I am finishing an enjoyable day in London. The morning was spent visiting my old neighbourhood. Everything has changed: the newsagents beneath my flat has turned into a cafe and the cans of rice pudding that I used to buy for eighteen pence had been reduced to twelve. How have the lowered the quality? In the afternoon I met a friend near Leicester Square. We were struggling through a mob of people when it, er, “dawned” on us that we had stumbled upon the Twilight premiere. Banners waved. Girls screamed. George Lamb was there. It was bleak.
Anyway, I write because I have a long wait before a long train journey and I might as well spend the time writing up impressions of the debate between Peter Hitchens and Tim Wilkinson. Hitchens is a writer who brings out the worst in liberals (myself included, at one time). His sentiments are conservative and are delivered with a force that tends to elicit defensiveness. This is, perhaps, in part due to his background in the vociferous British Left but it also the result of his conviction and this is admirable, not least it means that he is independent-minded. Whether it’s a cri-de-coeur over the Iraq invasion or just a defence of beauty over cold philistinism, even slight vaguest receptiveness from liberal and left-wing critics allows them to him departing from the imagined right-wing playbook and proving himself to be not a joyless curmudgeon or tiresome provocateur but a man who cares deeply about the good in life and in the lives of others.
Tim Wilkinson has no such fame but may and should be known to England’s savvy browsers as another independent-minded commentator with a knack for exposing those who are dogmatic or prone to groupthink. His measured trashing of Damian Thompson’s indirect attack on scepticism, Counterknowledge, is a fine example and there are plenty more at his weblog.
The debate, I am afraid, did not endear me to the medium. It is a competition of performances as much as of opinions. Hitchens is a master of it – joking, pleading and denouncing with exquisite timing and theatrical flair. Wilkinson had a nice line in dry humour but would, I think, have preferred a discussion to an argument. Prose, of course, can include similar rhetorical techniques but at least one has time and space to cut through them to the facts. (If, indeed, one is able.)
Hitchens began the event by asking those assembled to raise their hands if they thought that cannabis should be legalised; if they thought that it should retain its current status or if they shared his belief that it should be fought with tremendous vigour. I raised my hand with the first crowd yet by the time the final votes were cast I was among the “don’t knows”. The truth is that I never “knew”. If somebody placed a gun against my head and told me to choose between Hitchens’ and Wilkinson’s policies I’d be inclined to think the latter would be best. If someone established an immediate referendum on the subject, though, I don’t think that I would vote. I have vague prejudices but no clear opinions and the two should not, in retrospect, become confused.
I used to smoke weed on irregular occasions but stopped entirely; in part because there seemed to be evidence that it could lead to or at least worsen mental illness and in part because, in all honesty, I did not enjoy the stuff. It made me paranoid or lazy and these are two features I could do with showing less, not more. This is also why, quite apart from the health risks, I dislike friends smoking. Their brilliant minds become slower and sloppier once they are under the influence. On the desirability of minimised drug use, then, myself and Hitchens are agreed.
I am not familiar with the scientific research on the subject but as Hitchens wields the anecdotes of people who have suffered from the drug it doesn’t seem unfair to note that countless friends and acquaintances smoked or, indeed, still smoke weed as a small part of their lives and remain healthy people in careers and further education. One might not admire them for taking the risk, whatever it is, but they appear to have escaped unscathed.
So what? Hitchens might respond. Such people could live without it. This is true, of course, but should his dreams of the harsh prosecution of a drug war come to pass it is also true that some of them would disregard rational self-interest and continue to smoke. They would face prosecutions in large numbers. Careers would be damaged, families split and miserable months endured. Hitchens implied that these would be few in number and compared the deterrent effect to that which reduced drunk driving. Yet, as Wilkinson responded, that had been a guilty habit that most people needed scant encouragement to stop. Cannabis, however, is perceived by its users – with justice, in many cases – as a personal indulgence of little practical harm. Plenty of them, I’d guess, would stubbornly continue, and far more would be resentful towards the state and the society that it controls in a manner that would harm social cohesion.
For vulnerable people – the young especially but also the poor, the jobless and the traumatised – it is often a more serious matter. Wilkinson observed, however, that those most at risk of falling into a mire of drug abuse tend to face other problematic circumstances. Intoxicants, for them, are a crutch. Should these unfortunate souls be hounded over their drug use some of them would face arrest – hardly an upturn in their fortunes – and others would be liable to simply plump for booze, or, indeed, presuming that they risk arrest whatever choice they make, resort to harder drugs. This all sounds plausible to me. Wilkinson implied that our focus should be on resolving the structural issues that underpin their malaise.
In advocating the legalisation of cannabis Wilkinson spoke of the dangers of forcing drug use underground, ensuring that the users aren’t inclined to seek advice before taking the stuff but are averse to seeking help if they decide that they would like to stop.
These are factors I have borne in mind when I have thought that legalisation is desirable. Even if it was, of course, it would be under conditions. Its manufacture and sale would, you would hope, be regulated and one could not provide it to children and young teens. Hitchens referenced Big Pharma in warning of the dangers of cannabis becoming an asset of the corporations and he was right to. It is not unthinkable, however, for a government to bring a corporation into line. Tobacco is off the telly. Warnings blare out from its packets. Its users are confined to their homes or to the elements. Big Tobacco has, despite its power and influence, been neutured and if such a proud old institution could be brought to hell a young pup like the cannabis industry could be controlled.
Liberals would, and should, be obliged to treat it with more seriousness. The depiction of weed as a harmless joke is pretty much ubiquitous in our culture. I am a big fan of Spaced, for example, but the fact remains had it been real the comic-scrawling pothead would have been far likelier to end up as a smelly quinquagenarian babbling about Lois Lane and social security instead of landing a dream job and a hot girlfriend. As for Afroman – I laughed but, then, neither I, Kevin Smith or Joseph Edgar Foreman actually ended up as a deadbeat. Art should not be reduced to morality tales, of course, but it matters. Perceptions of life can be adopted as truths and aspirations and artists.
It’s worth pausing to consider Hitchensian arguments against his critics, though. He would doubtless agree that other social and economic factors must be faced in dealing with the vulnerable but these do not preclude some kind of drug war. Few people deny that heroin use should be banned and its users prosecuted but none of us think that this alone would solve the troubles of council estates.
One must also ask if economic empowerment is always the solution to problematic lifestyle choices or, indeed, if it can be achievable while they continue. Left-wing people can attribute social ills to economic factors in a reductionist manner. They are not constant companions. In the 1930s, for example, lots of blokes were poor and unemployed but few of them considered leaving their children. Thousands do nowadays. There is a limit to which young people, meanwhile, will pay heed to the warnings of adults. Lots of teenagers notably failed to talk to FRANK.
I have known a few people whose neuroses and illnesses seemed to be worsened by heavy drug use and Hitchens is eloquent in describing its apparent harms. Vocal advocates of legalisation can, it’s true, be somewhat complacent in assessing the risks of the drug. Hitchens, I suspect, is also right in presuming that a lot of them are users of it. Where I am sceptical, though, is when he concludes that they are selfish in their work. I don’t think such people merely hope to smooth their path to cannabis, because, if nothing else, it’s a fairly relaxed stroll already. What they can be, though, is privileged: the sort of older, intelligent and often middle-class people who can ensure that their intake is of small, controlled proportions. Young, hopeless, sometimes traumatised or simply stupid users would find this much harder and one should be cautious of making that slide into degeneracy look more tempting.
I am, then, going to leave you with a lot of questions and no answers. I my hope that this ramble provokes thought but I cannot furnish you with a sound conclusion as I do not have one myself. I shall take note of research if and when it appears and form a proper view. And take the “anti” side in drug discussions. Because, ultimately, while they might relieve stress for a time they won’t secure that better job; that yearned for partner or the change you hope to witness in the world. Well – unless you’re Afroman.