Do you sometimes feel that the whole of the political class, the establishment (for want of a better word) and most of the mainstream media – with some honourable exceptions, such as The Independent - are completely off their trolley? I don't just mean that they are out of touch with how most people live their lives and the resources which they have to live them – though that is certainly true – but that they are actually deranged and often spout as much coherent sense as a vagrant in a doorway who was had rather too much meth's.
In no area of public policy and debate is this more apparent, more disturbingly true and most weirdly projected, than over the issue of the criminal code and drugs' use. Politicians are constantly bleating on about wanting policy to be 'evidence-based' - yet, when 'they' commission a report which comes out with clear evidence that what they are doing now is completely counter-productive, many rubbish it and ignore it, because their policy is "working".
Before I warm further to my theme, I think I should make one thing clear – embarrassingly clear. I don't 'do' illegal drugs. I am not even a middle-class, weekend pothead.
My sole experience of knowingly taking an illegal substance was when I was 16 years old and on a trip to Newfoundland. I have blogged about this visit before and it lives large in my imagination for a variety of reasons and due to a mix of experiences I had on that holiday, which I took on my own, although staying for some part of it with my aunt. It was my own miniature coming-of-age movie, and every scene, almost every moment, and almost everyone I met, are imprinted on my memory as clearly as a 35mm high definition surround sound movie.
Now, Newfoundland is roughly the geographical size of the UK, but in 1973 had approximately 1% of its population. One day I readily joined a group of lads - neighbours of my aunt, about a year or so older than I was - for a trip to a lodge one of their families had, deep in lakeside forest. One of them drove and had his own car. Game on!
On the second day it was decided we would 'skinny dip' in the lake. Whilst enjoying this rather refreshing experience and too far out from the shore to return in less than a few minutes, a group of girls turned up, took all our clothes and sped off in another car, leaving only the keys of the car of my aunt's neighbour's son. We set off in hot pursuit and found the girls, of course giggling, with mock ceremony and pretending to hide their eyes behind their hands, handed back our clothes. But the day was to get better! One of their parents owned another lodge nearby and, handily enough, they had sufficient food for a barbecue. (I realised later the whole thing had been a set-up; it was a ritual carried out countless times in N America at that time). The stars came out under a cloudless sky, a guitar was produced and, soon after, a joint was passed round. I reckon we were about 100 miles from the nearest police station and, with one of the girls, term, sizing up for further romantic indulgences, I wasn't going to bottle it. So I took a nervous drag or two and passed it on. I felt a slight giddiness and light-headedness but I can't say otherwise that it had much impact on me. And, erm, that's it. In contrast to President Clinton I have inhaled but not smoked on many other occasions.
That experience undoubtedly though helped inform my libertarian beliefs. Nobody went crazy, nobody attacked anyone (sexually or otherwise), or became aggressive, obnoxious, or threw themselves off the jetty. We were self-policing, responsible, but having fun. Probably a bit more giggly (and hungry) than we would have been without the pot. But nothing more. No teenagers were harmed in the making of that scene.
I know many will say: well, this is all very well, you middle-class liberal, comfortably off and articulate so-and-so, with your charming, exploratory adolescent experiences on the shores of a Newfoundland lake in the 1970s. But you can't extrapolate from that a general judgement on how drugs are used and abused in today's urban society. YOU can insulate yourself from the destruction, misery and enslavement that is the direct result of addiction to drugs.
That's a fair argument, except it doesn't actually work that way. There is no evidence of increased use of drugs once they have been legalised, in fact if anything the reverse seems to be the case. As they say, you can have your own opinions but you can't have your own facts.
I mentioned above that I had taken such a substance knowingly only once. On another occasion, when working for a radio station that I won't name, somebody brought in their 'birthday cake' and I eagerly took a slice. By the time I got home I was feeling rather weird and noticed that a table lamp in our sitting room was starting to move around and make strange swirling patterns in the air, and I asked my wife why it was doing this. Clearly, the cake contained something rather more exotic than currants and marzipan. I've told this story on a number of occasions and most people find it hilarious, but it was in fact extremely irresponsible, because about an hour after taking the slice I was bombing down the M6 about 70 miles an hour. So I could have killed myselfand others or have life-changing injuries. Ha ha. Very funny.
So this blog is not to argue that drugs of any kind cannot – and don't – do harm, or have the potential to do so. Taking them is not without risk to one's health and safety, and, if used irresponsibly, sometimes that of others. But so do plenty of things in life that are perfectly legal – such as driving down a motorway.
But, as I say, my rather embarrassingly lack of direct experience on drugs may make me either the worst person to comment on it or possibly one of the best, in the sense that I have no axe to grind or interest to serve by arguing for, at the very least, decriminalisation of drugs that are currently illegal.
Actually, I will be honest and say that I'm not exactly free of axes to grind. Going back to my teens and early 20s I was a strange mixture of confidence and insecurity; of sophistication and gaucheness and I do think that a bit of weed would have helped me through some difficult periods and experiences. But I was even more determined to go to the United States and I knew that any drugs' conviction would prevent me from doing so. Plus, I will admit, that it was also pure cowardice in that I knew that my father would be somewhat, shall we say displeased and disappointed if I was done for possession, as would my employers (from the age of 19, the age did make my first trip to the US). And in the last few years – especially around 18 months to two years ago, when I was dealing with the physical and emotional strain of being a carer for my mum, who had dementia, and about whom I was almost sick with worry most of the time - a bit of weed would have probably help me relax and have been far less harmful than the large amounts of alcohol I was consuming.
Which brings me to the point which is so obvious kit should hardly need repeating. The drugs that are legal are often far more harmful than those that are illegal in both the short and long-term effects on individuals, and certainly on society. Alcohol and nicotine, to take the most obvious examples, are both extremely addictive, are highly carcinogenic, and alcohol also piles on the pounds in a way that is extremely dangerous, particularly for someone of my age whose metabolism means that weight tends to be put on around the waist.
Some argue though that whatever the actual impact of drugs on individuals, we need to use the law to "send a message" that drugs are not good, and just because some highly addictive drugs have, for historical and cultural reasons, long been legal is not an argument for opening the floodgates to, let alone actually legalising and openly selling, more harmful drugs. They also say that drugs' use is falling and few are actually jailed for personal possession.
That may be true. But you don't have to be imprisoned for a conviction to have a devastating effect on your life and future. As many young people find out when they are involved in some skirmish on a Friday or Saturday night and the police cannot decide who was responsible for the brouhaha and offer a caution as a seemingly benign way out, even THAT is actually a conviction (an admission) and can count against you in job applications and the like. Former Colonel Bob Stewart told the House of Commons yesterday, that he had had to dismiss "some outstanding young men" because they had a single drugs' conviction. This is ludicrous.
It is not, as the late US comedian Bill Hicks said so eloquently, the taking of drugs which has ever caused him harm, but if he'd been convicted of taking drugs he certainly would have been harmed. And even the most bovine politicians seem to have woken up to the fact that, if you do imprison people, even if they don't go into a jail with a serious drugs' habit, they almost certainly come out with one - and a much more dangerous and addictive one than the one which they went into prison for in the first place! Because, funnily enough, jails are full of criminals. And surely it must be obvious that, if we cannot contain the distribution and use of drugs in what should surely be a rather well-controlled environment, then we have chance on civvie street?
Another major objection is also think beyond dispute for any rational person: that criminalising drugs leads to a huge black market and a massive, worldwide and frequently desperately violent (see Mexico) racket. Thousands of innocents are slain each year, often literally caught in the crossfire of warring gangs. The so-called "war on drugs" must be one of the most cretinous, counter-productive public policies ever pursued – even in the United States, which, you might think, should have learned something from its disastrous experience of alcohol prohibition, the after-shock of which is still being felt today. That report by the Home Office provides a robust and well-argued case that harsh anti-drugs enforcement is no more effective in curtailing drugs' use than where such drugs are decriminalised.
But it's worse than that. Even though some commendably liberal and sensible commentators – even some politicians such as the Green Party's Caroline Lucas on the BBC's Question Time yesterday – make a good case for treating drugs as a health (physical and mental) issue, rather than a criminal matter, they still generally portray drugs' users as "victims", lured into an unfortunate habit by cynical drugs' pushers. This completely ignores the reality of millions of people, who take illegal substances because they make them feel good, more confident, more in control perhaps, and do so in recreational terms weekend after weekend with no obvious impact on their social, employment or family life. They take drugs because they like them and find their effects are better than many of the legal substances. They also notice that the legal ones tend to result in violence, including sexual violence - whereas, funnily enough, the legal ones generally don't.
This brings me to my last objection to our current policy: the fact that it brings into more general contempt the law of the land and our legal system. When you have so many people who can see that the law in this area is not only stupid, counter-productive and destructive but that it threatens their own futures, they are likely to regard the whole of the legal system, and indeed the whole of our political process and law enforcement, as inherently stupid, hypocritical and contemptible. Any civilisation, and certainly any democratic, non-authoritarian state, rests largely on a general acceptance of the rule of law.
The acceptance that the state has the right to incarcerate me (after due legal process and conviction by my peers) rests on the belief that it will only do so in order to protect others from very bad consequences of my behaviour. A principle of the criminal law in Britain is that it applies when the Queen's Peace has been, or may be broken, and that your actions threaten the safety and even the lives of others. When people see the one set of drugs which does have that effect are legal and others which largely don't are illegal, then there is quite naturally, and indeed quite rationally, a lack of faith in some of the most profound assumptions that hold us together.
So: drugs' laws are stupid, wrongheaded, counter-productive and destructive and our political class is (largely) wilfully, persistently and repeatedly pursuing a path and policy which demonstrably has not worked, which will not work, cannot work, and which runs counter to every major principle which they should be upholding. And they wonder why we hold them in such contempt.