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Drugs: moralising is better than medicalising

The latest skirmish in Peter Hitchens’ one-man war on modern life at least argues for society, not experts, deciding what is right and wrong.

David Bowden

Topics Politics

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How do you solve a problem like Peter Hitchens? Reviewers of the venerable Mail on Sunday columnist’s latest polemic, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs, have tried various tactics: scorn, ridicule, dead-eyed seriousness and even a form of grudging empathy.

Yet, curiously for the unashamed moralist at a newspaper regularly decried as ‘evil’ by many from the chattering classes, Hitchens provokes surprisingly little bile in comparison to contemporaries like Melanie Phillips or Richard Littlejohn. He’s a source of considerable vexation and exasperation on his regular public appearances, there’s no doubt, but it seems difficult to imagine Twitter genuinely erupting in liberal fury over his pronouncements.

Perhaps there is something simply very comforting in the digital world for his particular role as Middle England’s shock-jock: an advocate of an uncompromising nostalgia for Edwardian morality (he seems to consider the 1950s as too decadent and modern), it does not take too much to appear modern and progressive in debate with him. Yet it’s also true that his studied unfashionability – he declares himself a ‘Puritan propagandist’ – renders him an almost bewildering opponent, almost difficult to reconcile with his respected position as a foreign correspondent. He is more a pantomime villain, perhaps even medieval fool, than hate figure: a perplexing reactionary inversion of today’s trend for attached and emotive campaigning journalism.

His foray into the drugs debate is typically counter-intuitive. He is in firm agreement with received liberal wisdom that the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has failed and that current drugs policy needs to be radically overhauled. Yet, as the title suggests, Hitchens believes this indicates a failure to enact prohibition rather than its shortcomings. Britain has apparently been in the grip of a libertine cultural and political elite ever since the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971 saw cannabis classified as a ‘soft’ drug, disguised by the tough-talking authoritarian rhetoric of successive Conservative and Labour governments which have led the country to ‘sink, giggling into the sea’.

Much of what follows is familiar territory for Hitchens, with the widespread promotion and use of drugs one of the many symptoms of the intellectual and moral decay of ‘post-Christian’ Britain. The list also includes acceptance of pre-marital sex, abortion on demand, all modern music and an unacceptable interest in the writings of John Stuart Mill. The War We Never Fought also seems carefully written to taunt those who demand an ‘evidence-based’ approach to the topic, sourcing its arguments over the dangers of drugs, for instance, via a leaf through mentions of cannabis in newspaper articles and cherry-picking evidence which supports the highly contested and limited link between cannabis use and schizophrenia (while disregarding any of the ‘politically motivated’ findings to the contrary).

Even as a diatribe, The War We Never Fought is hopelessly limited, focusing its arguments about an apparently non-existent drugs policy only on an increasing reluctance to prosecute people in the UK for possession of cannabis. Hitchens therefore avoids tackling the more severe (albeit not necessarily more effective) policing of supply and trafficking. This crackdown has threatened national sovereignty and self-determination in developing countries which are significant drug producers; it has also compromised civil liberties within the UK.

Yet Hitchens’ book is not entirely without merit, and cannot be readily dismissed, inasmuch as he understands the drugs debate to be fundamentally a moral and political question rather than a scientific one. In this regard, he is right to call for Britain’s politicians to continue deciding drugs policy and also right in suspecting that the liberalisation movement is currently dominated by a self-appointed elite. He is only wrong to suggest that this is a conspiracy, when in fact such calls for liberalisation were regularly made in plain sight by the likes of former government adviser David Nutt. He is also right to detect rank hypocrisy on behalf of politicians who would seek to outsource responsibility for difficult social and moral questions to unelected advisors and grandstanding police officers.

Such is the topsy-turvy world of current drug legislation – where arbitrary distinctions are made on what is legal or not and where the likes of Nutt can be hailed for taking a liberal stance on ecstasy while calling for stricter regulation on alcohol and tobacco. Hitchens’ book makes an interesting counterpoint to an author who should be his polar opposite on this question. Christopher Snowdon’s excellent history of prohibition in the modern era, The Art of Suppression (previously reviewed here), makes an entirely different case for how drug prohibition has failed. The war on drugs has failed to prevent a significant number of young people from taking drugs recreationally on a regular basis and yet, through its constant interference and the willingness of health professionals to sign up to dodgy lifestyle advice on shaky evidence, the government only serves to undermine drug-takers’ ability to consume responsibly. Yet both Hitchens and Snowdon understand the emptiness of the system of drugs classification, which serves only to degrade the medical and legal authorities involved in enforcing it while being roundly and justly ignored by those drug users who it disingenuously claims to protect.

Both puritan Hitchens and libertarian Snowdon, each in their own way, are willing to confront the question of drugs (whether cannabis, meow meow or alcohol) as one, ultimately, of individual responsibility and of the limits of the state in regulating those pleasures. The War We Never Fought may not be a useful guide to understanding contemporary drugs policy but it does, maybe inadvertently, point towards the drugs war that we should be fighting now: to ensure that that choices about the use or abuse of drugs remain society’s business, rather than the job of unaccountable, evidence-wielding experts.

David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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Topics Politics

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