The well-known journalist accused a lecturer of holding "evil" views during a bad-tempered visit to the University of Buckingham on Monday evening.
Students hosted the Free Speech Society's first-ever speaker, journalist Peter Hitchens, at its new venue the Vinson auditorium but his behaviour towards audience members caused at least three people, including two lecturers, to walk out.
Cherry Coombe, creative writing lecturer at the University and one of those who left early, said to this paper:
“We should be fostering freedom of discussion but he did the opposite to that. The audience were intimidated but he sort of lost the argument by intimidating them.”
In his introduction, Mr Hitchens, 67, made the following claim:
“The biggest single lie is that there has been a war on drugs in this country - no such thing has taken place.
“The British Government, the police and the courts have all cooperated in the steady, long term, de facto legalisation, particularly of marijuana.”
Cannabis has been prohibited in the UK since 1928. The maximum sentence for possession is five years imprisonment. According to Criminal Justice System statistics, since 2008 there have been over 218,000 criminal convictions in England and Wales for cannabis possession, with over 3,800 of these resulting in a custodial sentence.
Danny Kushlick, founder of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, provided the following comment:
“He can only stack up his argument by failing to articulate any of the negative outcomes associated with criminalisation - his only claim being that prohibition is barely enforced, and that we would be in a better place if the laws were enforced to the hilt, in total denial of the evidence showing that heavily enforced prohibition is not a deterrent to suppliers or users.”
Apparently unwittingly, Peter Hitchens appeared to articulate this argument himself when he said:
“Even the Islamic Republic of Iran, virtually a police state, has striven for decades to try and stamp out alcohol from that country and has completely and utterly failed.”
Mr Hitchens, who writes for The Mail on Sunday, was also keen to advance the link between cannabis use and mental illness. He said:
“The correlation between the use of marijuana and serious mental illness is strong and meaningful.”
Almost a third of adults in the UK admit to having used cannabis according to the annual crime survey, making it difficult for researchers to isolate the role of cannabis in relation to mental illness.
Mental health charity Rethink Mental Health said:
“There is a substantial body of credible evidence that high-potency cannabis is a contributory factor for the development of psychosis, and that smoking high-potency cannabis can worsen the symptoms of psychosis.
“While cannabis may be one of the causes of developing a mental illness, it is not the only cause for many people. Not everyone who uses cannabis will develop psychosis or schizophrenia. Not everyone who has psychosis or schizophrenia has used cannabis. But you are more likely to develop a psychotic illness if you smoke cannabis and are ‘genetically vulnerable’ to mental health problems."
Danny Kushlick said in his statement:
“Cannabis does carry risks, but all of those dangers are increased by leaving cannabis in the supply of organised criminals and unregulated dealers. We can never make cannabis totally safe, but we can make it safer by putting governments in overall charge of the trade.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, Mr Hitchens then moved on to suggesting a correlation between smoking cannabis and violent crime, including terrorist attacks. He said:
“All the Bataclan killers in Paris, all the Charlie Hebdo killers in Paris, almost every incidence of supposed terrorist killing in Paris were perpetrated by long term cannabis users.
"You will find this again with a man on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, the man on the beach in Tunisia, the man who drove the truck through the crowds in Nice, the same thing over and over and over again and it's not just supposedly Islamic events but over and over and over again also in American mass killings the influence of marijuana on this is huge."
As if pre-empting the obvious retort, Mr Hitchens said:
“Of course I know correlation is not causation, but it is also not necessarily not causation and is also in many cases the basis of epidemiology.
“I am very happy if the British Government would only launch a judge-controlled inquiry in which the police were forced to disgorge evidence on every violent crime in this country and were asked what the drug use of the criminal was, because I believe it would show this correlation to be true.”
A rather lively Q&A followed in which the invited speaker shouted at multiple members of the audience who questioned his proposition.
After lecturer Cherry Coombe had asked a follow up question about the relationship between prohibition and gang violence, Mr Hitchens cut her off, saying:
“No, shame on you, shame on you for continuing. You should not continue in any audience to promote this ghastly cause.”
When Ms Coombe protested that she was not promoting any such cause, Mr Hitchens continued:
“No, I don't want to hear anymore, I know what you're about. I don't want to hear anymore from you. Please be quiet. You've had your say and what you say is evil.”
James Tooley, professor of educational entrepreneurship and policy at the University, contacted us to speak about Mr Hitchens's behaviour.
Declaring himself a conservative and usually a fan of Mr Hitchens, he said:
“Free speech is absolutely important and credit to Buckingham's students for creating this society.
"It seems unfortunate that the particular reporter chosen for their first event yesterday behaved in such a discourteous manner."
When I asked Mr Tooley how he felt about the speaker's treatment of his colleague, Ms Coombe, he replied:
“I walked out after that - I couldn't tolerate it.”