Saturday, 25 February 2017

Peter Hitchens on drugs

Peter Hitchens has written a blog post titled 'Stupid arguments for drug legalisation examined and refuted'. For the most part, the arguments are not silly and Hitchens hasn't seriously examined, let alone refuted, them. 

I won't respond to all his points because some of them are not really arguments for drug legalisation at all - they are just arguments he has with legalisers from time to time. In particular, he spends a lot of time arguing against people who say 'what about alcohol, tobacco, motorcycles etc?' That line of attack can expose the double standards of some prohibitionists but it cuts no ice with Hitchens because he would happily ban these products too if it were feasible. I shall therefore pass over that argument and address some of his other points.


This is demonstrably untrue. Alcohol and tobacco( see above) are legal. Yet in Britain, HM Revenue and Customs use huge resources trying to combat the criminal gangs which smuggle illicit cigarettes into the country, or who manufacture and distribute illicit alcohol. This is because they are very heavily taxed, just as legal marijuana would be very heavily taxed. In fact it is already being taxed in Colorado, on the US states which has legalised it. Illegal sellers still operate there, trading at well under the taxed price in legal outlets.

Nobody claims that prohibition is the sole cause of black market activity. Britain has a thriving black market in alcohol and tobacco because it has taken the advice of people like Peter Hitchens and introduced every measure short of prohibition to deter the sale of these products. Taxation, in particular, has created demand for illicit goods because, as John Stuart Mill once wrote, 'every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.' 

If Britain had a less punitive system of sin taxes, criminals would be driven out of these markets. Criminal manufacturers will never be able to produce products more cheaply than legal corporations. The only reason there is a price gap between the licit and illicit product is that paternalistic governments have set taxes too high.

By contrast, if we had full prohibition the market would be entirely run by criminals. The fact that there is a significant amount of criminal activity in a market that has several characteristics of an illicit activity, as tobacco does (artificially high prices, no advertising, and now no branding) is an argument for less regulation in that market, not prohibition in another. 

As with tobacco and alcohol in Britain, the tax on cannabis is Colorado is so high that it is cheaper to buy it on the black market. It should be lowered.

All crime is caused by law

In any case, no thought has gone into this. All crime is caused by law. To have law means to have crime. If you have no law, you will have no crime. But think what this means in reality. If we banned nothing, we’d need no police, courts or prisons. But we’d also live in much worse, more dangerous and unpleasant world. We ban things because they are dangerous or have other evil effects.

It is trivially true to say that there would be fewer crimes if there were fewer laws, and it is true that this is not an argument for repealing laws. The real question is whether cannabis is sufficiently 'dangerous' to justify prohibition and whether the costs to the 'police, courts or prisons' are justified given that smoking cannabis is a relatively benign self-regarding behaviour. The costs of enforcing prohibition are real and they fall on the general taxpayer. Prohibition, in other words, creates negative externalities for everybody in society. 

'Evil effects' are not sufficient to justify prohibition. People should be free to impose costs on themselves. Prohibition can only be justified if there are negative externalities which exceed the negative externalities of prohibition, and which cannot be captured with a Pigouvian tax. In general, however, smoking marijuana is a victimless crime that does not tick these boxes, although Hitchens disagrees...


Only if you do it on a desert island, quite alone, and nobody loves you. In all other cases, the user runs the risk of doing himself serious harm ( see below on correlation between cannabis use and mental illness). And if he does, his family will be terribly grieved and quite possibly forced to look after him, and pay for his upkeep for the rest of this natural life. They are victims. Alternatively, the user may end up in a mental hospital, expensively cared for at the charge of the taxpayer, who is also his victim. Even so his family’s grief and distress will last for as long as they live.

This is a reference to the alleged link between cannabis and schizophrenia. Given the widespread use of cannabis and the relative scarcity of schizophrenia, we might assume that the risk to any individual cannabis smoker - if it exists at all - is not great. Hitchens nevertheless wants people who smoke cannabis to be thrown in prison pour encourager les autres on the basis that the hurt or cost to third parties is intolerable. 

Since people can be 'terribly grieved' about all sorts of things, and since taxpayers foot the bill for most health and welfare costs, it is difficult to think of many activities that are truly victimless (and therefore permissible) under Hitchens' definition. It is a principle that, as Mill might say, 'acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret'.

In any case, it is not clear why Peter Hitchens cares more about an individual's loved ones than the individual does. If the friends and family of a cannabis user have a self-interested stake in his well-being, they can argue and reason with him. Ultimately, however, they must accept that his life is his own and that there is no duty on an individual to minimise every risk in case they wind up upsetting their friends or visiting an NHS doctor.

Nor should we assume that parents who have suffered as a result of their children taking drugs necessarily support Hitchens' position. The Anyone's Child campaign is run by dozens of parents who believe that their children would still be alive if drugs were re-legalised and regulated.

Why are cynical businessmen so much better than criminal gangs?

Why exactly are cynical businessmen better than criminal gangs?, who can wrap their dangerous products in pretty packets and sell them in shops and on the internet, and advertise them on TV and in cinemas, so much more desirable than criminals? Criminals cannot do these things, and can reach many fewer people than cynical businessmen.

'Cynical businessmen' generally don't settle their disputes by shooting one another, for a start. They don't blow up aeroplanes or employ hit-men. They abide by product regulation and pay taxes. They don't finance terrorism. They don't corrupt whole countries. They don't torture people, they don't burn down casinos and they don't throw grenades into crowds of innocent people. They don't need to do any of this because they can settle their disputes through a court of law.

On the other hand, Hitchens is right to say that 'cynical businessmen' try to make their products look attractive and tell people that they exist, subject to statutory limits on commercial speech, up to and including total prohibition. Manufacturing 'pretty packets' hardly seems comparable to mass murder, however.

In any case, this is what the UK's best selling cigarette looked like before plain packaging was introduced:

And this is some Ecstasy:

He continues:

Just because it’s regulated, doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Does the fact that cigarettes and alcohol are sold openly and ‘regulated’ mean they are safe to use and will not harm you?

Why then would it mean that legalised drugs were safe to use and would not harm you? By ‘regulating’ them, society and the state would be offering a reassurance they were not entitled to give. They would be looking the other way while something inherently dangerous was put on open sale. I can see why a greed merchant might accept this argument. But most marijuana legalisers regard themselves as being opposed to corporate cynicism. Why are they outraged at the sale of sugary drinks and greasy burgers to innocent children, but happy to ally themselves with the mighty lobby of Big Dope?

It is highly doubtful whether people interpret the legality of tobacco, alcohol or even sugary drinks as a 'reassurance' that they are totally without risk. Very few things are wholly safe. The question is whether regulated products are safer than unregulated products. Tobacco and alcohol are undoubtedly safer than they would be if they were only available from criminals on the black market. Illicit alcohol was vastly more dangerous in America under Prohibition and it continues to be vastly more dangerous wherever it is consumed today. Illicitly produced cigarettes are also more dangerous than the real thing. If sugary drinks were only available on the black market it would not be long before we had our first spate of sugary drink-related poisonings.

Unless Hitchens believes that product regulation is totally useless and unnecessary, he must accept that unregulated products carry extra risks. This is undoubtedly true of drugs like heroin and Ecstasy which require the police to give users special warnings when unusually strong or adulterated batches hit the streets.

Meet The Real Mr Big - it’s You

These are the people who seek the dangerous, selfish pleasures of drugs. These are the real Mr Bigs of the drug trade. Without the cash they willingly hand over for their chemical joy, there would be no cartels, no smuggling, no mules, no gang wars.

This is why it is so astonishing that the people at the heart of the drug trade, the buyers and users, are the only ones in whom the law is utterly uninterested. If they were systematically arrested and prosecuted, the drug trade would rapidly dwindle, most of all in the places now enslaved by it.

No Mr Hitchens, The Real Mr Big is you and your fellow prohibitionists. Without drug prohibitionists, there would be 'no cartels, no smuggling, no mules, no gang wars.' There were none of these before the war on drugs started and there will be none of them when it is finally ended. It is fatuous to blame the victims of the drug war for the inevitable consequences of the prohibitionists' utopian fantasies.


No, you can’t. The point of prison is to deter. Once it is clear that a crime is being taken seriously, its incidence falls ( see Japan and South Korea and pre-1971 Britain). A fairly small number of high-profile arrests and prosecutions, and the use by police of informers on a large scale so that nobody knew if they were in fact buying from a police nark, would rapidly persuade most people that drug abuse wasn’t worth the risk. And if everyone had heard of someone who *had* been jailed for drug possession, they’d change their behaviour. Drug abuse is a crime of affluence and choice. Anyone can stop committing it if he wants to. Nobody needs to do it.

Nice theory, but it hasn't worked in the United States where drug users are routinely sent to prison, nor in countries such as Russia or Iran which treat drug users even worse. The idea that people will stop taking drugs if word gets around that you can be sent to prison for it is naive. It is well known that large numbers of people are sent to prison for many years for the crime of dealing drugs, and yet drug-dealing continues.

Dictators love having stupefied subjects. They’re easier to fool, and to push around

Self-stupefaction is not some mighty freedom, like the freedoms of speech, thought and assembly. It is rather the opposite. Any tyrant would be glad to have a stupefied, compliant and credulous population, accepting what it was told and too passive and flaccid to resist. See Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, inn which the masses are controlled by the pleasure-drug Soma.

This slightly conspiratorial theory is not borne out by experience. Nearly every government in the world has banned narcotics. Only a tiny handful have legalised cannabis. Even if we accept the idea that 'dictators love having stupefied subjects' it is a matter of historical record that the worst dictators have fought the war on drugs more savagely than anybody. Chairman Mao came close to wiping out opium use in China using the most brutal methods. Putin, like his communist predecessors, takes a zero tolerance approach. Rodrigo Duterte is currently massacring drug users in their thousands in the Philippines. And whilst it is true that Hitler dished out drugs to his soldiers, the Nazis' drug of choice - amphetamine - was hardly likely to stupefy them.

In short, if governments of any stripe want a stupefied population, they have a funny way of showing it.

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