Peter Hitchens is wrong to oppose festival drug testing

Earlier this month, Peter Hitchens and Transform’s Steve Rolles appeared on a minor TV channel to debate whether UK festivals and police forces should continue partner with drug-testing services like The Loop in an attempt to reduce the harms associated with illegal drug use.

The discussion quickly turned towards the question of Britain’s legislative approach to drugs in general, a vital part of the context in which drug-testing services operate. Hitchens’ argument is that Britain is stuck in a halfway-house of drug prohibition; whilst police target suppliers, they largely turn a blind eye to cases of individual possession. Deaths, health risks, and other harms from illegal drugs are in his view not the result of too much prohibition, but too little. Post-1971, the War on Drugs was never fought in Britain.

Steve Rolles countered Hitchens’ call to intensify user-level enforcement of drug laws by citing a 2014 Home Office review of international approaches to drug policy, which found no clear relationship between the intensity of user-level prohibition and overall levels of drug use. The review also states that comparatively low rates of drug use in Japan—Hitchens’ go-to example of effective drug policy—cannot simply be explained by its harsh enforcement of drug laws:

In Japan, where cultural conformity is traditionally valued, drug use is subject to a degree of stigma. In this context, it is difficult to tell whether low levels of drug use are a consequence of legislation, or a product of the same cultural attitudes that have informed the zero-tolerance approach.

Hitchens dismisses this reference to Japanese cultural norms as “racialist”, conflating race and culture without actually rebutting the point being made. However, it does seem reasonable to expect some level of deterrence from harsher enforcement of drug laws, even if other factors also play a role. The key point that Hitchens fails to grasp is that the harms associated with drug use are not simply a function of the number of drug users. Drugs sold on the black market and consumed in the shadows create more health problems due to impurities, non-standardized dosage, HIV risks, and economic distortions. Criminal gangs tend to be more violent than regulated commercial premises.

But I suspect that weighing up the costs and benefits of different regulatory regimes is secondary to Hitchens’ moralistic case against all drug use. Despite being an occasional drinker, he believes that taking drugs “severs the link between hard work and reward, [making] deferred gratification appear a waste of time and a foolish rejection of readily available delight”. He does favour the tightest possible restrictions on alcohol, but its legality is surely irrelevant to the wider moral question of whether having a big bag of cans with the lads irreparably damages your ability to work hard. Of course, the answer is usually no, and the same is true for Britain’s illegal drug users. Nothing is risk-free, but many regulated drugs can be relatively safe and enjoyable consumer products.

Eventually, the segment returns to the original question of drug-testing at UK festivals. Hitchens argues that allowing these services to operate makes a mockery of the law, and would only support them if they weren’t part of “a deliberate campaign to undermine the idea that the law should be obeyed”. In other words, he doesn’t support them.

This argument sits uneasily with his belief that our drug laws are already toothless. Given that laws against illegal drug possession no longer exert a serious deterrence effect anyway, what difference will festival testing sites make? And since Hitchens’ approach is extremely unlikely to be tried in this country, isn’t the only realistic way of creating greater respect for the law to get rid of the drug prohibition that he argues isn’t being enforced? In the meantime, services like The Loop are doing great work by reducing the risks of drug use—we should encourage more clubs and festivals to welcome them.