Thursday, October 25, 2012

‘The Tom Olsen Lecture 2012’ at St Bride’s Church, 24th May 2012

Brian Paddick and Peter Hitchens

Drug Laws in Britain – a waste of time, or an essential barrier to grave danger?” 

The Tom Olsen lecture this year wasn’t a lecture at all but rather a debate between two very different men on a very contentious point.  In one corner, 54 years old, born in Balham, twice the candidate for Liberal Democrat Mayor of London, former Police Commander of Lambeth and controversial instigator of a lenient policy on cannabis possession Brian Paddick!  In the other, 60 years old, Mail on Sunday columnist, author and self described “brutal, sexist, racist, homophobic monster"* Peter Hitchens.

*just to be clear, he was joking

St Bride’s church was lit spectacularly for the occasional.  It’s a beautiful place anyway, the dramatic purple lighting gives a certain import to the occasion that you just don't get if you're in some lecture theatre.  The presence of the religious iconography (most prominent of which is a rather hunky psychedelic Jesus Christ emerging from what looks like a bit like a rainbow vulva) gives proceedings authority.  Many of the arguments we hear tonight are filtered through a manichean lens; Hitchens at least has a strong sense of what is good or evil, something he applies not only to the drugs themselves, but to the moral standards of the people who take them.


After brief introductions by the Vicar we're off.  In his opening statement Paddick explained how his experience as a Police Commander led him to conclude that drug laws lack credibility among the public.  In particular he highlighted the public's confusion of the consequences of being caught with a small amount of drugs for personal use.  Much is left to the discretion of the arresting officer or custody sergeant, so it's hard to say whether you'll have the drugs confiscated and be waved on your way, or whether you'll end up with a criminal record.  Underlining many of his views is the assertion that the vast majority of drug users in the UK cause minimal harm to themselves and others.  

Paddick is obviously a confident man when it comes to speaking about this subject, and his years on the beat dealing with the users and dealers show.  Throughout the night he sticks rigidly to examining the consequences of drugs law "in the real world".  This pragmatism is perhaps best illustrated when he explains the implications and consequences of busting street dealers: inevitably they'll be replaced almost immediately, this replacement may well be someone from a rival gang thus creating a potential future violent confrontation as drug dealers vie for territory.  His solution to the problem is to target the suppliers.  He explains that in the late 90s there was a period after the IRA had become dormant and before the World Trade Centre Attack.  During this period security services focussed on the international drugs trade, apparently successfully.  It’s this top down attack on the  suppliers that seems to inform his philosophy when it comes to enforcing drug laws.  As Paddick sees it, targeting users only leads to distrust of the police, racial discrimination and social misery.

All of this is anathema to Peter Hitchens.  He opens with a joke about him being “arrested for crimes against political correctness”.  The crowd is literally silent as they try to work out whether this was a joke.  Someone coughs nervously.  A tumbleweed rolls past the stage.  Oh dear. 

Hitchens sketches for us a nightmare world.  A society gone mad, where powerful forces conspire to render the public at best insensate and at worst irreversibly mentally ill.  Their tool for this is cannabis, which he regards as a drug as dangerous than heroin, cocaine or any other class As.  Even though this is a debate about wider drug laws, Hitchens narrows it right down to cannabis time and time again.  He explains how a series of bills promoted by powerful lobbyists over the latter half of the 20th century have sought to downplay the physical and social harm of this demon weed.  The very fabric of society as we know it is at stake and as he puts it "this is the last chance to change things".

The contrast to the Paddick’s pragmatism couldn’t be more pronounced.  Hitchens occupies a world of unbending morality and sees certain courses of action as paths of good or evil with not much of a grey area in between.  These days it's rare to hear someone espousing a philosophy like this, and to be fair to Hitchens he genuinely seems to believe that views like his will save the country and his countrymen from social ruin.  This unbending certainty that he's right ends up tripping him up, particularly when he cherrypicks scientific studies based on whether they support or harm his conclusion.  He repeatedly brings up medical research which proves that smoking cannabis at a young age can adversely affect brain development in children, yet simultaneously dismisses any evidence that there’s a physical component to, say, heroin addiction.  He never explains the logic behind why he believes one scientific study is more worthwhile than another, and this inevitably means that when it comes to discussing data rather than morality he becomes woolly.

Hitchens sounds most convincing and passionate when he brings up Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ with its population addicted to the fictional drug Soma.  Hitchens is probably right when he says that those in power would like nothing more than a dozy, malleable and doped populace.  His argument is that drug use robs its users of those human qualities he holds most dear; inquisitiveness, creativity, motivation and the will to stand up for what you believe in.  Whether he's right or not at least in a roundabout way he's got a good handle on what he likes about humanity.

After the two men have their say we move onto a quite extensive question and answer session.  There seem to be a fair number of people in the audience who work with drug users and addicts in church groups and in prisons.  By and large these people seem to side with Hitchens, and take a very negative view of recreational drug use.  It seems to me pretty damn obvious why they hold such opinions: if you work in prisons or addiction groups then you’re inevitably only going to encounter those whose lives have been affected the most adversely by drugs, with the result that you end up suffering from confirmation bias.  Some of these questions drift into the realm of the barmy, with one woman’s credibility plunging off a cliff when she outlines her opinions of how drug use negatively affects the crucial balance between our sober yin and our raging yang.

What I found to shed more light on the men's views were questions that address specific aspects and effects of drug policy on society.  I asked a question about what would they both consider to be a suitable sentence (if any) for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.  Hitchens explained that he’d give them one caution and then on a second offence they’d be sent to prison for six months.  He made it unnecessarily clear that he wasn’t talking about 3 months in prison, and 3 months out on licence, and then launched into a pretty tired old diatribe about how prison should be entirely about punishment rather than rehabilitation, about removing flat-screen TVs from cells and so on – the usual Daily Mailesque boring prison bumph.  It’s typical of his arguments that while he seemed pleased with his blood and thunder approach, he also ignores that it’s entirely unworkable and undesirable to lock up vast amounts of people for non-violent behaviour that largely impacts only upon themselves.  It's a shortsighted opinion that doesn't consider the longterm impact. When people are released from prison they're economically crippled for life: who wants to employ an ex-jailbird?  This inevitably creates a huge section of society reliant on welfare, trapped in a downward spiral of poverty which invariably leads to high levels of drug use.  Hitchens' policy results in an recursive loop of misery, a snake gorging on it’s own tail  and loving the taste.

Paddick, in my view correctly, identifies that harsh punishments for possession of amounts of drugs intended for personal use disproportionately impact upon black youths.  It's a sad indictment of the Metropolitan Police that if you're young and black in London you're far, far more likely to be stopped by police and searched than if you're white.  So if you're white and carrying drugs, you stand a much better chance of 'getting away with it' than if you're black.  The consequences of this inevitably result in a breakdown of relations between the police and the community, and the consequences of that should be obvious to anyone on the streets of London in August 2011.  

It's pretty easy to pick a winner of these two men tonight: Hitchens' arguments have holes so big you could drive a truck through them.  In addition to this, he comes across as weirdly insecure.  Someone asking a question of him says they think one of this statements was "stupid".  Immediately he goes on the defensive, angrily asking if the person asking the question is calling him stupid.  It's an oddly reflexive response, and we see similar behaviour from him later in the evening when someone asks what importance we should attach to the views of a newspaper columnist and an ex-politician, and asks as to whether a scientist might have made a better debater.  Hitchens turns on the man, asking him what gives him the right to question him.  Looking a little confused, the questioner replies that he's a solicitor.  They're brief moments, but it feels like Hitchens' erudite, confident mask has slipped and it's disconcerting to see him lash out so readily.

It's clear who made the better case last night.  Hitchens' argument suffers from the fact that as far as I can see, he's begun with the conclusion that drugs (particularly cannabis) are very bad things and worked backwards from there.  He's very selective about the science he uses to back up his case, and this eventually begins to feel intellectually dishonest.  Paddick on the other hand has arrived at his point of view through a career in the police service dealing hands on with the consequences of drug use and the effects of drug law.  I doubt very much that a policeman of all people would come to a conclusion that drugs law as it stands is ineffective and illogical without some very careful consideration. 

It was a fun evening, and even though I disagree with pretty much everything Peter Hitchens stands for at least he's not boring.  Stewart Lee once accurately described Jeremy Clarkson as "someone who pretends to have opinions for money".  Ill thought out and wonky as they are, I have no doubt that Hitchens sincerely believes in what he preaches and at least on some vague level I can admire him for that.  In contrast Brian Paddick comes across as a practical man, someone who's confident in his conclusions because they reflect his professional experience.  He may not be as rhetorically flashy as Hitchens, but he's an infinitely more substantial speaker.

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7 Responses to “‘The Tom Olsen Lecture 2012’ at St Bride’s Church, 24th May 2012”

JP said...
October 26, 2012 at 1:34 PM

What a fair and unbiased assesment of the debate. (I hope you notice the sarcasm in that statement.)

Unknown said...
October 26, 2012 at 7:10 PM

Peter Hitchens has never written for the Daily Mail

londoncitynights said...
October 26, 2012 at 7:12 PM

Ah-ha! You're technically correct - the very best kind of correct! Thanks.

Unknown said...
October 26, 2012 at 8:29 PM

No problem. Enjoyed the article

John Robert Moore said...
October 27, 2012 at 4:43 PM

I think Peter Hitchens's point is that people should be responsible for their own actions as they were in former times before Sex,Drugs and Rock & Roll; the idea that someone who is vastly overweight should have a free gastric band fitted at great expense would not have been believed. His point regarding 'addiction' is just the same attitude and as regards prison -- why is it that liberals can never see its value as a deterrent. PH's book the Brief History of Crime explains how the murder rate here has gone up from the time that hanging was abolished. The criminal classes are not frightened by a term of imprisonment

Unknown said...
October 28, 2012 at 7:58 PM

Regarding the image of Jesus inside what you describe as a "rainbow vulva", the Wikipedia entry for Vesica Piscis may be of interest to you, particularly the Talk page

londoncitynights said...
October 28, 2012 at 8:08 PM

Interesting - thanks for the heads up.

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