Hitchens argues that since the early 1970s liberal inclined politicians of all parties have adopted a policy of progressively reducing the penalties for the possession of cannabis, implementing it behind a smokescreen of tough rhetoric on the evils of illegal drug use. He further argues that because cannabis has been classified as a 'soft' drug it is no longer seen by illegal drug users or the general public as particularly dangerous, compared to 'hard' drugs such as heroin or cocaine. As a result he concludes that the 'war on drugs' has been lost, and that it can never be won because effectively there has never been a 'war'.
Unfortunately, the drugs issue poses a serious dilemma for the Right as two of its most cherished principles come into headlong conflict. The first principle is that individuals should be allowed to pursue their private lives without undue interference by the state. The second is that any behaviour which undermines the stability and fabric of society has to be subject to some form of control. Hitchens clearly believes that the second principle should take precedence. Moreover, his objection to drug use is not based solely on damage to health, or the potential deleterious impact on wider society, but additionally on more morally censorious grounds as when he denounces 'social and cultural revolutionaries who see the freedom to fuddle their own brains as a pillar of human liberty'. He believes that 'self stupefaction is absolutely morally wrong', describing drug taking as the 'purest form of self-indulgence'. Hitchens is happy to proclaim himself to be a puritan, for example declaring that if alcohol had just been invented he 'would support the most severe legal measures to penalise its use and drive it out of our society.'
Peter Hitchens is one of those pundits who have a tendency to link the ills of our present time with the 'permissiveness' of the 1960s. Thus the increased use of cannabis in the late sixties, particularly by pop stars, provided it with a glamorous image which encouraged the young people of the time to 'experiment' with the drug. Law enforcement action against cannabis increased from 185 cases in 1959 to 162,610 in 2009. So clearly there was a massive increase in cannabis use during this half century. Hitchens advocates much more punitive enforcement of the law on cannabis possession, arguing that high penalties would act as a strong deterrent to illegal drug taking. However, nowhere in his book does he outline in practical terms how this might be achieved or consider what the consequences of such action might be.
The only way that a punitive enforcement strategy could be enforced would be by vastly increased stop and search action by the police against the public, and to carry out a lot more 'drug busts' in citizens’ homes, coupled with stiff prison sentences for those caught with illegal drugs. Although most people are probably opposed to illegal drug use they are unlikely to welcome random and repeated searches of their person or homes as a way of addressing the problem. Additionally, some sections of the public will be violently hostile to such action which, as we have witnessed in the recent past, can lead to civil disorder on a large scale. Moreover, our prisons are already full, so a vast prison building programme would have to be introduced to accommodate the large number of people caught by a punitive illegal drug enforcement policy.
Hitchens would probably argue that heavy sentences would so drastically reduce demand for cannabis that no extra prison places would be needed. Bur the reality is that the amount of cannabis use in Britain is now so vast that even the most vigorous enforcement action would only scratch the surface of the problem. In effect the war against cannabis has long been lost, because of the sheer weight of numbers and an available supply chain. In the circumstances it make sense to legalise the drug and tax it in a similar way to alcohol and tobacco. The police could then concentrate on crimes which target genuine victims, prisons could be closed and the government's tax base broadened. Given the huge number of ordinary people already taking the drug there should be minimal impact on social stability. Any health problems for the NHS will be more than covered by the additional revenue which legalisation brings. Additionally, stronger strains of the drug could be taxed more heavily.
In the short term, Peter Hitchens ideas are unlikely to be implemented. However, although the liberal establishment may have soft peddled on cannabis possession for the last 40 years, it does not follow that it will continue to do so. The puritan streak within liberalism is now well and truly on the march, as we have seen with the continuing incremental measures to control tobacco and more recently alcohol and 'unhealthy' food. Liberal puritans strongly believe that they have every right to use the power and apparatus of the state to intervene and control private behaviour they find objectionable. The time cannot be far away when the liberal establishment changes direction and starts to tackle cannabis use in an increasingly punitive way. So ironically Peter Hitchens remedies on cannabis possession are likely to be introduced by the very liberals he condemns for allowing the use of the drug to grow in the first place.