THE problems raised by drug-taking are amongst the most urgent facing our society today. Drug-taking is on the increase: millions of barbiturate tablets are s-walknved every year: cannabis is smoked by thousands: a mercifully smaller minority take heroin or L.S.D. to obtain kicks.
The drug scene today affects every one of us. How should society respond to the challenge? We have had in recent months two expert reports to guide us, one on cannabis and the other on L.S.D.. and the last thing Parliament did before adjourning for the Easter recess was to debate Mr. Callaghan's drug Bill: there is certainly a reasonable amount of material to base our judgment on.
One thing I am sure we must do if we are to succeed in forming a rational drugs policy: we must not conduct the debate as though it were part of a blanket endorsement or condemnation of the permissive society. It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, in a notorious speech, declared that permissive society was the same as the civilised society. What nonsense!
The permissive society cannot be dealt with as though it were a single, unified concept. It has good and bad aspects to it. All of us will approve of some aspects of permissiveness and condemn others. Personally, I approve of the abolition of capital punishment: I think it is a good thing that we have got rid of the censorship of the theatre: I believe it to be a gain that we have ceased prosecuting homosexuals for a condition for which they are not responsible: on the other hand I am totally opposed to the present abortion law and the proposal to legalise euthanasia.
What society needs with regard to drugs is not so much a moral law as a sensible one. The questions we have to ask about the law are: whether it is enforceable, or enforceable equitably, or whether it will create more bad than good results.
In judging drug legislation there are three principles which need to be applied. First, drugs should be controlled: second, they should be controlled more or less strictly according to their degree of dangerousness: third. the law should distinguish between different types of offences and punish them with different penalties accord, ing to their gravity. These principles are on the whole observed by the new Drugs Bill and it therefore has my support.
A major reform introduced by the Bill is to reclassify drugs. It creates three classifications, Class A of the most dangerous, which includes heroin and L.S.D.: Class B of the middle dangerous which includes cannabis: and Class C which is made up of the amphetamines or pep pills.
Possession of all three classes remains an offence, but the penalties vary: possession of a Class A drug being punished more severely than possession of Class B, etc. This means that cannabis will no longer be treated as being the same as heroin—a very sensible change in the law. Whatever the effects of cannabis may be they are not as dangerous as heroin and the law should recognise the fact.
Should cannabis be subject to a legal ban or should it be freed from legal restraint? There is a case for removing cannabis from legal control. I say this for two reasons. First. there is no hard evidence that it is addictive. Second, there are many thousands of people. a great many of them young, who take cannabis today and will continue to take it whatever the law may say.
These people are not criminals in any accepted sense of the word. Is it sensible to treat them as though they were? The law in normal matters can only be enforced if it is supported by a corresponding moral consensus in the community, and the doubt persists whether this is the case as far as a ban on cannabis is concerned.
Nevertheless, despite the force of these arguments, I believe that Parliament would be acting irresponsibly if it removed all legal restraint at this time. We do not know enough about the effects of cannabis on the individual or on society to justify taking a risk. What we need is more knowledge, more research, more education on the whole subject of drugs. The new Bill sets up two committees to carry out this task, and I hope they will do so with vigour.
The Drugs Bill makes another important innovation in the law. It distinguishes for the first Time between possession with intent to use and possession with intent to sell. The second is punished more heavily than the first. This is right: simple possession is not the same as trafficking and the law should recognise the difference.
I hope the police will concentrate 'their energies against the traffickers and not against private individuals who happen to have a small amount of cannabis in their possession. In these morallegal matters sensible administration of the law is as important as the substantive law itself. Prosecution of pop-stars with all the attendant publicity for their drug-taking activities is to say the least a dubious way of restricting the spread of drug-taking. Does it not advertise more than it deters?
Finally, I hope that the liberties of the subject will continue to be respected. We do not want people's houses to be invaded and their privacy interfered with by the police under the pretence of searching for drugs. This happened in the case of Lady Diana Cooper not so long ago. Here as in other spheres the price of liberty is constant vigilance.