Thursday, 1 November 2012

The War We Never Fought, Peter Hitchens

I like Peter Hitchens' books and journalism.  His work is part good sense, part wrong-but-thought-provoking, and part cranky nonsense.  This book is his latest shot in his ongoing war against the modern world.

Hitchens' thesis is that the prohibition of drugs hasn't failed: in fact, it hasn't been tried.  He takes the view that drug-taking is largely decriminalised in practice, and that the law is both deficient and feebly enforced due to a widespread liberal consensus among people in public life.

As Hitchens recounts, drug use in the UK first became a widespread phenomenon in the 1960s.  The official response came in the form of the Wootton Report in 1968 and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  This piece of legislation had bipartisan support in the House of Commons, though it seems to have disquieted Jim Callaghan, the socially conservative Labour politician who served as Home Secretary until 1970.  Replacing the earlier Dangerous Drugs Acts, it disjoined possession offences from trafficking offences and introduced the familiar categorisation of drugs into Classes A, B and C.  Since 1971, the police and courts have concentrated public resources on trafficking offences and on Class A drugs, and have taken a progressively more lenient line towards possession offences and towards cannabis.  This approach led to the introduction of cautions for possession of pot in the nineties, the Metropolitan Police's experiments with cannabis warnings in the noughties and the declassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C between 2004 and 2009.  Most cases of cannabis possession are now dealt with through cannabis warnings, and even most Class A possession cases don't end in a custodial sentence.

Hitch rejects the notion that possession should be treated less harshly than trafficking and refuses to accept the classification system, arguing in particular that the dangers of cannabis have been seriously underestimated.  One of the odder features of Hitchens' book is that he spends much more time on cannabis than on hard drugs like heroin, crack and crystal meth, but this is because he denies that any meaningful distinction exists here.  This is not a mainstream view in the scientific community, but Hitch argues that there is enough evidence on the neurological ill effects of cannabis to make us worried.  He provides an entertaining digression on the stubborn resistance to the idea that smoking tobacco was dangerous, from the dismissal of the original findings in the 1930s because they came from Nazi doctors to the final rearguard action in the 1970s.

The bedrock of Hitchens' case against narcotics is moral.  Getting high, he says, is a self-indulgent act, a pursuit of pleasure disjoined from merit and effort.  It encourages people, Brave New World-style, to acquiesce in their conditions instead of trying to improve them.  This kind of blanket moral condemnation of an entire category of human behaviour is audacious.  For Hitchens - who also disapproves of smoking and drinking - it appears that getting pissed with colleagues in the pub after work is not an essentially different activity from frequenting a crack house.  Either one accepts this essentially eccentric a priori judgement or one does not.  The same can be said of some of Hitchens' other views.  People take drugs, he says, because they want to take them.  Well, yes.  But Hitchens turns this truism into an argument that there is no such thing as addiction.  It is perhaps not surprising that Russell Brand, a former heroin addict, finds it difficult to take the Hitchster seriously, even if he is a bit needlessly insulting about it.

Hitchens repeatedly draws comparisons between morally degenerate post-1960s British society and the traditional, conservative, Protestant culture that he says preceded it.  Yet the consumption of intoxicants was rampant in previous periods of British history, leading to exactly the kind of public debates and attempts at government intervention that we see in our own day.  The only difference is that, when international trade was at a less developed stage, people were more likely to get lashed on gin than to get stoned on hashish.  Taking narcotics is a consistent and ineradicable part of human culture, from our distant ancestors' experimentation with opiates and ethanol to Hitchens' own occasional glasses of wine and daily cups of coffee (this is apparently as far as he unbends).  Nor is it incompatible with morality, religiosity, profound thought or practical achievement.  One rather doubts that a Brahmin priest imbibing soma in Vedic India, or Socrates getting drunk at a philosophical symposion, or even Sigmund Freud dosing up on heroin while he invented psychiatry, would care to be lectured by a Mail on Sunday journalist about moral degradation.  (This is a cheap shot, but no cheaper than some of those that Hitchens takes.)

Hitchens is aware that the key people pushing for pragmatic drugs policies have not been long-haired hippies and rock stars, but rather chief constables, Cabinet ministers, MPs, judges, members of the Monday Club, and indeed other right-wing journalists.  It seems that his only answer to this arresting observation is his familiar, and largely circular, argument that the entirety of British public life has been taken over by leftist cultural revolutionaries, leaving only him, Hitchens, as a solitary voice of authentic conservatism.  He doesn't seem to consider the alternative possibility, which is that the likes of Lord Hailsham, Lord Stevens and David Blunkett weren't actually limp-wristed liberals, but rather that they and everybody else have realised something that Hitchens hasn't.

The thing which everyone else has realised is that the war on drugs is unwinnable.  This is not a moral, or indeed an immoral, judgement - it is a practical one.  Sumptuary laws in general are notoriously difficult to enforce.  Harsh penalties alone will not work: few people would regard American penal policy as a soft touch, but the US still has a strikingly bad drugs problem.  There is also the American experience with alcohol prohibition, which Hitchens is perhaps a little too eager to dismiss as having no implications for the drugs debate.

More broadly, Hitchens' confidence that Government policy can be used to remake society is surprising in a professed conservative.  He points to the success of anti-smoking laws, but he omits to mention that these laws have developed out of a widespread existing cultural consensus against smoking tobacco in enclosed areas - his proposals are much more radical, and have no such broad consensus behind them.  And what does he imagine that the practical costs of a draconian drugs policy would be?  What part of the police budget would he like to see cut in order to allow officers to go round arresting art students in Camden who are enjoying a joint at a party?  How many tens of thousands of extra prison places does he think would be needed to enforce prohibition?  How would he stop the spread of corruption as criminal gangs used their deep pockets to buy police protection?  Given the demographics of drug usage, how would he stop prohibition being perceived as a racist assault by the authorities on deprived minority communities?

This is an interesting and opinionated book which collects together some useful and informative data.  I doubt, however, that it will convince many readers.