The Natural Consensus on Drug Usage: A Response to Adam Garrie | Henry Hill

In a recent article for this site, Adam Garrie lamented that drug users appear to have developed a sort of social ‘herd immunity’.

According to this theory, first- or second-hand exposure to the use of illegal narcotics has become so widespread that good, law-abiding people are increasingly disposed to suppress their true horror at the practice, either because they have become inured to it or for the sake of protecting a friend or loved one.

I do not share Garrie’s stance on drugs and so can’t speak to his being rendered a ‘pariah’ for it, although as a long-term opponent of devolution I’ve encountered a measure of ideological ‘social distancing’ in other contexts.

But I am deeply wary of his claim that society at large is engaged in mass preference falsification, which has echoes of the comforting Marxist canard of ‘false consciousness’, and of his explicit exclusion of contrary explanations and perspectives. Rather, I think that the national sentiment towards drugs is much more a product of the natural harmony between conservatism and liberalism of which he has written elsewhere.

To explain why I will first focus on some of the specific arguments advanced in the original article, and then draw in some broader points.

Let’s start with the headline fact: that whilst support for prohibition of narcotics in principle remains high, support for enforcement is much weaker. There is certainly truth to Garrie’s claim that a substantial number of people, especially in the sort of circles that set policy, are either drug users or friends thereof.

But is this the slam-dunk he treats it as? The very fact that so many people combine narcotics with professional and personal success (as he concedes) is surely grounds for doubting the case for prohibition. It also makes it harder to justify expending limited police resources cracking down on recreational drug use at the opportunity cost of policing other, more harmful forms of crime.

Support for lax enforcement without support for legalisation may be hypocritical, but that doesn’t preclude the relaxed attitude of many with first- or second-hand experience of drugs representing the organic emergence of a consensus informed by experience – precisely the sort of thing conservatives value.

This argument is surely strengthened by the fact that our existing ‘war on drugs’ is not so very old, dating back to the latter half of the last century. Indeed, in the lost pre-War era Garrie laments, the cocaine straw was a gentleman’s accoutrement! Prohibition was imported from the States and imposed by the State. It should hearten fans of British liberty to see popular wisdom rejecting this transplanted puritanism.

Photo by SvanHelmond 3JOUA on Flickr.

Likewise, whilst there may be grounds for taking the views of current or aspirational drug users with a pinch of salt, there are none for excluding them from the conversation. Their failure to ‘declare their interest’ is understandable when said interest is a criminal office, and their stake in the issue is no less than that of those who would enjoy any other traditional liberty.

Should we ban drinkers from the debate over alcohol? It would certainly be a boon to the prohibitionists.

Beyond policing, there is the question of drug-taking itself. Garrie describes the motivation as being that the user “gains a sick form of pleasure from poisoning his mind and body with no regard for those around him”.

Yet such a description could easily describe alcohol misuse. In fact, it perhaps better describes alcohol misuse than the use of half the illegal substances he’s actually talking about. Is getting drunk with friends a “sick form of pleasure”? If not, why not? Is the ‘sickness’ of the pleasure derived from narcotics merely an artefact of their being illegal? If so, legalisation would remedy it.

So too with the rest of the charge. Many illicit substances are less ‘poisonous to mind and body’ than legal ones, and the admitted fact that many users also maintain families, social lives, and high-powered jobs suggests they’re quite capable of paying due regard to those around them. The portrait of the drug user Garrie tries to paint is incompatible with the idea that you can never be sure you’re not talking to one.

The comparison with alcohol also raises another important point which Garrie overlooks: that in any serious discussion about the merits of prohibition, ‘drugs’ is an almost useless category. It’s a catch-all term which spans innumerable different substances, all of which have different effects, markets, production requirements, supply chains, and risk profiles. The only common thread is that they are all illegal, and arguing that things should be banned on the basis of their being banned is surely not the intention.

Set that category aside, and it quickly becomes obvious that the ethical and practical case for legalising, prohibiting, or policing the use of MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, is quite different to that for marijuana, or cocaine. You’ll also confront the fact that not only are many illegal substances less harmful than currently legal ones, but in some cases the bulk of the harm they do cause arises directly or indirectly from their being illegal.

Lumping together different substances in order to justify banning all using the scariest features of some is a puritan’s tactic, and it is no less dishonest when used to retreat from debates about pot or LSD with cries of “crack and heroin” than when used to declare sugar “the next tobacco”.

Conservatism and libertarianism are not the same tradition, but they are compatible precisely because both afford an important role to the wisdom of the crowds, the value of accrued experience gained by free individuals and transmitted through society and, eventually, tradition.

If the British public are lax in their attitude towards (some) recreational narcotics, self-styled conservatives ought to heed them, not lament their failure to kowtow to the ill-conceived dictates of the State.

Photo by Stock Catalog on Flickr.

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