Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens was defeated by ex-Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker in a cannabis legalisation debate watched by 200 people on the 7th April in Fulton.

A straw poll at the beginning of the evening revealed the overwhelming majority (185 of the 200 present) were in favour of cannabis legalisation.

In response, Hitchens, arguing against the legalisation motion, called the audience “slavish conformists” who had “been told what to think since they were pulled off the teat”.

By the end of the night, only 8 had changed their minds and the anti-legalisation side was crushed in a landslide.

The social conservative and frequent Question Time panelist conducted his own survey after taking the floor, asking how many present had used cannabis, and then how many had been arrested and prosecuted for so doing.

While the overwhelming majority of students in the Fulton lecture hall had used the drug, none admitted to having faced any legal repercussions, which Hitchens took as evidence of the hypothesis – expounded at length in his book ‘The War We Never Fought’ – that cannabis has been de facto decriminalised since the Home Office’s weed-friendly Wooton Report of 1968.

He went on to argue that, since people can already use the drug without fear of state intervention, they would gain nothing from legalisation.

The big winners of legalisation, Hitchens said, would be “evil corporations” that want to “make money by making people ill” (‘Big Dope’). He claimed legalisation would give them the ability to “advertise it, to distribute it on the internet, to sell it everywhere”.

However, Freya Marshall Payne, first-year student and Baker’s sidekick on the pro-legalisation side, dismissed Hitchens’ characterisation saying her vision of legalisation was not a “free market one” and that she wanted the cannabis industry nationalised and the revenues funnelled into public services.

Norman Baker, in making his case for legalisation, cited figures from the ONS (Office for National Statistics), which showed that only 1 person had died from taking cannabis in 2013.

He contrasted this with deaths from alcohol and tobacco in the same year, which were 7,080 and 79,700 respectively.

Baker was chastised for this rhetorical move by Will Singh – a Philosophy, Politics and Economics undergraduate on Hitchens’ side – who urged the ex-MP to debate cannabis “on its own merits and demerits”.

Singh said: “We recognise that there are social harms to tobacco and alcohol: that doesn’t mean we should add in a third major drug”.

Norman Baker next cited a government report he pressured Home Secretary Theresa May to commission in 2014, which found via international comparisons “no obvious” link between tough drug laws and illegal drug use.

Baker also tried to make the libertarian argument (“the state should butt out”) but quickly ditched that principle when a dogged Will Singh insisted he extend the logic to other drugs, such as heroin.

Marshall Payne then accused the opposition of “spreading cobwebs” about the risks of cannabis use, and pointed to research from the University of Harvard which found no link between cannabis use and schizophrenia.

She also referred to a 2016 study in the Journal of Pharmacology, which found no link between cannabis use and memory loss or low IQ.

She went on: “While the link between cannabis use and psychosis is still to a certain extent in doubt, the National Academy of Scientists concluded that the link existed only in tangent with high-grade skunk, which could be regulated if we legalised”.

In response, Hitchens claimed “there is no safe way of taking cannabis, anymore than there is a safe way of playing Russian Roulette”. He warned that anybody in the audience could succumb to psychosis at any time as a result of cannabis use.

Having cited an American study that found no link between violent crime and cannabis consumption, Marshall Payne next hit Hitchens with a stinging rebuke, asking whether he would discount the “lives saved” from domestic abusers “picking up a joint rather than a bottle of vodka on the way home from work”.

In response, Hitchens claimed cannabis – like alcohol – also results in violent behaviour.

As evidence, Hitchens then reeled off in his resolute baritone a lengthy pre-prepared list of famous killers who had indulged in the drug: “Seifeddine Rezgui, the mass killer on the beach in Tunisia; Jared Loughner, the man who murdered six people in a massacre in Tucson, Arizona; Deyan Deyanov, who killed Jennifer Mills-Westley by beheading her in Tenerife; Nicholas Salvador, who beheaded 82-year-old Palmira Silva; Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the killers of Lee Rigby; Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the culprits in the Charlie Hebdo killings…”

Hitchens admitted he had only found a correlation, but said the possibility that cannabis could be linked to serious violent crime “existed”, and “the idea that cannabis is a drug which makes people better behaved is absolute drivel, insupportable by any facts”.

In a comment to The Badger after the event, Hitchens said he “loses almost every vote at every debate” he does.

However, he consoled himself with the thought that he might have deterred somebody in the audience from doing the drug, and from suffering the alleged ill-health effects.

He said: “I am trying to change minds. And I don’t believe you necessarily change minds on the spot – having changed my mind myself, I know it’s a long process.

“Sometimes it’s an incident which sets you off, sometimes it’s something you read, sometimes it’s an experience. But for people to hear a cogent exposition of something they disagree with is important”.

The debate was chaired by Rachel Smart of the Law Society, who awarded a bottle of wine to the best question at the night’s close.

The event was organised by the Debating Society and The Badger, with special efforts from Paul Millar, Harry Howard, Annie Pickering, Hugo Wolfe, Sol Hallam, Filip Vasilijevic, Bianca Serafani and Glenn Houlihan.

Coverage was also provided by UniTV and URF – check those outlets for video and audio of the evening.

Mark Tovey

Photo credit: Pete Humphreys 

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