Evidence versus Morality? Debating drugs with Peter Hitchens

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve debated British drug policy with the journalist, Peter Hitchens. It’s been a strange experience that has caused me to reflect on how we can combine evidence and morality in discussions of drug policy.

The first of the debates with Mr Hitchens took place at the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus, at the invitation of the students’ Classical Liberal Society. Hitchens has also blogged about this debate. I proposed the motion ‘the UK should formally decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal consumption’. In my opening speech, I talked about the harms that criminalisation does - including the 80,000 criminal records that are handed out annually for drug possession - and the needless restriction of research on potentially useful medicines.

In reply, Hitchens rehearsed the arguments from his ferociously written but selectively researched book, The War We Never Fought. He noted the correlation between cannabis use and schizophrenia. He claimed that strong evidence that the link is causal is bound to emerge. He then reprised the book’s main thesis: that there never has been a War on Drugs in the UK; that the government gave up fighting drugs when it brought in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act; and that lax punishment is the reason why drug use is so commonplace today. So began a repeating pattern of me pointing out that drug possession is still a criminal offence in the UK (with Hitchens claiming it has already been decriminalised) and me explaining the lack of evidence that harsher punishment leads to lower use (with Hitchens claiming that it most certainly does).

Hitchens’ evidence for the beneficial effect of criminalisation is the link between the lowering of punishments for possession since the 1960s and the higher rate of drug use now. Indeed, he claimed that this was ‘the only thing we need to know’ in order to test the effect of punishment on rates of drug use. Never mind that harsher punishments in the 1960s did not prevent a substantial increase in drug use in that decade. Nor that the 2004 introduction of the cannabis warning (which temporarily reduced arrests and prosecutions for cannabis possessions) was followed by a reduction – not an increase – in cannabis use. Nor that international comparisons show no correlation between strict drug law enforcement and lower rates of use. Nor that changes in cannabis sanctions in other countries show no pattern of effects on cannabis use. For Hitchens, such facts cannot be right as they conflict with his moral position that ‘self-stupefaction’ is wrong and deserves punishment.

As in his book, Hitchens paraded some fascinating self-contradictions. The audience were audibly shocked when he claimed that drug users choose to bring misery on their families through their selfish indulgence; there is no such thing as addiction. I was not so surprised, but rather puzzled. Hitchens may be right that there is no biological diagnostic test for drug dependence. But his main argument against cannabis is that it produces schizophrenia. Both schizophrenia and drug dependence are diagnosed on the basis of the behaviour and the self-reported experiences of the patient. Neither of them can be detected by blood test or biopsy (although some neuroscientists claim that both conditions are visible in brain scans). If you’re going to say that addicts choose to use drugs, you might as well say that schizophrenics choose to have delusions. But that would not support an argument on the tragic effects of cannabis.

The audience asked some interesting questions about the possibility of comparative research between countries, and the wider determinants of drug problems. In reply I referenced Mike Vuolo’s multi-level study of young people’s drug use in Europe. This shows that, taking into account national and individual characteristics, drug use actually tends to be lower in countries which have decriminalised drug possession. I also reported on my own finding of a correlation between more generous welfare states and lower levels of injecting drug use.

In the second debate, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, we were joined by Kathy Gyngell of the Centre for Policy Studies and Niamh Eastwood of Release. Both Hitchens and Gyngell have been prominent critics of the growth of harm reduction, including opiate substitution treatment, in British drug policy. So I was glad to be supporting Niamh in confronting the blizzard of selectively cited statistics and moralistic scaremongering which they provided. One point that Niamh highlighted was that prosecutions for drug possession are at their highest ever level. When Hitchens made his claim that drugs have already been decriminalised, he was reminded of this fact by the chair of the discussion, the BBC’s Mark Easton. Instead of responding on the evidence, Hitchens replied with a broadside on the infamous liberal bias of the BBC.

Again, there were some interesting questions from the audience. One man said that his belief in decriminalisation had been shaken by the speed at which use of mephedrone had spread through his peer group when it was a ‘legal high’. I replied that this was an example of the long-known ‘balloon effect’; you push down on one part of the drug market, another one pops up. The Global Drug Survey has shown that MDMA is the favourite drug of clubbers. Control of precursors for MDMA produced a short-term dearth of the drug, encouraging users to look elsewhere. They found mephedrone. This is not a simple tale of legality leading to use. It illustrates the complex dynamics of supply and demand for psychoactive substances.

Another member of the audience wanted to know whether decriminalisation would make it harder for parents to put their children off drug use. I replied that our children face many dangers, with traffic accidents being the one I am most afraid of. But we do not need to ban crossing the road to help our children stay safe. We should not rely on misinformation and fear to help our children negotiate the dangers of modern life.

In his blog about this second debate, Hitchens bemoaned the force of ‘militant Selfism’ that has corrupted the English middle class and blinded us to the dangers of decriminalisation. At Cheltenham, he claimed that this would turn the UK into ‘a third world country’. Again, he drew gasps from the audience, which sounded this time like a mixture of astonishment and derision.

Both debates started and ended with a vote. They all showed strong majority support for decriminalisation and against prohibition. The number of people who had changed their minds was counted at Cheltenham. Not one person was newly convinced by Hitchens and Gyngell, but a few had been persuaded against prohibition.

Despite these comprehensive victories for the argument for decriminalisation, I still have some regrets about the debates. One is that they got stuck – as such discussions tend to – on the issue of the legal status of drug possession, as if that is the main determinant of drug use and drug problems. As I show in my book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health, this is not the case.  And as one student pointed out in Canterbury, the discussion is also limited by focusing on the harms that drug use can do. The use of drugs for pleasure, spiritual enlightenment and relief from various sufferings got very little attention.

The morality of drug use and control is another issue that could have received more discussion. Hitchens claims that drug use is selfishly immoral and that this is the fundamental reason why it should be illegal. In his book, he bases this claim on a foundation of protestant puritanism. But this is unlikely to be convincing to people who do not share his faith. There is another basis for moral debate on drug policy. It does not rely on religion or self-interest, but on the respect which we owe to our fellow human beings in recognition of our common humanity. As I have written elsewhere, this moral framework puts the protection of life, health and property above our desires to use drugs or for other people not to. The deontological question of what is right in drug policy therefore intertwines with the actual effects of drug policy. Drug policies which actually kill people or otherwise reduce their abilities to act to their own ends are immoral. Harm reduction saves lives. Decriminalisation reduces limitations on freedom without increasing harms. Empirical evidence does not stand against morality. It helps us to become more fully moral in how we regulate the use and supply of psychoactive substances.