Special Report

The Straight Dope: A Telephone Conversation with Peter Hitchens

After Colorado and Washington, an authoritative case against drug legalization.

By 11.13.12

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Peter Hitchens is an English journalist and author. He covered the fall of the Soviet Union and Clinton-era Washington for the Daily Express of London under that newspaper's former ownership and now writes a column for the Mail on Sunday. His books include The Abolition of Britain, The Cameron Delusion, and The Rage Against God. He has also contributed to a number of other British and American periodicals, including the Spectator, the New Statesman, National Review, and the American Conservative. In 2010, he won the Orwell Prize, one of Britain's highest awards for journalism.

In his latest book, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs, Mr. Hitchens argues that, despite the harsh anti-drug rhetoric of politicians, it has been four decades since British courts and law enforcement officials treated drug taking as a serious offense. He surveys the impact of this de facto decriminalization and concludes that it has been disastrous. In light of voters' decision to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington, I spoke with him via telephone about his new book, the roots of cultural and moral decline in the Anglosphere, the prospects for winning the war on drugs (hint: he's not optimistic), and the conservative case against drug legalization.

MW: Mr. Hitchens, the title of your latest book is The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs. What do you say to critics who insist that successive British governments have been tough on drug users?

PH: It's demonstrably untrue. There has been a salami-sliced but observable decriminalization, particularly of cannabis but also of other drugs, stretching over forty years. The decision was made in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act to treat drug possession differently from trading drugs and treat cannabis differently from other bogeyman drugs like heroin, cocaine, and LSD. Both decisions have been amplified by the practice of the police and the courts. In 1973 the Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham instructed magistrates to stop sending people to prison for possession of cannabis, even though they have the power to do so. (Such instructions are generally taken pretty seriously by magistrates.) So the official maximum penalties have been slowly pushed down. Now if the police catch you in possession of cannabis, if they bother to do anything at all, they issue you what's called a cannabis warning. It involves no penalty. There was a rather bad rock singer called Pete Doherty who was actually caught in a courthouse in possession of a quantity of heroin, which he dropped on the floor. He walked free from that building. This is the extent to which drugs have been decriminalized. If the courts don't impose severe penalties, the police in England, who are terribly constrained by bureaucracy, pretty quickly get the signal that it's not worth their while to go through the paperwork involved in instigating a prosecution. The act of arresting someone can tie up an officer for an entire day, so you can see why police might be reluctant to proceed with something that will amount to a minor fine.

MW: The subtitle of your book is also intriguing. In what sense have élites "surrendered to drugs" over the years?

PH: Almost all the moral decline in the Anglosphere countries comes from the same source, which is the collapse of Christianity as a major force in public life. It's not a case of someone actively setting out to undermine the morals of society. Protestant Christianity, with its rules on delayed gratification, self-discipline, and personal responsibility, is very hard to maintain because it inconveniences people. As it declines, the default position not to defer gratification and to pursue pleasure at the expense of others becomes stronger, and this affects politicians, media figures, university lecturers, school teachers, police officers, and everybody else.

MW: In The Abolition of Britain you surveyed the cultural changes that have taken place in Britain since the 1960s. To what extent have these shifts in people's attitudes towards morality been independent of the state? How much of the blame can be put on politicians?

PH: These changing attitudes were prevalent among a very small intellectual élite in the 1920s and 1930s. They began to take concrete form in the 1960s, but they have their roots in events many, many years earlier in the attitudes of Bloomsbury. Broadcasting in the 1960s enabled these ideas to be spread to a large de-Christianized population. When morality declines people tend to reach for the state to make up for the absence of conscience, and this is the problem that Britain faces. As people have attempted to maintain order in the absence of the morality that used to sustain it, the country has become much more authoritarian. There is more surveillance. So it is what Marxists would call "dialectic": ordinary people are not more or less responsible than the state. Both influence one another.

MW: The Right Hon. Peter Lilley writes in Prospect à propos of The War We Never Fought that "there are only two logically coherent policies: prohibition and legalisation." What steps do you think are necessary to put Britain back on the path towards an effective prohibition of drugs? Steeper penalties?

PH: I have absolutely no hope at all. There is no point in suggesting practical steps. It would be quite easy do, but I have no influence whatsoever upon mainstream politics in this country. All I'm doing now is recording my nation's decline so that when it finally sinks giggling into the sea people will be able to read what actually happened.

MW: Many defenders of drug legalization point to the unmitigated disaster of Prohibition in the United States. Is this a reasonable analogy?

PH: No. There is one parallel: an attempt to interdict supply without interdicting demand. Prohibition in the United States was directed against manufacture, supply, transportation, and sale, but not against possession or consumption of alcohol, just as there is no really effective law against possession or consumption of cannabis in Britain. I don't think Prohibition could have succeeded. The United States is a huge country with vast internal unpoliced spaces, two enormous seaboards, and long borders with two countries that were not imposing prohibitions on alcohol. Alcohol is enculturated. The drinking of alcohol is part of the central ceremony of the Christian religion. Prohibition was viewed, not unreasonably, by German and Italian Americans as an attack on their culture by Puritans and WASPS. It was doomed to fail. Compare this with the spread of cannabis, which is not a part of our culture and is still only used habitually by a small minority. The use of Prohibition in reference to cannabis is just dishonest propaganda. Most people when they hear "Prohibition" think of Eliot Ness and The Untouchables, chopping up beer barrels with axes and raiding speakeasies. They have no idea just how feeble the enforcement actually was, never mind the difference between alcohol, a substance consumed legally for millennia, and cannabis, which has never been in mass use in either the United States or Britain. Even when cannabis was legal it was not used.

MW: You have occasionally made reference to recent scientific findings about the effects of cannabis use. Would you mind summarizing some of the conclusions at which researchers have arrived?

PH: Well, I'm very cautious about this. Correlation is not causation, and only a very small amount of work has been done in these areas. Categories in mental health are extremely subjective. You can say someone has cancer of the lung or emphysema or degenerative heart disease because of a series of objective tests, which can be repeated by other doctors. The definitions of terms like schizophrenia and psychosis are vague. The only research which is firm on this is a recent study which shows a strong correlation between cannabis use and a decline in measured intelligence among school-aged children. Because IQ is a generally accepted measure of intelligence, this is very nearly objective. There is a huge amount of so-called anecdotal evidence that suggests that cannabis affects the brain, the mental health, of those who use it. It wouldn't be a huge surprise, would it, if a powerful mind-altering drug had the capacity to affect the brain adversely or to unhinge people's minds? What research we have tends to be correlative as opposed to causative, but it seems to me that, since we have a drug that has been correlated with mental illness, especially among the young, we should be very cautious about licensing it for widespread use.

MW: Residents of Washington and Colorado recently voted to legalize cannabis. A number of states, including Alaska, California, and New York, punish cannabis possession with small fines. A host of others allow cannabis to be used for medicinal purposes --

PH: Alleged medicinal purposes. Let's be very careful about whether there are any legitimate medical uses for cannabis.

MW: Indeed. What do you think we can expect the impact of outright legalization (as opposed to decriminalization) to be?

PH: I think there will be more mad people. There will be more people, especially more young people, going irreversibly mad.

MW: William F. Buckley Jr. is perhaps the most prominent American conservative to have argued for drug legalization. Buckley made what looks like a utilitarian case for legalization. What is the moral case, not only against legalization but against drug use altogether?

PH: There is a problem here. I could argue from a Christian position that one should not throw away the gifts of perception and thinking. I could also argue that you should not put yourself into such a state that you are no longer responsible for your own actions. I could say that by using drugs people risk making themselves a terrible burden upon those who love and care for them. Certainly baseless is the argument that "I can do what I like with my own body." You can by doing what you like with your own body destroy your sanity and make yourself absolutely dependent upon the care of others for the rest of your life, which is immoral by practically any moral code you could devise, with or without God. Wealthy, comfortably off people advocate the legality of a drug, which they imagine they might use themselves without harm, that will undoubtedly destroy the lives of others poorer and less fortunate than themselves. These people are arguing in favor of the suffering of others for the sake of their own pleasure. This is disgusting, and how anybody can call himself a conservative and take this position escapes me. There is a ridiculous confusion between the so-called freedom to render yourself insensible and the ancient, hard-won freedoms of speech, thought, and assembly. I think it is very much in the interest of any authoritarian state to have a stupefied, drug-taking population. Freedom to smoke dope doesn't seem to me to be freedom for anyone.

MW: Finally, moving slightly away from drugs, I want to ask you about a recent blog entry in which you wrote that "For a proper conservative, American national politics is a desert." Do you think that conservatism has ever been a major force in American politics?

PH: I think that America was until recently a conservative project. That is to say, it was very much an exercise in leaving people alone to do as they would according to conscience, which I think, as a conservative, is as close as you can get to an ideal society. That experiment began to come to an end before the Civil War. So I think there have been American conservatives. But certainly since Reagan in America and since Thatcher in Britain there has been a confusion between economic liberalism and conservatism, especially in the minds of conservatives themselves because it has brought them electoral success.

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications.