A review of ‘The War We Never Fought: the British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs’ by Peter Hitchens

Below is a reprint of my review of ‘The War We Never Fought’, which I wrote in 2015 for a previous employer, an online retailer of books and digital resources to schools. It was this vital book that sparked (as it were) my interest in cannabis as a social evil. If every MP, judge, police officer, cannabis smoker and legalisation lobbyist read it we would save ourselves a great deal of bother and confusion. 

The National Curriculum for England states that Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is a non-statutory subject for which schools must nevertheless ‘make provision… drawing on good practice.’ The lessons must include education on sex and relationships; finance; drugs; diet and physical exercise.

Now, which of those topics would you say is the odd one out? Or, which has the capacity to ruin the other four? It’s there in the middle; a black hole that sucks in money, health and happiness: drugs.

The confusingly non-statutory yet obligatory world of PSHE is a sadly fitting realm for lessons on drugs: though officially illegal in Britain, drugs are readily available, largely immune to the weak (non) laws that govern them and smugly celebrated by an increasingly liberal establishment, as Peter Hitchens makes clear in The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs.

Published in 2012, Hitchens’ powerful book is a lesson in semantics as much as social policy. Take the following terms and expressions: ‘soft drugs’, ‘hard drugs’, ‘war on drugs’, ‘Class A/B/C drugs’, ‘gateway drug’, ‘addiction’. You’ve likely heard or read or even uttered words to the effect of ‘We should focus less on soft drugs, such as cannabis,’ or ‘Cannabis should be downgraded to a Class C drug’, or ‘Cannabis is much less addictive than alcohol or tobacco.’ Such statements, according to Hitchens are either wrong, dangerous or nonsensical.

Cannabis is the main antagonist in The War We Never Fought. This illegal plant (yes, it is illegal, at least nominally) is, as it were, the root of the greatest policy whitewash of the post-war era. The deception began on 24 July, 1967, when a group of celebrities, artists and pop stars, with the financial backing of Paul McCartney, took out a full-page advertisement in The Times, then edited by the late father of current conservative fan favourite Jacob Rees Mogg. ‘The law against marijuana’, read the advertisement’s headline, ‘is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.’ The signatories made a number of demands, chief among them that marijuana be decriminalised. They also made some less reasonable claims about their favourite drug. According to the signatories (which included several scientists),

  • cannabis is the ‘least harmful of the pleasure-giving drugs’;
  • cannabis is ‘far less harmful than alcohol’;
  • cannabis is ‘non-addictive’;
  • nobody under the influence of cannabis has ever been prosecuted for disorderly behaviour;
  • cannabis has medicinal properties that ought to be researched and promoted.

When you finish The War We Never Fought you will realise that none of the above claims is true. Not just untrue, in fact, but utter nonsense; the kind of babble you’d expect from someone who is high.

Peter Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist and winner of the George Orwell Prize for journalism, is known by many on the left only as the younger brother of the late Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens. The pair had a fraught relationship born of ideological and fraternal differences, though the acrimony waned towards the end of Christopher’s life. Peter is a conservative and patriotic English Christian, while Christopher was a self-styled anti-theist who achieved global fame in 2007 (the same year he took American citizenship) with his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which criticises the Christian church that Peter regards as ‘the foundation of civilisation’, as he (Peter) made clear in his 2009 riposte, The Rage Against God.

As one would expect from a book by an award-winning journalist who has spent over 30 years on Fleet Street, The War We Never Fought is well written, robust and meticulously researched. Scornful of critics who misquote, misrepresent and employ stale or lazy language, Hitchens (Peter) does not leave the Big Dope lobby (as he calls it) much, if anything, to seize on.

Hitchens sees a strong link between the ‘self-pitying anthems of rock music’ and the zombie-like march towards drug decriminalisation. Many songs illustrate this, but PSHE teachers might consider ‘The irony of it all’, by The Streets. ‘My name’s Tim and I’m a criminal’, begins lead singer Mike Skinner. ‘In the eyes of society I need to be in jail / for the choice of herbs I inhale.’ One might feel sorry for Tim were he in jail, but he is in fact singing from his flat, where he makes bongs using his ‘engineering degree’, watches TV ‘until six in the morning’, and suffers nothing worse than the delivery of a pizza that mistakenly contains chicken. If he has been arrested for cannabis possession, he doesn’t mention it.

But of course, he hasn’t been arrested for cannabis possession: nobody nowadays is arrested for cannabis possession. The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, which followed the Wootton report of 1969, was so spineless in its wording and has been so diluted by subsequent governments that today one can smoke a joint in a park in broad daylight and face nothing worse than confiscation, or perhaps a caution or – gasp – a two-figure fine. Even suppliers and dealers rarely face prison, ostensibly to allow police to focus on ‘harder’ drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

Has this narrowing of the drugs lens made things more difficult for the purveyors of ‘harder’ drugs? No. Consumers, dealers and suppliers of heroin and cocaine are as safe as those who deal only in cannabis. In 2010, for example, of the 12,175 people arrested for possession of ‘Class A’ drugs, a mere 779 were sent to prison. This figure is even more pitiful than it appears, for it does not reveal whether the imprisonment was exclusively for possession, or (more likely) for one or more other crimes. And remember, these figures are for ‘Class A’; cannabis lies further down this pointless and misleading spectrum.

‘Just a few eighths and some Playstations are my vocation’, sings Skinner. True for him, perhaps, but anyone who claims cannabis is harmless is deluded. As Hitchens points out, while we associate potheads with the idle idyll that Skinner describes, many violent crimes – including murder and manslaughter – have been committed by people high on weed, which provides a succinct answer to Skinner’s question in the song’s fourth verse ‘How can something with no recorded fatalities be illegal?’ Furthermore, there is growing evidence of the link between cannabis consumption and paranoid schizophrenia, to say nothing of the obvious fact that the drug reduces one’s alertness and energy levels. Thanks to 40 years of surrender to the drugs lobby, secondary school pupils now arrive to school stoned with depressing regularity (something the present writer has witnessed). In what sense, Hitchens asks, can any of these people – the paranoid schizophrenic, the stoned motorist, the zombie schoolchild – be considered ‘harmless’? How can the drug responsible, cannabis, be considered ‘soft’? How, to rephrase Skinner’s question, can something with so many recorded fatalities be legal in all but name?

Unhelpfully, the pro-health lobby is often guilty of using the false categories of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Cannabis, some warn, is a ‘gateway drug’. That is, the youngster who starts with ‘a few eighths and some Playstations’ soon ends up robbing pensioners to feed a crack habit. This is both true and untrue. Though some people spend their lives (and money) seeking a higher high, to place cannabis at the bottom of the ladder, or as the first ‘stepping stone’, is to contradict the scientific evidence that, nascent as it is, proves the long-term mental health effects of cannabis to be every bit as damaging as the physical harm caused by heroin, cocaine or ecstasy. In any case, the goal is the same. Self-stupefaction (as Hitchens bluntly calls it) is self-stupefaction.

With the evidence of weed’s potential for damage now undeniable, the pro-legalisation lobby, without ever admitting that it got that first part wrong, now claims, as the 1967 signatories did, that cannabis is ‘far less harmful than alcohol’. Mike Skinner and the Streets do the same. ‘The irony of it all’ is actually a duet in which a loutish drunkard named Terry, a self-declared ‘law abider’, defends his ‘right / to get paralytic and fight’, while the ‘friendly peaceful’ student Tim and his friends ‘sit in a hazy bubble’ and ‘pose no threat’ to the nation. The song ends with Terry threatening to ‘batter’ Tim after the latter points out that

Government funding for further education pales in insignificance
When compared to how much they spend on repairing
Leery drunk people at the weekend
In casualty wards all over the land.

Put like that, cannabis does indeed appear ‘no worse than alcohol’. It’s a spectacularly unscientific assertion that Hitchens carefully debunks.

First, one should always note the precise wording of the claim. Depending on your interlocutor, the comparison of cannabis to alcohol ranges from ‘far less harmful’ to ‘less harmful’ to ‘no worse than’: again, the kind of inconsistency one would expect from people who have just spent 10 minutes staring at their hands.

To argue that the presence of one disastrous legal poison (alcohol) justifies legalising cannabis is nonsensical. Moreover, unlike the aforementioned Terry, Hitchens is no binge-drinker pushing for more lenient licensing laws and cheaper booze. Quite the opposite, in fact. The efforts of successive governments to make alcohol cheaper and more accessible mirror the less publicised dilution of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The only claim of the pro-cannabis lobby that contains a morsel of truth is the belief that cannabis is not addictive. This is true, but only because, according to Hitchens, there is no such thing as addiction. What makes one want to consume heroin is one’s desire to consume heroin. There is no evidence that total withdrawal damages health. As Hitchens ruefully points out on his blog, Johann Hari makes the same point in his new book Chasing the Scream. Why, Hitchens wonders, has Hari’s work received such gushing praise, while The War We Never Fought was greeted with ‘howls of execration’? It is because Hari, in that consoling way of his, paints drug users as ‘victims’, while Hitchens sees only a conscious and free decision to indulge in self-stupefaction.

As for the popular argument that cannabis has medicinal properties, Hitchens points out that if numbness and euphoria were the only goal then brandy would be considered a medicine. While there is no scientific consensus on the medicinal properties of cannabis. there is, as Hitchens describes, much evidence that people are using the medicinal argument as a front behind which non-medical consumption and trade takes place.

None of this would be possible if the police in Britain were enforced existing drug laws. Long ago, though, the police realised that enforcing such laws was, Hitchens writes,

a complicated and time-consuming nuisance with few rewards for them. It made them unpopular and it also led to them being accused of racial prejudice in some urban zones where the cannabis trade was dominated by ethnic minorities. This, though nobody mentioned it, was a direct result of the neutering of the penalties for possession, and the law’s absurd view that possession was somehow less of an offence than trafficking. If police arrests and prosecutions had resulted in severe penalties, then their actions would have a deterrent effect. But arrests and prosecutions which end with feeble penalties undermine the law.

Hitchens then goes on to describe the extraordinary initiative of Brian Paddick, the former Commander of Lambeth police in London and now a baron and Liberal Democrat politician. In 2001, he decided that the Lambeth police would no longer arrest anyone caught in possession of cannabis, and instead confiscate the drugs on the spot, allowing the erstwhile possessor to go free and the police to focus on ‘harder’ drugs. The results were disastrous, but, with no officer willing to admit as much to Scotland Yard, the indulgence continued.

The new National Curriculum for England is the work of Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education. His erstwhile boss, David Cameron, was part of the latest committee to make drug consumption easier and the punishments for it less severe. In May 2002 the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee published a report on drugs that gave a strong ‘wink’ in the direction of legalisation, while giving no consideration to a strong deterrent law or to the objections of one of its members, the Conservative MP Angela Watkinson. The Committee rejected every one of Mrs Watkinson’s proposed additions to the report, including the sentence, ‘Cannabis is also known to be a risk factor for schizophrenia and to affect levels of attainment in students, performance at work, the ability to drive safely, judgement and insight.’

Hitchens sympathises with Mrs Watkinson because he too has seen his sensible and logical arguments dismissed or ignored by people who ought to know better. Far from ignore him, schools ought to be clamouring to have this articulate father explain why and how the status quo exposes everyone’s children to the dangerous world of illegal drugs.

In recent years Hitchens’ book has amassed added significance due to the growing evidence of a link between “terrorism” and cannabis: Paris (x2), Copenhagen, Woolwich, Tunisia, Sydney, Ottawa, Quebec, Tennessee, Boston, Brussels, Amsterdam, Marseille, Westminster, Berlin, Stockholm: the list is long and growing, and in each case the pattern is the same: young man, or men, smoke cannabis in early adolescence, undergo a dramatic personality shift, and emerge in early adulthood as deranged suicidal killers. Can we not, Hitchens asks, investigate whether cannabis and violence are linked before we think about surrendering further to Big Dope?

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