Worrying about drugs while the house burns

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The railway service between Swansea and Llanelli is not what it used to be. So just over two years ago, covering the general election for this paper, I found myself in a taxi travelling to the latter town, which is (or used to be) famous for tinplate and rugby. Beside the road was the blackened shell of a detached house which, in that part of the world, would be occupied by a headmaster or a bank manager.

"What happened there?" I asked.

"The druggies," the driver replied succinctly. "They took it over and burnt it down, like."

Whether this unhappy result was brought about by malice or negligence was not immediately apparent. Clearly one could not expect to acquire money to buy drugs by incinerating one's abode. Swansea, the driver went on, was notorious for drugs; in this respect, I learnt later, rivalled only by Llanelli.

As someone who had been brought up ten miles or so north of these towns I was, I confess, shocked. And yet, why should I have been? I was - still am - a libertarian in this area as in others. If the youth of South-west Wales wished to go to hell in a particular way, that was their own affair. That was my position. This right, however, clearly did not include the freedom to burn down other people's houses, even though they were unoccupied by their owners at the time.

Nor was there any reason for me to feel surprised. Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester, to name only a few other drug centres, had also suffered from extinct industries, high unemployment and the most disastrous piece of social engineering since the war: the shifting of swathes of the population en bloc to high towers or dismal estates.

This was carried out under a principle which Lady Porter would have understood: to keep the Labour vote intact. Traditionally the party believed in integrated education and segregated housing. Even Anthony Crosland did not realise that if Labour supported segregated housing it would end up with segregated education as well. There was no reason why South-west Wales should have been insulated from developments which had affected the rest of the country in the last 40 years.

Over 20 of those years ago I was at a dinner party in one of the more expensive areas of South London. Among those present were a well-known author, a much-admired woman cartoonist and at least three columnists - there may have been more - from the broadsheet press. At the coffee stage the hostess produced what looked like a cigarette, lit it, took a few puffs and passed it to her neighbour on her left, for all the world as if it had been port in the combination room. She did likewise and passed it to me. I passed it on unpuffed with as much disdain, I like to think, as Dame Edith Evans would have displayed.

I may say that I do not believe in always obeying the law as an abstract principle. For instance, I frequently neglect to fasten my seatbelt on short journeys. We shall all resist Mr Jack Straw's imminent Slaughter of the Firstborn Act. I refused to puff cannabis because of the absurd ritual of the proceedings and, not least, because I had no more wish to puff someone else's cigarette than to share her toothbrush. I should have preferred a small glass of armagnac and a large cigar, neither on offer at that point.

This was an occasion of the utmost respectability, with no loose talk, lewd jokes or, as far as I remember, jokes of any description. It was a long way from the burnt-out house on the Llanelli road. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it," says the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. The moral here is not that the druggies of Swansea have been set a bad example by the dinner parties of South London. Nor is it that the Swansea boys would have started with cannabis before progressing to more powerful substances and a promising career as house-burners. The moral is that the use of drugs is now so widespread that the criminal law is an unapt instrument to suppress their use, even if that is the correct course. Indeed, it can be argued that the law is not only ineffective but also undemocratic. For if enough people show daily that they wish to conduct their lives in a certain way, why should the state use its coercive powers to stop them?

This is different from the libertarian argument. Liberty and democracy often conflict, as I once explained to Dr Rhodes Boyson when he claimed to believe in both. What, I asked, would be his attitude if, by a majority of six to four, the 10 people on a desert island decided that everyone should wear white shirts (fortunately saved from the shipwreck) on Sundays? The good doctor thought for a moment and pronounced that white shirts would indeed have to be worn. I feel sure Mr Tony Blair would have agreed, on communitarian rather than on religious grounds. I said I was on the side of the minority.

In this case the libertarian argument was clear enough. It is not always so. I dislike the bossyboots character of the present administration. But I can recognise that many of the arguments of J S Mill and his more dogmatic adherents in the United States today are plausible only on the assumption that society consists solely of middle-aged bachelors, in good health and the possession of adequate incomes. And yet, roughly two-thirds of western societies are dependants of one sort or another.

Besides, actions which clearly affect other people adversely, and which Millite liberalism says can legitimately be punished or discouraged, are not in practice so treated. One example is marital infidelity, the cause of untold misery to helpless children. Another is excessive drinking, the cause of more violence, domestic and public, than all the drug-taking in the land.

I do not conclude from this either that illicit sexual intercourse should be made a crime or that drunkenness should be transformed into a more comprehensive offence that it is already. I conclude rather that taking drugs should not be a crime either. The people who burnt the house should be caught and, if found guilty, punished, if this has not happened already: but for burning the house rather than for taking drugs. They cause crime because criminality is inherent in the activity of taking them. So to say they cause crime is tautologous. But they do so also because people commit crimes to finance their expensive habit. If they were part of a free market they would be cheaper. Accordingly the final criminal element, the dealers, would disappear, their business taken over by Boots the Chemist.

Those who think as I do should beware of an argument to which shifty liberals have become attached. It is called "setting a standard". It was much used of the anti-racist laws of the 1960s. Liberals were not prepared to admit frankly that freedom was being restricted, in however worthy a cause. Instead they claimed that the law was setting a standard. But it is not the function of the criminal law to set standards. It is to punish acts or omissions which are held to harm society. As the Dallaglio affair has shown, the application of the criminal law to drugs causes more misery to individuals, and more damage to society, than the drugs cause themselves. As it is, we are as foolishly obsessed with drugs as a previous age was with heresy.

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