The Uninvited Interlocutor

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Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens

with 3 comments

I’ll begin by talking about some rebuttals to the legalize/tax/regulate cannabis argument I’ve seen pop up recently — most recently spurred on by Richard Branson’s evidence  at the U.K. commons home affairs inquiry into drug policy.  It is with some regret that I’ll be talking about Peter Hitchens and the paper he writes for, The Daily Mail.  I’d rather not give either any more of the oxygen of publicity that they crave, but at the same time the propaganda they churn out needs to be confronted.  I’ll be taking the information from Peter Hitchens’ blog post at The Daily Mail here. I’ll not reproduce the ad hominems he tends to pepper through his cannabis related articles and get to the heart of the argument.

He begins:

1. Drugs which have once been legalised are almost impossible to de-legalise. The existence of two highly damaging legal drugs in our society is in fact one of the strongest arguments for not legalising any more drugs, and not at all an argument in favour of legalising cannabis.

While it might seem prima facie true that once a drug is legalized it is almost impossible to criminalize, the historic example doesn’t support this notion.  Consider cannabis, for example.  Current efforts to legalize cannabis are, in fact, efforts to re-legalize the substance in question —  prior to the late 1920’s and 1930’s cannabis was a legal substance to consume, grow and trade around the world.  In short, cannabis was legal and then was made illegal — the very thing that Mr. Hitchens argues is “almost impossible” to accomplish.   There’s also the obvious case of alcohol which was, of course, perfectly legal in the United States until it was outlawed under the Volstead Act in the latter part of 1919. We can make similar arguments about cocaine and heroin —  both were available over the counter from Harrod’s up until 1916. In fact, the majority of drugs we now deem to be illegal once enjoyed legal status — that pushes the phrase “almost impossible” to breaking point and beyond.

The second point concerns the harms related to current legal drugs and how those harms are a strong argument for not legalizing any more drugs.  This line of argumentation makes a lot of assumptions when we begin to take a closer look.  The first assumption is that prohibition of cannabis causes no harms.  The second assumption is that having inconsistent application of laws causes no harms.  The third assumption is that the inherent harms of cannabis use to the imbiber are comparable in scale and scope to the inherent harms of alcohol and tobacco use to the imbiber.

On the matter of the first assumption, it is prima facie false to assume no harm caused by the prohibition of cannabis.  Thousands of people are burdened with criminal records each year for nothing more  than possessing a small bag of plant matter.  The prohibition of cannabis fuels organized crime providing a huge source of income to criminal organizations that could otherwise go into the mainstream economy and tax coffers.  The prohibition of cannabis means a wholly unregulated market where the product can be adulterated with dangerous substances.  The prohibition of cannabis makes it easier, in fact, for children to acquire it because there are no checks upon the age of the purchaser at the point of sale or any other filter beyond the possession of the requisite cash.  The prohibition of cannabis means it can sometimes be produced in less than safe environments and sometimes by people who are forced to do the work.  This is just a short list and I haven’t touched upon the harms related to the cost in terms of money and police effort — drawing both away from areas of serious crime that are in dire need of these resources. I could continue, but the point ought to be clear — one can not weigh the harms of legalizing a substance without considering the harms incurred by keeping said substance illegal.

On the matter of the second assumption, the inconsistent application of law causes great harm to the law itself.  That is, when the citizenry see that it is perfectly legal to become intoxicated by consuming a particular substance but that it is illegal to become intoxicated by another substance, then there is a direct drop in the desire to respect and obey the law — the law becomes an ass.   Consistency is a primary facet of justice — if two persons commit the same crime in the same circumstances, but one is given years in prison and the other is let go with no sanction, then we rightly refer to this as unjust or a miscarriage of justice.  The fact that so many people consume cannabis on a regular or semi regular basis is direct evidence of disrespect for the law in this matter.  It is not because, in the vast majority of cases, these transgressors wish to be transgressors, but because the law is so inconsistent — so unjust — that they can not see any sense in following such an edict.  As a result, there is great danger in the law as a whole falling into disrepute with this population and beyond.

The third and final assumption is a broad stroke with no supporting evidence — that the inherent harms of consuming cannabis are on par with those of consuming alcohol and tobacco.   It is certainly true that both alcohol and tobacco can visit great harms upon users, so one would need to be able to show that cannabis is at least as capable of delivering harms of a similar magnitude.   In the case of tobacco, we know that it is highly addictive and can cause cancer and respiratory disease — resulting in death in many cases.  In the case of alcohol, we know that it is highly addictive and can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, increased risk of cancer and liver disease — resulting in death in many cases or the necessity for a liver transplant.  None of these harms are controversial or disputed — they are well documented and well known — and I have not gone into deep detail trying to tease out every last harm.  In the case of cannabis, the situation is much less clear.  Cannabis smoke on its own has never been proven to cause cancer and in terms of respiratory function occasional use is “not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function.”  Having said that, it still might be prudent to avoid inhaling smoke from any source, so fortunately one can eat or vaporize cannabis in lieu of smoking.  In other words, any dangers that may exist which are associated with the inhalation of cannabis smoke are not inherent dangers of cannabis consumption.  In terms of addictiveness, cannabis ranks near or on par with caffeine coming far down the list in comparison to alcohol and tobacco (nicotine).  There has never been a death directly attributed to the consumption of cannabis and it effectively has no lethal dosage level with an incredibly high LD50  (the dosage at which 50% of those taking it die) — that is, the act of consuming enough cannabis to render it toxic to the subject would kill the subject before the active ingredient, THC, could accomplish that goal.  The more recent development of a Reefer Madness v2.0 campaign attempting to link cannabis use to mental health problems, namely psychosis, is weakly supported, at best, and has little retort to scientific evidence such as the Keele report which states, “We examined trends in the annual psychosis incidence and prevalence as measured by diagnosed cases from 1996 to 2005 and found it to be either stable or declining. The casual models linking cannabis with schizophrenia and other psychoses are therefore not supported by our study.” In short, in a time where cannabis usage was increasing the incidence of psychosis cases remained stable or slightly declined — if there is a causal connection between cannabis use and psychosis the number of cases would have necessarily increased in step with the upswing in cannabis use.  So, we now have a picture of the inherent harms associated with the three drugs in question, and it is evident that cannabis is nowhere near as capable of delivering harms of a similar magnitude as those harms associated with alcohol and tobacco.

What all this means is that one can not simply equivocate between the harms associated with legalizing cannabis and the harms associated with the current legal drugs.  It so happens that we have chosen to allow two of the more dangerous drugs to be legal in our society and it does not follow that the legalization of less harmful drugs would result in the same scale or scope of harms.  In fact, it may mitigate some of the current harms by providing a less harmful alternative to the current “highly damaging legal drugs.”

Mr. Hitchens continues:

2.The damage done by alcohol, which this writer has never denied, is indeed great. That is partly because it is so widely used. That is because it is legalised.Were cannabis as widely used as alcohol, and as readily available, the damage it did would be vast and appalling. That is not because it kills, a claim never made here, but because it has the power to wreck, irreversibly but unpredictably, the mental health of those who use it. Its users are already badly affected by mental health problems in large and growing numbers. Only our vestigial laws keep this from happening. If alcohol now enjoyed the legal status which cannabis enjoys, what sane person would want to take the restrictions off?

We now have the premise that the damage done by alcohol is, in part, because it is widely used which is a result of its legal status. A second premise is offered which states that if cannabis were as widely used as alcohol it would cause “vast and appalling” damage.  The suppressed premise here is that legalization of cannabis would result in it being as widely used as alcohol. Again, we see Mr. Hitchens equivocating between alcohol and cannabis in terms of the scale and scope of their respective harms.  As I have shown above, they have two very different levels of inherent harms and to pretend that they are on par with each other is disingenuous, at best. Mr. Hitchens does then proceed to qualify, mildly, his equivocation by acknowledging that unlike alcohol, cannabis does not kill.  However, he then makes a wild and sweeping claim that cannabis has the power to, “wreck, irreversibly but unpredictably, the mental health of those who use it.”  He offers no substantiation for this claim, no citation, no scientific evidence — no evidence whatsoever — in short, he pulls out the Reefer Madness v2.0 appeal to popularity that no doubt plays well with his core audience.  Mr. Hitchens then claims cannabis users are already affected by mental health problems in large and growing numbers, but once again offers no support for this assertion.  He then, oddly, states that it is the law which keeps this from happening after he has just stated it is already happening.  I’ll give a charitiable interpretation of this contradiction and assume he means that the laws keep this from happening  further.  Finally, we see another appeal to popularity in the form of a question — if alcohol were currently illegal who in their right mind would want to make it legal?  Well, I would, for one — and as an aside, I haven’t even been a consumer of alcohol for about eight years now.  All those who voted in the United States to repeal the Volstead Act, for another.  I suspect many, many people would — for many of the same reasons as those who voted to repeal prohibition in the United States and those who argue to legalize cannabis or other drugs.  Namely, that keeping widely desired substances illegal only serves to fuel gangs and criminal enterprises and all the concomitant harms they bring.  The people who wouldn’t vote for legalizing alcohol, were it illegal, would be the criminals — as they would hold a monopoly on its supply and all the profits that brings —  turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Mr. Hitchen’s argument only makes sense  if we pretend that prohibition causes no harm or ills itself — which is prima facie false.  He also assumes that laws are effective deterrents to the consumption of these substances — again, this is prima facie false evidenced by the current number of consumers of cannabis or the number of consumers of alcohol in the United States under prohibition.  Much better deterrents come in the form of educating and informing the populace about risks in a clear and coherent manner — evidenced by the effective reduction in the number of cigarette smokers without needing to resort to rendering tobacco an illegal substance.  Laws did aid in the reduction of tobacco use by restricting (regulating) its consumption in public places, so laws can certainly work in concert with education, but the the type and form of the laws matter greatly — one can not hastily generalize from a single effective instance of a law helping to reduce substance consumption to conclude any or all laws to do with a substance will also have a similar effect.  Particularly when we see that the laws in question (the prohibition of cannabis and other drugs) do not deter vast swathes of people from consuming these substances.  Prohibiting a substance is the easy way to deal with the issue of its associated harms because it looks grandiose and hard lined, but accomplishes very little other than to hand organized crime a new revenue stream — it’s mostly gesture with little substantive effect.

The argument goes on:

3.The sneaky introduction of the word ‘regulation’ by the pro-drug lobbyist also backfires. Legal alcohol and tobacco are also ‘regulated’. Regulated alcohol does a huge amount of damage to those who use it, as does regulated tobacco. These things are inherently dangerous, as is cannabis. Further, the fact that these drugs are legal has not prevented the emergence of large illegal markets in both of them, illicitly distilled alcohol being particularly dangerous, while criminal gangs smuggle cigarettes in quantity. Thus, these arguments, examined with an ounce of intelligence, are actually part of the case for continuing to ban dangerous drugs such as cannabis forever. Why make the same irreversible mistake again? If cannabis were legal, we would have many years to find out what it would be like to have this poison sold as widely as alcohol now is. (very large numbers of irreversibly mentally ill people, a severe decline in public safety and the work ethic, a growth in violent crime and in traffic deaths, etc etc, plus the continuing disadvantages of the illegal market that would continue to flourish outside the tax system). But our decision would be almost impossible to reverse.

Mr. Hitchens now tackles the notion of regulation and asserts that it is actually an argument in favour of the prohibition of cannabis because legal alcohol and tobacco are regulated but cause great harm to the user. Furthermore, these substances are inherently dangerous as is cannabis.  Once again we have an equivocation between alcohol/tobacco and cannabis — as I have shown, the inherent harm associated with the respective substances is nowhere near on par.  This is an adjacent argument to the one in reference to legalization proper — it is just the same argument, but replaces the term “legalization” with “regulation.”  There’s not much point spending time on it as everything that was covered previously will apply here as well.  It should be noted, however, that Mr. Hitchens makes no allowance for the form or degree of regulation and simply assumes that all regulated efforts are equal.  This is prima facie untrue as a change in the regulation of tobacco use in public — the “smoking ban” — has led to a great decrease in its consumption and associated harms.

The argument then moves on to the fact that there are illegal markets in alcohol and tobacco even though they are legal regulated substances.  It is certainly true there are black markets for these substances, but the reason for the existence of these markets is ignored by Mr. Hitchens as well their size in relation to the regulated market.  The main reason there exists black markets is the cost of these substances — government applies “sin taxes” to gain income and to appear to be discouraging consumption which increases the cost to the consumer significantly.  When the price of a good becomes inflated to certain  point, then it becomes economical for criminals to trade in that good if they can source it cheaply enough.  Also, black markets exists for many goods — not just drugs.  There are black markets for fashion goods such as watches, hand bags, designer goods of all sorts as well as consumer electronics and other costly goods — however, this is not an argument for outlawing these goods.  Furthermore, the bulk  of the trade in alcohol and tobacco is done in the regulated market.  The most convenient method to purchase regulated substances is through the sanctioned outlets and most people would likely say they prefer those methods — they are consistent and readily accessible in comparison to the black market where the consumers must rely on the availability of  “their guy.”   The fact that black markets will likely exist is not an argument for handing over the entirety of a market to the underground — otherwise there would be countless varieties of goods outlawed from sale. The argument then proceeds to cover the same ground we have seen previously: a reiteration that it was a mistake to legalize alcohol and an appeal to popularity asking us “why make the same irreversible mistake again?” which is also a reiteration of the previously refuted point that once a drug is legalized it is near impossible to render illegal. We then come upon the curious assertion that cannabis is a “poison” even though Mr. Hitchens has already conceded it does not kill.  A charitable reading would allow for him to mean that it is a “poison to the mind.”  However, even on that charitable interpretation Mr. Hitchens would need to contend with evidence such as the previously mention Keele report.  He does not, of course, but goes on to make the wild sweeping claims, with absolutely no evidence or citation, that making cannabis as accessible (legal) as alcohol is now would result in, “very large numbers of irreversibly mentally ill people, a severe decline in public safety and the work ethic, a growth in violent crime and in traffic deaths…” This is, once again, pure Reefer Madness v2.0 — without an iota of evidence cannabis use is linked to irreversible mental illness, a severe decline in public safety, a decline in work ethic and an increase in violent crime and traffic accidents.  Without citations, references, evidence or even an attempt to mount a rudimentary argument supporting the assertion this amounts to nothing more than an appeal to fear.

Mr. Hitchens reinforces this appeal to fear once again to end his argument:

A very important part of this argument is the irreversibility of legalisation. One of the reasons why we need to stand so firm on this frontier is that, once lost, the position can almost certainly never be regained.

As I have shown previously, the historical record certainly doesn’t support this assertion — it’s prima facie false.  Furthermore, if there truly developed a situation after legalization where cannabis suddenly became a great danger to the public or its users, it would not be difficult to muster the weight of public opinion behind the notion of banning it once again. A paper such as the Daily Mail is very skilled at mustering such support and influencing public opinion — if even such a measure would be necessary in that circumstance.  It would be the wrong move given that the legal status of a drug does little to protect the users, but it would be a move that would not be difficult to get supported.  When it would be difficult to get support for such a move is after cannabis has been legal for some time and the sky hasn’t fallen.

The “irreversibility of legalization” is a rhetorical point which attempts to scare the reader into adopting the wider position being put forward — it does have some power to convince by leveraging fear and that’s why it’s a very important part of the argument — but it is also the only part that remains after closer examination.  It is a tactic of fear born from fear — it is not born from the fear of the terrible consequences to users and society; rather, it is born from the fear of being wrong and being shown to be wrong. It belies the nature of the argument because there is no actual argument — there is just rhetoric and sophistry.  What it amounts to is a man jumping out from behind a couch and shouting “boo!” hoping he has sufficiently scared his interlocutors into believing his assertions.  It’s the best he can offer on this subject given his position — and that’s why I feel sorry for Peter Hitchens.


Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

February 15, 2012 at 7:29 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Great article.

    George Cooke

    April 26, 2012 at 11:38 am

  2. Wow, you’ve really destroyed Hitchens in this article. Whatever spiel scaremongers spin, the winds of change have already being released. Marijuana is going to be legalised widely worldwide in the next 10 years. Crimes across a wide spectrum will drop, pizza sales will go through the roof, Harold and Kumar stories shall be taught to our kids… The world will be a happier, fuzzier place and unicorns shall walk upon the earth.

    Rational Mystic

    November 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm

  3. […] the first piece I wrote for this blog, Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens, I argued that the enforcement of unjust/inconsistent/widely unheeded laws can lead to disrespect […]

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