The case against ‘drugs’

Set against western society’s apparently relentless march backwards into prohibition, the progress made by marijuana campaigners really is remarkable.

One particular feature of it was brought home to me recently: increasingly, weed is treated as a discrete substance/product/policy area, one deserving of regulations which are tailored to its particular characteristics and dangers.

In short, it has managed to at least partially escape the catch-all category of doom: ‘drugs’. It strikes me that there are lessons in this for other drug reform campaigners.

Broad categories favour public health authoritarians, because they allow the debate to be rapidly shifted onto the most difficult cases. Take as one example this short Twitter thread from Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes and Chair of the Health Select Committee.

Her first tweet takes aim at ‘recreational drug users’. Her charge, which has been taken up at length in other media outlets such as the Spectator, is that middle-class drug users need to face up to their supposed role in sustaining the huge harms associated with the drugs trade by creating demand.

Of course, reformers have an immediate and powerful response to that, which is that if we’re playing the consequentialist game then prohibitionists ought to reckon with the consequences of the policies they impose. In terms of culpability-per-capita, 326 prohibitionist MPs outweigh perhaps all of Britain’s 725,000 cocaine users.

But Wollaston has a counter-argument to calls for legalisation. She tweets: “I’m supportive of an evidence-led, harm-reduction approach for marijuana but legalising crack or heroin would be a disaster.”

Who defines heroin and crack as ‘recreational drugs’? Are we really supposed to think that that’s who Wollaston was taking aim at in her previous tweet? Of course not. She almost certainly meant cocaine users. But making an argument against legalising cocaine is a lot trickier than praying in aid of the nastiest substances going.

It’s a particularly lazy form of motte and bailey argument: take a firm prohibitionist stance against ‘drugs’, make sallies against recreational users, but when pressed retreat behind the undoubted horrors of crack and heroin.

Many liberals actually facilitate this tactic by describing themselves as ‘drugs reformers’ and trying to champion change in general terms. But perhaps the inroads made by marijuana campaigners suggest a new approach: specific, substance-by-substance campaigns.

Wollaston’s goalpost-shifting is a tacit admission of weakness, a concession that the arguments against legalisation are a lot less convincing against the ‘recreational drugs’ she was originally talking about. For example, many of the dangers involved in consuming something like MDMA are actually products of prohibition, especially those linked to not knowing what you’re taking or being afraid to seek help if things go wrong.

Any such campaign would probably take a long time to work – the pot campaigners have been at it for decades. But a disciplined, evidence-led campaign for reform on one or two particular substances may have a much better chance of cutting through than any amount of well-meaning ‘drugs’ campaigning – not least by giving those products distinct identities and breaking the lazy, but all-to-easy, mental associations with crack and heroin.