Thursday, 8 November 2007

Chris Huhne on drugs: inconsistent, illiberal, and not very anti-establishment!

On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Lib Dem leadership candidate Chris Huhne, alongside fellow bloggers Millennium Dome, Alex Wilcock, Paul Walter, Mary Reid, and James Graham.

In general, I was impressed with what Chris had to say. He was very personable, very confident, and gave some very convincing answers to some very mean questions. There was, however, one answer in particular that I wasn't very pleased with.

I asked Chris the following question about drugs:

Jonny Wright: In your manifesto, you write: “On drugs, we must have the courage of our convictions,” but you don’t say in any kind of detail what those convictions are. I’d suggest to you that we can’t carry on fighting a losing battle against drugs, and that it’s time for a different approach, where mature adults calculate the risks and make their own personal decisions. I think that’s an approach that could be justified very convincingly using our liberal principles. How would you sketch out, in very practical terms, what a Chris Huhne drugs policy would look like?

Chris Huhne: Well let’s start with the liberal principles, because you’ve got me on a good theme there. We had tremendous rows in the parliamentary party on what we were going to do about the smoking ban. Some people talked about opposing the smoking ban as fundamentally illiberal because of the John Stewart Mill principle, which says that the only reasonable basis on which you can coerce anyone is if they are causing harm to others. I argued, on exactly the same principle, that we needed a smoking ban, precisely because smoking in public places does cause harm to others.

It comes down to a balance of judgement on drug issues. I think drugs need to be determined by scientific advice, not in terms of their categorisation, not in terms of what the Daily Mail tells us, or what the editor of the Daily Mail happens to think at a particular moment; so first and foremost – follow the scientific advice.

Secondly, I do very much agree with you here, if that’s the implication, that we need to take a much more medical attitude towards many people who are addicted to hard drugs. We need to make sure that they are able to find what they need without breaking into the local supermarket or robbing the local corner shop. Such an important part of crime is caused by the way we approach addiction. We need to try much harder to see it as a medical problem in which doctors have a much clearer role in ensuring that people are able to meet their addiction needs, and gradually build up a programme, over time, to come off drugs.

I don’t go down the libertarian line. I respect it as a position, but my experience is that when people take drugs, they harm others. Their own families, their own community – it’s not just a question of the individual, it’s also a question of the impact they have on others.

JW: You seem to be saying that we should take the advice of medical professionals in our strategy on drugs. But why should it be the legislators who take the medical advice onboard, rather than individual people in their own individual lives? How do you square that with decentralisation?

CH: I think it’s about taking onboard the impact on society of addiction and of drug use. If you say that people take this decision for themselves, without concern for anyone else, I would say that’s not the real world, because anybody who does become a serious drug user does have a real impact on their family, and on the health service, and on the local community.

JW: You could use exactly that same argument to ban alcohol, couldn’t you?

CH: You could. And clearly, in the past, in our party, the temperance movement, as you know, was very powerful, and did try to do exactly that, and justified itself on the same sort of principles that I’m talking about. For better or worse, alcohol has become a socially accepted part of our society, in a way that the use of other drugs has not. It seems to me that we need to re-think our approach to alcohol; we need to make sure that people are aware of the dangers of alcohol, particularly since alcohol is getting cheaper and cheaper relative to people’s income. There isn’t much that can be done about that, because the excise duty can be so easily avoided by buying in from countries on the continent. There are real issues about alcohol that we need to address, but because it is a socially-accepted substance, I think it’s in rather a different category to other drugs.

For a whole host of reasons, I'm not very happy with his answer. I don't wish to speculate about Chris's past life - it's not much of my business - but if he's been living on the same planet as the rest of us, he will certainly have met people who've smoked the occasional spliff, or popped the odd ecstasy tablet on the dancefloor, without causing any direct harm to their families and communities. I wouldn't in any way wish to suggest that those substances are safe: clearly they both carry significant risks. But just as adults can decide for themselves whether the pleasure of a pint of Tribute is worth the risk of liver damage a few decades down the line, I'm happy to let adult cannabis smokers make up their own minds about the risks of psychosis. I cannot for the life of me see why that very personal risk assessment should be made by legislators in Westminster, rather than by individuals. Liberals, and Chris Huhne in particular, love to talk about decentralised decision-making. There's no kind of decision-making more decentralised than that of an individual making their own mind up about the risks they're willing to take as part of their lifestyle.

The argument about the wider societal effects of drugs falls rather flat when you look at the legal status of alcohol. Alcohol, used irresponsibly, makes people misbehave, and even cause criminal damage - to the tune of £7.3bn a year. But we don't criminalise alcohol itself; we criminalise the people who use it irresponsibly and harm others, because the vast majority of us drink sensibly and hurt nobody. Damage to life and limb is against the law already. I don't see why we should take pre-emptive action against the many to compensate for the indiscretions of the few.

To make his argument on drugs, Chris has to sacrifice his principles. He accepts that alcohol is every bit as harmful as other recreational drugs, but because of its entrenched status,
he's happy for people to drink. If alcohol had just been discovered yesterday, he'd have to ban it as well, by his own logic! For the sake of pragmatism, he's being deliberately and knowingly inconsistent.

I love Chris Huhne's rhetoric about being anti-establishment; about coming from the outside to take on the big two. That idea the absolute key to our future success, as I've said before. If we try to fight Labour and the Tories on their own terms, as part of a three-way political mainstream, we'll lose. They have the funding, the experience and the voter base to come out on top; we don't.

Disappointingly, when it comes to a controversial issue such as drugs policy, Chris is quite happy to defend the status quo, even though by his own admission, he has to be inconsistent and illiberal. For all the talk of bravery and radical spirit, when the going gets tough, he's quite happy to bury himself in the middle of the political establishment. If he wants my vote for leader, he'll have to do better than that.


Paul Walter said...

It's John Stuart Mill.

Well done for very faithfully transcribing the conversation. I think Chris's view is coherent and valid, but I tend to look towards the recent intervention by Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of Wales who called for all drugs to be legalised. Looking at Nick Clegg's various pronouncements on drugs (below) there does not seem to be much that would make you any happier than with Chris' responses, but it would be interesting to hear your views on Nick's answers to similar questions.

Jock Coats said...

They're both incoherent and inconsistent. It is my understanding that the Liberal government's argument to impose heavier duties on alcohol in the 1909 budget centred around the notion that local brewing families were as monopolistic as local landowning families in controlling the distribution of something that the poor regularly used.

They were already entrenched so much so that the brewing firms themselves contributed in the US to prohibition of first opium and heroin and then cannabis as threats to their businesses in alliance with the Temperance Movement there (ie hoping to put off the day their drug would be prohibited).

Furthermore, there was a significant culture of opium use - in the nineteenth century it happened to be predominantly upper class women who indulged (including rather famously our monarch). It is thought that the first US president was also a cannabis user.

In the US prohibition of opium was occasioned by a classic, racist, moral panic about Chinese immigrants on the west coast opening opium dens where it was feared they would use the stuff to "seduce" western women.

Similarly cannabis and cocaine were outlawed because of their specific supposed effects on the "negros" creating respectively a lazy worker (for white employers) and a crazed rapist (of white women).

I don't think there's much to call between the two candidates position. Neither are properly liberal on this and both, as a result, miss an opportunity at a stroke to wipe out a huge cause of all sorts of crime by undermining the criminal networks that are involved in supply and the social networks that grow up around them, killing the likes of Rhys Jones and Jonathan Matondo in the process.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the often-missed but actually quite central points of this debate is what exactly we mean by 'legalising' drugs.

Either we mean full legalisation, or simply de-criminalisation. The former being preferable to the latter. Another issue is how they would be legalised and exactly which drugs this applies to. I don't see any reason why Class A drugs such as heroin should be legalised, but conversely neither do i see any reason why the milder forms of cannabis cannot be fully legalised, sold at off-licences, and taxed by the state to offset any possible cost to public services.

Personally, i would keep the person growth of cannabis illegal, and let it only be grown by sellers who would be independently certified and approved as only growing milder strains of cannabis, as an adjunct.

Jock Coats said...

Indeed, I think Chris confuses the "liberal" position with the "libertarian" position. As a libertarian I think I am moving some way to acknowledge that we might want some form or state organized regulation (as to strengths, purities etc) and perhaps tax. The true libertarian position would say no controls and no sanctions except that if someone gets hurt by the actions or negligence of another (say a supplier) they would have legal redress.

monsterravingloony said...

You wanted a Liberal answer to your question and got a politician's answer. Sorry, but you were always going to get one.

The Lib Dems have an impossible balancing act.

You (the Lib Dems) have got as far as you have on the strength of being able to score brownie points by thinking radical thoughts, a luxury only available to a party third in the standings. If you want to go much further you need to be sounding measured and reasonable, to attract more of the electorate, to sound electable. That means you have to drop most of the outside-the-box stuff, and then what do you have to entice the electorate with? How will you differentiate yourselves?

It doesn't sound like Huhne has much of a clue how to do that. He's not satisfied you, because he didn't have a daring policy founded on Liberal principles.

He doesn't do much for me either, because he comes up with much the same safe stuff as any other so-so politician might under the spotlight.

Tristan said...

Chris's view is completely incoherent.

The majority of social harm done by drugs is due to their illegality. If you want to reduce harm caused by other people you need to legalise drugs.

The temperance movement was also not in general for prohibition, but for temperance, that is not using to excess.

To argue from liberal principles you start with the individual and ask whether harm is always caused to others by their actions.
With drug use the answer is an no. No drug use necessarily harms another. If a user harms someone whilst under the influence of drugs then the crime is the harm not the partaking drugs.

Jock is (as usual) correct - the libertarian position is a complete lack of centrally imposed restriction. The liberal position has space for regulation - ensuring quality, minimum ages for partaking or buying etc (the libertarian would argue that the market and social pressure would take care of those aspects).

I do disagree with Chris on the smoking ban (despite loving it), but at least his position there has logic and is based upon liberal principles (even if, as I would argue, its a misapplication of them). That argument being introduced is a complete red herring though.

Jonny Wright said...

"The majority of social harm done by drugs is due to their illegality."

Tristan, I think it's quite ironic that Chris actually makes that point himself, when he talks about allowing hard drug addicts to get their supplies from a doctor, as part of a rehab programme, rather than through the usual criminal routes.

I didn't want to go down the route of arguing over the smoking ban in my article, because I agree it's a red herring. As a non-smoker, I quite like the idea of pubs being smoke free, and would certainly have supported tough legislation to protect non-smokers from passive smoking. However, a blanket ban on smoking in public places goes too far. It catches places like shisha bars, where the primary purpose of going there is to smoke - they clearly pass the "harm principle" test, and shouldn't be restricted.

Adam said...

I don't think it matters whether it's inconsistent or not. If the Liberal Democrats go out on a limb with a policy of liberalisation of currently illegal drugs they will lose votes. Other parties, the media, and eventually public opinion will tear them a new one.

The opinion of the British public may be inconsistent, but they have the votes.

It's politics, not debate.

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