Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry clashes with Peter Hitchens on Newsnight

Friends actor Matthew Perry has clashed with newspaper columnist Peter Hitchens on BBC's Newsnight, over the criminalisation of people "addicted" to drugs and alcohol.

Specialist courts allow former addicts to sit in as lay magistrates dealing with crimes related to abuse.

Perry, an addict himself, argued in favour of such courts but the debate became heated after Hitchens voiced his controversial views on the subject.

Hosting the show was Jeremy Paxman and the panel was also joined by Baroness Meacher, who chairs the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform.

Read the full transcript of the debate below:

Perry: People who go through drug court are 55% less likely of seeing handcuffs ever again.

Paxman: How do you know they wouldn't have quit anyway? JPX

Perry: That gets into a bigger question of whether these people are addicts or not. If they're drug addicts and alcoholics then they're going to keep going until something stops them. Drug court is a wonderful way to interrupt that process and it's a way not to throw these people away.

It takes first time non-violent drug offenders and instead of throwing them into prison, it puts them into an 18 month to two year programme.

Paxman: What's not to like about it?

Hitchens: The evidence in favour of them is pretty scanty. There haven't been many serious studies. I think there was one in Baltimore, one in Arizona and one somewhere else in the United States. They tend to suggest that over the long term they don't make much difference anyway and the selection of the people who go through them I think has some impact on it.

The real problem for me is that what you're saying is that you're seeking to fail in the criminal justice system - the whole point of the criminal justice system – a point we forget all the time - is to deter people from committing crimes. Once you've arrested someone, once they've appeared in court, it has already failed.

To soften the court system, to make it into a kind of jolly where the judge wears tracksuit bottoms and is nice to the offender. You should see some of the things that go on in this country, in the west London drugs court, where they wore tracksuit bottoms and was matey with the offenders. This gives the impression not of the majesty of justice but of somebody trying to be nice.

It doesn't do anybody any favours trying to be nice. If you want to stop people becoming drug users then the best thing to do is to make sure they never start in the first place. An effective criminal justice system would actually do that.

Paxman: The point is they have started.

Hitchens: Well yes they've started because the criminal justice system is so feeble.

Meacher: Isn't the problem that by the time you get to a drug court, we've already assumed that drug addiction is a crime when actually drug addiction is a health problem. The first thing you've got to do is some preventative work to prevent people from becoming drug addicts and we now know that there's good evidence you can do that. Portugal has switched vast sums of money from prisons to treatment and have vastly more people in treatment than we do here. They have a much better record than Spain and Italy.

You can deal with this as a health problem instead of waiting for people to become really severe addicts, get into the criminal justice system and then yes I agree, drug courts can be a little more helpful.

Perry: [To Hitchens] I'm not understanding your point. Your point is to stop drugs and alcoholism by people never starting?

Hitchens: You two believe in this fantasy of addiction.

Perry: Fantasy of addiction? You are making a point that is as ludicrous as saying Peter Pan is real.

Hitchens: It's a complete fantasy, where people lose all power over themselves and become victims of this terrible disease after which they cannot stop taking drugs. If you really believe that, then you would presumably think that the best thing would be that they never ever came into contact with those drugs. Wouldn't it therefore be wise to deter them from doing so by a stern and effective criminal justice system which actually persuaded them it was unwise to take the drugs in the first place?

Perry: I didn't come here to listen to ludicrous things like that.

Hitchens: You tell me why it's ludicrous if you're so clever.

Perry: I will. The American medical association diagnosed it as a disease in 1976 so you're saying that that's incorrect?

Hitchens: The medical profession is constantly doing extraordinary things. The American Psychiatry Institute for years said that homosexuality was a disease. They were wrong.

Meacher: Peter the key thing is is that we've had this policy for 50 years of treating addiction as a crime. 50 years. And we now know this doesn't work anywhere in the world. Increasingly in the US, Uruguay and elsewhere – things are changing.

Perry: I'm a drug addict. I'm a person that if I have a drink I can't stop. And so it would be following your ideology that I'm choosing to do that.

Hitchens: That's exactly my belief. Yes you do choose. You have a choice over whether you drink or not or whether you take drugs or not.

Perry: It's a belief you wrote in your book. But your book is the only book in modern times that has this ideology, so doesn't that teach you something?

Hitchens: Well quite unfashionable ideas are unfashionable because they are unpopular with influential people

Meacher: Or they're wrong.

Hitchens: It doesn't necessarily bother me. You tell me what the objective diagnoses is to establish addiction in the human body.

Perry: It's an allergy of the body...

Hitchens: An allergy of what? (laughs)

Perry: We're supposed to be grown men here and you're making faces like the guy who was wearing the pants you were talking about earlier. I'm expecting you to come out in the pants in a minute.

[Addiction is] an obsession of your mind and an allergy of your body. So this is what happens to me. I start thinking about alcohol and I can't stop thinking about it.

Hitchens: And what's the objective physical proof of this inability to stop?

Meacher: There's considerable proof. It's partly a genetic problem.

Paxman: Your argument is that it's willpower, Peter?

Hitchens: Of course it's willpower. People constantly stop both drinking and taking drugs. If willpower was not involved then how would that happen?

Perry: It's not willpower. You're just a person who's talking who is wrong.

Paxman: [To Perry] Is it an effort on your part not to drink now?

Perry: I'm in control of the first drink. So I do all these things to protect myself from not having the first drink. But once I have that drink, the allergy of the body kicks in. This is all documented alcoholism proof. Then I can't stop after that.