More on drugs…

In a recent
entry on this weblog
, Roger Crisp discusses the recent and controversial
“Release” advertising campaign on drugs
(and its slogan “Nice People Take
Drugs”
),
and rightly highlights the need for serious and widespread debate on drug
legislation. My home country, Switzerland, precisely had a debate on this issue
a few months ago, when we were called to vote on a popular initiative
purporting to decriminalize the use, purchase, consumption and possession of
cannabis (not of other drugs) – which would have meant placing the consumption
of this drug on a similar plane with that of tobacco or alcohol. This measure
was supposed to be accompanied by others, notably destined to protect young
people. On the 30th of November 2008, however, the Swiss people
rejected the initiative by quite a large majority.

One of the
main arguments used by the opponents to the initiative was that accepting it
would send the wrong message to young people, i.e. that taking drugs is okay,
thus legitimizing the widespread use of drugs, with all the undesirable
consequences this would have: a negative impact on public health, and the
encouragement of a questionable lifestyle that involves turning to drugs to
obtain pleasure and avoid suffering in the face of life’s difficulties, rather
than making the effort required to achieve some of the greatest forms of
pleasure that we are capable of (such as the pleasures of intellectual
achievement or artistic creation), or to solve our problems instead of refusing
to confront them. At the time, I was actually persuaded by this line of
reasoning myself. But on further scrutiny, I believe it appears less
convincing.

The
objection clearly cannot be that it is wrong for the state to allow the use of
some product if this product can
be misused in some way, or even if it is likely
to be misused. Many
people, both in Switzerland and the UK, spend a significant amount of their
time watching trash television and eating unhealthy food. Many smoke, or
consume alcohol beyond the limit recommended by doctors. All these activities
tend to harm the health of those who engage in them, and some of them can also
contribute to a lifestyle dominated by passive consumption and a tendency to
evade difficulties. Yet few of us would see this as a sufficient reason to
outlaw the consumption of stupid TV programs, alcohol, or cigarettes. But then
what justifies criminalizing cannabis use, even by grown-up adults?

The
opponents to the initiative have argued that cannabis consumption, unlike
alcohol consumption for instance, is always
dangerous no matter what amount of it is consumed. They might point to the risk of addiction. But not every consumer of
the drug becomes addicted to it: the danger mostly concerns regular smokers and
those who consume high-strength varieties, and the point of the “Release”
campaign was precisely to stress that not all drug users go to such extremes.
And again, tobacco is also harmful to health and can lead to addiction, yet its
consumption remains legal. Another line of argument has been that cannabis is
more dangerous than legal substances like alcohol because it necessarily
involves changing one’s perception of reality (see for instance here).
But such an argument appears rather weak: it’s clearly false that if a
substance somehow changes your perception of reality, it must be so dangerous
that it should be banned. Wearing rose-coloured glasses arguably changes one’s
perception of reality, but if you wear them at a party, rather than while you
are driving and might get confused when looking at traffic lights, it’s hard to
describe what you are doing as a dangerous practice that should be made
illegal.

Still,
there might be something to the idea that decriminalizing the use of cannabis
(and other drugs) would send the wrong message: presumably, we wouldn’t want a
substance to be made freely available if its only possible use was to allow
those who purchased it to kill themselves. And there is some scientific
evidence that cannabis is actually more harmful than tobacco
.
Suppose this evidence were conclusive: it might then be argued that a state’s
commitment to liberal principles cannot justify its endorsing the use of just
any substance by its citizens, no matter how harmful it might be. A limit must
be placed somewhere, and one might argue that cannabis (and “tougher” drugs),
but not tobacco, goes beyond that limit. This line of argument might be the
best way of developing idea that decriminalizing cannabis “would send the wrong
message”. But even if it is, its proponents need to clearly present it in an
open debate, and they might also need further scientific evidence to back up
their claims about the harmfulness of cannabis use. The term “drug” is not a
magic word that can justify prohibiting the use of any substance it is properly
applied to.

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2 Responses to More on drugs…

  • Miriam says:

    Although I agree with the majority of your post, I think the arguments based on comparisons to the various dangers of tobacco and alcohol are rather misleading. In fact we have seen the damage both have done to public health, and to society in general (eg increased violence and disorder caused by alcohol). If they were new to society now it is likely we would consider banning them- in fact over the past years we have tried to limit their use through a number of measures. But the prohibition movement was a failure—it seems to me that the reason these substances became a part of our culture long before we realised their dangers and now it is too late.

    Law has to be a mixture of what we would like to achieve and was is practically possible, and it relies on the majority of the population agreeing to abide by that law and punishing the few that do not. If too many people flout it, it undermines the authority both of the individual law and the legal system as a whole, and funds other kinds of crime. At the moment with cannabis it seems like we are at the tipping point where it is starting to be considered a normal activity by enough people that the law is almost defunct anyway- it is neither observed nor enforced. I personally wouldn’t take cannabis for the health reasons, as with tobacco and excessive alcohol; it might be that there is still a case for legalising to preserve the authority of the law.

  • You’re right that legislators need to set themselves realistic aims. One might still reply, though, that the
    fact that some practice has become widely accepted in a given population doesn’t necessarily justify
    legalizing it: e.g. if a society fell into such chaos that stealing became the norm among its
    members, the appropriate answer would presumably be for the state to resort to a combination of
    repressive and preventive measures – to try and remove the economic conditions that might be inciting
    people to turn to stealing – rather than to legalize stealing. Of course, there is a difference in the case
    of cannabis consumption, in that arguably it doesn’t have the same negative societal effects as stealing
    would have if it became comparably widespread.

    You’re also likely right that many of those who object to decriminalizing cannabis use while endorsing the status quo regarding smoking or alcohol consumption do so simply because decriminalizing it would be new in our society (or because it is a “drug”). Obviously this isn’t a good reason to want cannabis use to remain outlawed. My aim was just to suggest that there might be a more reasonable way of arguing for such a differential treatment of cannabis and tobacco/alcohol, based on the idea that the state cannot tolerate just any practice among its citizens, no matter how harmful it might be to those who engage in it, provided that they weren’t coerced into it and didn’t harm other people. I’m not saying, though, that I would endorse such a line of argument myself (I doubt that cannabis is dangerous enough to its users to justify a prohibition; most likely it’s no more dangerous than e.g. extreme sports, which are not prohibited by the law), but I thought it might still be worth discussing.

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