The War We Shouldn’t Have Waged

Keir Martland

In a recent conversation with a conservative (with a small ‘c’), I do not think I made myself sufficiently clear. While discussing drug re-legalisation (for, the War on Drugs is in no way part of the British constitution), it became clear that we disagreed; my friend is opposed to the re-legalisation of drugs and I am in favour of it. However, as I was rather tired, I didn’t bother to make a proper case for drug re-legalisation then and there. I feel I ought to do that now, otherwise I’m no libertarian.

However, what I will say is that I, like my conservative friend, am quite fond of Peter Hitchens. From the arguments he makes to the way in which he presents his arguments, he outclasses his opponents every time and is a good writer and speaker upon which to model yourself. One of Hitchens’ attributes which libertarians ought to find particularly attractive – even though they don’t – is his obvious hatred of the ruling class. This means that when he identifies a problem, such as a shortage of housing, punitive tax rates, mass-immigration, or what have you, he is the first person to blame the ruling class for having created that problem or for having allowed it to develop. Hitchens loathes what the “metropolitan bourgeois Bohemians” have done to the country he used to know so well and which he still loves so much.

In his Mail on Sunday column or in his frequent appearances on BBC Question Time, Hitchens identifies a problem and invariably then blames the elite or the ruling class for that problem. By inclination, it would seem, then, this man is a libertarian.

Let me explain myself before I lose all credibility.

Libertarians are of the opinion that the majority of the political, social, and economic ailments from which we suffer as a nation are the direct result of statism. This is a necessary condition of libertarianism; if you are a libertarian, then you believe – or rather, you know – this to be the case. This is only one side of the libertarian coin, though, with the other being the positive view that individual liberty is the single most important political end for any society to pursue, that the problems foisted upon us by the state would quickly be resolved by free individuals freely co-operating in a free society, and that these problems would never again arise once acts of aggression perpetrated by the state are tolerated no longer. Clearly, then, Hitchens attributes most problems to state policies, but what makes him not a full libertarian is that he does not always take the view that a greater degree of individual liberty would resolve these problems.

The best example, indeed, the only example which comes to my mind, is Hitchens’ stance on drugs. He views the War on Drugs as essentially a ‘war we never fought’, the implication of this phrase of his being that the notion of such a war itself is to be seen as a Good Thing. Now, he argues his case forcefully and his arguments are understandably more compelling than those offered by the average robotic libertarian. You see, Hitchens uses fact, logic, and reason, and in addition to these he also makes use of examples to illustrate his arguments. It is because he makes use of fact, logic, reason, and examples, that he will always win over the unconverted on this controversial issue if if is generally presumed to be the case that the best person out there opposed to the War on Drugs is Russell Brand. Yet, it must be said that here Hitchens is wrong.

Now, granted, drug re-legalisation is almost universally seen as a leftist position, not least by many leftists themselves. This goes a long way towards explaining why, when addressing a UKIP rally, Sean Gabb did not receive a round of applause when he proudly declared “I’m one of those funny libertarians who wants to legalise drugs!” It explains, equally well, why Sam Bowman, of the Adam Smith Institute, though an undeniably intelligent and articulate man, did receive a round of applause during his appearance on the BBC programme Free Speech for saying “We should legalise all drugs.”

But just because something is generally perceived to be the case does not mean that it is indeed the case. Leftism has no perfect definition. Indeed, it is arguable that libertarianism is a leftist ideology just as it is arguable that the terms left and right no longer have any meaning, but what we sometimes mean by the term leftism is socialism.  Using this definition, it must be apparent how strange a consensus it is that drug re-legalisation is a political stance to be associated with those on the left of the political spectrum.

However, leftism has taken on a new meaning over the last century. In every experiment with socialism, it has proved disastrous and it seems that even leftists were taking notes from this. What we mean, perhaps most of the time, when we refer to ‘leftism’, is cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism, according to that wonderful source Urban Dictionary is: “The gradual process of destroying all traditions, languages, religions, individuality, government, family, law and order in order to re-assemble society in the future as a communist utopia.” There is no time here to discuss the many questions which will inevitably arise from the concept of cultural Marxism, but Sean Gabb’s book Cultural Revolution, Culture War is a must-read for anyone who is interested.

With this new definition of a leftist in mind, i.e. someone who wants to destroy traditional society in order that communism or something similar to it may be more easily implemented, I can see why the BBC audience at Free Speech enthusiastically applauded Sam Bowman’s call for drug re-legalisation. It may well be that they envisage a society where a large number of the population are perpetually high also being a society in which they can wage a more effective war against patriarchy, racism, and transphobia. It would appear that just as Peter Hitchens is only incidentally libertarian on some matters, the audience who were so enamoured of Sam Bowman were probably only incidentally libertarian on drug re-legalisation.

Even so, as Ian B, an irregular and invaluable writer for the Libertarian Alliance, would note, the state doesn’t seem to be very culturally Marxist on the issue of drug re-legalisation. The state has waged and has continued to fight a War on Drugs for decades. Rather, what we need is some other explanation for why the state has declared drugs to be illegal and that explanation is provided by the Puritan Hypothesis. There exist within the ruling class not just a group of cultural Marxists, but also a new generation of Puritans. There are a number of state policies which only make sense when explained in terms of the Puritan Hypothesis, e.g. the smoking ban, high duties on alcohol, the attempted internet ‘porn block’ etc. The War on Drugs was waged, to put it crudely, to stop people enjoying themselves.

Now, naturally, the state will not tell its citizens that it has banned drugs to in order to ban pleasure. A variety of arguments have been and indeed still are advanced in favour of the War on Drugs.

One of them is the protection of children: it is assumed that because Parliament has passed a law, children will not only be incapable of acquiring drugs, but will no longer want them. Yet, the fact remains, that positive laws, unlike scientific laws, can quite easily be broken. If Little Johnny wants half a pound of heroin and the local dealer really wants money, then a straightforward swap will take place. If this were all that happened, then the problem wouldn’t be all that bad. The problem is, however, much worse. If heroin is now illegal and Little Johnny wants to rebel, he might just get a kick out of acquiring this forbidden substance. From whom will he purchase it? Well, if heroin is now illegal to produce, buy, sell, and possess, then dealing in heroin is likely to be a risky business, to put it mildly. By definitions, only criminals will be involved in this business, with predictable results. How this protects children is beyond me.

Another argument often advanced is to point out the effects of taking drugs on one’s health. Leaving aside the very good argument that banning things because they may or may not have a detrimental effect on health is nothing short of tyranny, there is no scientific consensus so far as I am aware that ‘drugs are bad.’ The term ‘drug’ certainly has a meaning and a definition, but it is one that includes something which a large portion of the population drink every morning to wake them up. When the health fascists start to call for a rigorously enforced ban on tea and coffee, maybe then I’ll show a modicum of respect for their argument. Even so, if the aim of the health fascists is to reduce any negative effects on health resulting from drug taking, they are going about it in the wrong way. There is a well established system, in theory and in history, which brings about competition among producers and suppliers and thereby leads to improved quality and decreased costs of goods and services for consumers. This system is known as a free market. If the health fascists are worried that consumers of drugs are currently getting a raw deal, then perhaps they shouldn’t be supporting a law which removes honest and law-abiding producers and suppliers from the market altogether. The effects on drug purity are predictable.

Surely, though, without the laws which are presently in place, everyone would be high. Surely, if the law did not prohibit something which many people have either thought about doing or have done, then they’d either do it or do it more often. And, surely, the effects of such a pervasive use of drugs would be disastrous for our economy and our society. I’m not convinced. It is estimated that 12 million Britons have taken an illicit drug in their lifetime and it is also estimated that 1.7 million are ‘addicted’ (defined as having taken an illicit drug in the last month). A simple calculation shows that, using these statistics, only 14% of those who have taken an illicit drug become ‘addicted’; many more simply don’t like it enough to carry on. The British population, too, is much bigger than 12 million and yet I am confident that more than 12 million Britons have been into close contact with illicit substances. The question is, of course, whether they chose not to take the drugs because they were scared of going to prison or whether they chose not to take the drugs because they just weren’t interested. Bearing in mind that Peter Hitchens would argue that this War on Drugs is not being fought at all, this would seem to support the latter reason rather than the former. Hitchens’ claim has a definite ring of truth about it in that clearly people don’t take the law on this matter very seriously. In which case it is all the more interesting that only 12 million have indeed taken an illicit drug at some point. If we legalised drugs tomorrow, the remaining 50 million or so wouldn’t rush out and stock up on cocaine.

The arguments against the War on Drugs are also not leftist arguments. For libertarians, the most basic reason why drugs must be re-legalised is because everyone has a natural right to their own body and to deny anyone that right is to prevent someone from making full use of their own property. A political position which rests ultimately on property rights is not a leftist position. However, the argument from self-ownership, or body-ownership, may only convince those with strong libertarian inclinations. There are a number of other excellent arguments for drug re-legalisation, some of which will appeal to certain groups and not others.

One of these arguments is what might be termed ‘the argument from prohibition’. This argument is perhaps done to death. The gist is that after the women had passed prohibition in America while the men were away fighting in the Great War, the alcohol market went underground. The result was the establishment of speakeasies – so called because they had to keep it quiet – where moonshine would be sold. This alcohol was in some cases quite dangerous to consume and during the course of the 1920s, Al Capone and the like made a shed-load of money through the illegal alcohol trade. Criminal-types suddenly had a source of income into which they could tap which could help to fund their other criminal activities. After the repeal of the Volstead Act after prohibition had become intolerable, crime levels plummeted. Here is a perfect historical illustration of what happens when the state wages a war on a substance which people rather like.

But the argument from prohibition is just an illustration of basic economic theory and common sense. There is a more general argument which could be called ‘the argument from economics’. The demand for drugs, as with the demand for alcohol, is said to be price inelastic, meaning that an increase in quantity demanded will lead to a more than proportional increase in price whereas a large increase in price will lead to a less than proportional fall in quantity demanded. To wage a War on Drugs will have the effect of shifting the supply curve for drugs to the left, i.e. the willingness on the part of economic agents to supply at any given price will fall as a result of its illegality. As supply shifts leftward on an unchanged, and highly inelastic, demand curve, the new equilibrium price is a significantly higher price. Not only will those who may feel compelled by their addiction to buy illicit drugs have less disposable income, but, as the amount of drugs demanded changes very little while the price increases dramatically, the effect will be to increase the total revenue of firms in the market for illicit drugs. If the aim of drug prohibition is to punish the suppliers, then those pushing for it really ought to buy a good microeconomics textbook.

If economics doesn’t touch you, which is perfectly fine as it is “the dismal science”, then there is an argument which is particularly versatile. It is what might be called ‘the argument from tyranny’ or ‘the gay sex argument’. Let me explain. As I’ve said, one argument for drug prohibition is that it is done in the interests of public health or the health of the drug taker. However, a tyranny exercised for the good of the victim, in the words of C.S. Lewis, may be the most aggressive form of tyranny. Think about it. Is it likely that someone who sincerely believes in the righteousness of their course of action will listen to contrary evidence or listen to the pleas of their victims? Sean Gabb once made use of the example of gay sex to make a similar point. If there was suddenly a scientific consensus that gay sex did terrible damage to one’s health, would we ban it? I would like to think that we would not. The point, though, is this: is it the business of the state to tell us how we can and can’t enjoy ourselves in private? If you think it isn’t, then you may be a libertarian.

Speaking of a scientific consensus, there is not even a scientific consensus that currently illicit substances are at all harmful. This lack of any consensus might be called ‘the argument from science’. Professor David Nutt, while Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), wrote in 2009 of how ecstasy was no more likely to cause those who take it any harm than those who ride horses were likely to be caused harm by their hobby. Nutt also favourably compared the health effects of cannabis to those of alcohol and nicotine. After having published his paper entitled ‘Equasy – An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms’, he was dismissed as ACMD chair by the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson. Quite obviously, the state is not interested in listening to health experts who aren’t also health fascists.

Arguments for drug re-legalisation can be found in the most unlikely of places. Even religious texts, it seems, can provide a basis for opposing the War on Drugs in what we might term ‘the argument from scripture.’ Texas State Representative, David Simpson, is one example of an opponent of drug prohibition who does so not in spite of, but because of his Christian faith. To him, because everything that God made is good, this naturally includes marijuana. As marijuana was created by God, it would be wrong to simply reject it and so he instead recommends that we make a positive use of this currently illicit substance. Now, Simpson recognises that drug taking may be immoral, but he draws the distinction, as so few Christians these days do, between legality and morality, with legality referring to what laws are or should be in place and morality referring to how individuals ought to behave. Morality is more than just obeying the law, while the purpose of the law is not to make people behave morally. While the drunkard and the glutton may well come to poverty, God does not insist that they be arrested and imprisoned. Instead, He warns us not to behave immorally and allows us to decide whether or not to heed his warning.

Lastly, while waging a War on Drugs is doomed to failure, there is no reason at all why ‘social sanctions’, to use a phrase William Buckley used, cannot be effective. This might be termed ‘the argument from ostracism.’ If drugs were legalised tomorrow, then, granted, it would seem that those who had indeed been deterred by the fear of the police and the law from trying what had been an illicit substance would try the newly legalised substance. Further, I’ll grant it that these substances will lower productivity in some cases and may lead to generally unpleasant behaviour. The supporters of drug prohibition might therefore argue that to legalise drugs would be to weaken both the British economy and British society. Yet, if we are agreed that drug taking is so unpleasant and if its effects are so obviously bad for productivity, then ostracism of drug takers will take place. If you are a landlord then you might specify in your tenancy agreement that no drugs are to be taken indoors. If you are an employer, you might ask you employees not to get high while operating heavy machinery, for instance. If you are a parent, you might withhold pocket money from a teenage child if they start to take drugs. The ways in which non-violent pressure can be brought to bear in order to change the behaviour of others are manifold and they will always be more effective than the threat of prison, because in the case of social sanctions and the ultimate threat of ostracism from the community, both parties have something to gain if the offensive party ceases to offend the offended party, i.e. in the case of the landlord and potential tenant, if the latter refrains from their habit then they will gain a flat while the landlord gains rent. The great virtue of social pressure as opposed to legal pressure is that the former can result in a positive outcome for two parties.

Drug re-legalisation is a libertarian position. In many ways, it has become one of the litmus tests for libertarianism. However, it is incorrect to view drug re-legalisation as a leftist position. The War on Drugs is motivated neither by evidence nor by sound economics and its ultimate conclusion is tyranny. The many excellent arguments against it are varied, from economic theory, to religious objections, to better and more peaceful alternatives to simply banning drugs. Peter Hitchens has termed this war ‘the war we never fought.’ Perhaps those who are presently in prison for possession or dealing might disagree with that view, but what is clear is that the War on Drugs need not be fought, indeed it ought never to have been waged in the first place.



  • Jakub Jankowski

    In the words of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who cited the ancient Roman law doctrine ‘Volenti non fit iniuria’ – ‘to a willing person, injury is not done’. Inadvertently, Peter Hitchens upholds the same values as the ‘metropolitan bourgeois Bohemians’ he claims to stand opposite of.

  • Are legalization or illegalization the only options? What might happen if the prohibitons on drug-taking (like fox-hunting, perhaps?) were simply removed?

  • Hitchens has a bee in his bonnet about drugs. Maybe somebody close to him was finished off by drugs or something. His position on them is clearly some kind of emotional glitch which he tries to disguise with “reasons”. He is best ignored.

    • Hitchens is clearly motivated by the effect of drugs upon the son of his friend Patrick Cockburn. He has been entirely open about this. His arguments are well worth the hearing, even if you do not agree. To dismiss his view as an “emotional glitch” is the sort of illiberal unreason that one expects of our opponents.

  • You may listen to the arguments of anyone you like. Hitchens ideas about drug control are tyrannical cockwafle. Regardless of emotionalism.

  • Hitchens is good on some things and terrible on others. On this issue, his problem is his conservatism; he admires not only drug prohibition but the Temperance Movement in general and other social reform zealotry of the 19th century which began the mushrooming of the State as a social control mechanism; the State as Church.

    It’s back with the problem identified by Paul Gottfried so eloquently; that conservatives invariably end up becoming the strongest supporters of things they condemned and opposed in the past. Give it twenty years, and conservatives will be condemning foreign nations for not having the Great Wester Tradition of gay marriage. Much of what many conservatives of Hitchens’s type now consider essential elements of a good society were radical reforms of the First Wave Proggies, and drug prohibition is one such policy.

    • I had not thought of that. Yes, that is one problem with conservatism as a philosophy.

      Hitchens is a very odd man by all accounts. I wonder if he’s a Methodist.

      • Paul Gottfried (I personally have a lot of time for him as an intellectual) has spoken quite often about this as the standard failure of the conservative movement, and I really do think he is right about it. It doesn’t necessarily apply to conservatism as a philosophy, but it seems to me to describe the behaviour of Conservatism as a movement in Britain and the USA rather well.

        As to Hitchens, he seems to admire the Methodists of that time a great deal.

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