20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 6

Another voice

A silly idea

Auberon Waugh

(Inc of the problems of writing a weekly k.../column (never mind three or four weekly columns) year after year is the danger of repeating oneself. A possible way of facing up to this problem is to say the opposite from time to time. The temptation to do this is strongest when others start joining one's little campaigns or agreeing with one. I do not know whether Mrs Thatcher's narrow escape at Brighton will finally convince her that it might be prudent to award Mr Peregrine Worsthorne the knighthood for which the civilised world has been waiting for so long, but if it does she must expect some austere remarks, at any rate from this quarter. Is she really sure that old Nig-Nog has the gravitas or the natural dignity to carry off such an honour after his extraor- dinary behaviour in the matter of Alexan- der Chancellor's desk? Might he not offend the other members of his order by buying spurs which were much too large for him, tripping over them at every chivalrous gathering or equestrian event?

So it is with the drugs issue. Long before I started writing a regular column in the Spectator 17 years ago I was, if not beating the drum for drugs, at any rate making tentative little squeaks towards the idea that liberalisation might be a good idea. Geoffrey Wheatcroft ('Opiates and the people', 13 October) is quite wrong when he says that the subject carries a taboo in political and journalistic debate. It has been endlessly discussed. Eleven years ago I ended a piece in the New Statesman, after complaining bitterly about the noise and smells made by proletarian holidaymakers in the West Country, with a passionate plea for some narcotic which would stop them producing so many goods, earning so much money: 'History, having destroyed religion as the opium of the people, now requires that they should be given a taste of the real stuff,' I concluded rather grandly. Nobody complained.

Time and again I have urged in these pages that the same solution should be applied to the negro problem in the US and to our own unemployment problem here. Mr Wheatcroft is undoubtedly right when he argues that three-quarters of the present problems created by heroin are a product of its illegality — the muggings, the deaths from impure heroin and from overdoses of heroin of unexpected strength, even to some extent the deaths from blood poison- ing and hepatitis due to infected needles

and from malnutrition, which 1 be prevented if druggies lived less as outc.. is from society. I am not sure of this last proposition, however. One of the chief characteristics of people who take heroin is that they become the most tremendous bores, unfit for the company of any but their own kind. I remain convinced, what- ever I may say hereafter, that the main drive against heroin, which comes from the United States' gigantic Drug Enforcement Agency (almost a third great world power in many parts of the near, middle and far East, as well as an unwelcome addition to our own secret police and customs net- works in this country) is a response to that country's terror of its own blacks. I do not argue that Americans are wrong to be terrified of their blacks, merely that it is a most unintelligent reaction to this terror. A more intelligent — if less high-minded reaction would be to ensure that heroin and other comforts for the under- privileged are easier and cheaper rather than harder and more expensive to ac- quire.

Even these arguments from a basis of misanthropic Realpolitik are harder to sus- tain when one reflects that heroin was an important, if not decisive, factor in Amer- ica's military defeat by the North Viet- namese. The fact remains that so long as the Russians are breathing down our necks we cannot put a large proportion of our productive workforce out to grass or to poppies, as the case may be. Until Russia collapses in on itself, we will simply have to put up with the stink and the noise.

In any case, there is all the difference in the world between urging a cheap opiate for the masses on social and environmental grounds, and arguing it on grounds of human liberty. It was Mr Wheatcroft's eloquent advocacy for the decriminalisa- tion of heroin on libertarian grounds that finally convinced me there should be no change in the law. First, perhaps, one should look at his non-libertarian reasons for a change. To say that heroin is not a poison (unless taken in excess) or not addictive (because will-power is required to break the habit) is neither paradoxical nor clever but plain wrong. Heroin's tox- icity is about 200 times that of ethyl alcohol, closer to cyanide than to strych- nine or arsenic. It has a rapid effect on the respiratory function which can cause death in tiny doses. It induces not only a psycho- logical dependence (which itself is a suffi- cient indicator of addiction) but also a biochemical dependence whereby sudden withdrawal can bring about physical col- lapse. Heroin, which was removed from the British Pharmacopoeia in 1953, is now only used in terminal illness, and it unques- tionably does produce an addiction in patients. When Wheatcroft quotes his

guru, Dr Thomas Szasz, we tend to defer, supposing that anybody with such a ridicu- lous name must indeed be wise. The truth is otherwise. What Szasz actually has to say is quite as silly as anything ever said by Steiner, de Bono, or the abominable Warlock-Jenkins-Runcie machine.

What the libertarian case boils down to is that man (yes, groan, and woman, too) has the right to destroy himself/herself if it wishes, and heroin should be freely avail- able for this purpose. The first question to ask is at what age man/woman inherits this right. Certainly not Wheatcroft, probably not even Szasz would argue that children of three or four have the right to knock themselves off in this way. So we must place it at whatever arbitrary age society has chosen as marking adulthood — 18 or 21.

Now we all know = Wheatcroft, I and probably Szasz — that all this talk of liberal individualism is so much whistling in the wind. There is not the slightest possibility that any sane democratic government will ever legalise heroin (morphia was sepa- rated only in 1803; the first Pharmacy Act was passed in 1868). We are just striking attitudes. It is only when one examines the reasons behind this impossibility that one sees the real weaknesses in the libertarian case.

The reason that no democratic govern- ment will decriminalise this fairly agree- able short cut to oblivion and death is nothing to do with agitation in the meejer. Two years ago, when the DHSS was conducting one of its periodic anti-drink scares, I pointed out in the Sunday Tele- graph that we were in the middle of a genuine heroin epidemic. The idea has now caught on. I fancy I find the current campaign against drug-pushers in the gut- ter press, and appearance of a crusading rock star at the Conservative Party Confer- ence, as irritating as Mr Wheatcroft does. At least drug-pushers provide a service, and if any section of our society would benefit from massive injections of heroin it is surely the rock music scene. The trouble is that when young persons reach the age of 18 or 21 they represent 18 or 21 years of care, effort, affection and even money invested by their parents. No parents will agree that Wheatcroft should allow their fledglings the opportunity to choose agree- able oblivion the second they are flown from the nest. So make the age of volun- tary oblivion 40. By then, most people are married with children. Do spouses and children have no rights? The truth is that Wheatcroft's concept of liberty is a chimera, applying only to orphan bachelors (and, groan, bachelor girls, too) or childless widows and widow- ers. The rest of us are held in bonds of affection and family duty, if not of respon- sibility towards employers or public. The degree of liberty which Wheatcroft seeks could be imposed only by a deeply unpopu- lar dictatorship. That is the ,contradiction in his brand of 'liberal individualism'.