How thrilling it is when someone finally stages a demonstration against you. All right, it was a very small protest (one person), and it was in Southampton on a wet Sunday morning. But it was all mine. Stretched by the roadside was a dank bedsheet bearing the words ‘Peter Hitchens is a hypocritical racist alcoholic. Spread your bile elsewhere. No one cares what you have to say.’ I don’t accept this as entirely accurate, but, under the circumstances, why quibble? Also, it made me think.
Standing beside it, smirking, was a person in a woolly hat and sunglasses. He had a striking pallor, the sort you might get from spending many months in a basement with a computer, converting sugary drinks into lard. What had provoked this manifestation of political rage and personal scorn? After a brief and unsatisfactory conversation, in which our minds did not meet, I grasped that the problem was my view that we should have laws against cannabis, and that they should be enforced. My critic thinks that this drug is a moral cause. For him, the freedom to take it ranks alongside the freedoms of speech, thought and assembly. There are many like him and a surprising number are conservatives, or write for conservative publications.
This seems to me to be plain wrong, in many ways. Cannabis users may think they are islands of joy. But they often inflict dreadful harm on others, especially their own families. Many of them are far too young to know what they are doing, endangering not just their intelligence and their schooling, but perhaps their very sanity. Those who doubt this should reflect on the painful fate of Henry Cockburn, son of Patrick, so movingly recorded in their book Henry’s Demons.
I had assumed that most thoughtful people would see that a properly enforced law would be the best weapon against the ghastly peer-pressure which persuades suggestible schoolchildren to risk the capricious, irreversible danger to their mental health which cannabis threatens. If such a law was inconvenient for a few pleasure-seekers, then surely they could not be so selfish as to sacrifice the wellbeing of other people’s children for their own delight? Oh yes, they could. Not long afterwards, I met a similar fury from a rather different quarter. This time my assailant was Sam Bowman, policy director of the Adam Smith Institute. Accusing me of authoritarianism, he asserted: ‘As an adult, I should be able to stick whatever I damn well like into my body. Provided that I am aware of the risks, nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action.’
Could it really be that dope and liberty were allies? No. Legalised drugs mean a society in which the mind is dead and in which all kinds of wickedness, sloth and failure prosper. The mass use of drugs such as cannabis is a gift for authority, which must be secretly delighted by the passive acquiescence which results.
Aldous Huxley, a far more accurate prophet than George Orwell, saw it coming in Brave New World, a dystopia where the loins were free and the mind was enslaved. He feared above all things that people could be made to love and enjoy their own servitude. Vital to this was ‘soma’, his imaginary happiness drug, which had ‘all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects… take a holiday from reality whenever you like and come back without so much as a headache or a -mythology’.
Soma is already appearing in our midst, without protest or alarm. The current mass prescription of ‘antidepressants’ and ‘tranquillisers’, along with the feeding of powerful mind-altering pills to children alleged to suffer from ADHD, looks to me like the rapid fulfilment of this prophecy. A numbed nation deals with economic decline, unemployment, family breakdown, illiteracy and bad schools, not by reforming these ills, but by doping their victims so that they can more easily endure these things.
What if a way could be found to allow the commercial sale of cannabis too? That development is also far closer than most people think. This country pretends to have stern anti-drug laws, and some people (notably the otherwise astute Sir Simon Jenkins) take this claim at face value. But it does not take much study to find that cannabis is at least as decriminalised in this country as it is Amsterdam. We just don’t advertise our laxity, partly because older voters are not ready for the truth, partly because we are bound by international treaties to maintain at least the semblance of a law against it.
How is it that, in a country where drugs are supposedly illegal — where ‘evil dealers’ are endlessly denounced — that drugs are so common and that little or nothing happens to those who are caught in possession of them? How did the ‘cannabis warning’, a gesture without force or penalty, unsanctioned by Parliament, become the preferred response of the police to the crime of possession? How can Pete Doherty drop illegal drugs on the floor of a courthouse, be caught by a security guard and yet walk free from the building, if we are — as we are so often told — running a regime of stern prohibition?
The answer is that the official version of events is simply false. Since a momentous Cabinet meeting in February 1970, there has been no ‘war on drugs’ in this country, only the official pretence of one. I beg my fellow commentators, columnists and pundits: please do not take seriously any claims that our drug problems stem from zealous enforcement of cruel laws, or you might find me camping outside your front door in a woolly hat, denouncing you and proclaiming your sins on a bedsheet.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. His The War We Never Fought: the British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs is about to be published by Bloomsbury.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012