It would be dishonest to say we had expected it, so relentless is the propaganda: the pseudo-rational cost benefit case for taxing and regulating illicit (dangerous) drugs.
Being on the ‘uncool’ side of the chamber, as Sarah Graham described it, is not an easy place to find yourself – explaining why legalisation would bring no such benefits only a bigger problem. It was, Sarah admitted, the last place she would have expected to find herself 14 years ago, before she got herself clean and trained as an addiction therapist.
We were up against David Browne, a brilliant second year student whose rendition of the pro-legalising case was as masterly as I have heard, though fundamentally flawed; a ‘preacher man’ – the cannabis activist and self-confessed ageing libertarian, Richard Cowan; and finally the Liberal MP Julian Huppert who though a scientist seemed more attached to his beliefs than to the evidence.
The language of the motion was loaded and misleading. Exactly what war on drugs were we debating? The one that crushed the Rev Flowers with a £525 fine for buying crystal meth and cocaine? Who in the audience had ever been cautioned let alone arrested for their drug use?
The truth is our law is liberal not punitive. The casualties of drugs – both the poisoned dead and victims of irreversible cannabis induced psychosis – are casualities of uninhibited freedom not of prohibition. Had the law stepped in, more young men and women would be alive today or have a future worth living.
So it was a rare opportunity to unpick the propositions on which the legalisation case rests:
• that the only harm to do with drugs derives from what the pro-drugs lobby calls ‘prohibition’
• that drugs decriminalisation would lead to a safer and freer society
• that it is people’s right to harm themselves, come what may, without social sanction or the intervention of the State.
Neil McKeganey’s graphic description of heroin-addicted communities in Glasgow underlined the fact that it is drug use (not its prohibition) that destroys any semblance of responsible parenting and corrupts communities.
Sarah’s parable of the client who arrived for therapy in her car, drunk and high, encapsulated just why society needs boundaries and the law to enforce them. When the client refused to hand over her car keys, Sarah lived up to her threat to call the police to arrest her if she attempted to drive away. One year later, this once furious and chaotic women thanked Sarah for the wake-up call that had shaken her into reality and getting clean.
Sarah’s own story of the cost to her and to health services of wrecking her body and brain with drugs had the debating chamber in silence.
There were other myths to bust too – the fact there are very few people incarcerated in prison for drugs possession offences alone – here or in America (where it is less than 2 per cent for first-time possession); the fact that drug addicts here are far more likely to find themselves in treatment (of sorts) than in prison.
And there was an alternative narrative to communicate – why drug controls were necessarily introduced in the first place, in the face of a global addiction epidemic a hundred years ago that eclipsed the present one; how the US and the UK rightly limited the use of opiates and other addictive drugs to tested medical purposes only; and finally how successful this has been in restricting worldwide drug use to a tiny fraction of global drinking and smoking figures (185 million illicit drug users to 2 billion drinkers). Cocaine use in the USA topping by 75% in 25 years is testimony to this.
Neil explained too the negative impacts of normalising pot in Colorado, where harms are increasing daily – from drug use, to drug driving to child directed advertising of marijuana products (cookies, sodas, etc) . The biggest drawback of any legalising experiment, we argued, is the threat to children and their welfare.
Why would we risk sacrificing their future on the altar of the West’s greedy appetite and demand for drugs? The appetite that drives the drug cartel killings in Mexico as they fight over a declining cocaine trade.
Is this what J S Mill’s high-minded principle of freedom and rights has boiled down to?
Our arguments persuaded the audience – by one vote.
So three cheers for the unusually sensible students of Oxford, who refused to be persuaded by ageing libertarians’ offer of a brave new world of freely available drugs.
They realise they will need all their wits about them, un-blunted by drugs, to survive the rotten inheritance these insatiable baby boomers would leave them.