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.