Nice People Take Drugs (Too)

The drug and human rights charity *Release* recently launched an advertising campaign in which the slogan ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ was displayed on the sides of London buses. Their aim was to encourage society to face up to the reality that a huge proportion of the population does at least experiment with drugs and to combat the popular assumption, which underlies a good deal of political rhetoric and media coverage, that since drugs are simply ‘evil’ there is no point in seriously debating drug policy. Those ads are now being withdrawn by the company that booked the space, after advice from the Committee of Advertising Practice: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jun/09/nice-people-drugs-ads-pulled

Apparently, Release has been told that their strap-line would be more acceptable if it included the word ‘too’. This suggests that the CAP may have felt that the public would read the original claim as equivalent to ‘All those who take drugs are nice people’. But even adding the word ‘too’ may not be enough. For the new sentence might be read as: ‘All nice people take drugs, along with other things (such as holidays when they can, advice when they need it, offence when people are rude to them, etc.).’ Of course, no one would have understood either the new or the old sentence in these ways. But in fact, though it should be up to Release how they word their strap-line (the censorship charge they have made doesn’t seem far-fetched), adding ‘too’ does bring out more clearly what they want to say: that we should stop demonizing drug-takers and have an open, impartial, and well-informed debate.

This must be right. Modern attitudes to drugs mirror those of advocates of temperance in the nineteenth century, who were moved by the terrible harms done to individuals, families, and communities by the abuse of alcohol. Few these days campaign for the prohibition of alcohol, and it is widely thought that a licensing system can mitigate a good deal of the harm of alcohol without unduly restricting the liberty of individuals to consume alcohol should they wish.

It is quite hard not to disapprove of alcohol sales while thinking that even the use of ‘soft’ drugs is evil and should be entirely prohibited. One central question must be whether certain drugs should be legalized, perhaps within the parameters of a licensing system – Cannabis is the obvious example. Key here is J.S. Mill’s well known ‘harm principle’, according to which society is not entitled to interfere with a person’s liberty except to prevent harm to others. If I wish to use small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes in the privacy of my own home, what right have others to prevent me? The answer, of course, is that even if I pose no threat to others when under the influence of the drug, that may not be true of many other people, and we have to design a system to cover everyone. In particular, there is the important question whether making drugs more easily available will encourage higher levels of drug use in children, who most would consider should be protected from such influences until they are old enough to make up their own minds. Another significant issue is co-ordination. If one country on its own legalizes certain drugs, that can cause problems which would not arise if a sizeable number made the same move.

These issues involve weighty matters of principle as well as complex empirical facts. Perhaps one unintended effect of the withdrawal of the Release ads is that the charity’s campaign will receive an even higher profile than it would otherwise have done, and so bring forward the date when we finally engage in serious and widespread debate on drugs.

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