Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Stupid and wicked

I was rather hard on Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain yesterday. Though not as hard as Ian Martin (thanks Recusant), nor Charles Moore:
In his book of the series, Marr does condescend to say, to extenuate the crimes of a century ago, that “they did not know what we know”. They couldn’t help being Edwardians, poor silly things. How were they to know they would look so laughable in their top hats?

We surely have no right to be smug. We too will look laughable in our equivalents of the top hat: things we do now will in the future look silly, unreasonable, plain stupid, or even wicked. As Moore maintains, this perspective on the past can be unjustified, a product of arrogance and a lack of imagination.

But sometimes, once they're looked at with some perspective, things just are laughable. When this happens, it's usually not just because they look silly in the sweep of history; they look silly in contemporary terrms, anomalous even with reference to the era's own values.

One of the things that I think future generations will find it most difficult to empathise with is our attitude to drugs. Just as we laugh at the foolish puritans in the US who introduced Prohibition and managed to create and entrench a whole new class of gangster, our own prohibition will appear an ignominious failure, and on almost every conceivable level.

Our descendents will look back and wonder why we - who prided ourselves on our liberalism, tolerance, and rationality - were willing to pursue for so long something so illiberal, intolerant, irrational, and deeply immoral, too. We fail on our own terms as well as on those of some imagined, objectifying future.

There are so many problems with our current attitude to drugs it's difficult to know where to begin. Of course, it's irrational. The Times yesterday, drawing on the now notorious Prof Nutt's research, ranks drugs, legal and illegal, on the basis of their risk, and contrasts this with their official classification:
1. Heroin (Class A)
2. Cocaine (Class A)
3. Barbiturates (Class B)
4. Street methadone (Class A)
5. Alcohol (Not controlled)
6. Ketamine (Class C)
7. Benzodiazepine (Class B)
8. Amphetamine (Class B)
9. Tobacco (No class)
10. Bupranorphine (Class C)
11. Cannabis (Class B)
12. Solvents (Not controlled)
13. 4-MTA (Class A)
14. LSD (Class A)
15. Methylphenidate (Class B)
16. Anabolic steroids (Class C)
17. GHB (Class C)
18. Ecstasy (Class A)
19. Alkylnitrates (Not controlled)
20. Khat (Not controlled)

A mess. Our classifications are based on historical accident not a consistent rationality: as the old saw goes, if alcohol were invented tomorrow, we'd make it illegal. And if cannabis had been smoked by hairy Anglo-Saxons in their feasting halls it would now be legal. But I wouldn't want to propose something solely on the basis of its rationality. The irrational can have its reasons.

But of course, our drugs policy is also hypocritical. How can we possibly maintain a situation where the current (and previous) President of the United States have, without doubt, been users of illegal drugs? Our next Prime Minister, again without doubt, has committed the same crime as have a great number of politicians on almost all sides of the House of Commons (I exclude the Ulster Unionists, but who knows?). This hypocrisy brings the law into disrepute, it's anomalous, it stinks. But on its own it doesn't provide a sufficient reason to legalise drugs.

For me the strongest argument against drugs prohibition is the moral one. It's this that makes our current attitude look more than silly: a realistic moral assessment reveals it as wicked.

Now, I'm not talking about the libertarian argument that people should be treated as responsible individuals who can make their own decisions about their chosen poison. I personally find this line of thought persuasive. But it doesn't seem to me to hit at the heart of our current problem. Just because a number of people are treated like children and not allowed what they want is a shame, but it's hardly a tragedy.

No, the really profound immorality is how our drugs policy is compromising the weakest and most vulnerable in our society and encouraging the most lawlessly rapacious. Anyone willing to engage with the truth would have to admit that prohibition hasn't worked in the sense of preventing drug use. If you're serious about wanting to buy drugs, you can. Despite decades of preventative efforts, they're as rife as ever, perhaps more so. And at what cost?

Most organised crime, burglary, gun crime and prostitution is fueled by illegal drugs: carried out to secure profits from illegal drugs or to finance the use of illegal drugs. For me, it was the spotlight shined on the dark parts of our society by the serial killing of prostitutes in Ipswich a few of years ago that convinced me of the wickedness of our current laws.

Some of the reporting was superb (some awful) and the best drew out the lives of the victims, restored their individuality: you saw them as daughters, sisters, mothers and friends rather than prostitutes. And what was making prostitution an economic necessity for all of them were the costs of drug addiction. Of the five murdered, every single one was addicted to illegal drugs.

Drugs had cemented their relationship to a criminal culture; from here, the need to finance their addictions led to prostitution. They'd been drawn into the shadows, beyond the protection of family and society. And there they were murdered. These are the true victims - in a horribly absolute and final way - of our drugs laws.

Of course, making drugs legal won't stop prostitution and it won't stop sick men from wanting to murder women. But why foster criminality in the way the law does currently, why create a situation which drives vulnerable young women from drug addiction to prostitution?

So why do we tolerate the current situation? Drugs prohibition is based on ignorance but also vanity. It gives a minority the chance to indulge in some moral grandstanding. Yes, drug use may well be wrong. But why should it be illegal? There is a confusion of law with morality here which makes law unworkable and devalues morality. Preach temperance by all means but don't try to legislate to make people good. It doesn't work; more seriously, it can have unlooked for, perverse and malign outcomes.

I believe we should re-classify currently illegal drugs on a rational basis, making the most dangerous available on some form of prescription (as heroin was until the 1960s and a moral panic intervened). The less dangerous drugs should be available over the counter at chemists. As well as their sale, the production of drugs should be licensed by the government, at least initially. Affordability should be assured so that street prices are undercut. At a stroke, we would have dismantled a significant part of the economic substructure that supports organised crime and disorganised gangs; prostitution and property theft.

Of course, this can be no panacea. But economic necessity can provide strong encouragement to bad behaviour. Criminality tends to lead onto more criminality. I'm not one of life's natural campaigners. But on this issue I do feel we need an urgent change in policy. How do we get it?


Brit said...

I wrote a similar piece a few years ago.

2004 stats showed that 280,000 problem drug users cause around half of all crime in Britain, and that 50% of all people in custody and awaiting trial admitted to being dependant on a drug.

Back then I thought that we could get out of the mess we're in by viewing prohibition as a failed experiment, rather than viewing decriminalisation as the experiment.

I now think I was being naive. The only way it's ever going to work is by sneaking legalisation in through the back door - under the guise of programmes, medication etc.

Gaw said...

I felt certain you had! I suspect any reasonable blogger would write something along these lines sooner or later.

Sneakiness might work - but the anti's do leap on things pretty quickly.

I think tactically it would be interesting to use the prohibitionists language against them. So drive home the immorality of prohibition, the evils that arise from it.

The language of liberty, reasonableness and tolerance won't work with the Daily Mail - it immediately and unthinkingly puts the hackles up.

Fair enough. So, instead propose that drug prohibition is more wicked than drug use. It might put them on the back foot and force them to deal in specifics, examples and statistics.

Brit said...

Yes, when you boil it down, the issue is: how do we remove control of the heroin market from the gangsters?

General rhetoric aimed at winning over middle England is a waste of time. Talking about which drugs are scientifically proven to be more or less harmful is, ultimately, irrelevant.

The relevant issues are addictiveness and price. The only problem the state is really obliged to solve is the one of people who wouldn't otherwise commit crimes/become prostitutes etc needing to do so in order to fund an addiction.

Gaw said...

Beautifully incisive. Where do I sign up?

Brit said...

God knows. I've ruled out all the main political parties. What's Esther Rantzen's take on it?

Gaw said...

I think you know the answer to that. I wonder if Stephen Fry's free? He seems universally popular.

Peter Burnet said...

No, the really profound immorality is how our drugs policy is compromising the weakest and most vulnerable in our society and encouraging the most lawlessly rapacious.

Bollocks. You could apply to same argument to theft. That isn't a moral failing at all, it's a feature of the criminal law. It speaks to efficiency, corruption, lawlessness, etc., but not to morality. We know the war on drugs is an abject failure and that the case for legalization has perhaps become unanswerable, but that is because too many people take too many drugs despite the law, not because it is immoral to prohibit them.

I'm always struck by how proponents of legalization of vice envision an idealistic world where consumption remains constant, discreet and remote, everything is "carefully controlled" and all the bad guys are put out of business. Do you imagine Chivas Regal is going to diversify into heroin? Would you trust modern school guidance consellors to help your kids decide whether ecstasy is "for them"? Are you prepared to see young chavs in the local park or at football matches shooting up openly in front of your kids? How about a government retail center on your street?

Legalization may be necessary precisely because of a collective moral failing, but surely your open pub experiment has taught you it is far from a panacea and can hold some unpleasant surprises for idealisitc libertarians.

Gaw said...

Peter: I'm saying it's immoral to prohibit them for the reasons elucidated by Brit at 12.00. I can't put it better so I won't. You appear to think I do so for other reasons. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not arguing for legalisation because I am primarily (or even secondarily) an 'idealistic libertarian'. I thought I'd made that clear in the post.

Before the mid-60s heroin was available on prescription in the UK and I don't recall my grandmother telling me stories about how the teddy boys used to shoot up down the swings. Anyway, the legalisation I'm proposing would leave drug use heavily regulated. I'd be willing to make 'shooting up in a public place' an offence. There are certainly plenty of regulations around the place controlling consumption of booze.

Talking of legit businesses moving into formerly illegal ones, you obviously aren't aware that big tobacco has done trials on spliff production? A counter-example, for what it's worth: the Bronfmans, Prohibition-era bootleggers from your part of the world who went legit. I look forward to a member of the Medellin cartel leading a Columbian trade delegation to Toronto in the not too distant future.

Peter Burnet said...

Yes, that may well happen. But whatever the route, you seem to have talked yourself into the position that drug prohibition is less moral than drug taking and, in so doing, I suggest you are making a lot of assumptions about how legalization would affect demand and the culture around it. But let us stick with the practicalities. When you throw out sweeping shibboleths like "Criminality tends to lead onto more criminality" (which sounds a lot like "poverty breeds terrorism"), you can avoid taking a hard look at the vice you are talking about and analyse why consumption is soaring. Prostitution and gambling are legal in Nevada, but I haven't heard that the criminal cartels behind them have been chased into the corn fields of Iowa. Prostitution is legal in many places in Germany and it's proven to be a magnet for the international sex trade, a true moral disaster by any measure. Plus those much-touted safe and clean houses are still run by seedy, very dangerous crooks and are surrounded by illegal street prostitutes. All that has happened is the police have decided they have better things to do than worry about misdemeanours the courts won't take seriously. It's all very well to say that you would oppose taking drugs in public, but how realisitic is it to expect the police to enforce that diligently?

Also, I suggest the relative harmlessness of prescription heroin in the fifties can be related directly to the miniscule size of the drug culture at that time. By contrast, your argument for legalization comes down to a reaction to the fact that it as spiralled completely out of control. There is a lot more than law involved here.

Gaw said...

Your argument seems to be that, firstly, places where an illegal activity has been made legal are not perfect.

Further you argue that policing a society in which drugs are regulated rather than illegal may prove difficult at times.

I agree with both these propositions.

You say I avoid 'taking a hard look at the vice [I'm] talking about'. Do you have any amazing revelations? I think a huge moral revival would be a good thing but I can't see where it's coming from.

I think you'll find that the proposition (I don't see how it's a shibboleth) that 'criminality tends to lead on to more criminality' is a fact borne out by an awful lot of research. It's not meant to excuse criminality which is what you imply by the poverty and terrorism reference. It's simply a statement of observed fact.

Finally, I also agree that drugs have 'spiraled out of control'. Where we differ is that I think we need to do something different as the current approach has failed. I'm a big fan of piloting things so perhaps a programme could be tested over a defined region and/or with application to a limited number of drugs to see how we get on.

Peter Burnet said...

Well, I don't necessarily disagree with you about legalization either, but if we keep agreeing on everything, we're going to die of terminal boredom. So I'm calling for a humourless, intense puritan revival combined with a greatly expanded use of capital punishment. With proper safeguards, of course. :-)

Practicalities are one thing, but my teeth set on edge when I see these calls for legalizing drugs, prostitution, etc., being presented as some kind of triumph of enlightened rational progress over antiquated moralizing. A drug trade that is too big to contain legally is a horrifying tragedy and should be viewed with panic, not equanimity. If it isn't a clear sign of decadence and decline, I don't know what is.

Part of the problem with that line of argument is that it often presupposes that legalization will somehow remove the "stigma" and make the vice and those who indulge in it respectable, discreet and moderate. Prostitutes will stop being drug-addled sex slaves and become no-nonsense independant businesswomen, and heroin addicts will be no different than the gentleman who likes a little wine with dinner, etc. Of course that isn't what happens. A drug addict is a drug addict with all that implies (No, drugs are not alcohol or anything like it!) and a hooker doesn't become respected by the community(or by herself)or a welcome neighbour or a career model you would be proud to see your daughter apprentice for just because somebody re-wrote the criminal code. She is still likely to be a victim of child abuse or a slave of organized crime. Legalization may diminsh harassment and stop unecessary imprisonment, but it might also make it more difficult to stop the predatory exploitation that attends those on the front lines of misery.

In Vancouver and I believe a couple of other Canadian cities, they have instigated clean needle exchanges for addicts. These were announced with all the noble speeches about fear-free health and modern "value-free" compassion you might expect. Well, what has happened is that the neighbourhoods around these exchanges have become dangerous sewers--property values have plummeted, aggressive panhandling and petty crime are rampant, dirty needles all over the place, etc. Relations between the addicts and police are no better, except the addicts are freer to indulge openly and the police, contemptuous of it all, pretty much don't care anymore.

One more thing. I'm not sure I become more moral by taking the macro view of a policy maker and putting my family behind the interests of the drug class. I'm middle class in a middle class neighbourhood. I have a teenaged son who I'm pretty sure stays far away from the drug scene, as do his friends. If fear of the law is at least part of his motivation, that's just great by me. If legalization would increase his exposure and possibly his ambiguity about it, I'm not sure I'm willing to take that risk out of a vague sense of empathy for and worry about the lost community of addicts. I can think of a lot of remedial measures I would support and donate to without giving a legal imprimatur to the drug trade.

malty said...

There are valid arguments from both sides of the fence here, the problem stems of course from the utter failure of all governments, even hardline communists, in not destroying the source of the problem, eradicate the majority of the producers. This would of course involve a gargantuan effort with an open ended cheque book and an equally gargantuan policing operation.
currently this is a pipe dream.
History shows us that prohibition simply intensifies the problem and creates a new wave of criminals. Decriminalizing drugs would probably at first increase the number of drug users but would at least be a starting point, albeit an experimental one, woe betide the legislators responsible when the first attractive seventeen year old dies.
We are in, I fear, for the long haul.

Brit said...

I would agree with Peter if I didn't also basically believe these two premises:

1) it couldn't get worse than it is. Any change could only be, at worst, equally as bad.
2) Demand, in the long-term, is sustained by the illegality (ie. it's a pusher's market).

Peter Burnet said...

I certainly understand your first point, Brit, but what exactly do you mean by the second? Are you suggesting demand would fall with legalization?

Gaw said...

Peter: The strange thing about what you describe as 'antiquated moralising' is how contemporary it is. It's the particular confusion of law and morality that makes it so. I've got a hunch that before the mid-20th century questionable substances were usually (a) ignored (b) taxed and/or (c) regulated. Morality was mostly left to the churches.

I suspect the decline in religious authority has led the concerned amongst us to look to alternative sources of authority such as the state and the law to enforce morality. Isn't your whole approach to this topic shaped by this assumption? Some of your concerns would disappear if this linkage were broken.

I think if one were to make drugs legal you'd want to over-correct on the morality front to make the point that law isn't necessarily morality. A huge moral rearmament, something I'm sure you'd relish. I just wish the CofE was up to it...

I'm not sure whether legalisation would make your son any less safe. It's interesting how you think legalisation would make no difference to the morality of prostitutes, etc. but would to your son. I can't believe he would be more open to changing influences than them!

Malty: A policing operation? It would make Afghanistan look like business as usual, and forever. I agree that the politicians are screwed on this subject - they won't touch it. I wonder whether using the 'wickedness of the status quo' argument might open up some new ground? Brit's right: using liberalism, rationality and science as reasons to legalise seem to be non-starters.

martpol said...

Peter: teeth set on edge when I see these calls for legalizing drugs, prostitution, etc., being presented as some kind of triumph of enlightened rational progress over antiquated moralizing. A drug trade that is too big to contain legally is a horrifying tragedy and should be viewed with panic, not equanimity.

One of the whole difficulties with this issue is encapsulated in Gaw's original post, i.e. the classification of drugs. The existing system doesn't work, but Brit points out that the victories will not come from talking "about which drugs are scientifically proven to be more or less harmful".

And yet there are clear distinctions between different drugs, to the extent that some of the illegal ones (ecstasy, LSD etc.) threaten only a minute harm compared to those which are currently legal.

So, while it seems that legalisation is an all-or-nothing choice (for practical and political reasons), it seems there can never be a single, uncomplicated moral discourse about "drugs".

Brit said...

Peter - Overall, I think yes, based on the assumptions (a)that as it currently stands anyone who wakes up and decides of his own free will that he wants to get hold of some heroin can very easily do so anyway, legal or no; but (b) most people addicted to heroin were pushed, relatively few jumped.

No doubt there would be all sorts of unintended consequences of legalisation, but that just brings us back to my premise (1).

But in the greater scheme of things the business of whether the number of users rises or falls is, I think, a side issue, because the important thing is how users have to behave. The chances of your son deciding to become a heroin addict, whether it is legalised or not, are fairly small. The chances of him having his house burgled or being mugged by a heroin addict are much greater. Half of all crimes in Britain are committed by a small bunch of addicts, which is the problem the state is most obliged to solve. (But as it happens, if your son did have the misfortune to become a heroin addict in Britain, I think it would be much better for him if he had to enrol on a programme to get his legal prescription, than if he had to head down to the street corner every night with a fat wodge of cash - but as I said, the wellbeing of the addicts is only one aspect of the Great Drugs Problem)

Peter Burnet said...

Much common sense there, Brit, at least from the point of view of what to do about existing addicts. The prescription alternative beats criminal sanctions on quite a few fronts. Not so sure about preventing future addictions, though. Surely you aren't envisioning someone asking their doctor for a prescription because they want to give heroin a try and promise to control it? And as the promise of legalization is to knock the bad guys out of the trade, does that been we will see a mass wave of rejection of drugs by the young underclass in a fit of absence of mind? If you could convince me of that, I'd sign up.


Of course there should be more common sense about drug classification. I presume we are talking largely about heroin, crack cocaine and the other addictive baddies. But under your idealized scheme of legalization with bureaucratic control and sensible distinctions, do you forsee public service announcements on television saying "If you must take LSD, please do so responsibly"?