Peter Hitchens is no stranger to controversy. Sure enough, his clash with Friends star Matthew Perry on BBC2’s Newsnight last night, over the treatment of drug addicts under UK law, has once again seen daggers being aimed at him. Yet, worryingly, writing as someone who disagrees with Hitchens on almost every aspect of drug law, the self-proclaimed ‘Puritan propagandist’ may well have been the most progressive voice on the panel.
Hitchens’ attack on the ‘fantasy of addiction’ was deemed by Perry as being ‘as ludicrous as saying Peter Pan is real’. When pushed by Hitchens for an objective definition of addiction, Perry, a ‘recovering addict’ himself, offered up his life as ‘objective evidence’ that addiction was ‘an allergy of your body’ and ‘an infection of your mind’. Social media rallied behind Perry, with one outraged legal blogger thundering on Twitter: ‘imagine if [Newsnight] had invited on a cancer sufferer who was told by a panellist that their disease was a figment of their imagination.’
Certainly, as a serious examination of US-style drug courts – an experimental new system which seeks to treat users medically rather than punish them – the Newsnight discussion was sorely lacking. Yet Hitchens, for all his many flaws on the issue of drugs policy, was perfectly legitimate in questioning addiction’s classification as a disease, as well as the resulting move to bypass a moral debate on drug law altogether by turning addiction into, in the words of the third panellist, Baroness Meacher, ‘a public health issue’.
Hitchens was correct in saying that while his beliefs on the issue are ‘unfashionable’ this doesn’t mean they are erroneous. Indeed, the causes of addiction, and what role rationality and willpower play in whether or not someone turns to drugs, are far from clear-cut. As psychiatrist Sally Satel has noted, eschewing the role of moral responsibility in favour of Perry’s ‘infection of the mind’ could have damaging effects on proven recovery methods.
Moreover, Hitchens was right to insist on referring to ‘drug users’ rather than addicts. The vast majority of drug users don’t have a drug problem: they have a legal one. The drug liberalisation debate we should be having is not about whether to medicalise or moralise, but whether we should even criminalise in the first place.