end, the War on Drugs is also both a war on pleasure and a war against boredom. It cannot possibly defeat either foe. Even if you accept its morality, however, one might wonder how you defeat either pleasure-seeking or boredom-aversion. No government intervention can plausibly be expected to manage this.

Most people take drugs because taking drugs is, for a while at least, fun. Then they grow out of it and cease taking illegal drugs because, well, that’s the sort of thing best left to the kids. But even if you are of the view that people actually take drugs simply because they otherwise lead lives of despair and misery it seems harsh to condemn them from seeking relief, however fleeting, from this despair and misery. That’s an odd kind of morality too.

Mr Pascoe suggests the problem is that our present laws have not been applied with sufficient rigour. Well, maybe. But since fighting the drug war “properly” means waging a battle against pleasure or boredom or both it is hard to see how you can possibly prevail absent indulging in measures so harsh they lose any semblance of proportionality or, actually, civilisation.

So, yes, it is a moral matter. Which is also why the moral argument for drug reform does not require reform to be accompanied by “harm reduction” even if said reduction in harm might be a useful, cheerful, empirically-measurable accompaniment to a more moral drugs policy.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Good view

  • MahmudH

    Painting anti-drugs people as anti-fun or pro-boredom is a very stupid way of trying to argue your point. This kind of ‘yipee’ argument for drug reform is the reason why drug reform provokes so much public opposition even when people know the current situation is very bad and unfair. People want a less harmful set of laws, but they don’t want the change made by people who don’t understand the harm drug use itself, not just the laws, cause to individuals and families.

  • flux5000

    Cameron is obviously on the side of the organised criminal element, as they are the only ones in control of the drugs market it is they that stand to continue to gain from the status quo…

    There is no ‘control’ of ‘drugs’ by our Government.

  • Dr Crackles

    Wonderful, a nation that persistanly underperforms and has little good to say about itself now believes that stupefication en-masse is the answer. We only have ourselves to blame.

    • DavidMHart

      Where on earth do you get the idea that the idea that “treating drug use as a criminal matter causes more harm than it prevents, and we could lessen that harm if the drugs industry was legally regulated” equals “let’s all get blitzed”? Your comment is a daft parody of the op-ed.

      • MahmudH

        Nah, he rightly gets it from the article saying “taking drugs is, for a while at least, fun”, “the War on Drugs is also both a war on pleasure” and “drug reform does not require reform to be accompanied by “harm reduction””.

  • Richard Thomas

    It has always seemed to me that until society and authority are prepared to be open about the reasons why people take drugs – both legal and illegal – it is impossible to erect a framework for their management. Alex Massie hits the nail on the head in recognising a need for transient pleasure, a need for escapism and fun. The absurd but transient hysteria exhibited by parts of the media about the use of such substances as ecstasy is counter productive since the users can manage the risks; they see the periodic campaigns against social drugs as the authoritarian motivation to prevent enjoyment – Menken’s definition of puritanism in other words.

    It is not entirely paranoid to see the continuation of the war on drugs as being a combination of self interest on the part of the authorities through the justification for repressive measures like the current Home Office attempts to control e mail traffic and fear of the puritan elements in the media who will make merry on what they can portray as moral weakness.

  • James Strong

    Surely I am not the only person who sees the absurdity of legalising possession for personal use but continuing to criminalise dealing.
    That just forces the law-abiding to do business with criminals in order to buy their legal pleasure.
    Legalise it all, have licensed distribution, proper quality control and some tax revenue.
    And put criminal drug dealers out of business.

  • Ron Todd

    Middle class view of legalisation is them or their teenage children being able to have a spliff at a party without worrying about the police. Drugs are not like that for a lot of people. Even if the sale of drugs was legal they would need to finance the drugs without being in a condition to hold down a legitimate job. Drugs that make people paranoid or violent when illegal would do the same when legal. Drug related crime would not disappear. There is a chance more nice middle class children the type of people our ruling class care about would progress from the ocasional splif at a party to drug addled petty criminal. I say probably because we cannot predict what would happen.

    If some drugs are lega and other not we would still have the hypocracy suggested by those that complain about alcohol/tobacco. If all drugs were legal what happens when a new drug appears would it be assumed illegal keeping the claimed hypocricy or would it be assumed legal whatever it did to people.

    • Whitehallwalker

      Very sensible argument Ron Todd: I think we should be honest about the difference between benign (or beneficial) drug use, and damaging drug use.

      I can accept that smoking the odd joint, or occassionally taking heroin can be harmless, if it doesn’t escalate. I also understand that drug addiction fuels acquisitive crime and violence.

      But stealing is already illegal. And so is being violent. So what is added – what is the point – of making the drugs illegal too? Aside from causing behaviour that’s already illegal, are drugs really that bad?

      Are there any other causes of crime that are illegal by themselves? Poverty, ignorance, mental health problems and greed? None of those things are illegal – the last one is morally objectionable, but still legal. Why? Because we wait for the greedy person to steal before punishing them: there is a difference between greed and stealing.

      Drugs policy punishes adults and children – in some really bad ways – for risky curiosity, rather than punishing them when they actually do something wrong.

      Where’s the moral argument here?

  • retundario

    >>>It is true that some people use presently illegal drugs in ways that are
    detrimental to their own health, the well-being of their families and the health of their neighbourhoods. But the fact that some people misuse a pleasure or a particular narcotic is hardly reason to prevent others from using it. Because if is true that some people are ill-equipped to use drugs sensibly it is also true that these people are very much in the minority. Most users of presently-illegal drugs are perfectly normal, functioning, members of society. >>>

    Yes sure –

    Also many people are capable of using hardcore pornography or guns in a way that does not intrude on others, but their social benefits are negligible if non-existent – like crack or heroin. Or even cannabis, which is very addictive and can ruin people’s lives actually.

  • Chuck White

    What was the point in them setting up this inquiry in the first place if they just instantly reject their recommendations – because surely they must have suspected the committee would conclude with this stuff ? And why is a royal commission instantly rejected? And how the hell can they honestly believe our drugs policies are working? WTF?

  • Maharg Smith

    Property prices in colorado and washington have remained stable since decriminalisation and murders are down on last months figures.All night petrol stations have reported an increase in takings (Not petrol related) and I have booked a holiday there for next year.

  • Troika21

    Legalise drugs, or ban alcohol and cigarettes.

    I don’t care which; it’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.

    Speaking as a teetotaller, it’s amazing how people will attempt to push alcohol onto you, “But its a special occasion, you’ll just have one, won’t you?”,
    I mean, honestly, can you imagine “But you’ll just have some crack, won’t you dear?”.

    It amazes me that some people seem to think that there’s a difference between their vice and other peoples.

  • andagain

    I think the Royal Commission is reassuring, in a way. Ten years ago, any such recommendation would have been denounced or ignored.

    Now they have to pretend to pay attention to the report before not-implementing its recommendations.

    Another ten years, and they might actually follow them.

  • CraigStrachan

    I find reading Thomas Pascoe to be as good an escape from reality as any.

  • Snapper

    The decision of the individual to dabble in drugs is a moral red-herring. To knowingly fund a criminal underworld though drug use is, however, morally questionable. I say this in reference to the ‘normal people’ to whom Alex alludes, rather than those with a genuine addiction.

    • OldSlaughter

      The ‘criminal underworld’. Yet another reason for legalisation.

      • Snapper

        I don’t disagree. Nevertheless, in the context of the current laws, taking drugs is not morally objectionable; funding crime is.

    • malcolmkyle

      Every time the ghastly violence of prohibition is falsely blamed on the users, it diminishes the culpability of those who are truly responsible for maintaining the status quo. Prohibition is an absolute scourge -the end! The use of drugs is NOT the real problem, the system that grants exclusive distribution rights to violent cartels and terrorists IS.

      When governments prohibit drugs they effectively and knowingly hand a monopoly on their sale to dangerous criminals and terrorists. Without a legal framework in which to operate, these black-market entities can always be expected to settle their disputes violently while terrorizing many peaceful and innocent citizens in the process. Were the users of alcohol to blame for the St Valentines massacre in 1929? Of course not! It is just as naive to assume that one can compel all the users of Marijuana, or Cocaine, to simply quit, as it is to assume that all the users of Alcohol should have stopped drinking after the introduction of US alcohol prohibition in 1919.

      The situation everywhere will continue to deteriorate while Prohibitionists like yourself will continue to attempt to blame its negative ramifications on the users, rather than on the fundamental paradox of handing an entire sector of the economy to organized crime. By falsely denouncing drug users — or attacking those of us who advocate for a more sane way of dealing with this problem — you are serving to greatly perpetuate prohibition’s deadly consequences rather than alleviating them in any way.

      • Christian

        What happened to the mafia when prohibition ended? Did they renounce crime and set up soup kitchens? Drug legalisation will have zero effect on crime. Take Mexico, the current murder rate is a third of what it was in the 1940s.

        • Whitehallwalker

          After alcohol prohibition ended, organised crime made money out of extortion, armed robbery and selling illegal drugs.

          Sorry Christian, but I’m not sure your point holds.

          • Christian

            Au contraire, you make my point for me entirely. Ending prohibition did not have any effect on crime other than to displace it. The claim that crime will be lowered is nonsense.

        • DavidMHart

          If the total amount of money available to be made out of crime decreases, the economic incentive to criminality decreases – sure, people who are currently drug traffickers may not become model citizens overnight, but if one source of illegal revenue is cut off, we should not presume that they will necessarily be able to increase another source of illegal revenue, so some of them will be forced, out of economic necessity, to seek work in the legal economy. Just because legally regulating drugs won’t totally dissolve organised crime, doesn’t mean we should reject the opportunity it presents to seriously weaken organised crime.

          And that’s before we even start on the fact that most other ways of making money criminally are much more high-risk. Robbery, mugging, kidnapping, extortion, fraud, all of these create victims with an incentive to inform the police (unlike drug transactions where both buyer and seller are complicit in wanting to avoid the police) – so the risk of being caught is higher. Most of these crimes also create victims who may try to fight back directly, or whose friends and family will seek revenge (again, unlike consensual drug transactions) – thus making them more immediately dangerous to the perpetrator.

          Quite simply, taking the drugs industry out of the hands of criminals will make it much more dangerous to try to earn a living from crime, so fewer people will want to do it.

          And, whatever Mexico’s murder rate was in the 1940s, the important metric is the difference between before and after the current war against the cartels. As this graph shows, murder rates had been declining throughout the decade previously, but shot up during Calderon’s escalation of the conflict between the government and the traffickers. The chances that these factor are unrelated seems pretty low to me.

          • Christian

            Mexico is and always has been an extremely violent country, the murder rate is far lower now than it has been historically. Fact.

            • DavidMHart

              Okay. So what, if not Calderon’s war against the cartels, drove the murder rate to triple during Calderon’s rule? (see here for a citation:
              And can I take it that you at least concede the other points, about legalization offering a chance to reduce the viability of crime as a means of earning a living, even if it cannot eliminate it outright?

              • Christian

                Gang related murder only accounts for around half of mexicos huge numbers of murders. This was already an extremely violent country, a fact you appear to ignore.

                I don’t accept your point regarding viability of crime. Were you correct then America should have witnessed a huge fall in organised crime after prohibition but it didn’t.

  • Christian Jones

    If you need to be told hy books and drugs aren’t remotely similar then I pity you. If Fraser nelson is reading then please can I have a job? I can write shit as well these jokers any day.

    • OldSlaughter

      On the level of escapism what is the difference. Or at least why are the similarities expressed here not relevant. Prove you can write shit as well as this please.

      • Christian

        Erm, because books can’t damage the body or brain. They don’t leave you impaired to drive or operate machinery.

        • roger

          You try driving while reading a book.

          • malcolmkyle

            Or even walking while reading a book.

            • Christian

              Reading is an additional task to driving, drugs merely impair ones ability I carry out the task, they are not a separate task in and of themselves. It’s comparing apples and oranges.

        • OldSlaughter

          That is not on the level of escapism. I also asked “why are the similarities expressed here not relevant.” You didn’t answer that either.

          So in short. Your response is silly.

          • Christian

            It’s an absurd comparison. I can close the book and function as a normal human being instantly, not so drugs. One might as well say dreaming whilst in a coma is the same kind of escapism as reading a book.

            • OldSlaughter

              I can with some drugs. This is silly now. The original author moaned about escapism, not driving, or ‘functioning’. This is not the point being discussed so stop muddying the water.
              It is very silly.

              • Christian

                The only silliness is coming from you two. It’s like saying on the level of warmth the sun and a coal fire are the same. Hmmmm, not really. Escapism via a book and via drugs are demonstrably not the same, there is no equivalence. That you cannot comprehend that is a shame.

                • OldSlaughter

                  “Escapism via a book and via drugs are demonstrably not the same”

                  But escapism itself was the enemy apparently. The rest of your chat is a waste of time.

                • Christian

                  I can understand that you would like there to be an equivalence, I’d like there to be a Santa. Sadly it just isn’t so.

                • OldSlaughter

                  Well if you say so. What drugs have you taken btw?

                • Christian

                  LSD, cannabis, amphetamine, poppers.

      • Ben Kelly

        I work for a charity that offers support to masses of drug addicts who have destroyed their own lives because of drug abuse, lost their jobs, their kids, their self respect and their dignity. A whole miserable underclass of refugees who took escapism too far. There are no charities to support people who have over indulged in reading, this is an utterly pathetic argument, literally the worst, most childish, and most dishonest level of discourse I have ever heard on this subject. I used to be a heavy recreational drug user myself and find the level of this discussion to be utterly disingenuous and juvenile; I cannot fathom how anyone who used drugs would spout such nonsense. Reading a book is stimulating to the brain, expands your vocabulary, broadens your horizons, stretches your imagination, improves your English and grammatical skills, reading is food for the brain. Books do not necessarily have to be escapism either, they can help you better understand your own emotions and your own life. Drugs pleasures are all artificial really, can be fun, but they cannot enrich you and in the long term are always detrimental. If this is really what you think about reading then I pity you.
        To think of all the heroin addicts whose kids are being taken away and who have no functional life so live a life of crime and welfare to fund their ‘escapism’, the coke addict who snorts just to feel normal and has grown bloated and wheezey with a weak heart, the crack head who lives his life in 10-15 minute bursts desperate for his next smoke, to think of all these people I meet, that if I was magically able to get them all to give up drugs and begin reading instead, to propose to me that by doing this I am offering them simply an equivalent is one of the stupidest things I ever heard proposed in a serious manner. You have debased the argument and you sound ridiculous.

  • Malcolm Kyle

    Are there evil Equestrians hanging out in your neighborhood? Learn how to rid yourself of such a serious problem, but be prepared to enlist the help of others.

    1) Call the local, state and federal police.

    2) Talk to your neighbors and other property owners in the area about these quadrupedalist villains. They may have useful information to relay to the police.

    3) Is this property a rental? Go to The Tax Appraisal District to find the owner. Let them know that the “reprobate cavalry” are on their property.

    4) Start a “Neighborhood Watch” in your area.

    * A neighborhood watch does more than just ally against horse dealers: all quality of life crimes are reduced when neighbors are vigilant and do not compromise their stance. A weekly meeting with a few spliffs and pizza helps create a bond.

    * Take pictures of the riders (surreptitiously of course), the paraphernalia left behind, like empty oat bags, provides hard evidence for the police to do their job.

    * Children require alternatives to horses, so work with your community to ensure quality options to Equasy.


    * Don’t threaten the equestrians. Be wary of confronting them rashly; While a very small minority may be reasonable people, there is the distinct possibility this will be a very dangerous course of action.

    • Baron

      Malcolm, you sure you in the right place?

      • malcolmkyle

        Didn’t an English professor recently state that horse riding was far more dangerous than ecstasy?