What can we expect from his history of drug prohibition, out next year?
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Esquire magazine back in 1936, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
From that perspective, Peter Hitchens might just be judged the smartest man alive.
Please, wipe the coffee from your screen and consider the following.
On one hand, Britain's premier prohibitionist shows an almost instinctive support for civil liberties. In his book The Abolition of Liberty, he criticises those on the political right as well as on the left who, he claims, think that people would be happier if the country were less free, writing that:
"There must surely be many more, from both traditions, who believe that freedom is our most precious possession, and that no arguments of necessity should be allowed to destroy it."
On the other, he doesn't think that a man should be free to choose what chemicals he puts into his own body, justifying this on the spurious grounds of both necessity and 'morality'.
Perhaps Hitchens is simply following his Christian beliefs and not letting the left hand know what the right is doing. For such contradictions pervade his output wherever drugs are concerned.
In the book mentioned above he also rightly decries the idea of a UK identity card, now thankfully consigned to the recycling bin of history, as an undue invasion of a traditional English right to privacy. And yet he advocates a heavier enforcement of drug laws that would effectively require a policeman's hand in every envelope ever posted, and a sniffer-dog's nose in every crotch, to achieve its aims.
He quite correctly condemns the prosecution of the 'metric martyrs', who, he says, "were convicted and fined for something that is not an offence against any form of natural law". But he wishes to see greater punishment for people whose only 'crime' is to become intoxicated with drugs that are not the culturally dominant ones, a transgression that also cannot be reasonably and objectively deemed to be inherently wrong and which does not directly impact any third party.
Hitchens, however, does believe that "stupefying" oneself really is 'immoral', which is where much of his opposition to drug-law reform originates. This is another source of contradiction. He is damning of the state telling people what to think when it's promoting a liberal-left set of beliefs, but conversely insists that it must hand down a notion of right and wrong that he entirely coincidentally happens to share.
Then there's the earlier edition of the book, published as A Brief History of Crime, in which he rejects the idea of laws limiting the ownership of firearms, an absolute restriction on something that merely causes a small increase in risk of harm being done to a third party – much like drug use. And finally, he dismisses the scientific consensus that passive smoking can be harmful, while accepting weaker evidence of cannabis use causing schizophrenia.
To have a mind like that of Hitchens, a pulsing mass of pure quantum foam, in which the simultaneous coexistence of opposites is not only possible but compulsory, must be quite an incredible experience – trippy, even.
So, having established his inherently contradictory thought processes, and therefore unquestionable genius, this blogger is keenly anticipating Hitchens's next book The War We Never Fought, a history of drug prohibition expected to be published next summer.
It will be interesting to see whether it stands up. Or, like the inebriates he so despises, whether it will list so badly that only the prevailing wind of prohibition can stop it from falling over entirely.
Not that Hitchens has actually seen a weather report lately. Given the book's title, it seems safe to assume that the principal thread it weaves is the argument he has made previously, including at two public debates earlier this year: that the war on drugs has not in fact been waged in this country. For a nonexistent war its casualty rate is certainly impressive: around 10,000 people sent to prison every year for drugs offences and a tenth of those for personal possession.
And yet, however obviously coloured by prejudice it is, Hitchens's argument is not total nonsense. He correctly notes that few of those caught in possession of cannabis ever see the inside of a courtroom, while Pete Docherty was so unafraid of the law that he went into one with a pocketful of heroin.
It's not so much that the war on drugs is not being fought: more that those prosecuting it aren't willing to step up their offensives, and mostly symbolic exchanges of fire creating damage with little purpose and less chance of victory. Think Israel/Palestine and you're pretty close.
And, just as in the middle east, for prohibition to succeed requires an escalation that is no way commensurate with the crime, or with the nature of the problem, such as it is, for the overwhelming majority of drug users.
Hitchens has referred to a "surrender" to drugs. But a more correct analogy is a tactical withdrawal from a conflict that doesn't need to be fought and can't be won without going nuclear. Seeking peace isn't cowardly, or weak. As a man of Hitchens's intelligence ought to recognise, it's actually the smart move.