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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 26th August 2012

I think this may be a first. The Mail on Sunday today carried an extensive book review for a book that is not due to be published until 1st November. Now there’s nothing surprising about a Sunday paper having a book review. All the Sundays have lots; they’d be half as big if they didn’t. And they tend to let their reviewers go on at length often to the point that the review becomes about the merits of the reviewer rather than of the item reviewed.

What was unusual, possibly unique, about this particular review was that it was written by the author of the book being reviewed.

‘The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs’ is Peter Hitchens’ view of the world of drugs and the Mail on Sunday was happy to give him 2,174 words with which to review it. I know it is 2,174 words because I counted them. That’s a lie. I copied the piece into Word and let it count them for me. I think it is important to make that clear because this piece is going to be largely about half-truths and outright lies so I shouldn’t allow myself one.

I suppose I should also stop calling the piece a review: it isn’t. What it is, is a puff piece promoting the book. It is an advert masquerading as editorial and, I suspect, there’s something in the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code about that but most people have long since given up hoping that the Mail, in all its forms, will adhere to the PCC code at all times.

This is a link to the piece if you want to read it for yourself but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t link to the book on Amazon. If you want to, you can search the Amazon website but do make sure to use the search term ‘Peter Hitchens’ because if you just search for ‘Hitchens’ the first eleven results are for Christopher Hitchens, Peter’s well respected brother, who died last December.

I’ve mentioned before that Mr Hitchens sets out to provoke an angry reaction from those who disagree with him and said that this may be because he knows he will never earn the esteem in which his brother was held so makes a point of not seeking it. So, as before, I shall aim to expose the lies and half-truths of Mr Hitchens’ piece most politely since I know that is not how he wishes me to react.

This advert is really most like a movie trailer. That is, its aim is to arouse interest without giving too much away. For that reason it focusses on a cabinet decision taken in February 1970. According to Mr Hitchens, ‘The British Establishment formally surrendered to the drugs culture’ at this meeting, though he doesn’t exactly explain how this ‘surrender’ was worded.

Mr Hitchens’ premise is that this decision undercuts all the subsequent rhetoric about the harm caused by drugs. (I’m making his point so excluded the word ‘alleged’.)  He says;

‘There has been an [sic]* near-hysterical official hostility to the production and sale of the same drugs. But this hostility is made almost entirely futile by the law’s leniency towards those who buy the very substance whose supply and sale is considered so villainous.’

(*I wouldn’t normally draw attention to a simple error but, in this case, I think it may be interesting. ‘An hysterical official hostility’ is perfectly correct English so I wonder if Mr Hitchens realised this line could be turned against him and made a last-minute revision by adding the ‘near’ without correcting the indefinite article.)

It will, probably, come as no surprise that Mr Hitchens presentation of the Cabinet meeting of 26th February 1970 as the point at which the state surrendered in the ‘war on drugs’ is wholly wrong. It must be a problem for someone like Peter Hitchens who started his career by being able to present his version of events as the only truth to come to terms with the full extent of the electronic age. It took me only a few minutes to locate and download the ‘Index of Cabinet Conclusions’ for that period and see that Mr Hitchens’ representation of what occurred is deeply skewed by his prejudice on this matter.

The Cabinet was considering the penalties to be included in the forthcoming Misuse of Drugs Bill. The purpose of the bill was to bring together two separate acts then in force. The Dangerous Drugs Act, 1965, distinguished between possession and trafficking as offences but both carried the same maximum term, ten years imprisonment, and those punishments applied equally to heroin, cocaine, morphine and cannabis. The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964, dealt with LSD, amphetamines and other hallucinogens. These substances had no separate category for trafficking and the maximum penalty for possession was two years imprisonment.

The Home Affairs Committee had recommended that drugs should be divided into three categories with appropriate penalties for each category. It felt that the maximum punishment for trafficking should be increased to fourteen years for the highest category and said that, logically, this meant that the punishment for simple possession should be reduced. For cannabis, the committee believed a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment for possession was sensible.

The discussion seems to have centred on the public reaction to cutting the sentence for possession of cannabis from ten years to three and the political fallout seems to have been of more concern that the committee’s recommendations, which were acknowledged to be the result of ‘very careful consideration and reflected the considered judgement of expert opinion’.

The Home Secretary suggested that the maximum sentence for possession of cannabis should be set at seven years, not three, but other members of the Cabinet seem to have taken the view that such a harsh sentence would be unacceptable in the case of ‘for example, a schoolchild’. There was also concern that judges would never use the maximum sentence and that, as a result, the law would fall into disrepute.

The Prime Minister summed up the discussion by noting that there was a small majority in favour of accepting the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation but it might ‘allay public disquiet’ if the penalties for possession were increased from five to seven years for the most dangerous drugs and from three to five years for cannabis.

So, rather than ‘surrendering to the drugs culture’ as Mr Hitchens puts it, this cabinet meeting turned against the ‘very careful consideration [reflecting] the considered judgement of expert opinion’ by the Home Affairs Committee in favour of more draconian punishments for possession of cannabis.

Mr Hitchens, of course, rejects the notion that cannabis is less harmful than heroin or cocaine and would, I’m sure, have preferred that Cabinet meeting to keep a single category for controlled substances. His claim of surrender, therefore, relies on his ‘because I say so’ argument rather than the huge amount of scientific research demonstrating that cannabis is much less harmful that drugs in higher classifications.

I had intended to deal with some of the other lies and half-truths in this advertorial, including some really amusing attempts to sidestep the problems caused by alcohol, but I feel that demonstrating that the central premise of his book, that the world ended on 26th February 1970, is false is, probably, sufficient for now.

I’m sure there will be much more to find in the book itself; things that will, probably, indicate that it should be displayed in the fiction section. But there I have a dilemma. I really don’t want to spend my money buying the book. I don’t want to contribute to Mr Hitchens being able to claim to have a bestseller and, obviously, I don’t want to put any money in his pocket.

No doubt, the Mail will offer further free publicity to Mr Hitchens by printing other puff pieces and, maybe, carrying a full serialisation so I can hold off to see how much comes out that way. Or, I can wait for a few months until it appears in the ‘Remainders of the Day’ column of Private Eye.

Unless someone has a review copy they’d be happy to pass on.  

Comments - oldest first

From: tom 26/08/12 21:40

"including some really amusing attempts to sidestep the problems caused by alcohol". Perhaps this is because Mr Hitchens has a large Alcohol problem?
Nice piece.

From: David Hart 27/08/2012 02:00

In fairness, Tom, Mr Hitchens is on record as saying that he would have no objection to alcohol being added to the list of prohibited drugs, and that following such a prohibition would make little difference to his own life. He is one of the few ideological prohibitionists who cannot be faulted for inconsistency on this question.

From: thepoisongarden

tom, Mr Hitchens alcohol problem is that he cannot find a rational way to defend the situation where alcohol's harms are tolerated because it is legal but a much less harmful substance, cannabis, is illegal.

David Hart, what Mr Hitchens says, in this piece, is that 'if alcohol had recently been invented' he 'would support the most severe legal measures to penalise its use and drive it out of our society'.

He may be consistent but he is consistently wrong. He believes that these substances can be driven out of our society. And he claims, against all the evidence, that cannabis is as harmful as heroin. That is what makes him a very dangerous man. Young people will try cannabis regardless. When they find its effect is relatively mild and causes no problems, as the overwhelming majority of them will, some will try heroin because they have been told the two substances have similar effects.

From: Peter Hitchens 27/08/2012 16:47

The article was not a review, nor was it presented as a review, nor was it published among other reviews. To complain about this is a bit like moaning that fish are on sale in the fishmonger's shop. It was an extract from my forthcoming book, taken of necessity from a version that had yet to go through every editing process. I regret the typo to which the author draws attention, but those who use the word 'sic' are often caught by it. We all make mistakes. What is the 'Homes Affairs Committee', to which my anonymous critic refers? Does it discuss affairs in homes? And by the way, what is my 'large alcohol problem'? I'll debate this subject with any reasonable person, and am easily found. Why not try that, instead of this sort of thing?

From: thepoisongarden (John Robertson)

I'm grateful to Mr Hitchens for pointing out my error. I was aware of the inherent risk in drawing attention to a typo but, as I noted, that one struck me as particularly interesting. In my defence, I would point out that I am an individual who only has himself to turn to rather than working for one of the largest media organisations in the country with, one assumes, the resources to provide proof-reading services.

Mr Hitchens says he is willing to 'debate this subject with any reasonable person' but he chooses to belittle me rather than respond to the substantive points made above. From this I have to conclude that in his eyes I am not a 'reasonable person'. So be it.

From: David Hart 28/08/2012 00:10

I'm not defending Hitchens's position, just pointing out that you can't call him out on hypocrisy regarding alcohol, like you can with most ideological prohibitionists. Though I should say a bit about why he is wrong here.
I saw him debating Russell Brand recently (and, while I disagree with Hitchens's position, it was hard not to sympathise with him given he was up against someone who was clearly not willing to grant him the basic civilities of debate) - and it was his assertion that severe punishment of drug users would not result in a huge prison population because most people would be deterred by the threat of stiff prison sentences and thus not use a drug in the first place.

There are 2 answers to this. Firstly, drug use is not like most crimes where there is a victim whose rights in personal safety or property have been violated; if one person wants to use a drug in the comfort of their own home, no one need ever even know, let alone have cause to complain to the police, and if one person sells a drug to a willing buyer, neither has done anything to the other against their will. It is in the nature of consensual crimes that they are much harder to detect than victim-creating crimes. No matter how stiff the sentence, for the law to be a credible deterrent, there has to be a reasonably high chance of getting caught (and I am given to understand that moderate, swift and certain punishment is far more effective at reducing crime than severe but unlikely and long-delayed punishment in any case). In order to make it likely, we would need to revoke just about every civil liberty you could possibly value - have the police able to search your home without a warrant, demand you pee in a cup, tap your phone, pull you over to search your car etc.

If we just have the severe punishment without the sort of all-intrusive police state you'd need to catch a high percentage of drug users, you'll just have a large number of people judging the risk of apprehension to be so remote as to be negligible, with an unlucky core of those who do get caught having to sit out their productive years in jail. I submit that instituting a pervasive surveillance state is too high a price to pay for increased deterrence of consensual crimes (though Hitchens is welcome to disagree).

The second reason relates to alcohol. Hitchens concedes that although he would have no objection to alcohol prohibition, he can't imagine it being made to fly in this country. It is important to notice why this is. Almost everyone in this country has enough experience with alcohol to know that, although some people get into terrible trouble with it, and indeed cause others terrible trouble, most people use it without making a nuisance of themselves or causing themselves any significant harm. Thus it is intuited by most people that it would simply be unjust to punish all alcohol users in an attempt to address the problems caused by a minority.

Other drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, LSD etc were prohibited over the course of the 20th century at a time when most people were sufficiently unfamiliar with them that this sense of injustice could not be invoked. But this is purely a historical accident, since there is nothing about alcohol that puts it on a lower risk echelon than many currently-prohibited drugs. Therefore, for draconian punishment of drug users to ever receive widespread public support, it would be necessary to prevent it becoming common knowledge that many of the prohibited drugs are in fact not noticeably more dangerous than alcohol. This would require a massive campaign of disinformation - which, in fairness, the Drug War establishment has always been happy to participate in, but now that people do have access to more accurate information about drugs, it will be obvious to them that if it is unjust to punish all alcohol users for the troubles caused by a minority of problem drinkers, it is equally unjust to punish all cannabis users for the troubles caused by a minority of problem pot smokers, etc.

From: Peter Hitchens 29/08/2012 13:04

1. The victims of drug abuse are above all the families of the abusers, whose lives are frequently utterly ruined by this selfish crime. The secondary victim is the tax-paying public, which in many cases must support the drug abuser for the rest of his or her natural life, after he or she has rendered himself or herself incapable of productive work or of supporting himself or herself, without resort to crime. In many cases the state mugs taxpayers to provide methadone free of charge for drug abusers, so saving them the trouble of doing the mugging directly. There are plenty of victims. it is just that drug-abusers are generally too self-obsessed and arrogant to notice them, even if they share a home with them.
2. The treatment of alcohol by the law (a drug which has been legal and in widespread use for centuries) cannot rationally be the same as the treatment of cannabis, a drug which has been illegal for decades and was barely known in this country before 1964. I do wish my opponents would stop trying to use this stupid, babyish non-argument, which seems to be taught to children in PSHE classes these days. 
I am in favour of an immediate return to the 1915 alcohol licensing laws, the most effective ever devised, which were unwisely abandoned in the 1980s. If I thought total prohibition would work (I don't) I'd support it and abide by it. Likewise I am completely in favour of the current moves to restrict tobacco smoking. Again, if I thought total prohibition would work, I would support it. I don't because the drug has been legal for too long and is too widely used. The law can be used effectively against drug abuse. But only if it is rationally applied. Consistency doesn't require an identical approach to disparate problems.On the contrary.
3. I still don't know what the 'Homes Affairs Committee' was. The 1970 Cabinet was in fact considering the 1969 report of the Wootton Committee, whose deliberations are central to my new book, but about which many of my opponents are startlingly ill-informed. QED.

From: thepoisongarden (John Robertson)

Another interesting comment from Mr Hitchens.

I'll leave it to others to consider his first two points. His previous comment included something about fish in the fishmonger's shop but now it seems they've moved to a barrel to be ready for shooting.

I do, though, want to examine his third point. 'I still don't know what the 'Homes Affairs Committee' was'.  As I pointed out in the original entry, I read the ‘Index of Cabinet Conclusions’ for 26th February 1970. On page 135 of the 300 page document, item 5 is labelled 'Misuse of Drugs Bill'. The second paragraph begins 'The Home Secretary said that the Home Affairs Committee had recently considered the range of penalties to be provided in the forthcoming Misuse of Drugs Bill.'

The word 'Wootton' does not appear in the 'Index of Cabinet Conclusions' at any time during 1969 and 1970.

On the evidence available, I have to conclude that Mr Hitchens has not read the minutes of the meeting on which he bases the central thesis of his book.

Since his first comment chastised me for using [sic] and then making an error myself, perhaps, I am justified in suggesting that great care is required when accusing people of being 'startlingly ill-informed'.

From: Peter Hitchens 30/08/12 17:35

I am teasing him about the Homes affairs Committee. The 'Home Affairs committee' was the Cabinet committee discussing Home Office business. Parliamentary select committees, such as the one which now bears this name, did not come into being till 1979.  The trigger for legislation was the Wootton Committee(this was not its official name, which was 'The Hallucinogens sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence'). It had been set up by Roy Jenkins when he was Home Secretary, and was much resented by James Callaghan.

From: David Hart 31/08/12 18:01

Mr Hitchens said: "The victims of drug abuse are above all the families of the abusers, whose lives are frequently utterly ruined by this selfish crime"
Firstly, I'm sure that he is well aware that he is using 'victim' in a rather different sense from the way we ordinarily use the word. It is impossible to commit theft without depriving some of their property. It is impossible to commit rape without violating someone's bodily integrity. It is impossible to commit murder without killing someone. Moreover, it is more-or-less impossible to commit any of these crimes without intending to cause someone else harm. It is not merely possible; it is commonplace to use a drug without harming anyone else, or intending to do so. There really is a difference in culpability between carrying out an action which will inevitably harm someone, and an action which might, hypothetically, but most of the time doesn't, and the law usually is able to draw that distinction. I really don't understand why Hitchens pretends to be unable to see the difference. If he insists on it, then it is not unreasonable to ask him to say what percentage of acts of drug use for any particular drug result in harm for which one ought to suffer criminal penalties, and where he draws those statistics from. If he cannot, then we are entitled to assume that he considers drug use to be evil in itself, regardless of whether it causes harm to the user or anyone else (which is a truly radical position to take when you think about it) - and is merely trying to disguise his dislike of drug users behind a facade of concern for their families.
At any rate, even if Hitchens wants to continue to elide the difference between malicious infliction of harm and the acceptance of moderate risk, no one else is obliged to blind themself to that distinction - which, as I discussed in my previous comment, is why it will be hard to get mainstream political support for draconian treatment of drug users once the real levels of risk are widely known.
Note though that he talks about the victims being the families of the abusers. If this is what he meant, then presumably the families of those who are simply users, as opposed to abusers, are not victims - would it be fair to say that the difference between a user and an abuser in his eyes is that the abuser causes harm to their family whereas the user does not? In which case, why on earth should we be punishing the people who do not pose a significant risk to their families when we could target only those who do? However you spin it, he is still arguing in favour of punishing the many, severely, for the harms inflicted by the few.
He then complains about the contrast between alcohol and other drugs being a 'babyish non-argument'. Excuse me if I disagree, because I have never heard a convincing rebuttal to it, and this attempt to evade the question does not suffice.
It's quite simple: we ought to expect, or at least aspire to, a system of laws that is as reality-based as possible; that surveys all the evidence fairly and gives as little weight as possible to the arbitrary vicissitudes of culture and tradition. Just as you would not have satisfied a woman agitating for the vote in 1910 with the argument that our society had had men-only voting for centuries, or a gay man agitating for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1960 with the argument that criminalising homosexuality was part of our culture, so a cannabis user, for example, in 2012 is entitled to a better answer to the question of why their drug of choice is criminalised while a beer drinker's is not than a simplistic 'alcohol has been part of our culture for centuries and cannabis hasn't'. Surely you can see how this lacks any semblance of principle? Cannabis, after all, is used by a substantial fraction of the population. Not as much as alcohol, obviously, but enough that they are a non-negligible minority, and if it is in principle just to punish cannabis users, then it must be in principle just to punish alcohol users too, and if we are attempting to have any element of fairness in our laws, we ought at least to try to punish alcohol users as severely as we punish cannabis users.

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