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Peter Hitchens is wrong (on the internet!). There really is a War on Drugs.

30 October 2013

12:31 PM

30 October 2013

12:31 PM

Before I headed off on honeymoon I took a pop at Peter Hitchens’ rather odd assertion that there was no such thing in this country as the War on Drugs. Mr Hitchens duly responded on his Mail on Sunday blog and this in turn deserves a response. Even a belated one.

First, an apology: I rather regret suggesting Mr Hitchens is a nitwit. That was unnecessary. I do think his argument – impeccably sincere as it may be – runs towards nincompoopery but since we all hold beliefs other people consider idiotic we might do well, at least occasionally, to recall the usefulness of treating the man and the ball as separate concerns.

Nevertheless, I can’t say that I’m much persuaded by Hitchens’ rebuttal. This may not surprise either of us. The essence of his argument is that, look matey, there is no such thing as a War on Drugs. The evidence for this assertion – and I am afraid it is merely an assertion unbuttressed by the facts it sorely needs – is that the War on Drugs is not prosecuted nearly as vigorously as Peter Hitchens thinks it should be.

Which, even novice debaters will observe, is not quite the same thing as proving the non-existence of a War on Drugs. But let us allow Hitchens to speak for himself. His point, in essence, is this:

[O]ur decriminalisation is covert and unacknowledged, because international treaties and political necessity currently make open decriminalisation or legislation difficult; also that it is directed mainly at the use and consumption of drugs, not at their importation, cultivation or sale. So far as I can discover, and figures on this are difficult to obtain, the weakening of the cannabis possession laws has been followed by a weakening of the possession laws as applied to Cocaine and Heroin, and also to a softening of sentencing for supply (and the introduction of ‘compounding’ as a way of letting off people importing small amounts of illegal drugs into this country).

But how weak are these laws? In recent years we have seen Cannabis reclassified as a Class B drug, Khat classified as a Class C substance, raw magic mushrooms categorised as a Class A substance, Ketamine given a Class C status and Methamphetamine upgraded to a Class A product. In addition other, more exotic or less well-known substances such as Methotexamine have been added to the long list of prohibited drugs.

Since, as best I can tell, no drug of any sort or kind has fallen off the list of prohibited substances and, actually, several more have been added to the catalogue it is perverse to argue that this represents a climate of de facto decriminalisation.

Moreover the maximum penalties for both possession and supply of drugs remain severe. Seven years for possessing Class A substances (life for supplying them), five for Class B (14 years for supply) and two years imprisonment for possessing Class C drugs (14 years for supplying them). Doubtless Peter Hitchens would complain that maximum sentences are not imposed with sufficient frequency. And, of course, convicts are often released from jail before they have served their full sentence. Nevertheless, these tariffs are hardly evidence of undue leniency even if, as Hitchens might claim, the full force of the law is invoked too rarely.

Or, as he put it himself:

[A]ny law that exists is useless unless it is consistently and rigorously applied. Where laws exist and are not applied, one can safely presume that they exist for propaganda or other dishonest purposes.

The point of laws is to reduce the crimes that they prohibit by credible deterrence, not to make those crimes completely vanish.  Their purpose is not to scoop multitudes into the net of punishment, but to scare multitudes away from the illegal act.

This is confusing. Many laws exist but are not applied consistently. Most speeding drivers, for instance, speed unmolested by the police. Similarly, most licensees selling liquor or tobacco to under-age consumers do so without being hauled before the bench. The cost of applying the laws against such illegal activity would greatly outweigh the social benefit gained from doing so. Perhaps these laws only ‘exist for propaganda or other dishonest purposes.’

And, yes, to the extent people are prosecuted for these infringements the purpose is exemplary rather more than it is an attempt to catch everyone who breaks the law. These prosecutions, like some of those pursued with regard to drug offences, are a warning to others and a reminder that the state expects certain standards of behaviour to be maintained. It would be impractical – actually, futile – to prosecute everyone caught in possession of cannabis or other prohibited substances. But the failure to prosecute everyone scarcely means no-one is prosecuted.

Back to Mr Hitchens:

[I]n the case of life-ruining drugs, [the law exists] to provide a counter to the peer-pressure and celebrity advertising which beguile many immature people into risking their mental health, and so risking the ruin of their own lives and the lives of those who love them. Picture, if you will, the plight of the 70-year-old parent of an incurably mentally-ill 25-year-old, incapable of supporting himself or of any proper social contact, and only able to live from day to day thanks to the ingestion of powerful antipsychotics. I heard of just such a case on Saturday. All involved believe the tragedy was caused by cannabis.  I believe such things are increasingly common in our Cannabis Nation. Victimless crime, you say? Ask that parent.

Burglary, one might argue,  is the consequence of the human desire to own what we have not earned. No doubt the burglar imagines the world in which he takes freely the property of others as ‘different, kinder and better’ than the one in which he has to work and save to buy these things for himself. That’s his opinion. (Who but a moral fundamentalist can say he’s wrong?) Likewise, no laws can eliminate it, least of all our feeble ones.  But would Mr Massie want those laws entirely dismantled, or further weakened, even so?

So here we have a classic example of argument by anecdote and misdirection. No-one disputes that narcotics can can ruin lives nor that they sometimes do. (Though I note that the anecdote Hitchens uses to illustrate his conviction that smoking cannabis ruins lives is hardly a dispositive one. All involved ‘believe’ cannabis responsible. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it wasn’t. Furthermore, even Peter Hitchens only ‘believes’ such things are ‘increasingly common’.)

However, the vast majority of drug users are recreational not habitual consumers of illegal intoxicants. Most of them grow out of it too (a truth rarely acknowledged by the Drug Warriors). And the vast majority of drug users suffer no serious ills as a result of their use of cannabis, ecstasy, LSD, cocaine or most other illegal narcotics. We know this because our own experience tells us so. We have empirical, rather than anecdotal, evidence to support our case. There are millions of Britons with experience of drug-use. There are not millions of lives crippled or otherwise blighted by the consequences of that drug-use. There are, for sure, some but they are an unfortunate and, in fact, tiny minority.


That being the case, our laws are asinine for they try to persuade us that drug-use is invariably a ticket to high-speed ruination when our experience tells us this is not the case. No wonder the laws are mocked and ignored.

I am afraid that Hitchens’ comparison with burglary makes no sense either. It is, I believe, unusual for households to freely invite housebreakers into their premises. Burglary, rather obviously, is a crime against property.

Purchasing illegal narcotics, by contrast, is a commercial transaction usually – except, you could perhaps argue, in the cases of the most hopelessly-addicted – no different to that you might make at Tesco. It is a contract between consenting adults. A private commercial transaction that is no concern of the state. And, yes, since these are voluntary exchanges there are no victims here. It is not really comparable to being robbed except, of course, in those instances where the consumer is sold counterfeit (and often dangerous) products that are themselves the consequence of our mania for criminalising the sale and possession of drugs.

In any case, even if you accept (and I do!) that only a sample of drugs vendors and consumers are arrested, charged, prosecuted and convicted it is still the case that a reasonable person would reckon the imprisonment of more than 10,000 Britons a year on drug offences and the conviction of a further 50,000 citizens must be evidence of some kind of War on Drugs.

Peter Hitchens is not a reasonable person.

[T]he cannabis laws have a vestigial purpose in police work, allowing police and courts to arrest, charge, prosecute and fine people whom they are pursuing for other offences which they cannot so easily prove against them. As most thieves, vandals and other troublemakers (no doubt in pursuit of a different, kinder and better world)  are in fact almost invariably in possession of cannabis, this often serves to put them in the bag. But it is not evidence of a war against drugs, just evidence of the wider powerlessness of authority.

Got that? Drug arrests are not evidence of a War on Drugs. Drug convictions are not evidence of a War on Drugs either. If drugs were as dangerous as Peter Hitchens argues, I’d be tempted to suggest that this part of his argument suggests he’s a habitual user of illegal substances. He sees an aubergine and calls it a pineapple.

It is true, as Hitchens says, that most of the people receiving custodial sentences for infringing the drug laws are imprisoned for supplying, or intending to supply, narcotics rather than for simply possessing them. Even so, convictions for possession are hardly unknown.  In 2004, for instance, nearly a third of the 8,000 citizens jailed as a result of drug convictions were imprisoned on possession offences. Mr Hitchens would, of course, like to see more convictions for possession. But how many would be enough to satisfy his thirst?

After all, it is reckoned that some 8.2% of 16-59 year olds in England and Wales took illegal drugs last year. Do Peter Hitchens and his allies really want to convict and lock-up millions of people? How many prisoners would be enough? And if Iran, which executes hundreds of drug smugglers and dealers each year cannot win the War on Drugs, why does he think this country can? (You might, mind you, argue chemical intoxication is a rational response to living in Iran).

In any case, it merits observing that the incidence of drug use (in England and Wales) has actually declined in recent years. This, I suspect, reflects fashion and economic trends (hurrah for austerity!) rather than any great triumph of law enforcement or political scaremongering. Nevertheless it also, surely, indicates that the Drug Warriors should pipe down. To the extent drug consumption is a (disputable) problem, it must, by their definition, be less of a problem now than it has sometimes been in the past.

But no! You see:

I always like to note, when discussing the subject of cannabis farms, our principal growth industry,  the blurted remark on this topic of the terrifying Manchester gun murderer Kiaran Stapleton. You may recall that Stapleton killed the Indian student Anuj Bidve, without the slightest reason or pretext, by walking up to him and shooting him in the head. Anyway, Stapleton said that ‘we got cannabis farms all over and more guns than the police’ (reported by the Manchester Evening News in July 2012). Knowing this, I wonder how Stapleton became the sort of person he is. Farmers, I muse,  sometimes consume their own products.

78% of the millions of people who take illegal drugs consume cannabis. And yet, as best I can tell, there are not thousands, or even hundreds, or even dozens, of cannabis-crazed murderers rampaging through Britain’s drug-addled cities. Mr Hitchens is entitled to argue by anecdote and insinuation but he should not expect to win the argument by doing so. It is akin to noting that people in unhappy marriages occasionally, regrettably, murder their spouse. Even if marriage could plausibly be reckoned a contributory factor in these homicides it would make little sense to suggest matrimony was to blame and that, consequently, we needed a War on Marriage. (Though, of course, apparently that exists too!)

Hitchens continues:

It’s so easy to dismiss arguments other people haven’t made. Nobody , least of all me, said that *no-one*  is convicted or imprisoned. The important thing is who is imprisoned, and who is not. And the distinction ( as my book explains)  is driven by the political need to pretend that we have laws against drugs, when in fact we have none against their possession and use. We insist on an unhinged difference –  between the treatment of drug abusers (who voluntarily seek out these evil dealers)  as victims, and of drug traffickers as the sum of all evil. If the substance isn’t evil, why is it evil to trade in it? And where is its evil manifested? Why, in its ingestion. So surely the ingestion is as evil as its transport and sale, and should be punished equally (as it was, in law, before 1971)? But it isn’t.

So, again, convictions and imprisonment shouldn’t be considered as evidence that the law frowns upon the production, sale and consumption of drugs. Moreover, even though thousands of people receive a criminal record each year for possessing drugs, ‘we have no laws against their possession and use’. At this point I worry that Mr Hitchens’ pineapple has become a parsnip.

But at least we agree on something: the distinction between the purveyors of drugs and the consumers of narcotics is indeed unhinged. Cannabis and ecstasy (and other drugs) are not inherently evil and nor is their consumption. From which I take the view that supplying these substances to consenting adults should not be illegal either.

Not content with suggesting there’s no War on Drugs in this country, Peter Hitchens outdoes himself by claiming there’s no War on Drugs anywhere else either. Not even in the United States. He asks if I am

[U]naware of the virtual decriminalisation of cannabis in large parts of the USA (not least the worrying experiment now under way in Colorado) largely conducted under the flag of ‘medical marijuana’?

No, I am not ‘unaware’ of this. (And how dare those suffering from chronic pain or Multiple Sclerosis seek relief from their afflictions! Are they evil too?) But is Mr Hitchens himself unaware that the legalise cannabis movement is the result of the Drug War’s transparent failure? Is he also unaware that there were more than 750,000 arrests for marijuana offences in the United States in 2012. Is he unaware that American prisons house half a million people  convicted of drug crimes? Is he unaware that figure is 1200% higher than it was in 1980?

Apparently so.

Even before this came into effect ( and medical marijuana laws of varying laxness now embrace 20 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia) , the case of Jared Loughner illustrates how liberal US enforcement of Marijuana laws already is. Loughner, some will remember , was the culprit in the mass-shooting in Tucson, Arizona in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was terribly injured and six people, including a nine-year-old girl, were killed. US Army recruiting records (they rejected him), the accounts of acquaintances and police records show he was for many years a regular smoker of this supposedly harmless drug (could this possibly have anything to do with his wholly irrational action and his bizarre demeanour after it?). The important detail here is that, when Loughner was caught by police with illegal drug paraphernalia in a car stinking of cannabis smoke, he was let off. Pity. If there had been a ‘war on drugs’, we might have been saved from much. Nor is his the only case of a marijuana user involved in a mass shooting.

Again with the argument by anecdote and sly insinuation. But since there are millions of Americans who consume cannabis it would be a surprise if they all led otherwise blameless lives. The law of averages dictates that some cannabis consumers will commit awful crimes. It does not follow, however, that there is a causal link between smoking a joint and trying to assassinate a member of Congress. In the case of the wretched Jared Loughner it seems more probable – a reasonable person might think – that his irrational and criminal behaviour was evidence of an irrational mind, not the product of his drug use.

But even if such a link could be firmly established it would remain the case that murderous cannabis consumers are a statistically insignificant percentage of all cannabis users just as murderous Budweiser drinkers are a statistically insignificant percentage of all consumers of dreadful beer.

Finally – at last! – Hitchens concludes by blaming you for drug violence in Latin America.

Surely the principal factor is that the Pounds, Dollars and Euros of selfish rich kids in the cities of the First World finance a huge and lucrative industry in the Third World in which criminals have inevitably intervened (as they intervene in this country in the legal alcohol and tobacco industries)?  But why is it there at all for them to intervene in?

Until the people of the western nations embarked on their demoralised rush for chemical pleasure, there was no such problem.  If stupid, selfish, complacent, self-indulgent chasers after ‘escapism and the pleasures of losing oneself in a different, kinder, better world’ did not feed this monster, it would die.  *They*, smug and self-righteous as they so often are, sneering about ‘victimless crimes’ and how ‘I have a right to put what I like in my own body and do what I like with my own body’, *they* are the Mr Big who stands behind the drug trade. How funny that people who drink FairTrade coffee and boycott stores that buy from sweatshops happily give their cash to the most sordid, exploitative industry of all, casually to risk the happiness of those who love them  – and then have the nerve to blame the law for the evil they do.

As it happens I think people should patronise stores that depend exclusively on sweatshops for their labour. But, yes, on this at least – at last! – Hitchens has a point. If there was no market for drugs in the United States and elsewhere then there would be fewer profits to be won from meeting the demand for drugs. But there is a market. There will always be a market. Because, for most people, taking drugs is fun.

Since the demand for drugs cannot be stamped out – see Iran, China etc – or, at least, not eradicated by sensible or proportionate action the most sensible thing to do is regulate it properly. Which is a view now widely held by the leaders of Latin American countries.

Hitchens sees the failure of the War on Drugs and concludes that the problem lies not in the nature of the War itself but in the fact that it has not been prosecuted properly. In this respect he resembles those lefties who keep insisting that the problem with communism was never that it was a dismal, morally bankrupt, iniquitous philosophy doomed to failure but that Leninism had been corrupted by weak and feeble men. If only it could have been implemented properly, everything would have been different!

Mr Hitchens thinks there is no War on Drugs but there should be one; I think there is a War on Drugs but there shouldn’t be. He thinks drug use is inherently evil; I think it simply human.


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