At a dinner party a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be sat near one of my heroes, Roger Scruton — like being a couch away from Socrates at a symposium. But then, halfway through, the great man began sounding off on one of the two things he is completely and utterly wrong about (the other one being pop music): drugs.
By ‘drugs’, of course, dear, brave, brilliant Roger didn’t mean to include the alcohol he had been quaffing all evening nor yet the highly addictive yet legal nicotine death sticks of which the Fawn and I had partaken before dinner. What he meant was yer proper, actual, tabloid horror drugs: cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin, and the deadly, evil ‘gateway’ drug they call ‘spliff’.
As something of a spliff enthusiast myself I thought this was a bit much. Especially coming from a man whose philosophy generally springs from the most rigorous logic and the soundest libertarian principles. And I was about to speak my mind when an elegant, distinguished fellow with a double-barrelled name sitting opposite did so for me. ‘When I was in the City I used heroin for ten years,’ he said. ‘It never did me any harm. Rather enjoyed it actually.’
Britain has a serious drug problem. The world has a serious drug problem. And the serious problem is this: we have collectively decided to make criminals of the billions of otherwise law-abiding citizens who wish to pursue the perfectly natural human instinct to seek occasional chemical or herbal escape from reality. We imprison people who shouldn’t be imprisoned. We waste money which would be better spent elsewhere. We increase crime, corruption and violence. We deny cash-crop farmers a living. We finance narco-wars. We enrich criminals. We destroy lives. The drugs ‘problem’, in other words, is almost entirely of our own making.
Lots of you will disagree with this. But not, I hope, those who have been watching Angus Macqueen’s brilliant Channel 4 documentary series Our Drugs War these last three weeks. Macqueen once thought that the solution to the drugs ‘problem’ was prohibition. Then he began looking into it more closely — first on the heroin estates of Scotland, then among New York’s housing projects, finally in Afghanistan — and the weight of evidence changed his mind. His documentaries have eloquently and movingly made the case that not only is the war on drugs not being won but that it’s never going to be won: demand is too great, supplying too profitable.
I’d go a step further than that and ask why it’s a war we should even try winning. Drugs aren’t the enemy in my book. Prohibition is. I fully expect my children one day to experiment with coke, E, dope and whatever happens to be the fashionable designer drug of their generation. They’ll have bad times on those drugs as well as good times, I’m sure, but what I fear far more than the effect that those rare herbs and prescribed chemicals will have on their hitherto immaculate brain chemistry are the risks to which my darling ones will be exposed by sheer dint of those substances’ illegality.
I’m thinking not just of the possibility that my kids might get a criminal record, but of the myriad hazards they’ll face every time they try to score: the risk of being mugged or worse; the likelihood of being ripped off or sold drugs which have been cut with substances unknown or which are entirely different from the ones that they’re claimed to be, like the time once where I bought what I thought was E but was in fact ketamine, so that instead of dancing my tits off I found myself pinned to a chair for four hours, un-able to move, imagining I was at a czarist ball in Moscow just before the revolution.
Do I believe that drug-taking should become part of the school curriculum? Not necessarily. At least not as strongly as I believe fox-hunting should. But it would be almost worth it just for the annoyance it would cause all those smug, blinkered prigs out there who believe that just because their drug of choice, alcohol, happens to be legal, it somehow makes it morally superior to all the ones that aren’t. According to a list drawn up in 2009 by the government’s former drugs adviser David Nutt, alcohol is more harmful than ketamine, speed, ecstasy or LSD. As for cocaine, both Queen Victoria and several popes took the equivalent of two fat lines every day as a pick-me-up in the form of Vin Mariani, a popular infusion of coca leaves and claret.
Not, of course, that I would dream of proposing we ban alcohol on health or safety grounds. What I would ban, though, if I could, are all those saloon bar blusterers who’ve decided that because alcohol is the drug best suited to their personal disposition and metabolism it ought therefore be the only drug that anyone is allowed. That would be like banning homosexual sex, drum ’n’ bass, curries and TV on the grounds that decent, normal people (oh dear God, I know some of you will be nodding your heads in furious agreement here) can only abide straight sex, opera, French cuisine and theatre.
This is the point where the prohibitionists usually come in with some heartrending story about a person they know whose life has been destroyed by drugs. (My sympathies, but this does not constitute an argument. Booze can be just as deadly, see above.) Or they come up with the cantish line (a variant on one commonly used by advocates of immediate action on climate change) that it’s all very well for People Like Us to indulge our middle-class vices, but what about The Poor — they’re the ones who really suffer.
Yes, I agree, the poor do suffer dreadfully as a result of drugs — but again, as Macqueen’s documentaries persuasively argued, this is mainly the result of prohibition laws devised by ignorant middle-class puritans. A young black or Latino dealer (and yes, no surprise: whites statistically get a much easier deal) in a New York housing project can earn $15,000 in a week dealing drugs; if he takes on a legal job befitting his education and training, the most he’ll get is about a $100 a week. Now you see why, no matter how draconian America’s drug laws have become (and they really are outrageously severe), they have not made the slightest difference to America’s drugs economy. The incentives to deal — even were it a capital offence — are simply too great.
The story is the same in Britain, where we spend £1.5 billion a year on drugs prevention. Yet in Scotland, for example, where almost every day perhaps a dozen drugs squad officers (helpmaboab! Imagine the overtime!) gather at a new address to batter down the door of some ne’er-do-well to relieve him of his stash, the police estimate that they manage to capture no more than 1 per cent of the heroin supply.
Whether you want to argue it on libertarian grounds, on economic grounds, on practical grounds, on sociopolitical grounds, the case against prohibition is an absolute no-brainer.
Since the dawn of time man has always been possessed of an urge to get out of his box — be it via mushrooms, datura, aluminium wheel cleaning fluid, claret, or psychedelic reindeer pee. It’s what we do. Nothing could be more natural. Why waste time, money and lives fighting nature?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 21, 2010