Whether Hunting or Drugs, We Should Reform Laws with Flaws
After an hour of peaceful pedaling in the low-lit, leafy lanes, I started gaining on a well turned-out gentleman trotting merrily on a skimming-stone grey mount. He tipped his cap as we went past. That, I thought, is a rare treat. Cyclists get used to beeped horns, revved engines and if we are really lucky a cowardly flick of the Vs and a dopplerised tirade about road tax. Here was a gent so pleased to see us he wanted to celebrate. Tally ho!, I thought, and quickly realised that he was thinking the same. Up ahead was a gathering of men and women on horseback that was so enormous it could have been a cavalry regiment; but so distinctly smelling of fortified wine that it could only be the hunt.
We rode past to much exchanging of bemused looks about our respective choices of leisure pursuit – lycra and legwork versus hounds and horsepower. Fortunately no-one was undignified enough to break the curious harmony of the scene by pointing out that only one of us was going to commit a crime that day.
At the end of a week in which a ground-breaking report had proven that harsh drug laws did not reduce levels of illegal drug use, here in the Oxfordshire lanes was another example of legislation failing. Another instance of Westminster’s authoritarian arrows missing their target.
As we pedaled on, (and I was left in the wake of the speedsters) I had a chance to ponder whether we are too keen to make too many of our citizens into criminals to achieve a wide range of objectives.
Let’s acknowledge first that drug use is a more nuanced subject than hunting in terms of its treatment by the criminal law.
However the subjects do share one philosophical question – are inflicting harm on yourself through drugs and allowing dogs to inflict a harm on foxes through hunting ‘harms’ that the state should criminalise?
On drugs, my view is that users are not necessarily criminals. Any legislation governing users should be targeted at addressing their problem with a clear emphasis on breaking addiction and improving outcomes in terms of health, social problems and criminal activity. The focus should be on treatment and rehabilitation.
The international evidence published last week is that legislation that tries to crimnalise users, or create a deterrent does not produce the desired result – it does not reduce the harm.
When faced with that evidence, MPs should look again at the issue. If treatment through substitution, drug consumption rooms, dissuasion commissions reduces usage faster and saves lives, let’s go for it. Better laws could reduce drug use more quickly, stop money falling into the hands of gangs and could take an unnecessary burden off our criminal justice system.
To refuse to liberalise drugs laws on the basis of a belief that tough sentences send the ‘right message’, is authoritarian nonsense that belongs in the same historical dustbin as the workhouse and the gallows.
Unfortunately the huntsmen of Oxfordshire don’t have the excuse of addiction (apart, possibly to port and cake) for their crimes. Yet in contrast to drug users, hunters know there will be no enforcement – probably because the inhumane disposal of a fox is not considered by police or the landowners affected to be something that it is worth expending their budget and efforts to prevent. Interestingly our local force just invested in a Land Rover specifically to target hare coursing, but not to pursue hunts.
That sort of inconsistency makes the issue even more fraught. However, while I think we should be moving towards a position where hunting with dogs is a not a quintessential part of our rural fabric, I don’t think that trying to enforce the ban and attempting to impose criminal sanctions is the right approach.
For all the heat generated around the legislation (now a decade old), everyone engaged in the issue must surely accept that the ban doesn’t work. How ironic that the law that indirectly attempts to govern the activity of thoroughbred equine specimens has turned out to be an ass. There is even some evidence of an increase in participation since the ban came into effect.
If MPs want to end hunting with dogs, like reducing the levels of drugs in our communities, they will have the majority of the UK behind them.
However, a sensible approach is to look at solutions that can encourage individuals that do or might in the future engage in hunting and drug-taking to move away from the practice, rather than trying to enforce a ban. Why not spend more time educating children in rural areas on animal welfare rather than chasing people in land rovers or ignoring the ban altogether?
Drugs policy and hunting are very different subjects that require different responses. But in my view neither drug takers nor huntsmen should necessarily be correctly characterised as criminals. In both policy areas, authoritarian solutions have failed to achieve the desired outcome. A better approach would be to move away from the blunt tools of criminal law and look at more constructive ways to address our problems. Both examples show that making something illegal doesn’t stop it happening.