If drug-law reformers are to win the argument, we need to say what we mean
If the minds of politicians are an immovable object, our arguments as reformers sometimes seem less and less like the irresistible force that they should be. But is this partly down to a failure of language?
This blog is as guilty as anyone. The problem we face is that little of the existing terminology accurately describes what we really want to say. I don’t simply mean the widespread confusion between “decriminalisation” and “legalisation”, or the misconception that 'The L Word' would necessarily entail a free-market free-for-all.
What I’m thinking of is something else entirely. Consider the commonplace obfuscation that Orwell mentions in his essay Politics and the English Language:
“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
Much the same is true for debate on our drug laws. Neither the word “prohibition” nor the phrase “war on drugs” fully evoke what a criminal-justice approach actually means in practice. (And nor, in fact, does “criminal-justice approach”.) The formulation preferred by the Drug Equality Alliance, “war on some people who use some drugs”, probably comes the closest, and at least refocuses the discussion on the people affected by the policy, but the words still ultimately dissipate into the breeze rather than concentrating themselves into the force of a gale.
First, though, what “prohibition” does not mean. It does not mean protecting people from themselves and locking them away for their own good. Protecting people from harm by doing them harm – to their liberty, their state of mind and their career prospects – is clearly a nonsense. This is quite beside the fact that there are more drugs inside prisons than outside them, with 10% of heroin addicts first having tried the stuff while in the nick.
No: the drug laws are only aimed at protecting people right up to the point that they fail. For once you actually cross that arbitrarily drawn line, you become expendable. On paper at least, you can be locked in a 10ft by 6ft cell for up to seven years in the hope that it puts other people off taking drugs.
It’s not really a punishment either, since no offence that merits one has been committed. What it is is a sacrifice. After that minor trangression of an artificial law, like a dissident packed off to the gulag you’re no longer valued as an individual but only in terms of your use to the collective, as an example not to follow. And so your future is cast aside in order that others might flourish.
Perhaps such a construction should be used in the next set of polling questions. But for now, there is no single word or short phrase that immediately and implicitly reveals what is obvious when this is spelled out: that those ends simply do not justify those means.