18 November 2012

Hitchens vs Paddick


I happened to find myself with Wednesday evening free (a few weeks ago), so I coughed up ten quid to see Peter Hitchens debate Brian Paddock over the drug laws at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street.

The subject isn’t one which interests me greatly, but I find Hitchens always worth reading and I work nearby, so I went to see him in action.

The debate centred entirely on cannabis. Hitchens’ thesis, stacked in £17 hardbacks on a table by the door, is that cannabis is much more dangerous than is generally supposed, and is at least comparable in harm to what are recognised as “hard” drugs.

Interestingly, Paddock (a former senior London police officer who has run unsuccessfully for Mayor the last two elections), agreed that cannabis is very dangerous to young people. He implied that the risks of severe psychological damage coming from cannabis use were lower than Hitchens had suggested, but both of them were very reluctant to quantify, both agreeing that accurate statistics of either use of or harm from cannabis are difficult to come by.

Hitchens has a very strong argument on the frequent comparison of drug prohibition with US alcohol prohibition, which is that alcohol prohibition did not ban possession or consumption of alcohol. I confess that that fact had never really registered with me. The argument that flows from that is that if you actually want to stop consumption of alcohol or cannabis, you have to ban it, and mean it, and that current drug policy is repeating the mistake of prohibition.

The weakest point of Hitchens’ argument was not really explored, but he claims, first, that cannabis has been effectively legal for forty years, and, second, that once it has been legal and widespread, it is practically impossible to get rid of it. By that logic, it is already too late.

I threw a question in towards the end, but by that point the questions were being gathered in batches, and neither speaker addressed it. I asked if either of them could explain why, when substances such as tobacco, salt and butter are being more restricted on health grounds year by year, it is even on the agenda that this one product, cannabis, be subject to more relaxed regulation, against the general trend.

There were some right morons in the audience. The first questioner went into a tedious, pointless rehashing of the best-known arguments on the subject, taking almost as long as the seven minutes each speaker was allotted to make their initial case.

 Ultimately, the reason I don’t find the subject so interesting these days is because I rather suspect that a sane and efficient state could ban dangerous drugs effectively, or legalise them, and do better either way than we do. The precise details of how HM Government screws up drug policy just make for another tedious sordid history. Drug prohibition fails because of the astonishing inefficiency of the legal system — a simple arrest, conviction and sentencing for cannabis possession ought to take about one man-hour of police time and maybe three man-hours of lawyers and another three for administrative court staff. I get the impression it is about ten times that level, which makes the whole process unworkable. Alternatively, drugs could be legal if people had to take responsibility for their own welfare, but the toxic state dependency culture turns drugs which can be enjoyed in moderation by people who have serious responsibilities into life-destroying obsessions for those who have nothing else to do. My pet obsession, the infantilising of 15-25-year-olds, makes them  particularly susceptible.

The real problems we see both from the “War on drugs” and from drug abuse flow not primarily from drug policy, but from other failings of the state.

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