John Rentoul: The truth about the lies about drugs

Reversing the status quo does not solve a problem, any more than a little high-profile nodding is a policy

Wednesday 11 January 2012 15:19

One of the persistent myths of the computer age is that the internet makes you stupid. On the contrary, the internet gives us the power to be several times cleverer than we were. (It also gives us new ways of wasting our time, but humans have always found ways of doing that, to some of which I will come in a moment.) One of the sub-myths is that the worldwide web allows the spread of ignorant and unchecked myths, from conspiracy theories to misquotations.

On the whole, the opposite is the case. There is no more powerful solvent of untruth than the internet, because it speeds the spread and exchange of information and debate. It is only because of the internet, for example, that I am able to track down the source of one of my favourite quotations: "For every tax problem there is a solution that is straightforward, simple and wrong." It is inaccurate, of course – I think I have misremembered it from an Institute for Fiscal Studies publication in the 1980s, although it has been a useful guide since. George Osborne, in opposition, declared himself a supporter of a flat tax – that all allowances, reliefs and different tax rates should be swept away and replaced by a single percentage tax on everything. Thanks to my misremembered folk wisdom, I did not need to work out why it was a stupid idea, but could be sure that it was. No surprise, then, that Osborne was soon retreating fast. He was in favour of "flatter taxes", he said, before dropping the idea altogether.

Anyway, thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to find the original quotation. "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong." H L Mencken, The Divine Afflatus (it means "divine inspiration"), 1917. It is even better than my pre-internet garbled version. It applies beyond the fiscal realm to "every human problem", and there was a striking proof of its truth last week, when 19 of the global great and good issued a report urging experiments in the legal regulation of drugs, especially cannabis.

Just because people have heard of Richard Branson, Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker, that does not mean that everything they say is sensible. Even if they say that the "war on drugs" has failed. This is what my friend Philip Gould, arch-convenor of focus groups, calls a nodalong. It is the sort of thing that "everyone knows" is true. If you say it in a focus group, most of its members will nod. If you say it on Question Time, with the right emphasis, the audience will clap.

Of course, the rhetoric of the "war on drugs" is simple, and not very helpful. Terrible things have happened in Colombia in its name. But it is not, and has not been for some time, the policy of either the British government or the Obama administration. In a pooled interview in 2009, President Obama, when asked directly, " Are we still engaged in a war on drugs?" answered indirectly, "My attitude is we do have to treat this as a public health problem and we have to have significant law enforcement." (Alongside Inspiring Obama, Boring Obama existed before last month's speech at Westminster Hall.)

But it is the second part of the nodalong that is dangerous: the war on drugs has failed, therefore we must legalise drugs. Or decriminalise them. Few understand the difference, but they nod anyway. I am afraid that Branson, Annan and Volcker are perpetuating a fraud. There is no "neat, plausible" solution to this difficult problem. And by suggesting that legal sanctions should be weakened they risk making the problems worse.

Fourteen years ago, The Independent on Sunday broke a taboo by becoming the first national newspaper to argue that cannabis should be decriminalised. Although it caused a bit of a fuss, it was actually on the cusp of being a mainstream view: so much so that in 2001, The Daily Telegraph was saying that cannabis should be legalised for a trial period.

By March 2007, we decided that the tension between that old campaign and our more recent one to raise awareness of mental health problems should be resolved in favour of mental health. More and more studies had suggested that a proportion (perhaps up to 25 per cent) of the population is susceptible to psychosis that can be triggered by cannabis. Patrick Cockburn writes again today about the terrible experience of his son's mental illness, which seems to have been activated by teenage dope smoking.

Then, we carried a front-page headline, "Cannabis: an apology". I wrote the leading article, saying that "there is a strong case for believing that the present state of the law and of government policy is about right", a sentiment rarely found in newspapers. Indeed, a sentiment explicitly rejected by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (Branson, Annan, Volcker and all): "Fundamental reforms... are urgently needed." Not if they are the wrong ones, they are not.

The Independent on Sunday accepts that the law has a role, as an expression of social disapproval, in discouraging experimentation. Information and education is more important than legal prohibition, but decriminalisation would predictably lead to more mental illness and, in the case of other drugs, addiction. And, yes, addiction should be seen more as a medical problem than a law enforcement one. But that does not mean that you give up on the law or, because alcohol and tobacco cause more harm than illegal drugs, that the simple consistency of legalisation would be better.

For all the vogue for "experiments" with decriminalisation, it is notable that nowhere in the world has conducted such an experiment successfully, while the medical evidence against cannabis has mounted. Four years ago, the IoS quoted John Maynard Keynes in its defence: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Looking it up on Google, there is no evidence that he ever said it. But it is right.;

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