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The Right’s Reefer Madness

Succumbing to the self-indulgence of the 1960s is yet one more failure of modern conservatism.

By From the February 2013 issue

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When I pray for my enemies these days, it takes quite a long time. Any conservative in the modern world must learn to enjoy being hated by the right people. But I have recently had to lengthen my list of foes, for I have earned the loathing of a group of persons who call themselves “libertarians.” To them it does not matter that I have recently opposed schemes to make British subjects carry identity cards, or various projects to lock us up for weeks without trial, or that I am one of the most consistent advocates of the presumption of innocence. I am cast into the outer darkness, amid wailing and gnashing of teeth, because I think the possession of marijuana ought to be a crime.

As one of these champions of human freedom put it in a lengthy attack on me, “As an adult, I should be able to stick whatever I damn well like into my body. Provided that I am aware of the risks, nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action.”

Now, I am used to abuse from what you might call the Cultural Left. I am a minor hate-figure on Twitter. Mr. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks personally abused me during an argument about drugs, shortly before taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I am not much loved by Sir Richard Branson, the bearded, right-on genius of the Virgin Empire, whom I have teased about his stance on drugs. But the irritable denunciation I quote above came from Sam Bowman, a policy director at Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, a body that I might once have thought was on the same side as me.

When I considered his remonstrance, I was strangely reminded of another attack I once faced: a one-man roadside counter-demonstration by a smirking individual in a woolly hat who waylaid me as I left a TV appearance. He was displaying a grubby bedsheet inscribed with the (not wholly accurate) words: “Peter Hitchens is a hypocritical racist alcoholic. Spread your bile elsewhere. No one cares what you have to say.”

This was all very flattering, but I suspect his views about what he could stick in his own body, and why, were more or less identical to those of the policy director of the Adam Smith Institute.

And so I have begun to feel a little as Poland must have done as the jaws of the Nazi-Soviet pact closed, and the Wehrmacht and the Red Army held those rather awkward and tongue-tied joint victory parades in Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, and Pinsk. When incoherent basement-dwelling stoners and urgent Adam Smith worshippers are united against you, it is all very well to be noble, right, and alone, but you find it hard to avoid the conclusion that you have, nevertheless, lost the war.

SOME TIME AGO, I became aware that the supposed severity of my country’s drug laws was a sham, concealing a de facto decriminalization that had been proceeding for more than 40 years. This led me to examine a second mystery. What on earth, I wondered, could be the purpose of the repeated claims, in broadcasting, in the intelligent magazines, and on op-ed pages of major newspapers, that we were in fact enduring a Draconian prohibition regime? The authors of these arguments were clever and apparently informed. I wrote a book showing clearly that they were wrong, packed with unimpeachable historical research. It was almost universally unreviewed, though it had a reputable publisher, was ably publicized, and I am not completely obscure in my own country. After a while, the waters of silence closed over it, and it was as if it had never been written. The incessant lie about “prohibition” was merrily repeated by people who must know better, and equally merrily accepted by conventional wisdom. I eventually came to the conclusion that I had been foolishly getting in the way of a movement whose time was about to come, one in which supposed conservatives were united with radicals of the 1960s Cultural Revolution for a single end.

Their aim is the final destruction of international treaties, and then of national laws, which prevent the commercial sale and exploitation of marijuana. These laws have already been greatly undermined. In my country this has been achieved by the deliberate failure of police, prosecutors, and courts to enforce the law against possession, so that in practice marijuana is more decriminalized in London than it is in Amsterdam. In the U.S. it has been attained by the hilarious falsehood known as “medical marijuana,” originally promoted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) as a “red herring to give marijuana a good name.”*

But this process can go no further until the United Nations and several national governments can be persuaded to abandon laws against this drug which have been in place for nearly a century. Those interested in the origin of those laws should consult Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1972 autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time in which he jeered at the “respected citizens, clergymen, purported scientific investigators and other ostensibly informed and enlightened persons” whose apologies for hashish forced him to recall the “stupefied faces and inert minds,” resulting from marijuana use, which he had seen among students during the 1920s in Cairo. He described the legalization campaign as an instance of “the death wish at the heart of our way of life.”

What is most striking is the way in which that death wish has now spread from what might loosely have been called the Cultural Left to embrace the conservative, or neoconservative (or perhaps more accurately neo-liberal) right—so that, nowadays, British upper-middle-class newspapers such as the Times and the Daily Telegraph openly sympathize with the relaxation of the drug laws, as does the Economist, and their readers are not outraged or upset.

The left, or what remains of it, is now just a political vehicle for urban bourgeois bohemians who want to remove the remaining legal, moral, and customary obstacles to self-indulgence they embraced half a century ago, dressed up as militant rationalism. It is easy to see why they are happy with the legalization of marijuana.

The old, socially conservative left of temperance and working-class self-improvement, often rooted in the churches, has largely vanished. The ascetic, self-disciplined left of the Bolshevik sort, whether Trotskyist or Stalinist, has also withered away thanks to the failure of proletarian revolution and of its last best hope, Third World socialism.

What is really startling is that conservatism now has no moral core resistant to the idea of mass self-stupefaction. The dogma of “libertarianism,” actually a liberal idea based on a misreading of John Stuart Mill, has become a sort of substitute gospel. The only drug that Mill considered in On Liberty was alcohol, and in dealing with its nastier abuses, he resorted to some remarkably illiberal thoughts. After saying airily that ordinary drunkenness was “not a fit subject for legislative interference,” he quickly backtracked. The persistent violent drunkard, he suggested “should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself.”

Of course, even in Mill’s time, alcohol was endemic, and in almost universal use, throughout Western societies. While its sale might have been severely limited, as it was rather effectively in Britain between 1915 and 1985, it was not, like marijuana, a minority taste that could still have been discouraged by firm legislative action. This, by the way, is not to say that U.S. alcohol prohibition failed because it was firm, a fallacy endlessly advanced by “libertarians” to counter suggestions for effective drug laws. On the contrary, it was feebly policed in a country with long and (in those days) unenforceable borders with two nations that did not prohibit alcohol. It also, much like current British law on marijuana, prohibited manufacture, importation, and sale, but did not prohibit possession, a combination guaranteed not to succeed.

BUT WHAT ABOUT this argument that drug legalization is a road to liberty, and that the individual’s right to fry his brains in his own home is equivalent to his freedom of speech, thought, or assembly (or even his freedom to bear arms)?

I find it odd that this claim should be made for a drug that tends to make its users passive and acquiescent, not to mention incoherent in speech.

The real connection between drugs and liberty lies elsewhere, and is best illustrated in the contrast between the two great dystopian novels of our age. George Orwell was mostly wrong about the future, yet every educated person at least claims to have read his great prophecy Nineteen Eighty-Four. Clever conversation is full of references to “Big Brother” and “Room 101.” Aldous Huxley was mostly right about the future, yet his astonishing dystopian fantasy Brave New World has slipped out of fashion. Few speak or write about his equivalent menace, the universal happiness drug “Soma” which, as he put it, had “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects…there is always delicious Soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon.” This is a great pity. For Soma is loose among us in many forms, from “ADD” medications given to small children, to marijuana effectively legalized under the laughable cover of “medical” use, to the millions of “antidepressant” prescriptions now being written throughout the advanced world.

I suspect that this worship of a dud prediction, and the oblivion accorded to a correct forecast, are caused, like most intellectual mistakes, by self-regard and the desire to believe what suits us rather than what is true. Members of that great class of pseudo-intellectuals who rule the cultural world like to think that they are all heroic free spirits. So they are confident that they will notice and resist the advances of tyranny, if it comes.

There is no chance (unless a suitable emergency presents itself, anyway) that they will allow the establishment of an official thought police, or of surveillance of people in their homes. They are dead against torture and censorship (most of them skipped the tedious stuff about “Newspeak” and permanent war against somebody or other). I suspect quite a lot of Orwell admirers share their hero’s utterly mistaken belief, expressed in Winston Smith’s doomed secret affair with Julia, that despots hate sexual liberation.

Yet these same people ignore, or even defend, a development in modern societies that is far more of an immediate menace to human freedom. It is the thing that Huxley warned against most particularly and wanted us to learn from Brave New World—the danger that we would come to embrace our own servitude. More specifically, it was his prediction that we would voluntarily drug ourselves into conformist contentment and artificial joy, so losing our curiosity and our free spirit.

LIBERALS AND CULTURAL REVOLUTIONARIES are relaxed about stupefying themselves because drug-taking was the Holy Communion rite of the campus left in the years when they were coming to full immaturity. It was the perfect communal act of selfish pleasure, the embodiment of the Century of the Self that really began at that time.

The 1960s rebellion was not really a classical left-wing movement, though Marxists (such as I then was) rode on top of it and appeared to be leading it, mainly because we were puritanical and remained coherent throughout. It was a revolt against what was viewed as the obsolete restraints of Christianity, above all the Protestant Christianity that had been the official creed of the Anglosphere nations. The only part that has endured has been the liberation of the individual person to pursue his own pleasure, eased by the collapse of the marriage bond and the retreat of religion from public life, long underway in my country and now accelerating in the United States. 

One of the many reasons for the failure of political conservatism in this era has been the inability of conservatives to understand what happened in the 1960s. Another has been the intoxicated flirtation between conservative politicians and economic liberalism. This brought about the apparent triumphs of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were popular thanks to the temporary prosperity they brought about, and because of their patriotism abroad. Alas, by the time they had finished, the prosperity had begun to fade rather obviously, and the end of the Cold War made the domestic left in both their countries more powerful than it had been before. Neither Thatcher’s Tories nor Reagan’s Republicans have ever really recovered from those years of supposed triumph.

So for many people, “conservatism” is forever confused with a strange attempted dogma called “libertarianism,” which tended to be accompanied by radical economic and social change, and which certainly did nothing to bring back stable marriage, rigorous state education, or the old culture of self-restraint and deferred gratification. For many people—both those who liked the idea and those who didn’t—it came to mean little more than a new combination of low taxes and hedonism.

Which is, of course, what is wrong with “libertarianism.” Like so many other dogmas, it has no heart. Let us go back to my critic from the Adam Smith Institute, who said, “As an adult, I should be able to stick whatever I damn well like into my body. Provided that I am aware of the risks, nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action.”

There is a very simple answer to this harsh, self-centered calculation. We do not own ourselves. We have obligations, first of all, to those who love us, whose happiness and peace of mind depend, to any extent, on our well-being. Now, people who undertake dangerous tasks for the good of all—lifeboat crews, firemen—do risk hurting their families, but for a noble purpose. Those who train to do difficult, risky, but inessential things such as riding horses or climbing mountains take a comparable risk whose rewards, in strength, trained courage, self-control, and fortitude will certainly benefit society as a whole by their increased presence among us. But those who take drugs for pleasure, and risk permanent, irreversible mental illness by doing so, cannot offer any defense of this that is not profoundly selfish and rather cruel.

AND HERE WE ENTER into the shadowy question of the dangers of marijuana to its users. One problem is that, unlike tobacco, its main threat is to the brain and the mind rather than to the heart or lungs. Mental illness is not easily or objectively measurable. Is a promising high school student, whose grades suddenly drop sharply, mentally ill? Is the homeless person holding out a cup for quarters, who may once have been that promising high school student, mentally ill? Is the person incapable of sustained proper work or thought, or of reasoned conversation, whom most of us have met, mentally ill?

And how can we establish that the powerful correlation between such conditions and marijuana use is evidence of causation? Even in the case of Henry Cockburn, whose awful experiences after he smoked marijuana as an 11- and 12-year-old are recorded in his father Patrick’s powerful book Henry’s Demons, there is no actual proof that the one led to the other. But Patrick Cockburn thinks it most likely and is exasperated by the way in which his young son’s hallucinations and dangerous, irrational behavior (now controlled by powerful anti-psychotic medication) are dismissed as “anecdotal.” He has been shocked by the number of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have confided similar tragedies involving their children to him since he wrote about Henry. How many such “anecdotes,” he complains, are necessary for anyone to take the matter seriously? It was years between the discovery of a correlation between cigarettes and lung cancer, and the discovery of the nature of the link. Should we have waited then before acting? Should we now? Are powerful and interested forces, then as now, discouraging us from doing what is right? 

There are experienced psychiatrists, such as Professor Sir Robin Murray of London’s Maudsley Hospital, who have little doubt of the connection. Likewise there are nurses from British mental hospitals who have contacted me to tell of their conviction that there is a connection between marijuana and mental illness. There are others who deny it. Is it “cherry-picking” or rather wise caution with the lives of our children to resist calls for weakening the law at least until we know more?

I cannot answer these questions for you, though I know perfectly well what my answer is. I can only say that the conservative mind must surely be sympathetic to the use of law to protect the young from danger, even from themselves and from their own selfishness, which is always at its height during the perilous years of adolescence that so many of us come to regret so much. If it makes us new enemies, even on our own side, to say so, we should be blithely happy to take the burden. Which of the two sides, if it turns out to have been wrong about this great and pressing issue, will have more to regret 20 or 30 years from now?

*
These words were said by Keith Stroup of NORML in an interview with the Emory Wheel, a college magazine, published on February 6, 1979. They have since been dis- puted by legalization campaigners, but I have obtained a copy of the original from the Emory University Library and I can vouch for their accuracy. 

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