I recently had an exchange of letters with Peter Hitchens, who is the most articulate exponent of drug prohibition I know. I wanted to try to persuade him, using everything I learned from the years I was researching ‘Chasing The Scream,’ that he is mistaken. An edited version of this exchange appeared in the Mail on Sunday last week; here is the full text of the letters.
Letter one – me to Peter
As you know, for the past three years I’ve been travelling 30,000 miles to discover the real story of the war on drugs – why it started, why it continues, and what the alternatives really look like. Late in my journey, shortly after spending some time in prisons in Arizona, I read your book ‘The War We Never Fought’. Although I disagree with most of it, it struck me as the most clear and lucid argument for the prohibitionist case in decades.I was thrilled when you agreed to this exchange of letters. As a recovering former columnist, I have been trying to get out of the habit of engaging with the world through angry polemics. I am increasingly interested in understanding the world by using empathy to try to comprehend, as deeply as I can, the stories of the people I meet. As you know from the book, that ranges from a crack dealer in Brooklyn to a hit-man for the worst Mexican drug cartel – but I think it’s perhaps most important to extend empathy to the people who have reached the opposite possible conclusions to me on this question and support the drug war.
It seems to me that many online arguments seem to take the form of people shouting past each other, each playing to their respective cheering constituencies. I’ve done plenty of this in the past: nobody is persuaded and nothing is gained. I’d like to avoid that in this exchange, because I know you to be a fundamentally decent and intelligent person, and I think there is a possibility we might persuade each other a little. I believe that if you had come on this journey with me – to see why drug prohibition really started, the victims it claims today, and how well the alternatives work – you may well have come to a similar conclusion to mine.
What I’d like to do in this first letter is give the most sympathetic possible summary of the central arguments of your book, as they seemed to me. Perhaps – feel free to disregard me – you might respond with a summary of mine. I think if we can have a discussion where, at the start, we have shown we understand where the other is coming from, it’ll make the whole conversation more worthwhile. Then, later, perhaps I can explain where I disagree. (By the way, I thought the chapter in your book warning against anti-depressants – as somebody who took them for more than a decade – was important and superb. It’s outside the remit of this particular conversation, but I want to urge people to read it.)
I think you make essentially five core arguments in your book:
- Intoxication is immoral.
You argue that when an individual gets intoxicated, he or she is seeking “sensual pleasure sought for its own sake, separated from any effort or responsibility.” They are voluntarily leaving behind the world of the senses – the real world, where they can affect real people – and entering a world of selfish indulgence, where only their own egos matter. Intoxication “smothers thought and dilutes discontent, the very things that real lovers of human liberty need and value.”
People should, you argue, be stopped from getting intoxicated because “we should not reject the great gifts of the senses given to us… We should not try to muffle justified discontent by blurring our minds with drugs.” (p43). Any positive feelings that come from drugs are “not just premature, but unearned… it breaks the link between effort, achievement and joy… They seem to supersede the tiresome Protestant ethic.” You say later: “Sometimes [critics] end the exchange by denouncing me as a ‘puritan’, a charge I feel increasingly ready to accept with pride.” The people taking an opposing view “are hedonists who reject the Christian (and old-fashioned socialist) view of man’s proper relationship to his senses.” (p54) This is why you are broadly sympathetic not only to drug prohibition but to alcohol prohibition too.
- There is no such thing as addiction.
You argue that our culture has fallen for “the dubious concept of ‘addiction’, an essentially circular and unscientific term which is accepted without discussion by modern societies.” (p18) You point out that many addicts stop using their drugs without external support. (In fact, it is a majority of addicts). This shows that they could have stopped at any time, if they had enough will-power. The people usually described as ‘addicts’ as in fact people who are excessively hedonistic, and by showing them too much sympathy, we keep them in their dangerous condition. We should regard an addict instead (to use a phrase you approvingly quote) as “a greedy person with poor self-control.” Our compassion for addicts should be directed towards punishing their drug use at as early a stage as possible, to prevent them from spiraling into further use.
- Advocates of drug legalization believe drug use is a good thing, and would like to see more of it.
You argue that advocates of ending the drug war celebrate drug use, and endorse it, and “are campaigning, in effect, for more people to use drugs.” (p44)
- Cannabis is especially dangerous.
You describe cannabis as “one of the most dangerous drugs known to man,” (p139) and a primary driver of psychosis and schizophrenia. You cite the work of our mutual friend, Patrick Cockburn, whose son Henry developed psychosis after using a lot of cannabis, and has bravely written about it.
- Britain has never fought a war on drugs.
You argue that drugs are already effectively decriminalized in Britain, and “a mere 22,478 cases [of cannabis possession a year] actually ended in court” in the most recent statistics. If Britain did fight a drug war – rather than surrendering in 1970 – there would be significantly lower drug use and drug addiction than today.
I hope that seems like a fair summary. I’ll look forward to your letter.
Letter two – Peter to me
Thank you for sending me your book. First, a large caveat. I have never thought that the USA was a useful example or model for Britain. Some things are true of all societies, but North America is so profoundly different from Britain in history and culture that I was often frustrated by your concentration on that part of the world. I dislike the USA’s politicized justice system, and am repeatedly appalled by the long legacy of slavery which persists into modern times. Our problems are elsewhere.My own view of the origins of the drug laws is slightly different from yours, and I believe it owes more, for instance to the experiences of Russell Pasha in Egypt than to any American. Wherever it comes from, I would ask ‘Why spit on your luck?’. It is surely our good fortune that we have, in existence, laws which can at least control and limit the spread and sale of such dangerous poisons.
What a pity that laws were not introduced to ban tobacco soon after its introduction into Europe (as I believe King James I wanted to do). How many lives would have been saved had it been illegal from the beginning, and limited only to the fringes of society? How much easier it would now be to prevent its use and sale.
And, while I doubt the practicability of any total legal ban on alcohol (because it is almost possible to make something illegal which has previously been legal for centuries or millennia), what a great pity it is that the two major parties, in the 1980s, collaborated to destroy the British licensing laws which greatly reduced the ill-effects of that even more dangerous poison.
I am old enough to remember those laws in operation, and there is no question that they saved many a wife from being beaten, prevented countless fights and woundings, and protected the young from the grave dangers of cirrhosis and other diseases they now face. But it would now be politically impossible to restore those laws – just as it would be impossible to restore the anti-cannabis laws if they were ever formally repealed.
Secondly, you and I are arguing from different premises. You approach drug abusers from the point of view of someone who accepts that they already exist, and appears to regard their existence as inevitable. You also make no distinction between individual human kindness and public policy, apparently unable to accept that law must sometimes be harsh to be effective. I think a properly enforced law against possession would have kept most current abusers away from the drugs to which they are now habituated.
Your book is also profoundly contradictory. In much of the earlier sections you write of ‘addiction’ as if it is an uncontentious fact.
Then, on page 170, the cargo in the hold of your vessel turns over with a great crash, as you rather courageously acknowledge the (undoubted) evidence that ‘addiction’ is not in fact an objective chemical process, and the (equally undoubted) truth that the myth of severe ‘withdrawal symptoms’ is just that, a myth. I get into immense trouble for daring to make these points. Somehow, I think you will get away with it.
If this is the case (and it is) why does society and law treat ‘addiction’ as a form of compulsion so powerful that drug abusers said to be ‘addicted’ are classified as sick rather than as criminals (though they have undoubtedly broken the law) , and are offered ‘treatment’ rather than punishment?
And – this will be tougher for you – why does so much of your book treat drug abusers as pitiable victims in need of love, whom it is wise to indulge by providing them with free needles with which to injure themselves, and free drugs with which to poison themselves?
If you believe – and I think you do – that these people are harming themselves, is this attitude in fact a responsible one? Or is it in fact designed (like so much modern charity) to make the compassionate sympathizer feel good about himself, rather than to do any tangible or practical good to the sufferer?
Surely all these people would be better off if they had never resorted to drugs in the first place? Giving them free poison, and the means to administer it, is a breach of the Hippocratic oath and a dereliction of the duty of any government. It is also legalized robbery. To praise programmes under which drug abusers are supplied with drugs by the state is to praise what is no more than a sophisticated form of mugging. Instead of being threatened in the street with a knife by the drug abuser, the taxpayer is threatened in his home with imprisonment if he does not provide drugs for the abuser.
There is also the question of morality. If at any stage you wondered if it was morally right to stupefy yourself, I did not notice it. I am amazed that people who no doubt regard themselves as radical freedom lovers urge the easy availability of drugs which make their users passive and apathetic, ideal citizens of a despotism. Surely we should respond to the ills of the world by criticizing and reforming them, not by turning ourselves into pliable, docile cattle?
In the same way, I am amused that leftist radicals who buy Fairtrade coffee and despise big corporations, especially those who cram the populace with sugary, unhealthy fast food, ally themselves with the lobby for Big Dope, which yearns to make billions from vulnerable clients by selling them legal marijuana products, endangering their sanity, surely even worse than clogging their arteries and making them obese?
I am also amused by your upside-own view of the global drugs trade which you seem to think is created by producers pushing their drugs in the general direction of the developed countries, when in fact those drugs are vacuumed into Europe and North America by the attractive force of huge quantities of money – money which heedless, selfish rich young people are willing to spend on them, utterly uninterested in the desperate damage they do in the countries where these things originate.
Why are you so taken up with supply and so utterly uninterested in demand, and the moral questions about drug abuse that it raises?
Finally, have you really absorbed the implications of your own account of the contradictory campaigns for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State?
The Washington campaign admits (and how I’d love to transmit this to all the ninnies who respond to all anti-cannabis facts with ‘what about alcohol and tobacco, then?’ as if the existence of two disastrous legal poisons was an argument for yet another one) that the argument that marijuana is safer than alcohol is a stupid one, and untrue into the bargain (pp 281-2). You yourself would prefer your nephews to drink beer than to smoke dope (p.285). Very wise.
They (The Washington campaigners, according to your account) actually argued that it was because marijuana was harmful that they should make it easier to get, and then spend the revenues telling people that, although it was legal, they shouldn’t use it (I wonder what those education programmes will actually say).
Whereas the Colorado campaign claimed that marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol.
These can’t both be true, and in fact neither of them is true. Legal access to alcohol and cigarettes simply makes them easier to market and to buy. It doesn’t make people use them more wisely, and, since using them at all is bad for you, the claim that ‘regulation’ makes them safer is an obvious absurdity. Nor does it keep criminals out of the supply chain or ensure ‘purity’ (though this is a dubious advantage in a poison).
Ask any British customs officer what the major smuggling problem is in modern Britain, and you will find that it is (legal) cigarettes, smuggled by criminal gangs. Something similar is happening with (legal) alcohol, with increasing quantities of highly suspect products reaching the shelves from illegal stills. Actually taxation (which the political class long to levy on cannabis, to try to close their vast deficit gaps) is just as much of a driver of criminal gang activity as is direct illegality. Indeed, I believe there is already a sharp price differential between legal and illegal marijuana in those US states which have allowed legal sale.
In a sense, all crime is caused by law. If we didn’t ever seek to ban any activity, we wouldn’t need those costly police forces, courts and prisons. The question is not whether law enforcement sometimes creates casualties. Anywhere outside Utopia, it will do so (and Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood, and you never arrive).
The question is whether it is justified. The falsehood is spread that drug abuse is a victimless crime. You know better than that, as do horrifying numbers of parents, siblings, uncles and grandparents in modern Britain. The principal victims of drug abuse (apart from the abusers themselves) are their families, who are in many cases condemned to look after the ruined husks of human beings, wrecked by drugs they thought were a harmless pleasure, for the rest of their lives. You also know perfectly well that in this country, the laws against which you campaign are a dead letter, unenforced for decades. The only beneficiaries of their repeal will be the rapacious entrepreneurs who will be able to sell and promote them without hindrance. I had no idea you were such a keen Thatcherite.
Letter Three: Me to Peter
Thanks for your letter. I summarized the arguments of your book as persuasively as I could, because I believe I can understand where prohibitionists are coming from, and it originates with a humane impulse. You genuinely believe users, addicts and the wider society would be better off if we pursued a stern crackdown. I still believe these are your motives – but I think your letter shows something equally crucial. You can only maintain a belief that this policy is humane or effective if you think in an entirely abstract way.Your letter refers to no individuals, no studies, and no places (except to say they are not relevant). In the abstract, I might find many parts of your letter persuasive. But then I think of the hundreds of people I met on my journey, whose lives have been ruined by this policy you support, and by the hundreds of studies I read placing these people in a wider context – and what you say ceases to be persuasive. My book, ‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’, is primarily the story of individuals that I met or learned about on my long journey – from Billie Holiday, who the founder of the modern drug war stalked and helped to kill, to a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn, to a doctor in Liverpool who experimented with prescribing heroin in the 1980s with remarkable results. Each of them represents a wider and well-documented trend.
So I would like to weigh your words against the experiences of the people I got to know, and the social scientists who have studied the effects of drug prohibition in the real world, wherever it has been tried.
(You say we can’t conclude anything in general about the drug war you want to pursue in the UK from the US, because it’s so different. So why don’t we focus on the same effects that occurred in the US, Mexico and Colombia when they each launched drug wars? If three societies as different from each other as this trio saw the same outcomes when they pursued the policies you want, it seems fair to assume they’d also happen in Britain. Indeed, I’d also argue they are happening in Britain today – as I’ll get to.)
The first person I thought of as I read your letter is Chino Hardin, who I interviewed in Brooklyn over three years. Chino was conceived when his mother, a drug addict named Deborah, was raped by his father, who was an NYPD officer. All her life, Deborah was punished for being an addict endlessly, in the way you seem to advocate. She was always in and out of prison. In one of her spells on the outside, there was a ban on handing out clean needles, despite the sudden arrival of the AIDS crisis, and this may well be why she contracted the disease and died. She was 34. Not long after, at the age of thirteen, Chino became a crack dealer himself. On his street, most kids end up on the corner, sooner or later.
And here’s where I’d like to express my first disagreement with you. Let’s imagine you and I run competing off-licenses, on either side of a street. We will compete on price, or quality of goods. If you try to steal my goods, or set fire to my shop, I will ring the police, and you will be arrested. There is no violence between us, because we both have recourse to the state to resolve our disputes. Now imagine alcohol was banned. If you try to steal my products, I can’t go to the police – they’ll arrest me too. So I have to fight you. Indeed, if I’m smart – and gangsters often are – I will establish a reputation for being so terrifying that you won’t even dare to fight me. I’ll engage in pre-emptive acts of horrific violence, so you won’t dare. I’ll try to be Al Capone.
This is what happened under alcohol prohibition, and it is what happened to Chino, and all the other kids like him. I know Chino to be a profoundly wise and compassionate person – he’s taken in two kids who were all but abandoned by his ex-girlfriend, and he is raising them alone. But in the middle of a drug war, at the age of 13, he had to be trained to be vicious, and cruel – to attack people and whip them and threaten to kill them. When you are selling a product but have no recourse to the law, you have to be violent. It is the only way to defend your property, and in a dirt-poor place like Brownsville, drugs were the only valuable property Chino ever had a chance of owning. As the late writer Charles Bowden put it, the war on drugs creates a war for drugs.
You seem to think the drug war ‘creates’ crime only in the sense that if you criminalize something, it then gets added to the crime statistics – in the way that criminalizing burglary ‘creates’ the crime of burglary. But this is a mistake. Drug prohibition creates violence that otherwise would not happen. If you criminalize a popular substance for which there is a significant market, it doesn’t vanish – it is transferred to criminal gangs, who will go to war over it. They do not go to war over legal substances, because anybody selling legal substances has recourse to the courts to adjudicate their differences.
This dynamic plays out so often in history I think you will struggle to deny it – Professor Jeffrey Miron at Harvard, for example, has shown that the murder rate surged during alcohol prohibition, and plummeted after it ended. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Milton Friedman calculated in the 1980s that some 10,000 extra murders resulted this way from drug prohibition in the US alone each year. Many are innocent people caught in the crossfire. I saw this dynamic taken to its logical extreme on the killing fields of Mexico, and when I interviewed the only person ever to make it out of the deadliest cartel – the Zetas – and live to tell the tale.
And it is happening, in a very real way, in Britain today. It is true that Britain does not round up drug users and put them on chain gangs and force them to go out and dig graves, as they do in the prison I went to in Arizona. We do not have the harshest conceivable drug war. But we do imprison many people for drug offences – and, even more importantly, our drug trade is 100 percent in the hands of criminals. They are fighting over it the whole time. How many of the stabbings that we read about in the papers are drug gangs fighting over control of a turf? Given the trends that have been proven in every society that ever banned drugs, it is fair to assume it is a significant proportion.
You may dispute (wrongly in my view) that Britain has a war on drugs, but you can’t deny Britain has a war for drugs – and it is happening as a direct result of the policy you support. You blame drugs and their users for this violence. But we could have the same level of drug use and none of this kind of violence – just as today in Chicago after the end of prohibition, there are beer-drinkers but no wars between beer-sellers. So it makes far more sense to blame the system we have chosen. We don’t blame individual beer-drinkers for Al Capone, we blame alcohol prohibition.
I realize I have taken a lot of space and I’ve only really answered one of your points. The good thing about polemical abstractions is that they can be expressed briefly. It takes more time to tell stories about real people who are affected, and the studies that show they are part of a wider trend. So I’d like to answer your cases about addiction, what legalization means in practice, and a few other points in a later letter, if I may.
I’d just like to end this letter by telling you one more story. As my book explains, in the year 2000, a remarkable man I got to know called Dr Joao Goulao led his country – Portugal – to decriminalize all drugs, from cannabis to crack, and transfer the money they used to spend punishing addicts onto helping them reconnect with their emotions and find work.
If your abstract arguments – which, as I say, can sound quite persuasive in isolation – were right, Portugal today would be a disaster-zone. In fact, the British Journal of Criminology found that after more than a decade of decriminalization, addiction has fallen, injecting drug use has halved, overdose has “fallen significantly”, and the proportion of people contracting HIV from drug use has fallen from 50 percent to 20 prcent. Very few people in Portugal want to go back: the man who led the campaign against the decriminalization, who I interviewed, is now a passionate supporter of it, after seeing the results. If Chino’s mother Deborah has been Portuguese today, she would be far more likely to be alive, and Chino not have been alone.
I know you are motivated by compassion. But at some point, it becomes a failure of compassion if you don’t move from abstract arguments to looking at actual outcomes.
Oh, and by the way – you know I mentioned going to Arizona, where they’ll put you on a chain gang if they find you with a little bit of cannabis? It’s hard to imagine a harsher punishment in a democracy. I suspect it goes beyond what you would advocate. So what are the results? One third of people there have used illegal drugs, according to the Arizona Health Survey – the same proportion as in Britain, where you say we are permissive. Crackdowns don’t affect drug use. They only ruin lives. The real solutions – the ones that actually reduced addiction and injecting drug use and overdose and disease transmission in Portugal – lie in entirely the opposite direction.
Letter Four: Peter to Me
I’d never use such phrases as ‘stern crackdown’. In fact, I view the word ‘crackdown’ as a warning sign. If ever a politician promises such a thing, we can be quite certain that nothing whatever will happen as a result. What I’m in favour of is the clear, consistent enforcement of a 43-year-old law, which has fallen into disuse because politicians, judges and police officers have decided they prefer not to enforce it.
I am not a utopian. I do not imagine my preferred policy would end or solve the problem. I do however believe that it would greatly reduce it. Of course, I would rather that we lived in a society governed by free conscience. But in a fallen world, no such thing can exist. Laws exist to make up for failures of conscience. I believe in calling things by their proper names, and so readily admit that this means an element of fear. As I wrote in my book ‘The Rage Against God’, I regard fear as a very useful emotion, which has several times saved me from severe danger. Credible fear of likely consequences would concentrate the minds of many who now break a law that’s not enforced. It is especially useful for the young, who cannot imagine their own deaths and are unable to understand the impact of their actions on their parents – but have no trouble in understanding the threat of imprisonment, of losing cherished career hopes and of being banned from travel to countries where they hope to live and work.
Alas, all criminal justice systems operate by example. If people insist on breaking known and enforced laws, they must, for the sake of justice and fairness, be punished accordingly. This may well be tragic for them, but they will have volunteered for it, and their examples will, in my view, save many others from much worse fates. I was discussing with a friend last night the horrors of the locked mental hospital wards in London in which young men known to her are now confined, heavily drugged, as deprived of liberty as any convict and wholly without hope of recovery. I know of these cases. You probably do too. You will also know many more who, though not damaged enough to be sectioned, have so harmed their minds with drugs that they have destroyed most of their potential for a happy, productive or fulfilled life?
How do we save people from this fate which none of them believe they will experience, but many of them will? Not, I think, by treating their wilful actions as an illness.
This method, of regarding drug abuse as a sickness rather than a human failing, has been tried in this country since 1971. This is the whole point of my book, that the most ambitious experiment in drug decriminalisation in the advanced world, far more widespread than in the Netherlands or Portugal, has been under way in Britain now for four decades. Unless you regard our very high levels of drug abuse, our enormous cannabis-growing industry and our army of methadone users as a success, then you must grant that the decriminalisation you advocate has failed terribly.
It’s no good just saying you disagree with my analysis. Drug decriminalisers have in general rejected it without any need for elaboration because it does not suit them. But none of my detractors has ever shown my facts to be wrong.
You must say which of my figures on prosecutions (and non-prosecutions) is wrong, which of my statistics on sentencing is wrong. You must explain why you know better than John O’Connor, former head of the Scotland Yard Flying Squad, who said in 1994 that cannabis was *then* a decriminalised drug. You must explain why Steve Abrams, the deviser of the cannabis decriminalisation campaign in 1968, was wrong in his belief that he had been astonishingly successful. You must examine and explain why you reject my detailed analyses of the Wootton and Runciman reports, and of the Paddick experiment in Brixton.
I am tired of being told that the only way to show compassion is to indulge wrongdoing. It is and always has been necessary, in many cases, to be cruel to be truly kind. Any fool can say ‘yes’ to the drugtaker who wants more drugs. Any fool can smilingly accept the drugtaker’s excuses for his behaviour. But the truth is that millions of people live lives of hellish poverty, violence, deprivation and oppression, and do not turn to drugs. They rise above their circumstances (I recall, as I write this, the hovel-dwelling poor of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Ozymandias-like new capital in Astana, hidden from view by mounds of rubble, huddling in crumbling huts and living by scavenging rubbish-heaps, who even so offered me food and drink when I came under their roof). Yes, some people, to whom terrible things are done, do turn to drugs. But millions more do not. It is no help to those who do, to take part in the pretence that their crime is inevitable.
The misery of Colombia and Mexico is caused, quite directly by the selfishness of rich and self-indulgent young people in the West who (having no fear of the law and no moral objection to self-stupefaction) pour their dollars, pounds and euros into the drug trade, so vacuuming the drugs out of Latin America and sustaining the gangs. If these selfish people were scared away from these drugs, by effective prosecution of possession, the trade would die.
Criminal involvement in the drug trade would not cease with legalisation. Once legalised, such drugs would be taxed (they already are in Colorado) and black market trade would continue (as it already does in Colorado). The biggest single problem facing HMRC is the smuggling of untaxed (legal) cigarettes. I believe that in Ireland, where the terrorist past has left many gangsters armed, there have indeed been murders by tobacco smugglers of their rivals. It can only be a matter of time before similar crimes take place on this side of the Irish Sea, given the vast sums involved. Doubtless you believe in the proper collection and enforcement of taxes. Such crime is an unavoidable consequence of that. We could end it tomorrow by giving in, but would you favour that?
The second biggest is the growing criminal industry of illegal distilling of (legal) alcohol. I devoted many pages to the uselessness of the parallel between US alcohol prohibition and effective laws against drug possession in this country. One of my many points was that US alcohol prohibition was exactly like modern British drug law enforcement, in one way only – that it did not punish possession, only manufacture, transport and sale. This, you may have noticed, is my principal complaint against the British drug laws, that they leave possession unpunished. There is no more certain way of failing to interdict a product than to discourage supply and leave demand untouched. I have no doubt that US Alcohol prohibition was a foredoomed and silly failure, offering almost no lessons at all to us. It is a pity that drug legalisers in this country are so found of using the expression, and so ill-informed about its actual operation.
My arguments are far from abstract. Japan has strongly enforced drug laws and very low levels of drug abuse. Despite the recent Home Office Report’s baseless attempt to attribute this inconvenient fact to ‘cultural differences’ (a chicken-and-egg argument if ever there was one) here’s evidence that a free and law-governed society can effectively combat drug abuse by means of deterrent law. It’s really a question of what you want, which is why (as it always did) this comes down to a moral decision. Do you think it right or wrong to stupefy yourself beyond the reach of reason, and risk lifelong brain damage while you do so? Is a society better, freer and happier with a large number of stupefied people in it, or is it worse, more complacent and more easily tyrannised, more squalid and more incompetent? These are not difficult questions to answer. One has, therefore, to ask advocates of drug liberalisation what interest they personally have in making the world so much worse.
Letter Five: Me to Peter
Thanks for your reply. There’s so much here to discuss, and so little space. I’ve broken it down to a few key questions where we differ:One: Is intoxication immoral?
It’s clear from your book that the real core of your support for a war on drugs is your belief that intoxication is immoral. You refer repeatedly to alcohol and drug use as a way of “stupefy[ing] yourself,” of dulling your senses until you don’t know what’s going on in the world. “We should not reject the great gifts of the senses have given to us,” you write. “We should not try to muffle justified discontent by blurring our minds with drugs.” (p43) I think there’s a bit of all of us that feels this way sometimes: intoxicated people can be aggravating, and people who are intoxicated do often look like they are wasting their time.
But when I read these arguments, I keep thinking of a man I interviewed for my book called Professor Ronald K Seigel, who worked at the University of Los Angeles. He was an advisor to two US Presidents and the World Health Organization, and he spent his career studying the ways in which animals use drugs. And what he discovered was striking – it turns out almost all animals like to get off their faces, for its own sake.
He wrote in his book ‘Intoxication’: “After sampling the numbing nectar of certain orchids, bees drop to the ground in a temporary stupor, then weave back for more. Birds gorge themselves on inebriating berries, then fly with reckless abandon. Cats eagerly sniff aromatic ‘pleasure’ plants, then play with imaginary objects. Cows that browse special range weeds will twitch, shake, and stumble back to the plants for more. Elephants purposely get drunk off of fermented fruits. Snacks on ‘magic mushrooms’ cause monkeys to sit with their heads in their hands in a posture reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker. The pursuit of intoxication by animals seems as purposeless as it is passionate.” Noah’s Ark, it turns out, would have looked a lot like London on a Saturday night.
The impulse to get intoxicated – to have moments of relief, when our senses are indeed fuzzy – is universal. All recorded human societies have found a way to do it. The poor Inuit didn’t have any intoxicants in their environment – so they would starve themselves until they got an altered head-space. This impulse manifests itself very early: little children will spin round and round, even though they know it makes them sick, because to seek out a moment of altered consciousness is deep in our biology. Professor Siegel told me that when people deny the intoxication impulse, “they’re denying their own chemistry.”
For the overwhelming majority of human beings, this impulse to get intoxicated is harmless. Don’t take my word for it: the UN Office for Drug Control, the body that oversees the global war on drugs and supports your approach, concedes that 90 percent of drug use does not harm the user. This is, surprisingly, true of even the most stigmatized drugs.
Mild intoxication is regarded as a good thing by almost all humans in almost all cultures (and by bees and birds and elephants) for a simple reason: they find it fun. Occasional fun is one of the reasons we are alive. These days, I get my highs from running on a treadmill – I haven’t had any alcohol or drugs in years – but that dopamine hit is a real intoxicant for me. It does “stupefy” me a bit, to use your term: it makes me a bit woozy and high and I find myself listening to eighties power ballads. And I like it. Other people like a glass of wine, or a spliff, or a line of coke, or a tab of ecstasy. They are not bad people. They are human, like you and me, and they are expressing something quite basic to our natures.
So: seeking out intoxicants is inevitable, and it is harmless in the overwhelming majority of cases. The question then is – is it sensible to wage a global war that kills hundreds of thousands of people, and ruins millions, to try to prevent people expressing their innate natures, in a way that harms very few of them? I don’t think so.
Two: What causes addiction?
The more important question – and one you know is close to my heart – is the question of addiction. Many people will be reading this and thinking, perfectly reasonably – yes, but drug use risks addiction. If you get intoxicated too much, you risk becoming hooked.
One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. I have seen some of the people I love most struggle with addiction: it’s agony. It’s precisely for this reason that I was motivated to find out what causes addiction, and how we can reduce it. It’s why, for the book, I looked at all sorts of different ways of treating addicts – from the chain-gangs of Arizona to the prison-camps of Vietnam to the love and compassion of Portugal.
Until the 1970s, there were basically two theories of addiction – and they still dominate the debate. The first theory is the one you express – that addiction is a moral failing caused by people who partied too hard and too selfishly and are now paying the price. The second was that addiction is a disease, where chemicals hijack a person’s brain, take them over, and leave them powerless to stop.
I interviewed scientists across the US, Britain, Uruguay and Portugal and discovered that there is a third theory about what addiction is – and it is the only one that seems to match the facts. I describe it in detail in the book, as you know. Here’s how I have summarized a small part of it elsewhere:
One of the ways the disease theory was established is through rat experiments – ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone. It has two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water and keep coming back for more and more until it kills itself. The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a Professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander – raised in a conservative military family in the US – noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Alexander built Rat Park – a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did…
Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.
There is overwhelming evidence emerging for this theory, going far beyond these experiments, where it is shown over and over again to be true in humans. Isolated and miserable humans will use large amounts of drugs; connected humans with a happy environment won’t. The actual chemicals only play a small role – it’s the environment that counts most. This requires us to fundamentally change our understanding of addiction.
You argue that because the ‘addiction is a disease’ theory is wrong – and it is – that the first theory must be right. If it’s not a disease, you reason, then addicts need to be pressured and punished to stop, because they can. That’s why you found this aspect of my book contradictory. You fail to see that neither theory is right.
It seems to me curious to argue that a mental state is either a disease, or it’s purely voluntary. Think about your love for your wife and your children. That’s not a disease, clearly. But does that mean you could simply turn it off? If I punished you for it – if I put you in prison until you renounced it – would that work? I suspect it would have the opposite effect – you would love them even more. Of course a destructive love for a drug is not the same as your constructive love for your family. But I do think this comparison establishes an important principle – that some of the most powerful mental states are neither diseases nor voluntary.
If we want to genuinely reduce addiction – as I know you do – then we need to engage with this new evidence. The solution you propose to addiction – to imprison addicts, and make them suffer, and cut them off from the rest of us – ironically perfectly recreates the very first rats in those first cages. It makes addiction worse.
You also argue that because there are isolated and suffering people who don’t turn to drugs, it can’t be the case that isolation and suffering cause addiction. This is a logical fallacy. Most people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. Does that mean smoking does not cause lung cancer? If every causal link needed to be proven 100 percent of the time, we would hardly be able to explain anything in science. It is a provable fact – as I show in the book – that the more isolated and traumatized a human becomes, the more likely they are to become an addict. That’s a general pattern that should guide everyone who wants to reduce addiction – and should steer us away from your belief that inflicting isolation and trauma on addicts is the solution.
Three: Does cannabis cause psychosis?
You believe cannabis causes psychosis and schizophrenia. There’s a longer conversation to be had about this, but I’ll give you one fact, which I’m grateful to Professor David Nutt, the former chief scientific advisor on drugs in the UK, for pointing out to me. Cannabis use has increased about fortyfold in the UK since the early 1960s – but rates of psychosis and schizophrenia have remained the same. If your theory was right, that wouldn’t make sense.
Four: Does legalization bankrupt gangsters?
You do not believe that the drug trade would be reclaimed from the armed gangsters who control 100 percent of it today after legalization. Your evidence for this is that criminals control a fraction of the cigarette and alcohol trade in the UK at the moment (it is 9 percent, according to HM Revenue and Customs). This makes my point, not yours. If we can reclaim 91% of the drug trade from armed criminals and give it to off-licenses, pharmacists and doctors, that would cause a massive fall in violence, and raise a fortune we could use to turn around the lives of drug addicts instead of making them worse.
The people who understand this best are the drug gangs themselves. As I reveal in my book, at the start of the war on drugs, the drug gangs bribed US officials to introduce the war faster – because they could see it would help them so much. I know it’s not your intention to be on the side of these gangsters – but I am afraid, in practice, you are.
You also make a mistake which – in your defence – is quite common. You argue that because drugs will be taxed if they are legalized, they will cost more than they do today, and therefore the illegal trade will continue. But this argument neglects to understand something that it called the “risk premium.” Picture a bag of cocaine in London. From the farmer in the Andes who grew the coca leaf to the kid who sells it on a corner in Soho, it will have passed through around twelve people. Each one of them has risked prison to handle it – so each of them has to be paid a much higher price than if they were handling, say, cheese, or alcohol. After legalization, this risk premium goes away. So in fact the cost will fall significantly. This gap can then be made up through tax. This way, we can hold the cost of drugs steady – and bankrupt the vast majority of the illegal trade controlled by deadly gangsters. I interviewed people from some of the worst drug gangs – including the only person who ever made it out of the Zetas, the deadliest Mexican cartel, and lived to tell the story. He explained to me how to behead people. To keep them in business – as your approach does, unwittingly – is deeply immoral.
Five: do legalizers think drug use is a good thing, and that it should be promoted to everyone?
You argue in your book that legalization is a cause promoted by people who believe drug use is an active good, and who want to promote it to more people. I interviewed the key people in the drug legalization movement across the world. A small number think like this – and, as you know, I’m critical of them in the book. If legalization was about pushing drugs on people, I’d be against it. The vast majority don’t think that at all. The most moving and representative exponents of ending the drug war are a group I got to know well called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). They are former police officers who agreed with you and fought the drug war hard, and saw that it produces the opposite results to the ones you seek. They support legalization because they want to bankrupt gangsters, protect kids, and spend our money reducing the harms caused by drugs rather than tossing people in prison.
I think you’d like them. I’m holding out hope they might even persuade you.
As a last point – I find it strange you think the US is a culture so alien to ours that we can learn nothing from their experience, but we are so similar to Japan that we can learn from them. Japan has freakishly low rates of crime and disorder in every respect – for a complex range of reasons. They have a far, far lower murder rate than the UK – with, obviously, the same murder laws. So the claim that their lower level of drug use is primarily due to their harsh drug laws is not credible. It is a radically more conformist culture – and there’s no way to import that.
There’s so much more for us to discuss on this question Peter, and so many people I met on my journey that I’d like to tell you about – I understand we’re doing a public event later in the year. I’ll look forward to it. We can discuss these matters when you have a glass of wine and I have a post-run endorphin rush. We’ll both be a little intoxicated – and neither of us will be harming anyone.
Letter Six: Peter to Me
It may well be that the impulse to get intoxicated is universal. It’s certainly timeless (see ‘Proverbs’, Chapter 23). Only we have the power to resist it. The question is whether we should use that power, and regard it as virtuous to use that power, or whether we should give in to the impulse and regard it as virtuous to give in. In my view, the readiness to resist some of our most pressing impulses is the foundation of civilization.
It is not a question of whether *people* are bad. All of us, even apparent saints, are capable of the most terrible acts of evil in the right circumstances, and of stupid small wrong actions most of the time. It’s a question of whether actions are bad and, if so, whether and how we should restrain them.
I’d suggest that the pleasure people get from exercise is legitimate since it is produced within the body and is the reward of effort. As for intoxication, no doubt it is wise to allow a bit of it, if only so that people can discover about hangovers. Even the Amish allow their teenagers a period away from the strictness of their rules, and the Jewish festival of Purim more or less requires Jewish males to drink too much once a year. But while such occasional events are funny, anyone with any direct experience of a drunkard in the family knows that drunks are not funny at all. So the wise society discourages to much drinking, with high prices and strict licensing laws – it having been proved many times that alcohol, having been legal and in mass use for thousands of years, cannot simply be banned.
You keep going on about a ‘global war’, but in this you share the fantasy of Western governments, who have persuaded themselves that interdiction of supply is all they need or ought to do. As I have argued not above a thousand times, the drug trade is pulled by the rich nations, not pushed by the poor ones. You could send the entire US Navy to try to stop supply, but if you do nothing to curb demand, it will fail, and fail painfully. Behind the drug gangs and the narco-states stands not some sinister Mr Big, but a crowd of tickle-minded idiots in London clubs and Manhattan bars, buying and using the drugs that keep this industry going and feeding billions of pounds, dollars and euros into the trade. If they stopped, or were stopped, the drug wars would end in months. Whereas you can chase the growers and the suppliers till Doomsday, and nothing will change. The great money-powered vacuum-cleaner will still roar on, and new suppliers and growers will arise to feed it.
Western governments use this ‘war’ as a substitute for the real, politically awkward battle they ought to fight, to impose their own laws on their own citizens. I don’t believe their propaganda. Nor should you.
Two: What causes addiction?
As you know you know, this is an empty question, as there is no such as physical ‘addiction’. ‘Withdrawal symptoms’, actually a form of hangover, are absurdly exaggerated, especially by films such as ‘French Connection 2’ and ‘Trainspotting’. You actually acknowledge this fact on page 170 of your book. Well, if it has no physical existence, then how can it be said to have this mysterious power to compel free people? The real flaw in the word ‘addiction’ is shown by the fact that its advocates cannot and do not apply it consistently. It means one thing when they are claiming it compels the person absolutely to take drugs. It means a different thing when they say that person can, through ‘treatment’ be persuaded to stop doing the thing which he is supposedly unable to stop doing at all, thanks to the mysterious power of ‘addiction’. In any normal debate this utter contradiction would be obvious to all and the expression discredited. But the modern world hates the idea of free will and of personal responsibility. So, thanks to intellectual fashion, this crass expression continues largely unchallenged. In fact, those who challenge it are the ones who are attacked.
Your new argument doesn’t solve this question. There are many possible responses to living in grim conditions. Visitors to Africa know well the immensely moving response of many millions of people, who struggle, in appalling shanty-towns, to live honest lives and raise educated, hardworking children – and succeed. There is often drink available, but many resist that too. Luckily for them, they do not possess the hard currency to make it worthwhile for the drug salesmen to descend upon them and offer them a way out which actually just a way into hell. Most severe drug abuse is concentrated among people whose material wealth and security (though far from lovely in our eyes or theirs) would be a dream of riches to the truly poor of the Third World. I think it’s time we stopped pretending that ‘suffering’ is any sort of excuse for drug taking. It’s insulting to the truly poor, and it’s also the wrong response anyway. As discussed above, do we really think it right to excuse self-stupefaction as the response to social evil? The great men and women who transformed urban and rural England in the 18th or 19th centuries fought drunkenness with great ferocity, knowing it was the enemy of reform. They were right, and they are still right now.
As you rightly say, unselfish human love is constructive rather than destructive, and cannot really be judged by the same measure with which we can judge destructive desires for selfish pleasure. We should encourage the one and discourage the other.
My solution is to apply the law as it is written, and impose the penalties allowed by it in an exemplary and consistent fashion. The possession of illegal drugs would be met first by a genuine warning, and on a second occasion by imprisonment, increasing on each further conviction. Possession of drugs in prison, and smuggling them into prison, would likewise be consistently and severely detected and punished, as they are not now. Just as effective and consistent application of the law more or less ended mass drunken driving in the late 1960s, such a policy would persuade most people to stop taking drugs. A few might insist on volunteering for long prison sentences, and if people do this we have no alternative but to accommodate them. They would in any case serve as useful examples that we meant what we said. But as most people come to drugs through peer-pressure or fashion, I do not think that they would really wish to be martyrs in large numbers. Actually, the prospect of prison, ruined career opportunities and lifelong travel bans concentrates the mind much more than the real but seemingly distant dangers of illness, mental or physical, and early death.
Effectively-applied laws change behaviour, or why do most people wear seatbelts when they drive cars? Ineffectively-enforced laws don’t, or why do millions of people continue to use mobile phones while driving? Enforcement is all.
You say I argue that ‘because there are isolated and suffering people who don’t turn to drugs, it can’t be the case that isolation and suffering cause addiction’ . No, I don’t. I simply point out that there is no such thing as ‘addiction’, that no consistent definition of it can be constructed, nor any objective test devised for its presence in the human frame. All arguments containing ‘addiction’ as a proposition are therefore null. Nobody, ever, is compelled to take illegal drugs. (Except in ‘French Connection 2’ which is fiction) .
You offer as a parallel the proposition ‘Most people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. Does that mean smoking does not cause lung cancer?’
It would be highly logically defective to argue any such thing. The claim that ‘A causes B’ does not necessarily imply that ‘A *always* causes B’. Causation is complex and often depends on other factors, not always known to us. Sometimes (see below) it cannot be established, and we have to rely on correlation as a guide.
Three: Does cannabis cause psychosis?
You say: ‘You believe cannabis causes psychosis and schizophrenia’.
No, I don’t. First, I am extremely careful to avoid expressions such as ‘Psychosis’ and ‘Schizophrenia’ because, like virtually all categories of mental illness, they seem to me to be inexact and plagued with subjectivity.
Secondly, I do not ‘believe’ this. I cannot. I cannot prove it, and faith has no place in such arguments. I believe that the correlation between the use of cannabis and mental illness is so strong that, until and unless we can establish that the link is *not* causative we must take seriously the possibility that cannabis causes mental illness.
I give a lengthy and careful answer to the ‘cannabis use has increased and schizophrenia and psychosis haven’t’ argument in my book (pp 21-28). As you appear to have missed it completely, I’ll try to summarise it here.
- Diagnosis of mental illness is inexact, subjective and changeable, and not comparable to the diagnosis of physical ills.
- The boundary between mental illness and normality is not clearly defined. Is (this example will stand for many such episodes with which you may be familiar) a bright school student who suddenly goes off the rails and sinks to the bottom of the class, becoming in time an unemployable drifter, ‘mentally ill’? If not, what has explained his sudden change of nature? If so, under what category will he be listed?
- At the other end of the spectrum, is Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Lee Rigby, mentally ill? I have nowhere seen it suggested, even though his behaviour before, during and after his crime suggests a severely deranged person. (details on application). In my view his accomplice, Michael Adebolajo, might also be an interesting case to examine, but less is known about him. Yet both were tried , convicted and sentenced on the basis that they were sane, and are in Belmarsh, not Broadmoor. And what about the killers of Alan Greaves, the Sheffield church organist kicked to death for no discernible reason at Christmas 2012? Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster (like Adebolajo and Adebowale) were revealed to be cannabis users. If that is *not* the explanation of their behaviour, then can someone tell me what it was? In the case of Deyan Deyanov, who beheaded Jennifer Mills-Westley in Tenerife because he happened to be feeling that way without warning, there’s no doubt he was both insane and a cannabis user. I have a library of such cases. Yet I doubt that most of them figure in any statistics on cannabis use and mental illness.
- A pact between the major political parties long ago relegated mental health care to the bottom of the budget. Mental hospitals were closed and sold off, their inmates compelled to undergo ‘care in the community’ in a cynical effort to save money. How anxious do you think the NHS is to be given new diagnoses of mental illness by doctors or hospitals? And, given the treatment of mental patients, which varies between drugged neglect and incarceration, how anxious are the mentally ill to seek it? Is it possible that we are undercounting? This country’s education and crime statistics have both been shown to be conveniently misleading in recent years. Many other figures are rightly viewed with suspicion by serious people. I advise caution here, especially as the kind of people marginalized by cannabis use are also the kind unlikely to be on GP patient lists, from which such figures tend to be quarried.
Four: Does legalization bankrupt gangsters?
I am amazed at your misunderstanding of the position about illegal drugs. Alcohol and cigarettes have never been illegal in this country, yet the trade in them is increasingly infiltrated by dangerous and rapacious gangs. Illegal trading of marijuana has continued in Colorado, despite its legalization. In both cases, products from the legal and illegal trades leak in in unknown quantities to under-age users, The simple point is that any high-value commodity, legal or illegal, will attract criminal gangs. Legality immediately means taxation, in many ways an even greater attraction to crooks than illegality. Legality also enables open sale, promotion, distribution, marketing, packaging (again, see Colorado, where legalisation has immediately been followed by the highly-publicised launch of a ‘Bob Marley’ brand of marijuana). The number of users can be expected to rise considerably (indeed, it is hard to explain, otherwise, the enthusiasm of so many rich businessmen and tax-hungry politicians for the change you seek). Riding on the back of this much greater market, perhaps eventually as big as the current markets for legal alcohol and tobacco, will be the smugglers.
You say ‘It’s not your intention to be on the side of these gangsters – but I am afraid, in practice, you are’. Actually, the choice is whether you want highly unpleasant drugs marketed by smoothie businessmen *and* gangsters, or by gangsters alone. For some reason, you want smoothie businessmen to join the party. For me, those who sell these things are nasty whether they’re legal or illegal, but that’s because of the nature of the product, a subject you’re not as interested in as you should be.
You predict a fall in cost. Knowing a bit about politicians, I predict that you will be utterly, wholly wrong. Risk premiums are as nothing to the cupidity of treasuries. It’s a chance I’d rather not take.
I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to explain what the authorities actually do about drugs in this country (my most immediate concern). Most police officers know that cannabis use was decriminalised in this country decades ago. If people who know this genuinely believe that crime is fuelled by tough enforcement, I cannot help them, nobody can help them. I can only argue with people who at least attempt to inform themselves in the subject about which they opine. I think my book was excoriated and abused mainly because the wide dissemination of the simple fact – that decriminalisation has already happened here and the ills we see are the results of that – is hugely subversive to a wealthy and selfish campaign for greedy and wicked change.
I lived in the United States for two years, as a journalist actually paid to travel and to ask questions, and have, since 1977, visited it more times than I can count – including crime zones, prisons and courtrooms. The better I know it, the more amazed I become at the deep differences between its society and ours. Superficial similarities conceal yawning chasms of difference. I wish I had spent more time in Japan than the three reasonably lengthy and well-guided visits I have undertaken, but, despite the strong superficial differences, I have been struck repeatedly by the strong similarities between our two island peoples, and the resemblance between the well-mannered, self-restrained, familial and hard-working society of modern Japan and the Britain in which I grew up – and which we have since worked so hard to destroy. It is true that modern Japan is not like Britain now. But it is much as Britain was, and could be.
Johann Hari’s book ‘Chasing The Scream – The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ is available here.