David Cameron is wrong and Owen Jones is right

Not quite a headline we thought we would ever offer. But it is true here:

In contrast to the nation’s deficit, Cameron’s rational, evidence-based approach to drugs has disappeared. The self-evidently catastrophic war on drugs – an unforgivable waste of life, wellbeing, treasure and time – is now to be intensified. A new crackdown on “legal highs” will now mean the criminalisation of, among other substances, poppers, a substance particularly popular among gay men interested in enhancing their sex lives.

The idea of making yet more drugs illegal is simply the wrong way to be going about things:

We have a clear choice. Do we leave drugs in the control of murderous drug gangs who destabilise entire nations – or do we regulate them, bring in tax revenues, and stop locking up harmless youngsters?

Quite so, we legalise.

We, being proper liberals, know that it’s entirely your right to stick whatever you wish into your own body. Interesting parts of other consenting adults, cheeseburgers and whatever form of toot it is that brings on whatever level of toot! toot! feeling that you desire. We will not be able to convince conservatives and Puritans of this.

However, we should be able to convince Conservatives, the most pragmatic of the British political parties, that the War on Drugs simply does not work:

As a London School of Economics report highlighted last year, the 44-year-old so-called war on drugs has achieved nothing, except “mass incarceration” in the US, repression in Asia, “vast corruption and political destabilisation” in Afghanistan and west Africa and the spread of HIV in Russia. “The strategy has failed based on its own terms,” the report declared. “Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing.”

That it’s morally wrong to have a war on the right to party may well be true and we’ll keep on saying so. But that it doesn’t in fact work is in itself sufficient justification to simply stop doing it. And if that means allying with Owen Jones, or indeed anyone else from any corner of the political spectrum, then so be it.

Far from banning any more drugs we need to legalise them all now.

The absurd folly of some anti-prostitution campaigners

That prostitution exists is a fact. That, as far as we know at least, every human society has had a form of it is, to the limits of our knowledge about this, also a fact. And as far as we can work out at least it’s going to be a feature of human societies into the future. The question therefore is how should we handle it societally, not whether we can magic it off the scene or not.

Our own view is that what consenting adults get up to is up to consenting adults. We do now have a society, finally, that largely keeps the government out of our bedrooms and we welcome this. Quite why this liberty and freedom should be limited when cash changes hands we’re not quite sure.

All of which makes this letter to The Guardian very strange indeed to us:

On Monday 1 June it becomes a crime to pay for sex in Northern Ireland, but legal to sell it. The rationale? Prostitution is violence against women and a barrier to gender equality – so end the demand, but don’t punish the victims. I agree. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the minority of men who feel entitled to sexually exploit vulnerable women. In 2006 I led Ipswich’s policing response to the tragic murders of five women by a sex buyer. We cracked down on kerb crawlers, diverted women away from the criminal justice system and joined with agencies to support women to exit. It worked. But current prostitution laws prevented us from tackling demand for off-street prostitution. Northern Ireland’s new laws should be extended UK-wide so we make it as difficult as possible for pimps and sex traffickers to operate.
Alan Caton
Former detective superintendent, Suffolk Constabulary

That women were murdered is appalling: that this is a crime is just and righteous, whoever and whatever those women were or were doing. But people are murdered walking down the street: are we to make walking down the street a crime in order to reduce murder? People have been murdered working in supermarkets: do we make supermarkets illegal in order to reduce the incidence of murder?

No, obviously, we do not. And for the obvious reason that if walking down the street or vending comestibles are a crime then those who are attacked, injured or murdered while doing so are already criminals and thus have no protection from the police or the law.

So it is with prostitution. It is going to happen and consenting adults should have the same protections as the rest of us as they go about their consenting and consented to activities. Legalise, fully, prostitution. It may not be our life choice, either as provider or customer. But then nor are many things, all of which should be, and are, legal and protected by that full majesty of the law.

This is quite apart from that old point we learned from the Bloody Code. When stealing a loaf of bread brought a hanging, when murder brought a hanging, then why stop at the stealing? Making it illegal to purchase sex is going to increase the danger to those selling it, not reduce it.

A blanket ban on psychoactive substances makes UK drugs policy even worse

It is a truth under-acknowledged that a drug user denied possession of their poison is in want of an alternative. The current ‘explosion‘ in varied and easily-accessible ‘legal highs’ (also know as ‘new psychoactive substances’) are a clear example of this.

In June 2008 33 tonnes of sassafras oil - a key ingredient in the production of MDMA – were seized in Cambodia; enough to produce an estimated 245 million ecstasy tablets. The following year real ecstasy pills ‘almost vanished‘ from Britain’s clubs. At the same time the purity of street cocaine had also been steadily falling, from over 60% in 2002 to 22% in 2009.

Enter mephedrone: a legal high with similar effects to MDMA but readily available and for less than a quarter of the price. As the quality of ecstasy plummeted (as shown by the blue line on this graph) and substituted with things like piperazines, (the orange line) mephedrone usage soared (purple line). The 2010 (self-selecting, online) Global Drug Survey found that 51% of regular clubbers had used mephedrone that year, and official figures from the 2010/11 British Crime Survey estimate that around 4.4% 16 to 24 year olds had tried it in the past year.

Similarly, law changes and clampdowns in India resulted in a UK ketamine drought, leading to dabblers (both knowingly and unknowingly) taking things like (the once legal, now Class B) methoxetamine. And indeed, the majority of legal highs on offer are ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ which claim to mimic the effect of cannabis. In all, it’s fairly safe to claim that were recreational drugs like ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine not so stringently prohibited, these ‘legal highs’ (about which we know very little) probably wouldn’t be knocking about.

Still, governments tend to be of the view that any use of drugs is simply objectively bad, so the above is rather a moot point. But what anxious states can do, of course, is ban new legal highs as they crop up. However, even this apparently obvious solution has a few problems— the first being that there seems to be a near-limitless supply of cheap, experimental compounds to bring to market. When mephedrone was made a Class B controlled substance in 2010, alternative legal highs such NRG-1 and ‘Benzo Fury’ started to appear. In fact, over 550 NPS have been controlled since 2009. Generally less is known about each concoction than the last, presenting potentially far greater health risks to users.

At the same time, restricting a drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 requires evidence of the harm they cause (not that harm levels always bear much relation to a drug’s legality), demanding actual research as opposed to sensationalist headlines. Even though temporary class drug orders were introduced in 2011 to speed up the process, a full-out ban still requires study, time and resources. Many have claimed the battle with the chemists in China  is one lawmakers are unlikely to win.

And so with all of this in mind, the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday confirmed that Conservatives will take the next rational step in drug enforcement, namely, to simply ban ALL OF THE THINGS.

In order to automatically outlaw anything which can make people’s heads go a bit funny, their proposed blanket ban (modelled on a similar Irish policy) will prohibit the trade of ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect’, and will carry up to a 7-year prison sentence.

Somewhat ironically for a party so concerned with preserving the UK’s legal identity it wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, this represents a break from centuries of British common law, under which we are free to do something unless the law expressly forbids it. This law enshrines the opposite. In fact, so heavy-handed and far-reaching is the definition of what it is prohibited to supply that special exemptions have to be granted for those everyday psychoactive drugs like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Whilst on first glance the ban might sound like sensible-enough tinkering at the edges of our already nonsensical drug policy, it really is rather sinister, setting a worrying precedent for the state to bestow upon citizens permission to behave in certain ways.

This law will probably (at least initially) wipe out the high street ‘head shops’ which the Daily Mail and Centre for Social Justice  are so concerned about. However, banning something has never yet simply made a drug disappear. An expert panel commissioned by the government to investigate legal highs acknowledged that a 50% increase in seizures of Class B drugs between 2011/12 and 2013/14 was driven by the continued sale of mephedrone and other once-legal highs like it. Usage has fallen from pre-ban levels, but so has its purity whilst the street price has doubled. Perhaps the most damning evidence, however, comes from the Home Office’s own report into different national drug control strategies, which failed to find “any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The best that can be hoped for with this ridiculous plan is that with the banning of absolutely everything, dealers stick to pushing the tried and tested (and what seems to be safer) stuff. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case – mephedrone and and other legal and once-legal highs have been turning up in batches of drugs like MDMA and cocaine as adulterants, and even being passed off as the real things.  Funnily enough, the best chance of new psychoactive substances disappearing from use comes from a resurgence of super-strong ecstasy, thanks to the discovery of a way to make MDMA using less heavily-controlled ingredients.

The ASI has pointed out somanytimes. that the best way to reduce the harms associated with drug use is to decriminalise, license and tax recreational drugs. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the Conservatives will see sense in the course of this parliament.  However, at least the mischievous can entertain themselves with the prospect that home-grown opiates could soon be on the horizon thanks to genetically modified wheat. And what a moral panic-cum-legislative nightmare that will be…

Don’t fear the trade bill

We do admit we find this all rather amusing. We’ve all been shouted at for months now that the transatlantic trade deal (and various others under discussion) will allow such evils as tobacco companies suing if they are deprived of their intellectual property as a result of plain packaging. Thus we must reject said trade deals. And then this happens:

One such measure is the introduction of plain cigarette packaging – a policy that David Cameron’s successful spinmeister and tobacco lobbyist, Lynton Crosby, thankfully failed to block. But now the tobacco companies are fighting back, suing the government for up to £11bn on the basis that it would constitute “deprivation of a highly valuable intellectual property”.

This is an absurd example of how the law values property over people. Our government is democratically elected. Yes, that rightly means there have to be checks and balances, and policies must abide by the existing framework of the law. But if the law enables tobacco companies to extort £11bn from the government – money, ironically enough, that could be used to treat people suffering from tobacco-related illnesses – then the law is wrong. If the law does not value people’s lives and wellbeing over the rights of tobacco companies to make profit from cancer sticks, then the law is morally bankrupt.

This privileging of corporate interests over democracy is only going to get worse. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a treaty being hammered out between the EU and the US with woefully little scrutiny – could grant companies the same legal rights as nation states, enabling them to sue elected governments in secret courts to block policies that dent future profits. And sure enough – using a similar treaty – Philip Morris sued the Australian government for the same policy. It used the same tactic against Uruguay’s government for enlarging health warnings on cigarette packages.

How it is going to get worse if these provisions are already in domestic law?

At which point we can point out the two important points here.

The first is that the law, rightly, contains provisions on such things as eminent domain, just as it contains provisions of rights to property. The government can indeed confiscate property on the grounds of greater national need. It can force you to proffer up your house for the building of a railway line. It can force you to give up your business to the government. That is, nationalisation is entirely legal under both domestic and international law. However, that right to property part also means that the government must pay full market value for that property that it is taking (and the Americans have it even more anchored in their law as “a taking”).

This is of course as it should be. If the value of that railway line, that nationalisation, even that imposition of plain packaging, is sufficiently large in the national interest then there must be, from the value added by the scheme to make it sufficiently large in the national interest, enough to compensate the original values of the properties. Moving an asset from a lower to a higher valued use is the very defintion of wealth creation after all: so, if we are indeed adding that value then some can be used to compensate.

This argument also works in reverse: if there is not the value being added to compensate those original owners at that original price then the scheme is not in fact value adding. If that plot of land as a place for a house is worth £200,000, but it’s only worth £20,000 as part of a railway line then that railway line is not value adding: it is value subtracting, thus something that makes us poorer.

So too with plain packaging. We’ve no idea whether the £11 billion is a realistic number or not: but we do insist that if plain packaging is in fact value adding then it must be possible to compensate those having their property confiscated to reach that goal. Otherwise, if the value isn’t there, then the scheme itself is not value adding. If that’s true, then why are we doing it?

Which is one of the values, over and above the civil liberty of secure property rights, why such a legal position is so useful. It insists that those who talk up the value of a scheme actually have to prove, by providing the cold hard cash, the value of that scheme.

The second point is about those tribunals and so on. Given that these rights already appear in UK domestic law there’s nothing to fear from our signing a treaty that also includes them. It would be like our signing a treaty that insists that murder is a crime. Yes, we agree, so why not sign?

However, there are places out there not so blessed with a largely honest and largely reasonable legal system. And treaties are always reciprocal: what we agree to domestically the other side is also agreeing to in their domestic arena. So, the real value of the treaty (ies) is that it extends those rights which we have, as Britons, to those who have the unfortunate circumstance of not being Britons. And quite why this is a bad idea escapes us.

Discrimination and the free market: hardly a piece of cake

We read this week that a judge has ruled that a Christian-run bakery discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. I’m uncomfortable with this particular legislation. Some people have been claiming that such a ruling is a victory for anti-discrimination proponents. The irony seems lost on them – that there is still discrimination going on – it’s just that in this case the discrimination is against the Christian couple running the cake shop.

The Christian couple’s view on homosexuality isn’t one I share, but I defend their right to choose to run their business according to their own religious beliefs and values, and in this case the State should do likewise.

Disapproving customers are free to walk away and shop elsewhere. They are even free to share their disapproval on social media and encourage others to join them in shopping elsewhere. Such responses are powerful in business, because they put pressure on socially undesirable behaviour, and they penalise discriminatory business owners with lost custom, diminished profits, and in extreme cases, bankruptcy.

Any law that makes it illegal to run a business according to your religious beliefs is a law that infringes on the liberties of the business owners in a way that is, in my view, socially undesirable. Saying that, however, doesn’t mean I think all anti-discrimination laws are undesirable – far from it. They just need to be applied more prudently.

As always, society involves tension between a) accommodating people’s right to hold views and beliefs, and b) protecting others from unwanted discrimination. It is probably socially desirable for a racist café owner who wants to put a ‘No Blacks’ sign on his door to be forced not to discriminate. But at the other end of the spectrum it is also socially desirable for another café owner to be allowed to discriminate against under 65s by offering a pensioner discount on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In this case, I prefer the café owner’s right to introduce pensioner discounts over any societal claims that under 65s are being discriminated against.

The question the cake shop case elicits is where on that spectrum do religious views sit? I think people’s religious views should not be legislated against in business such that their freedoms are encroached upon in ways that are unacceptable. It’s quite clear to me that if the choice is between a) forcing a businessperson to make/sell a good they do not wish to, or b) compelling a dissatisfied customer to use another business, it’s a no-brainer that society should prefer the latter. A law that effectively wants to commandeer someone’s bodies and cake-making facilities is to me far more repugnant than the offence these Christian bakers are supposed to have committed.

One final point: the market does a very good job of weeding out discrimination. Suppose racist Jim opened up a shop in 1960s apartheid South Africa but wouldn’t serve any of the majority blacks – he obviously shoots himself in the foot because his restricts his trade options to a minority few and excludes the majority of potential customers.

In short, in a free market it pays not to unfairly discriminate, because whether on large scale or a small one you’re going to limit your potential custom. The more socially undesirable your discrimination, or the more people your discrimination negatively impacts, the worse it will be for you. It is no coincidence that the time at which humans started to trade was also the time that we started to become more civilised and improved our methods of co-existence.

To be able to trade in any age, and in particular, the modern age, you need to be able to think of others; firstly, by coming up with something (goods, services, entertainment) that others want; and secondly, by being honest, ethical, friendly, and developing a good reputation for your business. Far from being a vortex of selfish, uncaring and unethical behaviour, free markets necessitate qualities that make trade conducive, with your success dependent (in most cases) on your being a reputable person who welcomes all and treats everyone well.