Peter Hitchens’ fantasy-based drug policy

A few people have asked me why I got involved in debates with Peter Hitchens, given the slim probability that he would change his opinions. I answered that I wanted to expose the weakness of his argument.

In his two replies to my blog on our debates, this weakness is on open display. Hitchens finishes his second reply by writing in typically hyperbolic style about people who argue for decriminalisation of drug possession. According to him, we are ‘scrabbling away at the last scanty defence we have against a yelling, moronic inferno of self-indulgent chaos’.

So he thinks that criminalisation of possession is a defence against chaos, presumably because it deters drug use.  Why does he think this, when I have repeatedly told him about the lack of evidence for this effect? In his first reply, he makes it clear, first, that his argument rests not on fact but on fantasy and, second, that in order to maintain his argument he is ready to discard the best evidence we have on rates of drug use.

On the first point, he writes ‘there is no such place and no such time where policies of the sort I favour are in use or have been in use in the modern era, so we are unable to compare ourselves with it… it strikes me as likely that a strongly enforced law against cannabis possession would deter its use.’ This shows clearly Hitchens’ preference for imagination over evidence. He wants us to use punishments for drug possession that are in excess of those that any western democracy has been prepared to deliver. And this is not because serious studies have shown that increasing punishment actually reduces drug use (they have repeatedly not shown this), but because of what he imagines would be the effect. This is fantasy-based policy making.

On the second point, he is unwilling to accept that rates of cannabis use actually fell after the 2004 introduction of the cannabis warning. These figures come from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (formerly known as the British Crime Survey). This is not a perfect measure, but it is the highest quality study of drug use prevalence in Europe. It is certainly better than the guesswork based on media reports which Hitchens apparently prefers. The reduction in cannabis use has also been found by a different, high quality study; the survey of Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England. It also shows up in the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs. Admissions to hospital for cannabis related psychosis also fell after 2004.

Hitchens notes that this finding apparently conflicts with reports of the ‘blossoming’ of cannabis production within the UK. This can be explained by the shift of the market, from imported cannabis resin to domestically grown herbal cannabis. Even as the market has shrunk, British police services have detected an increasing number of producers who are willing to meet the demand that remains.

If he is true to form, Hitchens will accuse me of not attending to various points that he has raised. In anticipation, I can only reply that if I were to respond to every accusation, contradiction, exaggeration, distortion, supposition and tendentious insinuation in his writings on this subject, it would try the patience of the most fascinated reader. And I have a day job to do. The point where my opponent is relying on fantasy and denial of the available data in order to support his case seems a good time to let it rest.


He says ‘I can only reply that if I were to respond to every accusation, contradiction, exaggeration, distortion, supposition and tendentious insinuation in his writings on this subject, it would try the patience of the most fascinated reader.’

OK then, let us have a specific example of just one ‘exaggeration’, and one ‘distortion’ (the other things he accuses me of are not remotel open to objective proof and are in efefct terms of abuse. These two, more or less, might be - comparing what I say with what Profesor Stevens believes to be the case). But the idea that state-sponsored surveys will produce honest answers about illegal drug use is laughable. As for levels of punishment, the point is that these have to be consistently applied in practice to make a difference, Britain's drug laws would appear, to an uninformed outsider, to be stringent. Their application is not.

Let’s focus on a contradiction.

You dismiss the findings of the Crime Survey for England and Wales. You write ‘the idea that state-sponsored surveys will produce honest answers about illegal drug use is laughable’. Your description of the CSEW on your own blog is a distortion. You describe it as a ‘survey which requires named and traceable individuals to tell an official body if they used an illegal drug’. The CSEW has careful measures to ensure that responses on drug use are not ‘named and traceable’ in the data. Even the interviewer does not know individuals’ responses on drug use, as this section of the survey uses computer-assisted self-interviewing.

In your book, you claim that the truth ‘is more likely to be that cannabis carries a greater risk of irreversible damage than either heroin or cocaine’. This is a supposition. We cannot predict the results of future research on cannabis. On the current state of knowledge, it is an exaggeration.

In making your claim for the harmfulness of cannabis, you have relied heavily on the Dunedin study and on the survey of Swedish army conscripts. But both of these are also ‘state sponsored surveys’ which ask people to report on their own drug use to government-funded researchers.

The contradiction is clear. When research supports your pre-existing belief that cannabis is harmful, you treat it as ‘objective measurable fact’. But when research - using the same methods – goes against your belief that reducing punishment increases drug use, you dismiss it.

Further than this, I do not see the point of continuing our argument, given the evident bias in what you count as knowledge in this field.

"Britain's drug laws would appear, to an uninformed outsider, to be stringent. Their application is not."

So a person, [mother of two children recently in Sheffield in this case] found guilty of growing 6 plants and thrown into jail for several months is not good enough for you?

Your attempt to rubbish 'state-sponsored surveys' is pathetic, you rubbish what you don't agree with.

Like I have said before, you arrogance shines through in everything you do.

But Mr. Hitchens, this lack of stringent application must be for a reason, and judging by what the police chiefs and constables who call for leglisation/decriminalisation say the reason the laws aren't stringently applied is because it is impractical and a waste of police time to do so. There are more important things to be getting on with.
When you were at the debate at Kent one of the key points of your criminalisation argument was that drugs do serious damage to the users, I asked if you thought alcohol should be criminalised, and you responded with some waffle about how the law has to be based on practicality and banning alcohol would be incredibly impractical. While this was an excellent way to dodge the conflict of interests you likely have (I assume you indulge in the occassional wine or beer) I fail to see how your argument is in any way consistent regarding this point.
If it were that drugs should be banned because of their harm, then alcohol should surely be banned as it causes more brain damage, death and other health issues then any of the illegal drugs in Britain. If however it is the case that we should not police what it is impractical to police then surely we should bring cannabis and other "less damaging" drugs above board, due to the impractical nature of policing them; which is evidently the case from the reports by policemen and your own observation that the police do not stringently enforce drug laws.
I look forward to your clarification regarding this seeming confusion in the logic of your argument.

Hitchens addresses the issue of banning alcohol in The War We Never Fought. He states (roughly - it's best to check this yourself) that if alcohol had only recently been invented, then he would be in favour of banning it. Because alcohol has been part of European culture for thousands of years, it is not practical to ban it now. This is not the case with cannabis - only in widespread use for fifty years or so in Britain.

Ah, so it's a fear of change thing. I won't take him too seriously then, throughout the last 1000 years there are plenty of examples of people rejecting science and reason because of their inherent fear of change and uncertainty. Science tends to prevail.

There is nothing wrong with science: it can be very useful. But scientific ideas change, and human knowledge is very limited. I don't think there is any proof that cannabis does not cause mental illness, so why risk individual misery, and the potential damaging social consequences, by allowing people to possess / use cannabis without being punished?

Hi Chris. There are two separate issues for research here. One is the harmfulness of cannabis. The second is whether the reduction in punishment increases drug use (and therefore harms). The evidence on this shows that there is no correlation between levels of punishment and levels of use (see the references I've linked to in my two blogs).


So even if cannabis use carries risk of harm, it does not follow that the best way to reduce this harm is to punish users. In the absence of evidence that punishment reduces use, this punishment inflicts harms that are not justified.

Hello. I think it is difficult to trust current 'evidence' because surveys have to be commissioned and paid for by somebody. The old saying that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' is, unfortunately, very true of modern science, especially the social sciences. I would agree that there is no proof, as yet, that an effective campaign to detect and punish drug possession would reduce drug use. However, this has never been tried in Britain, so there is equally no proof that it would not reduce it.

Do you think there is enough anecdotal evidence / correlation to link cannabis to mental health problems? I would certainly not want any of my nephews or nieces to try cannabis, and if the risk of getting a criminal record (and thus being barred from certain jobs), being jailed, etc helps put them and their peers off drug use, I think that is a good thing.

I have to disagree with you on the piper calling the tune on the evidence I have cited in my blogs. While that is clearly a danger for reports by think tanks (Policy Exchange's report that supported probation privatisation, sponsored by G4S, springs to mind), I think it is an unfair accusation against the authors of 'Drug Policy and the Public Good'; a group of highly distinguished and independent researchers.

I agree that there may well be a risk of harm from use of cannabis in adolescence. However, I don't think that harming adolescents and adults by criminalising them for possession is necessary, proportionate or effective in deterring use. The evidence suggests that there are effective ways of reducing drug use among adolescents. These involve education and support, not punishment. Attempts to scare them off drug use (e.g. the Drug Abuse Resistance Education campaign) have been shown not to work, and even to increase drug use in some cases.

When did everyone start using the word 'criminalise'? It seems to be a very loaded word, and might imply that there is nothing wrong with the activity that has been 'criminalised' or needs to be 'decriminalised'. We could also 'decriminalise' those who use prostitutes, rob people, and so on, especially if we think that the people involved may be harmed by being 'criminalised'. But I think this is a strange way of looking at things, and may bring us closer to Aldous Huxley's prediction of a horrific Brave New World.

It may be true that the 'Drug Policy and the Public Good' report is less biased than a similar report commissioned by politicians, or a report funded by private companies: you know much more about its background than me. But the people compiling the reports may have opinions on the subject, and they have to choose what to investigate, what to leave out, and how to display their results to make a point. It is not as clear-cut as testing the boiling temperature of water.

In order to determine the dangers of a substance it will be necessary to observe the individuals who use it over a prolonged period of time. Look at tobacco , imagine if it had been illegal and people who smoked hid this fact. In order to truly know the effects of a drug , it must be decriminalized,(at least )so that we can study the users and not be left with severe selection biases . I suspect that eventually the more harmful ones will be used less frequently as we become more educated (as we are finally seeing with tobacco). In any case when will society see that the risks of a behavior that is potentially self injurious should be shouldered by the user , not the innocent bystanders who are witness to this crime infested enterprise.

Mr Stevens

I note that Mr Hitchens challenges you to show a *single specific* example of exaggeration, and one of distortion, yet you choose instead to focus on a contradiction.

Why is this? Maybe Mr Hitchens hasn't actually exaggerated or distorted anything, and you simply don't agree with his views. That is your prerogative, of course, but it suggests you're struggling to put a convincing argument.

You're using accusations of fantasy and denial of data to "let it rest" - that's the debate equivalent of tipping over the chessboard when seeing mate in a couple of moves, and frankly its a disappointing response from a professor.

Mr/Ms Lambert.

I suggest you try reading my comment again and see if you can spot the specific distortion and the specific exaggeration I discuss.

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