The first week in October, 2000, may turn out to have been one of the most notable in recent British social history.
An Act giving effect to the European Convention on Human Rights became law on 1st October. Whilst some of us may wish there were less emphasis on human rights and more on individual responsibility, there is some ground for optimism about the implications of the Act for the liberty of the responsible individual.
The BBC programme Panorama on 2nd October was about the 'war' on drugs and the introduction of biological warfare on the side of the 'good' forces of suppression. It transpired that genetically engineered fungi have been developed that are able to attack the opium poppy and the coca plant and exterminate these species from the Earth's vegetable repertoire. Chillingly, some of the proponents of such weapons made it quite clear they would have no compunction about using them, with or without the consent of the inhabitants of the target countries, and without regard to any unforeseen consequences of such interference with Nature. Without delving too deeply into the economic pros and cons of the drugs trade, it should be obvious to any sane person that gratuitous extermination of entire species of vegetation for no better reason than the imposition of the moralistic preference of one blinkered group of zealots over the more tolerant preferences of other people is nothing but vandalism. Whilst the advocates of what they consider to be mere weed-killing, albeit on a global scale, may be well versed in the minutiae of plant physiology, such vandalism betrays lamentable ignorance of human psychology and of the way in which Nature encourages true morality as opposed to the sentimentality which has become an almost universal substitute for it.
A tiny piece in the Daily Telegraph on 3rd October caught my eye. Tam Dalyell, MP, on a visit to Bolivia, developed altitude sickness and thought he was about to die from it. Someone at the reception desk of his hotel in La Paz had the presence of mind to phone a local doctor. The doctor advised Tam to drink an entire teapotful of a brew made from coca leaves, saying, 'If this was good enough for the great Inca, it is good enough for you.' Tam drank the tea and immediately felt better. If the exterminators are given free rein, Tam might not not be so lucky on a future occasion.
The drug theme was continued on 4th October when, at the Conservative Party conference, the shadow Home Secretary announced a zero-tolerance policy including an immediate Ł100 fine for anyone caught in possession of the tiniest amount of cannabis or with traces of it in the bloodstream. This policy was quickly watered down when it transpired that no fewer than six of her shadow cabinet colleagues had experimented with pot at some time or other, and were not over-enthusiastic about being classified as criminals. It would have taken only a small extension of zero-tolerance for drug consumption to have banned the champagne which was very publicly drunk on the same occasion by the said shadow Home Secretary in celebration of her burthday.
So let's briefly review the fundamentals of natural morality in search of a sounder basis for devising laws that neither condone the destruction of species nor stifle the fun or creativity of responsible persons.
To live is to act. The human individual is the fundamental unit of voluntary action. Actions have natural consequences, from which the actors may learn if they allow themselves to do so. Humans have a strong innate tendency to experiment. Some humans experiment with drugs. That is how it was discovered that coca extract relieves altitude sickness and morphine relieves pain. Taken in moderation, some drugs are found to have pleasant and beneficial consequences as Tam Dalyell testifies. But all pleasures pall with over-indulgence, and immoderation in the use of drugs can have extremely unpleasant consequences for the individual who over-indulges. That is Nature's way of teaching the individual where beneficial moderation ends and harmful excess begins. Just because some people recoil in horror from the suffering that Nature (or, if you prefer, God) visits upon those who over-indulge, that is no reason to go to ludicrous lengths to 'save people from themselves'. Gratuitous interference with other people's suffering diminishes their freedom, excludes them from Nature's lessons, and makes it impossible for them to learn to exercise their freedom responsibly.
The forces of pseudo-morality preach that crime is drug-related and that the best way to reduce crime is to clamp down on drug-taking. The consequent 'war' on drugs has been waged with ever-increasing ferocity and ever-decreasing effect for nearly a century. Thrillers on large and small screens repeat the cops versus gangsters themes that characterised the cinema of the 1930s during and after Prohibition in America. The only significant changes since then have been in the chemical formulae of the prohibited substances of which there will always be a supply as long as there is a demand. If the natural vegetable sources of such substances are wantonly destroyed in the name of morality, chemists will undoubtedly find cheaper synthetic substitutes that will make no contribution to the economies of agricultural workers in less affluent parts of the world. Yet stubbornly dictatorial politicians seem determined to reject the lesson of experience that the market in drugs (as in everything else) merely reflects natural forces too powerful to be constrained by the preaching of would-be Home Secretaries.
Laws which run counter to Nature turn adventurous individuals into criminals, provide real criminals with an easy means of enriching themselves, corrupt the police, and generally diminish respect for all law. Crimes such as mugging and burglary are effects not of drug use or abuse, but of irresponsible lack of respect for persons and property. Misguided laws targetting the supply of innocent natural commodities merely distract attention from the real causes of the unhappiness which makes young people seek relief in intoxication.
It seems obvious to me that the only long-term answer to an artificially created problem is to abandon the artifice. Let individuals ingest anything they want in any way they want as long as they don't harm anyone else. Treat all mood-altering substances in a similar manner to alcohol and tobacco, and make them available from properly licensed premises. Even if a hefty excise duty were levied on them as on other 'luxuries', legal drugs would still be cheaper than illegal ones, there would be less need for addicts to steal to finance their habits, and the revenue would enable the Exchequer to reduce income taxes and other duties on essential commodities and services.
Unfortunate individuals in danger of becoming addicted to drugs would then be able to seek help at an early stage without fear of being locked up as criminals; the pushers would have to find another way of earning a living; macho police officers would have fewer excuses for harrassing young men and women; the fear which pervades our streets would diminish; and it would be much easier for us all to learn to love each other.
Individual liberty is our most precious possession. Attempts to fetter its exercise merely perpetuate ignorance and reduce human beings to the status of domesticated animals. I can but hope that if government fails to liberate us to decide for ourselves what we shall eat, drink, and smoke, freedom-loving individuals will be able to invoke the Human Rights Act on the side of natural justice and use one somewhat dubious law against another utterly nonsensical one.