Drug War: The Horror of Peter Hitchens
Having listened to endless disputes about drug legislation and finding the same kind of polarized rhetoric coming up each and every time, I had second thoughts tuning into a live debate on Youtube concerning the seemingly endless War Against Drugs (or the War Against Some Drugs Some of the Time as is more accurately the case). But tuned in I did, and the debate proved to be stimulating -- horribly stimulating in fact. But I'll get to that in a minute. I should say that whoever organized the cyberspatial debate did a very professional job. As soon as you went to the Youtube page, the live debate appeared -- and in good quality too. Sir Richard Branson was on the panel, as was a former Mexican president, a former Met Office police commissioner, WikiLeaker Julian Assange, celebrity Russell Brand, plus authors, former US state governors, and more (you can watch the debate at: http://youtu.be/gSrN2zIRwN8).
A few things bothered me. The issue of Portugal was inevitably raised. Portugal decriminalized all drugs over ten years ago (many people are not aware of this) and this is often mentioned as a test case that drug decriminalization can work. After all, Portugal still exists and people still go on holiday there. The UK Home Office, for instance, does not warn of burning airports or deranged mobs running amok in the streets of Lisbon or whatever. In fact, this is also true of places like Amsterdam where cannabis is openly tolerated -- yet the streets are safe to walk as I know from recent experience. Having said that, those defending the War Against Some Drugs Some of the Time let loose a volley of statistics that showed that the crime rate in Portugal had actually gone up in the last ten years. Others said that this was rubbish. Counter statistics were repeatedly proffered. Thus, an informed Portuguese minister or Portuguese official of some kind armed with objective data would have helped clear up the matter.
Another bone of contention that I had was that one panellist (I forget who) compared the need for draconian police action against drug users to the need for harsh penalties against drunk drivers. His argument was that if we suddenly made it legal to drink and drive then loads of people would do it. Therefore society must threaten punishment to those who drink and drive in order to help prevent it happening. Well, of course, this is obvious. But it is a totally misleading analogy. Because sensible drug legislation would also make it a crime to drive under the influence of any drug, be that alcohol or any other major psychoactive substance. Moreover, the argument is doomed from the start as it compares drunk driving with illicit drug use -- as if they were somehow the same kind of thing. Sure, if most cannabis users, MDMA users, cocaine users, or LSD users were invariably harming other people in a manner similar to running them down in a car, then one might have a point. But this is not so. Thus, the criminalization of drug use cannot be compared with the criminalization of drunk driving. In fact, by using such a crass argument, the chap was revealing just how over-the-top his desire to oppress was.
What all this shows is that the demonizers of drug use are sneaky. Everything about their language is loaded. As another example, one repeatedly hears of 'drug misuse'. This is a crafty corruption of language. There are even well funded departments within the UK government concerned with studying 'drug misuse'. Because the language is skewed and biased, this will likely affect any governmental recommendations that might be forthcoming. For most users of currently illicit drugs, such substances are used, not misused or abused -- in just the same way that most drinkers around the world use alcohol and do not 'misuse' it. Also, one repeatedly hears of 'drugs and alcohol'. And yet alcohol itself is a drug! So in order to move this debate forward, one has to be wary of all this bad language that can cause subconscious bias.
One issue became very clear in the debate, and I think most of the panellists agreed on its importance -- and this is that the whole drug thing is a health issue. That is what it all comes down to. So why on earth criminalize someone when the chief issue at stake is their health? We don't criminalize mountaineers who risk their health by going up Everest do we? We don't smash down their doors and threaten them with fines and court appearances. And yet a few decades back fully one in ten of those ascending Everest died in the attempt (making such activity far more dangerous to one's health than using crack or heroin). And if these mountaineers further endangered themselves by using shoddy ropes, we would not shake those ropes in front of them and sneer "you're nicked son" as we handcuffed them would we? Not if we genuinely cared about their health. Indeed, how does being grilled by the police, or being fined, or, worse, being banged up in jail, possibly improve one's health? In matters of health, the only responsibility of the state is to protect, educate and inform. If you are a grown up adult, then what you do is your business, and solely your business, unless you subsequently harm others in which case it is right and proper for some kind of societal intervention to take place. For decades I smoked tobacco. I knew it was not healthy -- but it was my adult choice. Banning tobacco and suddenly turning millions of otherwise law abiding smokers into criminals is as crazy as criminalizing those who pursue potentially dangerous sports.
Another point is worth mentioning. The defenders of the war on drugs kept mentioning crack, heroin, neglected children, social misery, and such. But this aspect of drug use is minor compared to the 200 million users of illegal drugs who are non-problematic. So it is very important that we differentiate between those at risk of harm (to themselves and to others) with those who are not behaving problematically. This further suggests that we stop lumping all drugs together. Being unable to differentiate between, say, psilocybin mushrooms and crack cocaine, is absurd, as is the tacit lumping together of ayahuasca and amphetamines, or cannabis and heroin. Intelligent legislation would treat different drugs in different ways and laws pertaining to distribution and availability would reflect real harms. No one wanting to end the war on drugs is advocating heroin ice cream vans, or cocaine popsicles for kids -- yet the anti-drug brigade make it sound like that is what is being called for.
I was enjoying the debate until Peter Hitchens was handed the microphone and spoke. I once read an anti-drug polemic of his and it was frankly scary. The man detests illegal drug users with such a vengeance that I am inclined to think that he is the reincarnation of some nasty medieval Witchfinder General. The kind of violent oppression meted out to women with botanical knowledge in the Middle Ages is echoed by Hitchens in his attitude toward drug users. The venomous hatred is apparent in his indignant body language, his accentuated arm folding, and in his burning eyes. The man is dangerous. His ultra-oppressive sentiments, his keen desire to accelerate the war on drugs and punish all those millions of immoral miscreants who use cannabis and MDMA, was so disturbing to me that I almost keeled over. The malice streaming out of my computer monitor was palpable! Conversely, I bet the heavily armed drug mafia and drug cartels love Hitchens. The last thing these unscrupulous gangs want is for their lucrative trade (third biggest trade in the world don't forget!) to be legally and lawfully controlled, so Hitchens is a real kind of champion for their cause. I don't know if they send him large wads of cash, but they might want to think about it.
How I wish we could switch the area of focus from illegal drug users (and I must include myself as I am the author of The Psilocybin Solution, a book about mushrooms that are classified in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine) to the people evincing extreme oppression. That would really turn the tables. All those grim authority figures who wag their fingers and viciously condemn and demonize other people simply because they are enjoying, or exploring, altered states of consciousness -- these oppressive people should be under scrutiny, not drug users. What right does Peter Hitchens have to tell me what I can, or can't do, in the privacy of my own home (or in the privacy of a remote Snowdonian forest as might be the case with my mushroom use)? What does it mean to be a grown adult if you are not, as author Graham Hancock often points out, sovereign of your own mind? But I tell you what Mr Hitchens -- how about this compromise: legalize all drugs to those who are over 40 and who have a university degree (this includes me). Surely this part of the population are capable of making an informed choice? Surely they are not a risk group? Or must you nanny and oppress them as well? Of course, I jest, but how could this not be an acceptable strategy? The idea is worth thinking about as it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what it really means to be an adult. And don't forget, when we make laws we can make them as elaborate and as fine grained as we like -- as long as they are clear cut.
For some reason, Hitchens was actually invited onto the stage. This made me feel even more uneasy and queasy. If he ever got into power I thought, if he ever had armed forces at his disposal, then god help us all. Tyrants and dictators are not kind people. Their inner worlds are infected with hate. This is what makes them so dangerous. And this is what makes Hitchens so scary -- because in his rhetoric and his bigoted newspaper articles, he exudes hatred and negativity. In fact, he is precisely a good candidate for a psychedelic drug like ayahuasca. I reckon if he took a stiff dose of this strong Amazonian medicine, his oppressive tendencies might actually be healed -- a tough job for sure, but something not beyond the power of ayahuasca. In any case, when I think about those who keenly demonize drug users and make out that they are morally corrupt, I often wonder what lies at the heart of their oppression. I sometimes surmise that it is fear. It is possible, probable in fact, that those who actively promote the War Against Some Drugs Some of the Time don't personally know any cannabis users, MDMA users, psychedelic users, and such, and that they are consequently afraid of them, as if they were some sort of dodgy sub-cultural underclass or something. Yet normal everyday people use illicit drugs -- doctors, lawyers, innovators (the late Steve Jobs used LSD), celebrities, sportsmen, pop stars, teachers, scientists (Carl Sagan was a cannabis user) -- it is not all dark alleyways and dirty needles. Illegal drug use is prevalent throughout all sectors of society. To be sure, apparently most dollar bills in the USA have traces of cocaine on them (and did you know that Coca-Cola originally had cocaine in it?).
Mood altering substances will not go away. An interest in altering consciousness will not go away. The desire for pleasurable recreation will not go away. The War Against Some Drugs Some of the Time can never be won. And as Russell Brand pointed out, war is not the right option as a means to reduce the potential harms of drugs. Indeed, what is war if not the breaking down of civilized communication and a green light to violent means of oppression and suppression? Waging war also requires an enemy. Thinking that only drug gangs are the enemy in the war on drugs is naïve. Illegal drug users themselves -- all 250 million of them -- have become the enemy.
What needs to be removed from the equation is therefore not drugs, but the kind of oppressive warmongering that Hitchens exudes. Then we can get on with controlling drugs intelligently. Which means we can make new laws that concentrate on harm reduction and that are based upon scientific evidence and not whim. Drug use is not a criminal issue. You are not an immoral criminal if you use drugs. If you are of sound mind, healthy and informed, then the authorities need to do nothing (except control production, quality and distribution where appropriate). On the other hand, if you need help, you should get help. And that's it. Oppression is not necessary.
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