I suppose I need to declare an interest, when it comes to the question of illegal drugs. I have been cautioned, in the 1980s, for cannabis possession and in 1992 was arrested and imprisoned in France for the same. This certainly improved my French, and I quickly started helping translate conversations, informally in the prison yard and formally in interviews between other British inmates and the authorities. I computerised the library and was able to produce my own letterheads, featuring dancing girls, top hats and champagne bottles, on a printer I found there.
The impressively humane prison governor set time aside for me to teach literacy to other British inmates and I couldn't help wondering why, if I could take someone from an incomplete knowledge of the alphabet to completion of his first (abridged) novel in a month, it hadn't happened for him at school.
And only in France would the following have happened. One British inmate thought the food undercooked. It wasn't, but he liked vegetables boiled until he could force them through the gaps between his teeth, and meat burned until it was like a piece of carpet. I relayed this request to the governor, and he passed it on to the kitchen. A couple of hours later, a delegation came to the cell: the chef, two assistant cooks and three prison guards. "Tell him he can't eat food like that," they urged. One guard gestured elaborately at the sole of his shoe. "Tell him it will taste like this."
Perhaps it was churlish of me to put my, in parts somewhat pithy, newly expanded command of French to use by publishing a small monograph on my return, How to Insult the French in their own language - sold out now, I'm afraid.
One particularly disruptive and violent inmate was put into my cell in the hope I might stabilise him a bit. I think I did, and he began to write a swords and sorcery novel mixing Shakespearean English and modern slang to wonderful effect "Hast thou bringest me the Sword of Xarkon, or what?" He was also expert at malapropisms - "Is the candle distinguished?" He soaked his paintbrushes in oil overnight to keep them subtle.
He had a daughter in London but had lost contact with her - I suppose he was a "baby father". But he decided he was going to turn his life around and do what he could for her. He started to spend evenings planning this, even thinking about trying to get a prison job that might enable him to send some money out to help support her. Then he received a letter. She had been run over and killed. Facing serious charges in France, unable to request leave to travel to a foreign country for the funeral, he knew it might be years before he could even visit her grave.
Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps I deserved it when a few months later I received a letter telling me that a woman who had been writing to me sometimes two or three times a day had been killed, and I had to sit in a room I could not open, with the peephole swinging open and an eye peering in every half hour. Many people are unable to cope. Every morning, the previous night's self-mutilations were lined up in a holding cell. Most commonly, people scarred their wrists without much serious intention of killing themselves, but the occasional throat was cut - rarely fatal because it's quite hard to cut your own throat - and on one occasion someone cut off their own penis. The only available blade was very blunt, so this took some time.
Even more people spent their days drugged to the eyeballs, corpse-white zombies shuffling around the exercise yard, perfectly legally - this was "medication". To point out the irony that they were there for handling much less damaging drugs would be redundant.
And of course, there are regular suicides. When people call for "tougher" conditions in prisons, I find myself wondering what level of self-harm and death they would find satisfactory. Which brings me again to the Unacceptable Face of Toryism, Simon Heffer. In the same column as the below quotes came from, he goes on:
Dave [Cameron] has got to stop hiding behind his "right to a private life" mantra when asked about drugs, for it is inhibiting his authority in leading his party's policy on an issue that causes most of our crime, feeds poverty and underachievement and blights scores of thousands of families.Is that a threat? Fall in, or more skeletons will be exposed? We will have to wait and see, because Cameron and heffer are unlikely to start planning joint family holidays any time soon.
If he can't be a bit more categorical about the wickedness of drug use, some people will wonder whether he has any more secrets.
Prohibitive laws are a recent, and failed, experiment. Cannabis was not outlawed until 1925, and though there were drug problems previously, they pale into insignificance beside the corrosive effects of prohibition. These are as follows:
1. The criminal law is a serious thing, as are the sanctions such as prison that it employs. It is in principle wrong to apply it to any of the activities consenting adults engage in. Any imprisonments or fines that result are absolute wrongs.
2. Prohibiting widespread adult activities simply transfers large parts of the economy into the hands of professional criminals. Organised crime did not exist prior to the fashion for prohibition that began in the 1920s; it has been legislated into existence.
3. Professional criminals adulterate their merchandise, and no quality control or labelling can operate. Almost all drug overdoses result from the consumption of narcotics of unknown strength and are the direct result of the law.
4. Criminalisation drives up prices on a straightforward risk/reward ration. This creates secondary criminal activity to finance the consumption of exorbitantly priced illegal drugs, alcohol or activities.
5. Otherwise law abiding people start dealing routinely with professional criminals. This has had a corrosive effect on society and has sanitised and even romanticised crime, violence, thuggishness and all the values of the criminal world - including the vendettas that are killing so many children and young men in our cities today.
The blight is in fact not drugs, but drug laws. The sooner we are rid of them the better.