Regular readers may recall the fairly unusual occurrence of my trailing a future event, to wit last Thursday’s debate on the legalisation of cannabis, held at Waterstones Oxford and occurring between ‘Protestant iconoclast’ Peter Hitchens and ‘the most sophisticated drug dealer in the history of the world’, Howard Marks. I note that, according to his own blog, Mr H himself feels unable to accurately relate what went on, on account of his being a participant. With the big man thus having effectively recused himself – well, what can I say? – here’s how it seemed to me at the time.
I turned up for the event nice and early, while the shop itself was still open, and passed a few pleasant minutes, as usual, browsing the graphic novel shelves. (I note that Neonomicon is still on sale in a non-sealed format which anyone of any age can pick up and look through. Somebody really ought to have a word with the booksellers about this.) I still couldn’t quite justify buying Mega-City Justice – it may end up being another Christmas present to myself – but it did occur to me that Peter Hitchens might share my own sneaking admiration for Judge Dredd’s inflexible moral stance. Who can say.
Anyway people were starting to drift in and I thought it prudent to actually grab a seat. At this point I found myself actively considering the question of what kind of person would go to a personal appearance by Hitchens and Marks for the first time: identifying who was here to support who was not especially difficult, shall we say. At the risk of generalising inappropriately, a goodly portion resembled the solid Tory stock of Mr Hitchens’ natural consituency, while much of the remainder were clearly people who take life very easily indeed. (I myself, of course, was there as a helpless thinker and fascinated long-term Hitchens-watcher.) Some people had even brought their kids, which startled me inordinately, mainly because it seemed to me this could be a highly-charged encounter with passions surging on both sides. Should it all kick off I resolved to go down with the first punch that connected and crawl discreetly to the lift.
Hey ho. Not long after seven we were treated to a highly rigorous security check from the Waterstones staff (‘Can everyone please wave their ticket in the air?’) and then the two men themselves descended from the lofty heights of the bookshop Costa (they’re turning up everywhere) to commence the event.
Things took an unexpected turn as the moderator revealed that the dyed-in-the-wool conservative commentator and the convicted drug dealer are actually great friends with a history of saying very nice things about one another – Hitchens is a ‘courteous and considerate friend’ and a ‘brilliant writer and debater’, according to Marks, while Hitchens has unstintingly praised Marks’ chivalry and decency (as well as other positive qualities) too. This was a surprise.
So the proceedings, as they got underway, are slightly more clubbable than I’d expected, with both speakers provided with comfy armchairs and microphones. Marks spoke first, reading from notes: the gist of what he says – cannabis was only internationally banned by the League of Nations as an afterthought to the banning of opium, the ban has done nothing to reduce demand or supply and is instead only responsible for a vast black market with its devastating attendant evils, and that given that people are always going to smoke weed, having it distributed by criminals is the least desirable option – is probably rather less striking than his method of imparting it. Never having heard Marks speak before, I’d no idea he was Welsh – but he is, and very very Welsh. Delivering his statement in mellifluous Welsh tones with more than a hint of theatricality, seated in his comfy chair throughout, Howard Marks’ opening statement is rather like a very strange episode of Jackanory.
And then Peter Hitchens rises to speak. I must confess to partly being here in order to see what Hitchens is like in person, being much more familiar with his writing and occasional TV appearances. Well, rather to my surprise, Mr H is a much more likeable and charismatic figure than his reputation might suggest – he opens with a gag, which I would never have expected (not a great gag, but as it’s virtually the same as one I used myself on this blog earlier this year there’s a limit to how critical I can honestly be), is generous to his opponent throughout, and he’s good-humoured and thoughtful rather than an inflexible martinet.
Basically, Hitchens’ line is that cannabis is at least as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, two drugs far less socially acceptable, with a documented history of causing serious mental illness in a significant percentage of users. As a result it would be folly to make it easier to acquire, and the only sensible course is to try and drive it out of acceptable society entirely. It’s a lot harder to make things illegal than to legalise them, and so it’s better not to take the chance.
This argument depends heavily on the strength of the evidence as to how dangerous cannabis is – I’m not really qualified to comment on this either way, but I respect Hitchens enough to believe that he hasn’t just invented this stuff out of the air. But, given this is the case, it’s difficult to take issue with Hitchens’ argument.
However, in the Q&A which follows, various people try: most of the questions are for Hitchens, from people taking issue with his views. I’ve already commented that the current system seems a bit inconsistent to me – why make cannabis illegal when alcohol, an equally damaging drug, is free available? And this same point is made to Hitchens. Rather unexpectedly (possibly you should just assume that everything that went down at this event was rather unexpected, as I appear to be typing those words rather a lot), Hitchens’ response is pragmatic: he’d support an alcohol ban with great pleasure, but the fact of the long history of it as a presence in society would make this almost impossible to enact and enforce.
There’s another interesting moment when it’s put to Mr H that the prohibition of cannabis is responsible for tremendous suffering across the developing world, by putting the cannabis trade into the hands of organised criminals, with the result that numerous minor wars and insurgencies are largely funded by the sale of drugs. Needless to say Hitchens disagrees – the market for cannabis which these criminals operate to meet only exists due to the existing drug laws not being enforced with sufficient rigour. This is more questionable ground – can people really be persuaded or cowed into not wanting to get off their heads? – but it’s not obviously incoherent either.
A year ago I would have said that Peter Hitchens and I had nothing in common and would be capable of little interaction other than arguing, but it really does seem to me that he was talking rationally and very persuasively at this event. And his arguments were based not on handed-down moral absolutism but an appeal to a sense of collective responsibility and the value of all members of society. Given the dangers of cannabis, for someone to still argue that it should be widely available is for that person to declare they are indifferent to the lives of all those damaged by the drug – it seems to me this is basically a deeply selfish position, and one I could not personally justify to myself.
These principles – concern for society as a whole, collective responsibility, and so on – are not ones I would traditionally associate with members of the Right. I am increasingly wondering if the whole Left-Right dichotomy isn’t hopelessly simplistic when it comes to breaking down what people actually believe. I’ve always called my own politics left-of-centre but there are a few issues, usually social ones, in which I realise my views are actually quite traditional. My left-of-centreness is mainly based on my dislike of free market economics and unfettered capitalism – but as the economy is the main political issue of our time, that’s the bit that really counts.
Nevertheless it seems to me that, just as certain writers and commentators demonise some ideas in such a way as to discourage people from genuinely thinking about what it is they actually objecting to (the transformation of concepts such as Human Rights, Health and Safety, and Political Correctness into straw-men targets to be reflexively abjured), so the very left-right idea can be a barrier to people with useful and valuable things to say to each other actually communicating. Empty tribalism gets in the way.
I turned up to the event as a Don’t Know, but left in provisional agreement with prohibition. Howard Marks was amusing and memorable but, truth be told, Peter Hitchens was genuinely impressive throughout, not least during his final contribution. Challenged to justify why a potentially harmful drug like cannabis should be banned while two definitely dangerous ones remain on sale legally, Hitchens rose to his feet and for the first time we got some of the passion and force that suffuses most of his columns in the MoS. Again, what he says makes sense: ‘we have two dangerous legal drugs already, so why not add a third?’ is an absurd position to take. ‘You may say there is only a chance that cannabis will cause you harm, but should you be one of the unfortunates whose mental health is damaged by this drug – that would not be a chance, my dear sir, that would be a catastrophe for you and for everyone who loves you!’ It’s an electric moment and at its conclusion Hitchens flops back into his seat, not making eye contact with anyone. It’s the only time he seems genuinely angry all evening.
It’s been a stimulating evening and has caused me to question my own beliefs in some detail – perhaps it’s too easy to hide behind abstract principle when there are issues of people’s real lives to take into account. In the end, feeling it’s only good manners, I pick up a copy of Hitchens’ book and – seeing as I’m there – attach myself to the queue to get Mr H to sign it himself. The queue to have copies of Howard Marks’ Book of Dope Stories autographed is much longer; Marks’ microphone is still live and rumblings and mutterings and excerpts from startling anecdotes are randomly emerging from the speakers.
Nevertheless, Hitchens signs the book and we shake hands. ‘I disagree with you on a lot of things,’ I say, ‘but I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say, and I have a lot of respect for you as a thinker and a writer.’
Peter Hitchens’ eyes widen. Could these words have moved him? Could this be the beginning of the washing away of the old left-right dichotomy? Could we be about to forge a bold new intellectual axis which will reshape British politics for generations to come?
‘I’m sorry,’ he says in the gentlest and mildest of voices, gesturing to the amplifier behind his head. ‘But I couldn’t hear a word you said.’
Oh well, can’t win ’em all. British politics will have to stumble on as before.