No, this is why Osborne’s cocaine allegations matter

I can understand the impulse to call for George Osborne’s head. Hell, I admire the self-restraint required not not ask for it on a silver platter. But I think it is short sighted. The argument is pretty simple. Taking drugs might not be wrong, but George is part of a government that says taking drugs is wrong. We must therefore hold him to that standard to illustrate that taking drugs is treated as serious crime, even though it shouldn’t be.

Now loads of people in the Coalition government not only used to be young (almost all I’m told) but many of them used to work in finance, advertising, and marketing…so… come on! Who are we kidding? Loads of these people have taken drugs. We can’t just punish those who are unlucky enough to be caught.

This is foolish. People who are liberal towards drugs need to stop this point scoring. The only effective method to reform the current system is to make the current system as absurd as possible and make people publicly discuss its ridiculousness and to want to change the system. It is already an unworkable system, but it trundles along anyway. It can’t just be an inherently bad system, it has to be a bad system people acknowledge as inherently bad.

Having a prime minister who may have smoked weed at Eton (I am fairly sure it is David Cameron is one of the Etonians caught smoking the reefer as referred to in Paul Gilroy’s “There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack”. The dates match up precisely in any case.) and who probably took coke at work, with a former coke-head as Chancellor and a former novelist MP who probably took some drugs at some point will just underline the lunacy of the system.

So, although I’ve been accused of sophistry in the past, I think we should think about this a little deeper. A good place to start would be the Arab Spring. Timur Kuran has written on “preference falsification.” This occurs where social pressures lead people to publicly express opinions which would be rejected in private. This is why the Arab Spring took so many despots by surprise. They mistook publicly expressed opinions as honest reflections of private opinions when the opposite was the case.

Good drug policy campaigning will do its best to try and reach the tipping point when lots of people, the public and especially politicians, can express publicly the opinion that privately many hold. Prohibition doesn’t work, lets try legalisation.

There are two reasons people engage in preference falsification, the first is seeking social approval, sometimes this is to avoid bad looks, sometimes to avoid gunshots. The other is more subtle. People rely on one another for information and for a palate of opinions to compare their own. If nobody else expresses your private opinion then you will assume nobody else carries it, even if many do.

Now David, George, Louise, all probably think there’s nothing too bad in taking drugs. What we need to do is tip the public discussion into a place where the many people who agree with this can express it without having to obfuscate and lie. Part of this is keeping ex-drug users in Parliament. First of all, it makes the current system look ludicrous, because it is, and lowers the costs of criticising it. Secondly, because the more people with power who hold publicly denied but privately held opinions the easier it is to reach the critical mass where we can all admit prohibition isn’t working.

So that’s why I don’t think George Osborne should resign (well not about this) and why calls for him to be hoist on his petard is foolish.


4 thoughts on “No, this is why Osborne’s cocaine allegations matter

  1. I’m wondering what you think of Bill Bratton’s argument that legalisation would send a bad signal by encouraging thrill seekers to search out more powerful and harmful substances – the so-called ‘gateway’ argument that a process of acculturisation exists which mitigates against self-moderation and one-off experiences and leads to habits and addiction.

    If half the thrill is in breaking the social convention of illegality of an act then the rational argument is that liberalising legal attitudes towards drugs doesn’t simply discourage participation, but it also encourages more extreme forms of participation in equal amount – the effect is polarising.

    And, particularly in more liberal cultures like Britain where attitudes of toleration and prohibition tend to excess, a potentially greater threat revolves around the social volatility caused by moral confusion. So, can opposition to criminalisation be validated while the defence of individual self-harm is matched by merely tacit acknowledgement of consequences?

    Is it ok to allow people to sleepwalk over the edge of a cliff? Surely not. That’s as bad as throwing them off yourself (though not equivalent).

    Surely therefore the liberal answer is to progressively escalate the scale of the criminal tariff for drugs more rapidly and enforce the law more rigorously and consistently by equating it more closely with justice to better enable more conscious decision-making across the board, rather than instituting blanket responses one way or the other.

    If we want more liberal laws then we require more explicit and forthright government. And that means making punishment pay.

    1. Where’s Bratton’s evidence? There’s many places on earth where opium grows in the wild – and no general laws against personal consumption. And some people take it and some people don’t. There’s no evidence of mass efforts to find something more taboo…

      1. The evidence that a drug culture exists is indicated by the level of arrests and prosecutions for drugs offences, by health surveys, first-person accounts and is accepted by universal consensus.

        You assert the same position, only diverging on the logical interpretation of it. So your request for evidence is bizarre.

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