Britain: Land of the Cowardly

Watching from the UK, America’s gun control debate seems bizarre, archaic, outlandish and fascinating. Like most progressives, I come down firmly on the side of greater gun control; but I’m not American, and don’t claim a right to participate in the decision making. But I do claim my right to help influence the decision as best I can. America’s guns aren’t just America’s problem.

They leak out, fuelling the Mexican and Central American drug war. And in buying so many guns, Americans have greatly increased the size of the global small arms industry, bringing down gun prices and creating a wealthy industry with immense lobbying power that can be used to modify the will of the people. A gun manufactured in Russia is as likely to be sold to an American consumer as to the Russian police. Without legal weapons in America, guns would be less numerous and more expensive globally. Wars in poor countries would be more difficult to fund, if only marginally.

And the “debate” over whether guns lead to an increase in violence is laughable. International data are now available at the click of a Google button. Any American can now quickly compare the murder rate in their country with that in any other, and discover that America is far more violent than any similarly developed country. America has 4% of the world’s population, yet the vast majority of mass shootings happen in the United States – more than 200 since 2006.

The pro-gun “liberty” argument is deeply flawed. The prevalence of guns tends to discourage, rather than encourage, free speech – as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gabrielle Giffords and many others have inadvertently demonstrated. With so many guns, it takes a brave person to stand up in a public place and espouse a controversial idea. Minority viewpoints are violently suppressed in the United States, usually not by the state, but by lone men with access to fire-power. One of the greatest limitations to the First Amendment is the Second.

And yet, watching the arguments from the UK, I also experience a genuine and strong respect for the importance that many Americans attach to liberty. Britain pays lip service to liberty, and yet this country appears to almost completely lack the libertarian attitudes that exist on both the left and right of American politics. Britons are far more accepting of state intervention in our lives than Americans, in many forms. The merest hint of a threat will trigger a moral panic in the media, and Britons are repeatedly happy to accept the need for a little more police power without considering the cost.

The gun libertarians may have picked a dumb fight, but at least they stand and fight for (what they believe to be) liberty. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the state has rolled over British liberties, cheered on by the media and both of the main political parties.

Last weekend, thousands of Americans demonstrated against spying by the NSA. Meanwhile in Britain, we discover that GCHQ is spying on us and sharing the information with the NSA. Here in the UK, we don’t demonstrate for our right to privacy or free speech. Nor do our leaders have the backbone to criticise the secret police; instead they issue threats against newspapers that dare reveal the erosion of our freedom.

It’s easy to draw up a long list of liberties lost in recent years, but what is most shocking is that these were taken without opposition.

  • Laws drawn up against a “terrorist threat” have routinely been used to attack other targets. When police brutality started to be routinely exposed by photographers, the police responded by using terrorist powers to harass photographers.
  • Carrying a knife is an offence punishable with prison time. The change in law came about following a moral panic over a “knife crime epidemic” which never happened. I’m not a huge fan of people carrying knives, but I’m even less of a fan of a police state with endless justification to stop and search people in the street, which is where we now live. We don’t need police stopping and searching our teenagers at their whim, especially since they choose to direct their actions against young black and Asian men – such police behaviour was a prime cause of the 2011 UK riots.
  • Possession of “extreme pornography” is punishable with prison time and addition to the sex offenders register. Possession can even constitute receipt of an “extreme” image by email. What constitutes “extreme” is the decision of puritanical politicians and regulators who seem never to have had sex lives of their own. This law is now to be extended to include “rape porn”. In practise, although sold as a law to “protect” people, this criminalises the recording of legal, consenting sex acts between adults.
  • We allow video and TV to be more tightly censored than most other democracies; now we are also ready to watch our free Internet access slip away, under the guise of “protecting children”.

Through moral panic after moral panic, draconian law after draconian law, British rights are eroded. But it seems the British people deserve this treatment. We fail to protest. We re-elect the Labour/Tory duopoly that competes to be “toughest” against the next non-existent threat to our safety. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats exhibit at least paper support for civil liberties; for this reason, it’s better that we elect Lab/Lib or Tory/Lib coalitions than either simple Labour or Tory governments.

We live in one of the safest societies on Earth. Crime in all forms has been falling for decades. And yet the average Briton seems more afraid and more prepared to surrender liberty than ever. We have become a nation of cowards (if we were ever anything else – our belief in our “glorious and courageous history” seems to largely be based on the courage of one man: Winston Churchill).

Liberty is often ugly. It means allowing people to do things that many people dislike or even fear. We’ve forgotten this in Britain, and unless we re-learn it, we will deservedly continue our slide towards living in a sham democracy where everything is monitored, and many harmless acts can result in police intervention in our lives. America, with its endless wars and regular suspension of democratic values, may not deserve to call itself the Land of the Free, but it has more right to do so than Britain does.

Can 210,000 British Drug Deaths Be Prevented?

David Nutt Ranking of Drugs By Harm
Professor David Nutt's ranking of drugs by harm (image:Economist.com)

Regulation is often a dirty word, especially to the political right; but one set of regulations is generally accepted across the political spectrum: those that prevent monopolies from forming. An unfortunate fact about markets is that they tend to become less competitive over time. The winners purchase the rest, or drive them out of business, and without regulation, monopolies or cartels are virtually inevitable. The UK, EU and US all have anti-trust laws aimed at maintaining at least some competition within markets, and by-and-large, they work.

I can only think of one industry that is not only not subject to anti-trust legislation, but where governments actively weigh in to support one player above all the competitors: the recreational drugs business. Getting drunk, stoned, high or generally off-your-tits is one thing that almost all human societies have in common. Escaping daily reality, using one substance or another, is apparently one of the most universally human of all activities. Once we have food, water, shelter and sex sorted it seems that twisting reality is our next priority.

Different regions of the world have discovered their own substances of choice, and these have become tightly woven into human cultures and religions over the course of millennia. The Hebrews, probably including Jesus, used cannabis “anointing oil” for religious ceremonies. Asia has used cannabis and opium since pre-history. Native Americans had access to coca and most of the world’s hallucinogens; and of course, Europe found a special love for its drugs of choice, alcohol and caffeine, and exported these tastes to North America and other regions. There are many other drugs that have found a place in one culture or another.

As European empires began the process we now call globalisation, our different cultures clashed, and so did our drug habits. Europeans, in their wisdom, decided that their drugs were superior to those of other cultures, and in their fear of substances they didn’t understand, began to attack foreign drugs and the cultures surrounding them. The first drug to be outlawed in modern times was cannabis, banned by the British Empire in Egypt. Later, American puritans launched war on all drugs, and successfully banned several; but soon alcohol, the white man’s drug of choice was legalised again, while the cannabis and cocaine favoured by blacks, Latinos and Chinese remained banned. Popular new lab-created drugs, invented in more recent times, have been banned as they gained popularity; LSD, MDMA and Mephedrone being among the most popular of these.

Dozens of drugs are now banned in the UK, with little or no justification; three popular choices remain legal: alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. In a 2010 study by the then-government drugs specialist, Professor David Nutt, twenty popular drugs (legal and illegal) were ranked in order of harm. Alcohol came at the top, with Heroin and Crack Cocaine in second and third place. Tobacco came sixth. See the chart above for the full list.

A recent study by British doctors’ organisations predicted that up to 210,000 people would die from alcohol use in the next 20 years. The predictable response from the moronic media and politicians was a call for yet more alcohol controls. Yet alcohol is already a very well regulated substance, from production to retail. What the media and politicians failed to mention was that by making alcohol the government-approved recreational drug of choice, and leaving other drugs in the hands of criminals, our leaders have created us this problem.

The big lie is this: alcohol deaths are not treated as drug deaths – they are reported separately. If, instead of reporting 10,000 or so alcohol deaths in a year, the media said: “… around 11,000 recreational drug deaths, of which alcohol comprised around 90%…”, the nature of the problem becomes clearer. Alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug on the street.

There is an obvious need for a free (but sensibly regulated) market in recreational drugs; could it really be imagined that, faced with a selection of 10 or 20 legal drugs, most people would continue to choose the most dangerous of them all? Of course not – and this is why the alcohol industry is so desperate to keep its competitors outlawed. This is why a single Ecstacy-linked death can make headlines in the big business-friendly media, while a typical week in the UK brings well over 100 unreported alcohol deaths.

The legalisation, regulation and taxation of drugs would need to be done with care and under expert guidance – in other words by taking advice from the very experts the government repeatedly ignores. While the details are complex, the approach is potentially very simple: for example, as a first step, the authorities could legalise every drug scoring under 30 on Professor Nutt’s scale (note: alcohol scores over 70). This means legalising all shown on the chart, with the exception of heroin, crack and methamphetamine. Those dangerous drugs already legal would remain legal (we already know how dangerous a ban on alcohol would be, by looking at America’s failed experiment with prohibition).

Possession of any substance should not be a criminal offence – these laws serve only as an excuse for police and judiciary to harass and criminalise those sections of society they choose. The supply needs to be regulated from end to end. Drug addiction is best treated as a medical, not a criminal, problem. And most important, the public needs honest education. Many die from using drugs today, not because the substances are inherently dangerous, but because the government, criminally, refuses to provide information on safe usage, and continues to allow criminals to sell untested, unregulated substances to millions of users.

We don’t have to let 210,000 British people die unnecessarily – it’s a choice, and those leaders who make that choice should be held accountable for the deaths. People who have a free choice of drugs carry full responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. But those who are damaged by alcohol can, at least in part, blame the government for attacking alternative, safer, substances.