Thursday, 19 July 2007

Hypocrisy in drug policy goes way beyond the Home Office

“#…birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it…#”

…and so, it appears, do Home Secretaries, Ministers of State for Policing and more members of the Cabinet than one could shake a stick at. The Leader of the Opposition has been coy, which is tantamount to admission. And I’m sure there have been a few red faces (and red eyes) in the past of Liberal Democrats.

Where Cannabis is concerned, it seems that everybody’s done it. So why are they all so keen to ban it? Is Parliament full of people with addled minds, suffering from bizarre neurological effects, unable to control their thoughts or emotions?

Okay, I set myself up for that one! Lets try again.

Large numbers of parliamentarians have taken drugs in their pasts (and, I imagine, no small number in their presents). The litany of Ministers that have admitted drug use suggests that in the more obscure recesses of the back benches there are many, many more. There is no reason to believe that politicians are any better than anybody else (and some reasons to think they are worse!), so it is worth noting that in a survey in 2000, a third of the 250 financial directors asked admitted that they had tried cannabis.

As for the rest of the population, the Home Office estimates that 15 million Britons have tried cannabis, and between two million and five million are regular users. In case you missed that, let me reiterate: one if four Britons have tried cannabis, and between one in thirty and one in twelve are regular users.

Two obvious lessons can be drawn from this. Firstly, the risk from using cannabis must be pretty small. If 15 million have tried it and millions use it regularly, the fact that our mental wards and accident and emergency wards are not filled to bursting with dope cases suggests that the risks are slight. That is not to deny that there are links between cannabis use and mental illness; plenty of people with psychoses have used cannabis. But it is not clear to me that a causal link has been established. It is equally plausible that those with psychological problems are driven to drug use as a form of self-medication. Many also use other drugs, further muddying the waters of causality.

At this point it is worth commenting on the “Gateway” fallacy. Again, the fact that users of harder drugs have previously used cannabis is no proof that cannabis use leads to the use of harder drugs. Not unless Mrs. Smith and Mr. McNulty have something else to tell us. Rather, cannabis is one of the many drugs that will be utilised by those with a desire to experiment with their body chemistry, and being pretty harmless and fairly ubiquitous it will be one of the earliest. I imagine most have tried both tobacco and alcohol first, of course, but I do not see many people suggesting that these are gateway drugs – indeed those who do are generally, and rather illogically, viewed as crazies.

The second obvious lesson is that those who have not themselves been harmed by cannabis are very worried about allowing others to do what they, themselves, seemed perfectly happy to try. This is rank hypocrisy. It is one thing to try to pass on your wisdom; to warn others that you have done something and have now learnt that it is not a good thing to do. It is another to stop others making the same mistakes as you. We would not allow crippled freeclimbers to prevent others from ascending sheer cliffs without ropes; we certainly should not be allowing perfectly healthy freeclimbers who have safely scrambled up and down sheer cliffs to forbid others to do the same.

The entire argument is part of the paternalistic desire to protect others from themselves. Drug use falls entirely within one’s “personal space”; it has no external effect (tobacco smoke excepted). The behaviour of a person on drugs may be harmful to others, but the law clearly lays the blame on the decision to act, and not upon the influencing chemicals (motoring offences linked to alcohol excepted). It is entirely possible – indeed, usual – to behave perfectly legally while taking drugs (except in as far as the drug taking itself is illegal). There is therefore no justification for government interference.

In this respect I ought to add that I have no time for the argument that there is a social cost because drug users cause costs to taxpayers. If one wishes to have a publicly funded healthcare system, one must accept that people’s behaviour will impact upon taxes; by the same logic we would ban tobacco, fatty foods and a reluctance to exercise. If one wants to take money off those who work and transfer it to those who do not, one must accept that the lazy (doped or clean) will benefit as well as the unfortunate. The desire to use legislative means (banning stuff) o achieve administrative ends (keeping costs down) is a confusion of two very distinct roles of the government, and one which results from sloppy reasoning and a desire to follow the line of least resistance: ‘Why make people pay for the costs they incur, when government can just ban them from doing things that might incur costs?’

What shocks me is the extent of the hypocrisy, not only in the executive and the legislature, but among the public as a whole. It is time that we stopped pretending that drug use was a rare and unfortunate habit afflicting a small handful of people whom we ought to protect from themselves. It is time to recognise that drug use is widespread, and that at least a large minority of people believe that the law does not reflect justice or reason. It is time for a serious debate about drugs that encompasses the fundamental questions of choice, harm, health and safety and the balance between individual freedom and social wellbeing. This debate will not be helped by Minister after Minister admitting to using drugs but then apologising and promising that it was just a youthful indiscretion. That is incredible (in its strictest sense). It is also unhelpful.

But then this is politics. Doing the right thing is, as Sir Humphrey would have said, “Very brave, Minister”.


Aaron Trevena said...

Labour and conservative (shadow) ministers being populist hypocrits bandying around medical research they don't understand is the norm.

What surprises me is the lack of backbone from our party - Remember Sir Menzies Campbell saying the RSA report was a 'wake up call' back in March? Funny how Messrs Clegg and Menzies overlooked the Transform report which provides workable solutions to the problems outlined by the RSA report.

They must have pressed the snooze button, several times, and then unplugged the phone to avoid that 'wake up call'

Aaron Trevena said...

Gosh - we actually do have a fairly sensible drug policy ( - except starting it with 'leave cannabis as class B/C for now' is hugely underwhelming - better to just make a policy to decriminalize cannabis and work forwards leading UN policy on drugs by example.