Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 15 June 2012

Peter Hitchens learnt something from his days as a Trot

In recent years I have noticed that Peter Hitchens, the right-wing columnist who is steadfastly against any relaxation of the drug laws has come up with an eye-catching formulation regarding this policy area.

He claims that there is no "War on Drugs". His argument is that liberal society is turning a blind eye to drug use and the police and authorities talk a good game but essentially pedal softly. His further argument is that until we crack down "properly" on everything to do with drugs then the problems will continue.

It's a neat way of trying to justify why the current policy has failed. It's not because as people like me would have you believe, prohibition of drugs causes many of the problems but because we haven't had enough prohibition. Or at least we've had the wrong sort of prohibition. Do you see? Those of us who are campaigning for an end to our nonsensical drug laws have got it totally arse about face.

Of course I disagree with Hitchens on this. Tell the thousands of people every year who are locked up for minor drugs offences and/or have their lives ruined with a criminal record that there is no War on Drugs.

But the more I have heard Hitchens pedal this line, the more it has reminded me of something from my youth.

In the 1980s as I was coming of age politically, as the USSR was clearly in decline and other countries where Communism had been experimented with such as Cuba showed how such states always seem to degenerate into some sort of Totalitarian dystopia a curious thing happened. Proponents of Communism argued that "True Communism" had never really been tried. Despite the evidence staring them in the face that their One True Way simply did not work they raged against the dying of the light essentially saying that the problem was we hadn't had enough Communism.

It is no surprise to me that Peter Hitchens was a Trotskyist in his youth. And even though he has repudiated much of what he learnt during that phase of his life he has certainly kept some of their rhetorical tricks in his arsenal. He should not get a free pass on this.

There is another interesting parallel here. Those who so passionately argued that we needed more or proper Communism were blind to the fact that the actual outcome of their ideology was what had happened in real countries time and again in the real world. They weren't anomalies, they were the evidence of what happens when you try to follow that route.

Exactly the same applies with the War on Drugs. Country after country after country has tried prohibiting many, many substances. The end result has been an explosion in drug use and violence from criminal gangs across the world in the last 40 years. These are not side effects from the "wrong sort of War on Drugs". They are the end result of the current policy.

Exactly like the solution to the problems with Communism was not more Communism, so the problems with the current drug laws cannot be more of the same, even in a more hard line form. That would simply exacerbate the problem.

What we actually need is Glasnost and Peristroika in our drugs policy where we are honest about what has failed and are open to what we need to do to improve them.


James said...

Absolutely spot on.

Also, it reminds me of the American righties of the 1960s and 1970s who insisted that the Vietnam could be won, if only we escalated, escalated, escalated. Which is true, of course, but it would have required an extent of national effort and a further transgression of moral codes that the American people would not have been willing to contemplate. So it is with the War on Drugs - if we basically chucked every single teenager who's ever smoked a joint into jail for life and gave the police even greater powers to stop the drugs scourge, we might well win, but at intolerable cost. Hitchens mistakes war with total war.

Peter Hitchens said...

Who are these 'thousands of people who are locked up each year for minor drugs offences'? Can we please have precise sourced figures, details of the offences involved, of previous convictions, whether any other offence was involved at the same time, etc?

Or could it be that I am in fact correct?

asquith said...

You are quite right, and this angle had actually never occured to me. I think I have more time for Hitchens than most liberals because I appreciate his defence of civil liberties (particularly useful coming from a right-winger, since so many Tories are no more supportive than Labour... as indeed we've seen in recent times), and his general air of integrity, even if what he says is generally disagreeable.

Did you see he was the only one of the panel who could recite a poem? Excellent choice, I thought. I was reciting along with him. But I didn't read it until I was 24, and don't have any recollection of learning poems at school!

asquith said...

Oh, and the fact that he engages with his adversaries on blogs, unlike many national commentators who think such a thing is beneath them. I don't know if that comment is genuinely by Pete, but I have seen him on other blogs and debating with critical commentors on his own blog.

Steve Rolles said...

Drug offences and prison:

• 9,554 people were imprisoned in the 12 months preceding September 2011 for drug offences.

• Over 106,000 people were found guilty of a drugs offence, with just over 40% of that number being found guilty of possession (43,406)

• Of that number 1342 were sent to prison subject to immediate custody.

• In terms of age we sent 100 young people (under 18) to prison last year for a drugs offence.

• Of the 43,406 convicted of possession, 12,076 were under the age of 21 - nearly 30% of all convictions for possession.

Cannabis offences

• Cannabis warnings have simply resulted in net widening with the numbers receiving a caution or a conviction now at approximately the same rate as they were in 2003 (stats available if needed).

• The extra 80,000 cannabis warnings and 15,000 PNDs a year are just that - extra, they have not diverted any numbers away from the CJS.

• The suggestion then there has been a decisive move towards decriminalisation in UK cannabis enforcement is therefore very misleading.

Source: Ministry of justice

Steve Rolles said...

Anyway, if we are being pedantic - whether '1000s are imprisoned for minor offences' depends on your definition of 'minor offences': theres about 1000 for posession (argubaly minor - although many of these will be for probabtion violations or repeat offences), and several 1000 for arguably minor supply offences, but some will argue thers no such thing as a minor supply offence - including presumably, Peter.

what isnt in doubt is that tens of thousands get criminal records each year for minor posession offences , which I would argue is a serious (and disproportionate) sanction, regardless of the imprisonment issue.

internationallyofcourse the numbers are vastly higher - imprisoned drug offenders likely to be around 2 million or 20% of all incarcerated.

Peter Hitchens said...

FIRST PART OF Response to figures from Mr Rolles (responses marked **):
Mr Rolles • 9,554 people were imprisoned in the 12 months preceding September 2011 for drug offences.

**This is not very helpful unless we know a) what the offences were, as the law still does take some punitive action against importers, dealers and manufacturers of drugs (though not against those who possess them) b) whether those involved were imprisoned *for* the drugs offences, or went to prison having been convicted of drugs offences alongside other offences and c) how many previous offences they had committed. Immediate custody for simple drug possession is infinitesimally unlikely.

Mr Rolles • Over 106,000 people were found guilty of a drugs offence, with just over 40% of that number being found guilty of possession (43,406)
Interesting figures, especially compared with the undoubted many hundreds of thousands ( and by some accounts millions) of drug possession offences committed in this country each year.

Mr Rolles • Of that number 1342 were sent to prison subject to immediate custody.

Of which number? Of those convicted (106,000) , or of those convicted of *possession*(43,406). The distinction is interesting and important, though in either case, the total isn’t very big, is it? Fewer than two per cent of the larger figure, about three per cent of the smaller..

Mr Rolles • In terms of age we sent 100 young people (under 18) to prison last year for a drugs offence.
**And so what? Hundreds of thousands of young people possessed illegal drugs during this period, and the law never bothered them. By the way, what were the offences? Were they standalone or linked to other offences? How many previous convictions did they have?

Mr Rolles • Of the 43,406 convicted of possession, 12,076 were under the age of 21 - nearly 30% of all convictions for possession.
**And again, so what? Drug abuse is more common among the young, so it only makes sense that more of those convicted are young.. It would be more interesting if they were all pensioners. By the way, possession of what? In what quantities? And does this include possession with intent to sell, or just simple possession?

Peter Hitchens said...

PART TWO of response to Mr Rolles

Cannabis offences

Mr Rolles • Cannabis warnings have simply resulted in net widening with the numbers receiving a caution or a conviction now at approximately the same rate as they were in 2003 (stats available if needed).

**They are needed. This statement makes no sense without figures, and may make none with them. How does the writer know with such confidence what would have happened to those given Cannabis Warnings had they not been available? Was he present when they were all given? ‘Simply’ indeed. Isn’t it possible that drug users, being rational, have seen the introduction of ‘cannabis warnings’ as what is , permission to break the law without fear, and so broken it more? His wishful thinking is certainly simple. I note he avoids the fact that the number of empty, sanction-free ‘warnings’ is immensely greater than the number of any other disposals (and that the state has no records for the disposal of a significant number of cannabis possession cases) . He also avoids the fact that no legislation exists to support the use of ‘warnings’, which are in fact police decisions to let the offender off, as recommended by ACPO. Given the pointlessness of this, how many officers simply don’t bother? I don’t know, and nor does he, but it is a reasonable assumption that it is quite a few.

Mr Rolles • The extra 80,000 cannabis warnings and 15,000 PNDs a year are just that - extra, they have not diverted any numbers away from the CJS.

**That, too, is a statement of opinion dressed up as fact. What are they ‘extra’ to? How does he know what would have happened if ‘warnings’ were not available? Under a serious punitive policy, they would all have faced prosecution and the risk of a criminal record. Now they don’t. He should be pleased.

Mr Rolles • The suggestion then there has been a decisive move towards decriminalisation in UK cannabis enforcement is therefore very misleading.
**No it’s not. The writer plainly has no idea of the history of this issue, nor of how long it has been going on, nor much understanding of the operation of the law and the police. The bipartisan Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, itself the implementation of the pro-decriminalisation Wootton report of 1969, was the decisive move. The most open declaration of its purpose was the speech by the(Tory) Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, given to the Magistrates Association in autumn 1973 , in which he told them to stop sending people to prison for cannabis possession. They duly did as they were told. Police will tend not to bother with pursuing offences which the courts don’t care about, and so it goes on…

Steve Rolles said...

Apologies if the stats weren't clear;

The 9554 figure is for all drug offences as covered by the MDA - some breakdown is provided in the MoJ figures if you want to chase them up. It illustrates that the number imprisoned for drug offences is substantially more than zero, as seemingly implied by the 'no war on drugs' narrative.

Regards the children and young people imprisoned or receiving criminal records for drug possession - I'm concerned about this even if you aren't. Prison and the stigma of a criminal record carry a heavy toll. Even if you feel all drug use should be subject to blanket punishment regardless of harms incurred - personal or otherwise (not a view I share) prison and/or a criminal record is grossly disproportionate to the nature of the crime by any of the standard proportionality tests.

Yes, arguably 100k is a small number of prosecutions relative to the multiple millions of offences committed - but again it is some way from zero (see previous comment re 'war we never fought' narrative). Do you have a number or % that you think would suffice - and what would evidence this target be based on - or is it just a vague call for more?

We need to consider the cost/police resource implications (and opportunity costs of that in terms of other government spending, enforcement or otherwise) if that number really did increase to multiple millions (assuming such a think was possible is even possible with increased enforcement). I suspect you haven't really considered these cost implications - especially if the increased arrests were associated with dramatically increased sentences you have alluded to - potentially including prison as you seem to suggest. Quite aside from any other costs, 100s of 1000s in prison, at a cost of 30-50k per prisoner per year represents a bill running into 10s of billions.

We also need to consider this potential enforcement investment in light of the weakness of evidence that harshness of user level enforcement is significantly correlated to a deterrent effect. The evidence such an effect in the academic literature is strikingly poor, given the concepts centrality in the prohibitionist paradigm. Comparative studies between states with different approaches show no obvious pattern, nor do longitudinal studies tracking changes in policy. It is possible to cherry pick examples to support one position or another but overall enforcement appears to have a marginal impact relative to wider social, cultural, and economic variables. It is here that we should probably be directing the limited drug policy resources we have; effective prevention based on investing in social capital, targeting vulnerable groups, tackling inequality, poverty, lack of opportunity, boredom, poor parenting and education, failings in the care system,, failings in the mental health system, and so on. That might achieve something. Ever more punitive responses to drug users will only be expensive and counterproductive.

IMHO ofcourse.

I'll come back to the cannabis stats later.

Peter Hitchens said...

Mr Rolles seems to forget that Mr Thompson's original contention was that'thousands of people every year [who] are locked up for *minor* drugs offences'. (my emphasis)

These figures do not, so far, come close to substantiating that claim. Indeed, I have yet to see evidence of a single person being locked up in recent years for a *minor* drugs offence. Perhaps he can provide one, and we can examine the details.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by 'minor', but when Pete Dogerty can actually be caught in a criminal court building with heroin in his coat pockets, and *not* be locked up, I think the general trend is clear to most conscious people.

As for this stuff about 'criminalising', if you break a known law, you 'criminalise' yourself by your own conscious and voluntary efforts and decisions. If you don't want the consequences , don't break the law.

This is just a way of shifting the argument away from the point - which is 'should drugs be illegal?' I say yes.

Peter Hitchens said...

Then there's the daft, simple-minded point about the prisons being full to bursting if the law were properly enforced. This is a basic misunderstanding of how criminal laws work. Did the introduction of drink-drive laws lead to a huge number of prosecutions? Only initially, after which people stopped driving with too much booze in their blood.

Have pub landlords become martyrs to the cause of smoking in the bar? Hardly any.

Most dope smokers would look at the risks of jail, if it were a serious danger, and of losing their freedom to travel to the USA, and stop. The purpose of prison is not to lock people up, but to deter people from doing actions which would get them locked up. If systematically applied, this remedy is very effective. If nt, not

Mark Thompson said...

Peter - Firstly thank you for taking the time to come here and debate this. Most national newspaper columnists would not engage with a minor blog like this so it is to your credit that you are willing to.

I think the discussion between yourself and Steve highlight the problem with the term that I used "minor drugs offences". For myself (and I suspect Steve) that would include various actions that you would probably not think of as minor. Frankly, anybody being put through the criminal justice system for possession of drugs in my view is a) a massive waste of time and money and b) something that could very well severely damage the life chances of that person - in many cases way beyond the damage caused by the drugs themselves (which I agree can of course be harmful). That is my definition of a War on Drugs.

Regarding your point about whether if the penalties were increased (and from your perspective "properly enforced") it would reduce usage I would challenge you to provide evidence that this is the case. I have never seen evidence of a correlation between legal regimes and usage. As I think Steve has already pointed out the actual correlations tend to be around cultural issues and fashions. But even if (and it is a big if) you could convince me of that, I would suggest it would be impossible to enforce these laws at the level you describe. There are some polls that show as many as 70% of the population wish to see cannabis decriminalised in some form (See here) and even for currently higher classed drugs there are often sizeable minorities who think the same. There simply is not the common consent for a huge crackdown. And I also suspect that even of those who might nominally be in favour, as soon as it was one of their children facing years in prison and their future prospects ruined they would soon change their minds. In this debate, we often hear things like "why don't we just make burglary legal too!??" but my point here is salient. I would suggest support for keeping burglary illegal would be over 99% and that would not change over time. Crimes that actually have a victim will always have strong public consent. Crimes that involve taking a mind altering substance do not fall into this category.

Oh, and one other thing whilst I have your attention! I have on occasion noticed in your columns that you imply that everyone campaigning for changes in the drug laws are motivated by self-interest (i.e. they want to be able to smoke pot etc. themselves legally). I know plenty of campaigners who never take illegal drugs themselves and I am included in that. I don't smoke tobacco or drink alcohol either. My motivation is that I think our society would be better if we changed the laws. I know you completely disagree with me on this but it would be nice if in future you could extend people like me the courtesy of not assuming we have selfish motives. For my part I know that you are sincere in your motives too even though I disagree with you.

Best regards,


Peter Hitchens said...

Well, I suppose that is as close as we are going to get to a concession from the druggie side that the claim that 'thousands of minor drug offenders are jailed each year' is incorrect( as it certainly is), so I shall gladly accept it as such in the same eirenic spirit.

As to my suggestion that the advocates of drug decriminalisation are motivated by personal interests, I am paying them a compliment, of giving them a rational purpose for holding an otherwise unhinged opinion. Surely legal alcohol is bad enough? I cannot see why anyone who is not himself a drug-user should want to unleash this new plague of misery and loss on our already frazzled civilisation.

Steve Rolles said...

Peter - I dont think drink driving offences are a useful comparison with drug use offences. The distinction is made between mala in se and mala prohibitum offences (happy to elborate if youve no idea what Im talking about - I have written about this elsewhere).

Drink driving is pretty much universally accepted as being wrong as it presents an unacceptable risk to others - no such consensus exists for drug use.

In contrast it is impossible to generalise about drug use as it encompasses a wide range of behaviours (from occassional/ moderate use of low risk drugs through to frequent/ heavy use of high risk drugs) associated with a correspondingly wide range of harms (from negligable through to severe - both for the individual and others).

Drink driving is alawys substantially risky/harmful to others - the same cannot be said about all drug use (although a minority obviously is). This difference may explain why there
is no significant population desiring or campaigning for the law to be changed on drink driving, unlike with drug use. Drink driving has never been decriminalised once prohibtited nor should it be - the same cannot be said for drug use - now decriminalised in some form in around 30 countries with more pending.

A similar point can be made regards the issue of the smoking ban (which I support btw). This was a move that imposed a relatively small cost, with a clear and demonstrable benefit. On that basis, and despite some grumbling at the time, people now mostly accept it was a good idea. My understanding is that sanctions for defying the ban are non-criminal aswell (ie civil or administrative penalties such as fines / license issues - but willing to be corrected on that). Criminalisation of drugs is therefore qualitatively different as well as being unable to demonstrate effectiveness, or the same support from the affected populations (illegal drug users do not have a option, like smokers, to go outside to a nice little terrace to consume their drugs where they will be decriminalised). The smoking ban was an example of effective evidence based regulation (not a blanket prohibtion), along side health warnings on packets, increasing age of purchase from 16-18, banning vending machines, advertising bans and increased taxes: combined with investment in risk education the result has been a substantial fall smoking over the same period illegal drug use has been rising. These are precisely the kind of regulatory controls we cant implement with illegal drugs drugs which are controlled by criminal profiteers. Ive written about how we might do better in Transforms blueprint for regulaiton - which I think youve seen (it includes section on lessons from alcohol and tobacco control btw).

The law can help shape healthy social norms and encourage safer behaviour. But this does not have to be criminal law (speeding is usually a a civil office for example) and should never be used arbitraily or disproportionately. There are obviously a range of ways of expressing social dissaproval that do not involve criminalisation. Criminalisation of drug use has not proven to be an effective deterrent as I have said in a previous post (and you havent provided any evidence to the contrary - beyond some misplaced analogies)- nor is it the role of criminal law to serve as a form of health or moral education. Whilst Governments can rightly undertake such a role we have other public education tools for achieving it, ones that are designed for the task and more effective - at least if done properly. Why our drug misuse prevention and risk education efforts have been so ineffective is a seperate but important question - but blanket criminalisation of a consenting adult activity will never be an apporpriate response. It is not an approach supported by evidence and is wrong on fundamental principle.

Anonymous said...

Mr Hitchens, this is a rights issue, essentially. It is about social harms.
When you call it "the druggie side", it becomes obvious that you are heavily bigoted.

You are full of straw man arguments, there is no way you can be objective about this issue.

Anonymous said...

Says it all

'Surely legal alcohol is bad enough?'

Anonymous said...

That is all you need to know:

'Surely legal alcohol is bad enough?'

Anonymous said...

It has to be said. Is it worth giving the likes of Hitchens any mention or attention at all?
On the grounds that it merely reinforces his 'views'?
He needs to feel 'important' and that he has sway in this debate.