A legalisation campaigner joins a protest in Hyde Park on International Cannabis Day

Drugs haze

Peter Hitchens is wrong to argue for banning cannabis, but he is far more thoughtful than his liberal opponents
October 17, 2012

A legalisation campaigner joins a protest in Hyde Park on International Cannabis Day

When I wrote a pamphlet advocating legalisation of cannabis in 2001, I was congratulated by friend and foe alike for my “courage.” But it required no courage. On the contrary, for the first time in my career I felt the warm embrace of the liberal establishment. Interviewers asked me what questions I would like, confided that they had lined up a reactionary nutter to argue for prohibition, and quizzed me with almost embarrassing bias in my favour.

What requires real courage—which Peter Hitchens displays in his new book The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs—is to argue for a serious effort to deter drug taking, and cannabis in particular. At best, this argument guarantees ridicule, at worst, neglect by the bien pensants who dominate our broadcasting networks and to a lesser extent our press.

Hitchens’s book has not persuaded me to change my view on legalisation. But he leaves me with more sympathy for his approach than for that of the liberal allies whose company, on this issue, I keep. Above all, Hitchens is far more honest in facing up to the alternatives and acknowledging the true reasons for concern about drugs.

First, he realises there are only two logically coherent policies: prohibition and legalisation. Decriminalisation, the fashionable option of the intelligentsia, makes no sense, though it is the destination which policy in this country has moved towards for several decades. One of the book’s most interesting aspects is Hitchens’s revelation of the manoeuvring, from Roy Jenkins onwards, to all but decriminalise cannabis use.

Moves to reduce or stop enforcing penalties on cannabis users have always been accompanied by promises to crack down harder on the “evil drug dealers.” But, Hitchens argues, if sale of cannabis is evil, then its use must be evil. If a drug is inexorably addictive, enslaving the hapless user and rendering him a danger to society, then it is as important to deter the buyer as the seller. Conversely, if cannabis use is a harmless lifestyle choice, its provision can scarcely be evil.

So we can opt for one of two models: Sweden’s toughly enforced prohibition and the Netherlands’ legalisation of cannabis sale. Hitchens argues for the former. I advocate the latter. Decriminalisation is the worst of both worlds. It means that cannabis users can obtain their supplies only from illegal gangs, who profiteer and try to persuade them to move on to more lucrative hard drugs. We drive soft drug users into the arms of hard drug pushers—Hitchens’s riposte that there is no distinction between hard and soft drugs is not convincing.

But the most refreshing aspect of this book is its recognition that drug taking is fundamentally a moral issue. Most people, on both sides of the argument, pretend it is purely about health risks to users, in addition to the crime that some addicts commit to finance their habit. Proponents of tougher drug laws seize on any evidence, however tenuous, that drugs damage the user’s health. Hitchens does this too but, more importantly, he also acknowledges that he believes drug taking is morally wrong.

As it so happens, I am one of the few people who agrees with him that drug abuse—getting stoned on drugs or alcohol—is morally reprehensible. I am not sure that Hitchens’s explication of their evil—that they lead to an ecstasy which has not been merited by effort or virtue—is adequate. Surely the classical Christian case against drunkenness applies to stupefaction by any drug: namely that, as well as being degrading, it undermines the conscience and may engender more serious sins? Morally there is also a difference, which Hitchens fails to address, between drug use and abuse—a relaxing glass of wine and getting stoned.

An activity may be immoral without automatically being illegal. Adultery is socially harmful but not a crime. However, for an activity to be criminalised there needs to be broad agreement that it is morally wrong. So long as the case against drug taking is argued purely in terms of its health consequences, that condition will not be met. Indeed, if a drug is found that has no adverse health effects, those who, for tactical reasons, rely on the health argument would be bereft of reasons to denounce its use.

Hitchens and I agree that drug abuse is morally deplorable but disagree on whether that means cannabis should be banned. He favours tough laws against it. I believe this drug—which is rarely addictive or lethal—should be legalised and left to individual conscience. He takes me to task for saying that “the freer people are to exercise responsibility… the more responsibly they are likely to behave.”

But I still find him more congenial intellectual company than the liberal establishment who welcomed me to their bosom. I support legalisation of cannabis despite believing that drug abuse is morally wrong. Liberals, I discovered, want penalties lifted because they believe it is not ethically reprehensible at all. Indeed, my publisher resisted including even a brief explanation of the moral case against drug abuse. Most liberals oppose drug laws because they passionately reject the entire notion of personal morality in the sense of restraint or commitment in one’s personal life. For them morality is simply adherence to a set of correct beliefs about the ordering of society; beliefs which involve few inconvenient restraints on personal behaviour.

Hitchens and I differ on where and when the law should uphold ethics. But, the less we rely on law the more we depend on personal morality. So, however unfashionable, I am on Hitchens’s side in reaffirming this point—both on drug abuse and more widely. Society cannot be built on a moral vacuum.

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