I’ve never taken illegal drugs, obviously. But if I had, I would be applauding Nick Clegg today. The Lib Dem leader says that people caught with drugs on them, even Class A substances such as cocaine and LSD, should not go to prison. I’m afraid he’s right.
Maybe it’s just me, but as a lifelong lover of Sherlock Holmes, the idea of being ensconced for forty-eight hours in an opium den is pretty bloody seductive. I don’t know, but I’m guessing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing from experience. You will have your own closet fascination, of course. For many people, that will mean ecstasy or cocaine. For others, hallucinogens.
The Peter Hitchens in me (quiet at the back!) recoils slightly at the thought of letting heroin users shoot up with impunity. I don’t think anyone sets out to become a smack-head, and there’s something dystopian and horrifying about the thought of hobos wandering the streets with vacant looks on their faces and needles in their arms.
It is clear that drug treatment programmes will need to be massively expanded if possession ceases to be cause for incarceration, because one of the few things we know for sure about addiction is that availability is the key driver: in other words, if it’s easy to get hold of and feels good, people will take it.
But the list of Class A drugs is absurd. I mean, sure, there’s dangerous stuff like heroin and PCP on there. But Vicodin? That stuff barely touches the sides. And as for cocaine, well. It’s a largely harmless, non-physiologically addictive middle-class party drug and I really can’t see the point of putting Felicity and Lawrence in the slammer because they enjoy a quick toot with with their Veuve Clicquot.
So at a bare minimum, Clegg is highlighting the stupidity of many drug classifications. Which is no doubt a good thing.
I am a bit surprised at a politician who likes to think of himself as progressive ignoring the social consequences of the drug trade. Because even the most unapologetic coke fiend hipster or E-scarfing party girl can’t be totally unmoved by the horror of the Mexican drug cartels, the misery and penury in which the drug trade captures people in the Third World and the fact that their coke habit is funding the longest-running civil war in world history, in Colombia.
Estimates of the number of people displaced by that civil war run as high as 4 million.
But then, the Liberal Democrats are nothing if not a broad church. And I imagine its voter base is quite fond of mind-altering substances, actually. You know, all those addled, sock-and-sandalled hippies at lame music festivals taking magic mushrooms who go back to their day jobs as visiting lecturers. They all vote Lib Dem, and they all probably worry about their students finding out they’re partial to the odd trip.
So you might regard all this as a bit cynical; an appeal Clegg’s own alienated middle-class voters, who feel abandoned by and furious with their party. That doesn’t strike me as the most honourable reason to propose such a dramatic policy – one that will affect tens of thousands of people.
And I have to say I’m uncomfortable with the Russell Brand school of addiction theory, which paints addicts as helpless victims and refuses to acknowledge the role of free will in giving in to the reward circuits in the brain. After all, every addiction starts with an avoidable failure to say No. Certainly there should be little leniency shown for people who kill, steal or intimidate to feed their habits instead of seeking help.
But it seems obvious that the war on drugs isn’t working, obvious that people get hooked on harder stuff in prison, obvious that the only people who really benefit from strict drug laws are gangs, obvious that we’re not really cutting the number of lifelong addicts and obvious, perhaps above all else, that people should be free to do and take what they want in the privacy of their own homes.
Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, as the saying goes. So it is with Nick Clegg, who, for perhaps the wrong reasons, has nonetheless alighted on a sound policy for once. I wonder: will pharmacies one day dispense ketamine and cocaine as readily as they now do antibiotics? A part of me thinks: let’s hope so.