Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide


Argument and evidence and everything in between

Peter Hitchens argues for strengthening the law to deter "immoral" drug use

Whatever else one thinks of Peter Hitchens’s stance on drug policy, he is at least sincere. His steadfast opposition to any kind of liberalisation is based on puritan moral disapproval of intoxication, whereas one suspects that the refusal of those who could change the law to actually do so is at best expediency and at worst cowardice.

Hitchens’s latest book, The War We Never Fought, argues that drug use is wrong and therefore must be properly punished and deterred by the law, and that current penalties for possession are so soft that the “war on drugs” effectively doesn’t exist.

Hitchens sets out his stall early, the book’s preface rejecting the idea that the freedom to choose which chemicals one ingests is comparable to the freedom of speech, because to use illicit drugs is to willingly become a serf. And yet we are all at liberty to use our freedom of speech to argue for changes that would make us worse off – as the both of us must necessarily believe the other is currently doing.

It’s immoral to “stupefy” oneself, he argues, adding that drugs “break the link between hard work and reward”. The latter charge is also levelled at rock music, which I shall remember with a chortle the next time I buy gig tickets with money from my second or third source of income – or, for that matter, when I next strum the custom Stratocaster copy that I spent six months building. Then again, the same could be said for all forms of entertainment that don’t directly address wider social issues. Hitchens goes on to compare modern society with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “contraception universal, family relations in many cases abolished, all the inhibitions surrounding sex removed, an ill-educated mass kept content with (legal and illegal) drugs and with sport and entertainment, old age hidden from sight and - increasingly - ended by deliberate neglect or disguised euthanasia, death a process conducted offstage among strangers, history forgotten, Christianity reduced to community singing, reading books a quaint minority pursuit, education indoctrination, the nation state fading into oblivion, science fumbling busily in the womb, sometimes killing, sometimes manipulating.” Sport and entertainment are hardly the greatest evils of our time. Anything that lightens the load on the slow trudge to the grave is fine by me, and each of us has our own tastes and preferences. And however unappealing it may be to Hitchens's ears, even rock music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

The reference to people “stupefying” themselves with drugs seems to be something of an overstatement: most use of illicit drugs is to enhance leisure time, or to aid with relaxation after a long slog at work – just as this blogger’s evening slug of bourbon or Friday-night pub-visit are. (Hey, if I do my best to Make a Difference during the week I’m entitled to wind down with a few beers and the Hollyoaks omnibus at the weekend. Although, actually, I’d be perfectly entitled not to engage with society at all in the first place. Drug use and social activism are hardly mutually exclusive anyway, as I’m confident veterans of the CND and members of the recent Occupy movement would attest.)

So the effects of moderate use of most drugs aren’t as great as they’re made out to be. This is not to say that chemical escape never used to completely detach people from the world around them: it clearly is, and as much as it might pain any of us to witness this witlessness, the casual wasting of the gift of sentience, that still doesn’t make it a place for the criminal law. Madame Justice’s sword is too large and indelicate an instrument to be used trying to whittle the crooked timber of humanity into more agreeable contours, and whenever it’s tried her scales tip the most wildly, ending up as unbalanced as a Mail editorial. It’s wrong to punish someone simply for living their life in a way that we find distasteful. Using the law to enforce personal moral standards is a practice that belongs to Iran or Saudi Arabia, not to the UK. And as as a deterrent, given that the ‘crime’ has no direct victim (a distinction Hitchens fails to make when comparing drug-possession offences to burglary), then sacrificing a handful of those who transgress against an artificial law in order to put off others treats people not as individuals with hopes and dreams and priorities of their own but mere eggs to be cracked to make a more palatable omelette.

That distinction between a direct victim and those who might suffer secondary knock-on effects is an important one. Hitchens rejects liberalisers’ ‘harm principle’, retorting to JS Mill with John Donne. Since we don’t exist in a vacuum, the families and friends of drug users have to be protected. But it seems unlikely that anyone unconcerned about wrecking his own health or ruining his family’s lives will be especially fearful of the law, and that’s quite aside from such a notion making each of us not free people but slaves to the whims and opinions of others – an attitude that, to me, doesn’t seem too many kilometers away from cultures who force their children to marry against their will. If harm, of whatever type, results from drug use then intervention may be appropriate, just as being both drunk and disorderly is an offence but merely being intoxicated is not. But preemptive sanction via the criminal law is disproportionate and the end, in this case, doesn’t justify the means.

That’s one reason to suspect that a harsher deterrent wouldn’t work. Hitchens says that, because penalties are so soft, it’s never really been tried in this country, and the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was the start of a process of de facto decriminalisation. “[B]y 2007, the bulk of cannabis cases that the police even troubled themselves to record would be dealt with by a ‘warning’ that involved no criminal record of any kind, a long way from the maximum of ten years’ imprisonment,” he writes, adding in a later chapter that out of 162,610 cannabis offences attracting the attention of police in England and Wales in 2009, 19,137 were dealt with via cautions, 11,492 with Penalty Notices for Disorder, 86,953 through cannabis warnings, and only 22,478 cases went to court. There are still vast man-hours devoted to trying – around half of all stop-and-searches in the capital are aimed at finding drugs – and in 2009, 1226 people were sentenced to immediate custody for personal possession offences. Try telling them this is a war we “never fought”. Moreover it seems paradoxical both to claim that drugs are already effectively legal and fear that further liberalisation will reduce the UK to a nation of zombies.

The section on alcohol and tobacco actually observes, but doesn’t acknowledge, that culture plays a greater role in choice of recreational substance than the law does: alcohol, and alcoholism, are commonplace in Iran despite severe penalties that begin at lashes and end with capital punishment for repeat offenders. (And its majority Muslim population presumably believe that their punishment doesn’t end with death but carries on after it into eternity.) This, Hitchens says, is because alcohol was a part of Persian culture before the rise of Islam. He adds that, unlike with other drugs, it would be difficult to enact a ban on alcohol in the UK now because it’s already currently legal – but surely it’s really because drinking is an intrinsic part of British life, and people just wouldn’t stand for it. As an example, handguns were once perfectly legal in this country – and Hitchens has previously noted their ready availability up to the early 20th century – but increasing restrictions and then a ban on ownership were accepted because the UK has never had a gun culture comparable to that in the US. Can the law be harnessed to to change the culture? I’m doubtful. It usually works the other way around. Hitches notes, too, that the increase in popularity of cannabis predates the weakening of penalties in the Misuse of Drugs Act and attributes it to a cultural revolution.

The section on how current British drug law came to be as it is is interesting, however. Despite rarely agreeing with him, I rather like Hitchens’s output where it combines history and matters of (actual) morals. (See for example this blog entry on Britain’s participation in the second world war. Favourite sentence: “[T]he fact that we were fighting *beside* one evil empire *against* another evil empire robs our war of any general moral purpose.”) Here he tells of a Labour cabinet divided along class lines between the radical university-educated members and the socially conservative working-class ones.

The former won, obviously, and apparently left Britain "demoralised", unable to exercise self-control without an external shackle in the form of the law. Hitchens writes of "the British people's increasing determination – led by a libertine and selfish middle class – to throw off self-restraint in their personal behaviour". But conduct that primarily concerns only ourselves is fundamentally different to that which inherently concerns others. But a tendency to weekend hedonism doesn't automatically make one a bad person; drug users can still be generously charitable, and the licentious can still give up their bus seats for the elderly and infirm. If they're "immoral" for what they choose to do in private then I don't much care as long as they're not robbing, raping or murdering anyone. To even place them on the same moral axis is to wrongly conflate vice and sin.

But then, cannabis, Hitchens says, is not only immoral – it's dangerous too. He compares those who deny its role in causing mental-health problems to those who once refused to accept tobacco-smoking as a cause of lung cancer, despite the evidence for the latter being much stronger and the correlation far tighter. He does observe, however, that one possible reason for the lack of definitive evidence is that the conditions in question aren’t well-defined in the same way that cancer is – a diagnosis of schizophrenia having much more to do with the judgement of a doctor than it does to, say, a biopsy. It’s an interesting point, one I hadn’t considered myself, and probably bears more research. But to describe cannabis as “one of the most dangerous drugs known to man” seems like the most absurd hyperbole.

In any event, research alone can’t settle this argument, which, Hitchens admits, comes down entirely to one’s moral stance. “Do we think the use of these drugs is wrong?”, he writes. “Do we think the law can be effective in limiting their use? My answer to both these questions is ‘yes’. The crucial moral and cultural divide, which is at the heart of the debate about drugs, lies here.” I simply happen to disagree, and since, as Hitchens acknowledges, personal moral standards are enforced with the weight of the criminal law in virtually no other area of life, then if we “never fought” the war on drugs that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to start doing so – it means that the phantom armies should disband and go home, and the two sides agree formal terms.

As one might expect, the book is impeccably researched and entertainingly written. Just take its arguments with a pinch of salt – or perhaps something a little stronger.

Buy The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs on Amazon


The justice addendum

Further to the previous post, and last night's Newsnight appearance by this blog's favourite prohibitionist, one further remark.

Yes, it’s true that, by breaking the law, drug users criminalise themselves, and share some responsibility for their fates. But then so did Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde when they engaged in private sexual behaviour that was nobody else’s business but which was nonetheless illicit. So too did Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death for adultery in 2006. Rosa Parks, taken to an Alabaman police station in 1955 after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, and told by the attending officer that he didn’t know why black people were pushed around “but the law’s the law and you’re under arrest”. And Steve Thoburn, the metric martyr, given a conditional discharge in 2001 after being convicted of using scales not stamped by a Weights and Measures Inspector – another case of the use of coercion to force one group’s set of standards on another. Or William Penn, hauled before a court in 1670 after illegally preaching a Quaker sermon, and ultimately let off by a jury who recognised that breaking the law isn’t inherently deserving of punishment if the actual offence committed is trivial or oppressive. That all of these people chose to break known laws doesn’t make prosecuting them any less of an injustice.


The Hitchens prebuttal

Hitchens advocates a minimum penalty of six months' hard labour for cannabis possession. Credit: Henrik Jonsson/istockphoto

Will the arguments in his forthcoming book hold up?

Peter Hitchens’s publishers, Continuum Books, have handily posted a contents list for his next effort, The War We Never Fought, on their website.

Although one should obviously never actually review a book without having read it, one can still offer a pre-emptive rebuttal (prebuttal?) to the anticipated arguments. It's reasonable to expect these to be partly built on those previously made in his newspaper column and associated blog, and at several public debates over the past year or so:

1. It's my brain and I will fry it if I want to
Indeed it is, but I can’t help but suspect that Hitchens is going to argue differently, having assumed jurisdiction over millions of people’s bodies.

Whether on moral grounds or ‘for their own good’, the state has no more business telling people what chemicals one may put in one’s own body than they do in, for example, forbidding private sexual behaviour.

2. What about alcohol and tobacco then?
In response to observations about all the harm done by cigs and booze, Hitchens has rhetorically asked on several occasions how “the existence of two legal poisons could justify the legalisation of a third”. Easy: either intoxicating oneself, and risking harm to oneself, is inherently deserving of punishment or it is not. The specific drug used changes nothing. It’s unjust to allow one guy his preferred substance and punish another for his if the only difference is the chemical in question.

In a previous book, The Abolition of Liberty, Hitchens claimed that there really is a fundamental difference:

"While some people drink to get drunk, most do not, whereas nobody smokes cannabis for the taste. All of them smoke it to become intoxicated. And tobacco, while harmful, is hardly a powerful mind-altering substance."

The market share held by alcohol-free versions of beer, wine and whisky being so tiny, however, only shows that taste is far less important than the fact that alcohol is pyschoactive, if only mildly. Meanwhile the comment on tobacco only reveals that his opposition to other drugs is nothing to do with the harm that they might cause but based on a moral opposition to intoxication, of which more in a moment.

4. 'I went upstairs and had a smoke': The role of rock music
I envy Hitchens’s apparent obliviousness to ‘gangsta rap’, if not his inability to realise why self-characterised ‘rebels’ might want to glorify a taboo. (Hint: it’s because it’s taboo.)

A familiarisation with the idea of psychological reactance probably wouldn’t hurt either.

5. 'They'll do it anyway': The fallacy of harm reduction
They will. They do. And some of them die. An argument based on harm reduction was accepted in the debate on abortion, and it should be in the case of drugs too.

6. The misery of marijuana. The mental health consequences. The case of Henry Cockburn.
“Consequences” is overstating it a bit. One anecdote, however tragic, proves nothing. On any causal link between cannabis and schizophrenia, the science is ultimately inconclusive. One usually requires rather stronger evidence before depriving a man of his freedom.

Even if the link is genuinely causal, then thousands of cannabis users would have to be criminalised to prevent one case of schizophrenia. And prison is hardly a preferable alternative to declining mental health anyway.

Drug use is a remarkable exception to the usual limits on where the state may intervene to prevent people from doing themselves harm, rather than being the norm, and the difference in treatment is wholly unjustified.

8. Amsterdam versus Stockholm: Two advanced liberal states compared
One can prove just about anything by comparing just two carefully chosen examples. Worldwide, there is no simple correlation between how punitive a drug policy is and the level of drug use: other factors are more important.

9. The French connection: Is the heroin habit a crime or a sickness?
Whichever is more useful in allowing dependent substance users to function. Though I haven’t yet looked into this fully, treating them as criminals instinctively seems counterproductive.

10. Supply and demand: If drug dealers are evil why aren't drug takers also?
If operating a sweatshop is wrong, why isn’t working in one? If slavers are evil, why aren’t slaves also? What’s “wrong” got to do with it anyway? The criminal law is intended to protect people from others who would do them harm, not to regulate national moral standards. This isn’t Saudi Arabia, and many things that some might consider to be immoral are not against the law – adultery, the hoarding of wealth, supporting Manchester United...

If Hitchens thinks that drug use is wrong then he is welcome not to choose not to use drugs. But he has no right to force his own moral standards on anybody else.

11. The great surrender: The 1967 advertisement in The Times and the Wootton Report
Cannabis, apparently, is already ‘effectively decriminalised’, because the penalties for possession are at such a low level. Well, if that’s the case then actual legalisation need not see a significant increase in use.

12. Useful idiots: A catalogue of respectable establishments, persons and institutions who through laziness and ignorance have swallowed the propaganda of the drugs lobby
Quite aside from the unbridled arrogance of that contention, it’s also staggeringly hypocritical coming from Hitchens. At a public debate at King’s College, London in March 2011, former president of the Royal College of Physicians Sir Ian Gilmore suggested that prohibitionists must “have their head in the sand”. Hitchens was mightily offended, and threatened to walk out. In his tantrum he insisted that nobody should claim that they know more about the topic than anybody else. And yet here he is saying that all those who disagree with him are “idiots”, and are either idle or stupid or have been hoodwinked.

13. Is it too late? Can we prevent stupefying drugs from becoming as prevalent and acculturated as alcohol and tobacco?
No it isn’t; yes we can. Alcohol and tobacco are legal because, after centuries of integration, they’re part of our culture, not the other way around. Smoking has drastically declined with increasing regulation and public-health information – all without criminalising anybody.

The level of use of any particular drug is largely determined by culture and biology, and the effect of policy, in terms of a binary choice of legal or not-legal, is marginal. Having learned appropriate lessons from alcohol, of restrictions on advertising and so on, legally regulated drugs needn’t become any more culturally ingrained than they already are. We could legalise public nudity and few would choose to walk around with their swingers out; we could legalise incest and wouldn’t suddenly be inundated with twelve-toed children.

Hitchens seems to think that he alone has his thumb in the dike, and that only an escalation of prohibition can stem demand for drugs. He will likely repeat his astonishing call for a minimum sentence of six months’ hard labour for a second conviction of cannabis possession, even though mandatory minima for drug offences don’t work in countries where they have been tried, and the guarantee of a five-year prison term for handgun possession hasn’t removed illegal firearms from the streets of the UK.

14. Has your surgeon been tested for drugs? And your child's school bus driver? If the legalisers win what sort of society shall we become?
Give people responsibility and, by and large, they act responsibly. Again, most people aren’t going to suddenly take up hard drugs simply because they can. Surgeons and bus drivers rarely turn up to work drunk, so there’s no reason to think that they would be intoxicated with other drugs on the job just because they had more of an opportunity.

So the sort of society we’ll become is one that doesn’t imprison people who have done nothing that merits imprisonment simply in the hope that it will work out better for the rest of us. However much one might desire a drug-free society, that aspiration doesn’t justify locking up innocent people.

_ _ _.

Hitchens says that the UK has “never fought” a war on drugs, when what he really means is that it hasn’t been prosecuted as aggressively as he might wish. For this we should be thankful, for it amounts to little more than a crusade against people whose behaviour he doesn't like. As such, it's hardly a sound basis for forming a national drug policy.


The genius of Peter Hitchens

Hitchens's contradictions are illuminating. Picture credit: Esa Oksman

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.


Time to legalise?

Do adversarial debates generate more heat than light? Picture credit: Andy Steel

Former minister, police officer and doctor agree that ending prohibition could reduce drug-related harms

Bob Ainsworth's experiences as drugs minister led him to conclude that prohibition has failed, he said at an event in Westminster on Tuesday.

The debate, "Time to legalise?", was the first of a series of "policy fight club" meetings organised by and held at the thinktank Policy Exchange.

Sir Ian Gilmore, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians and Tom Lloyd, formerly Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police and now a consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium, joined Ainsworth in speaking in favour of the motion. Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and Hans Christian Raabe, a GP and former member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, were opposing.

Lloyd agreed that prohibition had been ineffective and had led to damaging unintended consequences; Gilmore and Raabe disagreed on which approach would be most effective at minimising medical harms, while Hitchens frothed about the 'degeneracy' of drug use and claimed they were already de facto legal.

Ainsworth, who served as parliamentary under-secretary with responsibility for drugs and organised crime from 2001–03, said: “I've no interest in encouraging people to use drugs. I'm not a libertarian. I believe that society has a right to legislate for the public good. But I believe that society has a duty to apply its common sense.

“When I first became minister with responsibility for drugs and organised crime, I had a very traditional approach. I thought that if we worked harder, if we were tougher, if we chased the money and chased the problem upstream, we could reduce the problem.

“Over the period of my time in office, I began to realise what a huge problem this was. We have been pursuing this in this way for 40 years now, and we have failed. It's about time we start looking around and realise that we've failed, start applying our common sense and look, in a sensible way, at how we can reduce the massive problem of illegal drug use.”

Ainsworth gave the example of Switzerland, which prescribes heroin to its addicts. He said that the country is so reactionary that it banned minarets, by plebiscite, despite only having four of them, and yet nobody from any part of the political spectrum wants to change their health approach to drug addiction.

In contrast, he said: “There is no evidence – no evidence whatsoever – that prohibitive systems have made any difference whatsoever to hard drug use.”

Lloyd agreed that prohibition has failed to reduce drug use, let alone drug harms. “I've come to the conclusion that what we have here is the very best of intentions, in the 1961 Convention and the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, simply going horribly wrong," he said.

“The aim is trying to reduce drug consumption, which has gone up dramatically – almost throughout the world, in this country and in countries yet to receive the attention of criminal gangs. It's been ineffective and hugely costly.”

Lloyd referred to a 1997 study by the RAND corporation which found that treatment is more effective in reducing drug addiction as well as being cheaper, and that, in the US, attempts to stamp out drug use with mass incarceration have failed, since the country has 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners but still has a massive drug problem.

He said that, rather than solve the problem it was intended to address, prohibition has led to damaging unintended consequences.

“We have millions of people around the world and hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are being alienated, ostracised, criminalised and even abused by the system that we have handed over to the criminals.

“Criminals don't care about purity; they don't care about strength; they don't care about contaminants. Law enforcement – and I played my part in that – drives people to risky behaviour, so they share dirty needles. No drug is safer if the production and supply is in the hands of criminal gangs.”

Lloyd added that drug misuse is a health issue and that drug consumers should not have to come into contact with the criminal justice system because of it, and that many people use drugs without ever suffering or causing harm.

Raabe disputed claims that decriminalisation in Portugal has been beneficial, arguing that drug use has increased since it was initiated ten years ago, and claimed that prohibition had resulted from a failed period in which drugs were legal.

"If you look at the data from the United States, we know that in the 19th century opium and cocaine were legal in the US," he said. "As a result of this, in about 1900 there were about 400,000 opium addicts in the US. That number then gradually came down to about 22,000 as a result of increased attempts to get rid of that."

However, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated in 2003 that the number of heroin addicts stood at between 750,000 and 1 m people. In 1900, 400,000 opium addicts would constitute 0.5% of a population of 76m; in 2003, the population had increased to 294 m, of which 750,000 heroin addicts would make up 0.26%.

Raabe also claimed that the Netherlands, where cannabis is illegal but tolerated, has seen an increase in both cannabis use and mental-health problems.

Gilmore and Hitchens repeated much of their arguments from a previous debate at King's College in March.

Gilmore observed that treating addiction as a health problem rather than a crime problem can reduce its associated harms. He said: "It's a very pragmatic view, treating drugs as a health problem, because I see every day patients come into hospital not because of drugs but because of the whole surrounds of drug addiction – the dirty needles, the hepatitis B that they acquire, the crime that is engendered by the criminality of drugs and the dirty drugs that people get because they don't know what they're getting.

"There is a very genuine concern that if we decriminalise or legalise, that sends the message that drugs are OK, and that has to be handled by proper public education and information. But it would free up resources for prevention and resources for treatment."

Hitchens once again largely argued that drug-law enforcement is so low as to constitute de facto legalisation already, but added an opening attack on the anti-prohibition speakers opposing him. "All we need now is a Bishop," he said. "We've got a policeman, a character of law enforcement who presumably at some stage in his life swore an oath to uphold the law and is now of the opinion that the law should be cast aside.

"We have the inheritor of 100 years of working-class movement for self-improvement and the great temperance movement which fought the scourge of drink in our society, calling for surrender in drugs, and we have a doctor, one of the most expensively and carefully and thoughtfully trained persons in our community, dedicated in his entire life to the curing of illness, the lessening of pain and the undoing of harm talking about allowing drugs to circulate freely in our society because we can't do anything about them."

On several occasions Hitchens was prevented from finishing a point due to heckling from the audience, or interventions on points of fact, as the discussion became more heated and the debate often descended into an argument about the interpretation of various statistics.

A straw poll before the event found a majority in favour of the motion to legalise, which the chair, Policy Exchange's head of crime and justice policy Blair Gibbs, estimated at 60-70%. A second poll at the end of the debate found that a further three people had changed their minds from supporting prohibition to opposing it. However a self-selecting audience attending a drug-policy event is unlikely to be representative of the general population.

Speaking after the event, Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at Transform, the drug policy foundation, said of the debate that: "Some of it was interesting, but the nature of these adversarial debates means you get more heat than light. It's better to have these out on paper."

Another member of the audience, investor Paul Birch, said: "It was very good to see the debate from the legalisation side." Referring to Peter Hitchens's contention that the drug laws are not strongly enforced, he added: "His biggest argument for prohibition is actually an argument against."


Breaking the taboo

Is cannabis really dangerous?

Hitchens rejects the idea that cannabis is safe. Credit: Márton Berta

At the first of two events themed "A ceasefire in the war on drugs?", Peter Hitchens denies the drug laws even exist except on paper

There is no war on drugs and it was lost as long ago as 1967, according to Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens.

Hitchens was speaking at a debate held at King's College London on Wednesday. The other speakers were Sir Ian Gilmore, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and Chief Constable Tim Hollis of Humberside Police, the spokesperson on drugs for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Hollis, standing in for the former home secretary David Blunkett, who was unable to attend, said that he hadn't joined the police force to make war on the younger generation, while Gilmore suggested that a regulated supply of drugs would reduce many of the associated harms.

The event, entitled "Breaking the taboo", was organised by the University of Bedfordshire's Tilda Goldberg Centre.

Speaking first in the debate, Hitchens claimed that the fact that only a small proportion of those charged with possession of cannabis ever end up in court shows that the laws against drug possession aren't being fully enforced.

He observed that, in 2009, of around 160,000 criminal sanctions for possession of cannabis in England and Wales, fewer than 23,000 cases ever saw the inside of a courtroom. He said that nobody could tell him what penalties were imposed or what distinguished these cases from others, but speculated that most involved repeated offenders, intent to supply or were prosecuted simultaneously alongside other offences.

Hitchens claimed that the enforcement of the laws against drug possession has been set at such a level that they have no real effect, and that calls to stop the drug war are purposeless because it has already stopped.

"You would have to try very hard indeed to get the boys in blue to arrest you for a cannabis offence," he said. "And if they did arrest you, you'd have to try even harder to get them to do anything about it."

This blog can report that in 2009, a total of 371 people were sentenced to immediate custody for personal possession of class-B drugs such as cannabis, with an average sentence of 2.2 months.

There were also 775 imprisoned for simple possession of class A drugs, 127 for class C, and two for possession of a drug for which the class was not specified. For possession with intent to supply, the imprisonment figures for classes A–C were 4826, 1077 and 967 respectively. Drugs offences accounted for 9.4% of all custodial sentences imposed in England and Wales that year, and 15.8% of all convicted prisoners then serving time.

Hitchens also said that this was not limited to cannabis but applied to hard drugs as well, citing the case of the singer Pete Doherty, who had appeared in front of a judge for drugs offences on several occasions, was finally jailed for a drug offence while in court on a motoring charge – when 13 wraps of heroin fell from his pocket.

"Such is the effect that our terrifying war on drugs, and on those who wish to possess and take them, that a man can actually go into court with 13 wraps of heroin in his pocket, drop them on the floor and not care about it," he said.

Hitchens claimed that the war on drugs was lost on 24 July 1967 when a number of notable people including Francis Crick, David Dimbleby and all four of The Beatles wrote a letter to the Times "effectively calling for the legalisation of cannabis".

"There's no question that an enormous political struggle took place in this country in the late 1960s in which those who wanted to legalise drugs effectively succeeded," he said.

He claimed that the implementation of the 1969 Wootton Report in the form of the Misuse of Drugs Act set the penalties for possession of cannabis at such a low level that imprisonment for the offence virtually no longer occurred. The maximum penalty for personal possession of a class-B drug is five years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

Hitchens also rejected the idea that cannabis is a harmless drug, referring to the book by the foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn about his son's problems with schizophrenia, which he believes to have been triggered by cannabis use.

Gilmore mentioned a metastudy on the effects of the use of cannabis on mental health, which found that the drug is associated with an increase in the incidence of schizophrenia from 1 case per 100,000 people to 1.4 cases.

This metastudy, published in The Lancet also found "a dose-response effect, leading to an increased risk of 50—200% in the most frequent users". This blog calculates that if the estimated 2.8 million cannabis smokers were all heavy users, this would create a maximum of 28 additional cases of schizophrenia.

It is worth noting that the maximum rate of imprisonment of those sanctioned for cannabis use is around 232 per 100,000, so the increase in schizophrenia cases is several hundred times lower than the imprisonment rate that Hitchens considers so low as to constitute de facto legalisation.

Gilmore said that he didn't want a "free-for-all" with drugs being sold in corner shops, but he did want a legal regulated supply of heroin to addicts to limit the damage to them and to society from "pushers".

He said that he'd arrived at his views from a pragmatic and practical perspective, because current policy isn't achieving its aims of limiting the harms caused by drugs. He said that from his clinical experience he had seen a number of problems caused by dirty needles, overdoses from contaminated drugs and the high incidence of HIV, and the influence of crime either committed by addicts to feed habits or between illegal drug traffickers.

"In the other area of my life I use evidence, so I tried to look at the evidence, such as it is, in this field," he said. Decriminalisation in other countries and the prescription of heroin to addicts in a safe environment haven't been unsuccessful, he added.

Drawing on his experience as a doctor, Gilmore said that after a long time spent treating people with liver disease, largely through alcohol consumption, "the penny had finally dropped". He said: "I'd spent 30 years pulling people out of the river before it had occurred to me to walk up the bank to see how they were falling in in the first place."

He added that for around ten years he had been calling for more regulation around "our favorite drug, alcohol". Before the end of his term as president of the Royal College of Physicians, Gilmore had sent an email to colleagues on the value of having a proper look at the merits of legalised and regulated drugs. The email had subsequently been leaked to the press and attracted headlines suggesting that Gilmore was in favour of complete legalisation.

Hollis said that he didn't believe in a war on drugs because he'd joined the police service "to make the world a better place". He said that he is the parent of three adult children, and most possession charges are made against young people and can be damaging to their future prospects.

"I did not join the police service to go to war with my children," he said. He added that he makes no apologies for enforcing the law, however, if it improves the situations of people living next to "drug dens".

Hollis also said that the Crown Prosecution Service "would not be screaming with joy" over the prospect of charging someone with simple possession.

Hitchens returned to Hollis's refusal to make war on young people, asking "Why on Earth not?" and suggesting that it is the only way to counter "40 years of rockstar propaganda".

The next debate in the series, How is the world's view of the drug war changing?, will take place at King's College on 6 April.