I don’t know if drugs should be legalised, but here’s how not to argue against it
Kathy Gengell, researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, wrote this drugs article entitled ‘Why illegal drugs shouldn’t be made legal’. CPS is generally associated with Thatcher whilst not affiliated to the Conservative party – it champions the free market, neoliberalism, monetarism and the small state. Her article appeared on ‘ConservativeHome’, founded in 2005 by Times journalist Tim Montgomery to discuss grassroots Conservative issues.
I was going to write a full response to it, but Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute (fairly similar to CPS but more overtly libertarian and classical liberal) beat me to it. His argument ‘Kathy Gyngell is wrong. Illegal drugs should be legalised’ is excellent and goes about disproving a lot of Gyngell’s facts, so I thought I would just briefly focus on the naughty rhetorical techniques and fallacies she uses to make her article persuasive to the casual reader.
– The article is reductive in an obviously incorrect way – it asserts ‘This is what drugs’ legalisation is about: a war over fundamental values‘ and continues from there, ignoring all other aspects to drugs legislation such as public health, individual autonomy, policy pragmatism and so on.
– It makes terrible assumptions that are statistically likely to be wrong, for example that no politicians are or have been drugtakers (‘I doubt whether any of these politicians are or were ‘recreational’ drug users, let alone former addicts’). She then uses this non-fact to suggest they are not appropriate legislators as they don’t have the correct experience, whilst also belittling Russel Brand below (who is a former addict). She does not mention whether she is an ex addict or recreational user.
– The article wields unnecessary stereotypes very oddly – apparently ‘ageing libertarians’ now control the world and there are precious few other promoters of drug legalisation. Even though she mentions Dr David Nutt (of ACMD dismissal fame) and Brand.
– The article straw-mans the pro-legalisation argument repeatedly, suggesting the Brixton Experiment (decriminalisation) is directly analogous to legalisation (which would include proper drug monitoring and regulation, as we have for, say, aspirin.)
– Anchoring bias: the article uses large, specific figures for the costs (some of which are uncited, incidentally) but no figures for the savings, belittling this very approach when it comes from pro-legalisation politician Daniel Hannan MEP’s mouth.
– The article makes another false analogy, the brief period in which cannabis was a Class C drug (now Class B). This is not what most Brand-ites or Cleggers are advocating – which is a review on current drugs policy – or the detailed, evidenced proposals others are advancing (e.g. safe, legal injection centres). Likewise the article’s Colorado example does not include the ‘regulation’ element that most pro-legalisation figures say is paramount, and demonstrably doesn’t have the enforcement or education elements proposed.
– ‘[L]ike the pro-legalising think tank head I sat next to at dinner recently, I suspect Mr. Hannan’s grasp of the drug problem is pretty limited. My dinner companion typically had no idea how marginal an activity drug use is compared with smoking and drinking – living as he does amongst London’s metropolitan liberals.’
It’s very sad if one anonymous thinktank head is ignorant of weed’s effects on teenagers, but hardly representative of the movement. If it was David Goodhart (of Demos), as is heavily implied, then it’s hardly surprising, as his public spat with Jonathan Portes on immigration suggests he favours a qualitative approach to research. And in any case is unlikely to have stats at hand midway through dinner.
– The article claims that the whole ‘regulation is safer’ argument is a cliché, implicitly attacking the research of Dr David Nutt and many others, but gives no reasons for that assertion.
– Late on, the article notes Demos research that (paraphrase) ‘teenagers are getting more responsible with drugs and alcohol’. This argument re-enforces the pro-legalisation side – now teens can experiment with drugs without going over the top. Hooray.
– The article indulges in shameless ad hominem attacks on Russel Brand and supporters of legalisation. Moreover, she fails to note that Brand is an ex addict, so presumably qualifies where Hannan and Clegger do not. The article ignores the tens of thousands of others who signed Green MP Caroline Lucas’ petition for drugs legislation to be debated in parliament:
‘[Supporters are] so obviously ignorant of the facts and the implications’
‘[Brand’s campaigning] become the stuff of comedy given his earlier public strictures on ignoring democracy. Beyond celebrity groupies and metropolitan admirers, his erratic and self-serving ramblings won’t persuade.’ NB, he’s a comedian. Obviously there’s comedy.
‘[Hannan’s ideas are] frankly barmy’
‘[Drug legalisation would be an] experiment foisted on [children] by ageing libertarians.’
– The article does not even begin to discuss the terrible consequences of criminalising young people for recreational use, or minor cannabis offenses – not least how criminalisation is linked to higher, harder drug use in and after prison.
– The article happily discusses Colorado and Brixton but ignores evidence from Washington, Holland, Portugal, Uruguay and Denmark, all of which have more liberal drug approaches. Cherry picking much?
– The article does not address how her arguments logically apply to horse riding, boxing, smoking, rugby and alcohol – should they be criminalised and/or restricted to one dome of the Eden Project?
– The article doesn’t make any kind of argument actually defending the current drugs regime or suggesting a better alternative (which is half the reason for a ‘review’).
Full disclosure – I have used recreational drugs. I have also written for ConHome as part of my job.