The war on drugs: be careful what you wish for

by George Hatjoullis

There is an inexorable drive towards decriminalization and ultimately normalisation of what are now proscribed mind or consciousness altering substances. The arguments have several strands. First, there is the issue of consistency. Alcohol and Tobacco are harmful addictive substances but quite legal. Why should these be the exception? Second, there is the issue of personal liberty. Why should the state limit the states of consciousness that an individual can attain via mind altering substances? Is this not an infringement of civil liberty? Finally, there is matter of criminalization and crime. Much crime is drug related and by decriminalizing such drugs one eliminates a lot of crime.

Taking the points in reverse order the matter of crime is the most seductive. However, it is philosophically unsound. Applying the same principle to, say, burglary one could reduce crime by making burglary legal. Not a very sound crime reduction strategy. Or we could try to reduce personal theft by eliminating the personal possession of things to steal. Again not too appealing. So it is with drugs. The fact that drugs produce crime (and they do) is not a logical case for decriminalization. If drug use is wrong then it needs to be banned and the crime resulting from the ban has to be dealt with like all other crime. Indeed it is not at all certain that the net impact on crime will be to reduce it. It may just redirect it. Alcohol related crimes are still very common if somewhat different to those under prohibition. The fundamental question is should it be banned?

The matter of civil liberty is also seductive. An adult fully informed of the consequences of drug taking, it might be argued, should be allowed to make this choice. The problem is that, if the substance is addictive, she/he may only be able to make this choice once. What choice do you imagine an addict has? The question is should society seek to restrict irreversible self-destructive behaviour? Should the police not try to stop people jumping off a bridge, for example? This presupposes that drug taking is self-destructive and irreversible of course, but the point at issue remains. How far should society go to protect people from their own behaviour? This is a difficult philosophical issue  and one that involves the matter of duty to others in society. If my self-destructive behaviour hurts others as well then exercising my personal liberty infringes on that of others. Society has a legitimate say in how far this can be allowed.

Finally, we come to the matter of consistency. Nicotine is highly addictive and the delivery via cigarettes is very damaging physically. Yet, despite increased efforts at discouragement, it is still legal. Interestingly, the electric cigarette provides an apparently physically safe way of delivering the addictive substance, nicotine, but the uptake is as yet not huge. Alcohol is more selectively addictive but also physically harmful. It also results in large numbers of alcohol-related crimes but it is still legal. Alcohol and tobacco have become so normalised in some societies that elimination is just too difficult. Moreover, the economic interests are entrenched and have, and exercise, political power. The consistency argument basically says that what we should do is normalise more potentially harmful substances and create new economic and political interest groups. Let us explore this line of reasoning.

A case could be made for legalisation of now proscribed drugs based on the need to conduct research, to ensure un-adulterated delivery of said substances and taxation of revenues arising from the trade and consumption of said substances. More research could establish the extent of harm and possibly even eliminate harmful effects. It could explore more ways of altering consciousness. The drugs could be delivered via reputable outlets so that harm from adulteration could be avoided. Finally, with legal trade the drugs could provide a source of revenue for the state with which to mop any harmful outcomes such as crime and health consequences. The institutions most likely to be entrusted with this new privilege would be big pharmaceutical companies. Be careful what you wish for.

Recommended reading: Bad Pharma, Ben Goldacre, HarperCollins; The Emperor’s New Drugs, Irving Kirsch, The Bodley Head, london