Pubdate: Sun, 19 May 2002
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 The Observer
Author: A. C. Grayling, The Observer
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Drugs Should Be Legalised - Their Prohibition Is An Intolerable Intrusion 
Into Private Behaviour

One measure of a good society is whether its individual members have the 
autonomy to do as they choose in respects that principally concern only 
them. The debate about heroin, cocaine and marijuana touches precisely on 
this. In my submission, a society in which such substances are legal and 
available is a good society not because drugs are in themselves good, but 
because the autonomy of those who wish to use them is respected. For other 
and broader reasons, many of them practical, such a society will be a 
better one.

I have never taken drugs other than alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and 
medicinal drugs. Of these, I have for many years not taken the two former. 
I think it is inimical to a good life to be dependent for pleasure and 
personal fulfilment on substances which gloss or distort reality and 
interfere with rationality; and yet I believe that heroin, cocaine, 
marijuana, ecstasy and cognates of these should be legal and available in 
exactly the same way as nicotine and alcohol.

In logic is no difference between legal and currently illegal drugs. Both 
are used for pleasure, relief from stress or anxiety, and 'holidaying' from 
normal life, and both are, in different degrees, dangerous to health. Given 
this, consistent policy must do one of two things: criminalise the use of 
nicotine and alcohol, in order to bring them in line with currently illegal 
substances; or legalise currently illegal substances under the same kinds 
of regime that govern nicotine and alcohol.

On civil liberties grounds the latter policy is preferable because there is 
no justification in a good society for policing behaviour unless, in the 
form of rape, murder, theft, riot or fraud, it is intrinsically damaging to 
the social fabric, and involves harm to unwilling third parties. Good law 
protects in these respects; bad law tries to coerce people into behaving 
according to norms chosen by people who claim to know and to do better than 
those for whom they legislate. But the imposition of such norms is an 
injustice. By all means let the disapprovers argue and exhort; giving them 
the power to coerce and punish as well is unacceptable.

Arguments to the effect that drugs should be kept illegal to protect 
children fall by the same token. On these grounds, nicotine and alcohol 
should be banned too. In fact there is greater danger to children from the 
illegality of drugs.

Almost everyone who wishes to try drugs, does so; almost everyone who 
wishes to make use of drugs does it irrespective of their legal status. 
Opponents say legalisation will lead to unrestrained use and abuse. Yet the 
evidence is that where laws have been relaxed there is little variation in 
frequency or kind of use.

The classic example is Prohibition in the USA during the 1920s. (The 
hysteria over alcohol extended to other drugs; heroin was made illegal in 
the USA in 1924, on the basis of poor research on its health risks and its 
alleged propensity to cause insanity and criminal behaviour.) Prohibition 
created a huge criminal industry. The end of Prohibition did not result in 
a frenzy of drinking, but did leave a much-enhanced crime problem, because 
the criminals turned to substances which remained illegal, and supplied 
them instead.

Crime destabilises society. Gangland rivalry, the use of criminal 
organisations to launder money, to fund terrorism and gun-running, to 
finance the trafficking of women and to buy political and judicial 
influence all destabilise the conditions for a good society far beyond such 
problems as could be created by private individuals' use of drugs. If drugs 
were legally and safely available through chemist shops, and if their use 
was governed by the same provisions as govern alcohol purchase and 
consumption, the main platform for organised crime would be removed, and 
thereby one large obstacle to the welfare of society.

It would also remove much petty crime, through which many users fund their 
habit. If addiction to drugs were treated as a medical rather than criminal 
matter, so that addicts could get safe, regular supplies on prescription, 
the crime rate would drop dramatically, as argued recently by certain 
police chiefs.

The safety issue is a simple one. Paracetemol is more dangerous than 
heroin. Taking double the standard dose of paracetemol, a non-prescription 
analgesic, can be dangerous. Taking double the standard medical dose of 
heroin (diamorphine) causes sleepiness and no lasting effects.

A good society should be able to accommodate practices which are not 
destructive of social bonds (in the way that theft, rape, murder and other 
serious crimes are), but mainly have to do with private behaviour. In fact, 
a good society should only interfere in private behaviour in extremis.

Until a century ago, now-criminal substances were legal and freely 
available. Some (opium in the form of laudanum) were widely used. Just as 
some people are damaged by misuse of alcohol, so a few were adversely 
affected by misuses of other drugs. Society as a whole was not adversely 
affected by the use of drugs; but it was benefited by the fact that it did 
not burden itself with a misjudged, unworkable and paternalistic endeavour 
to interfere with those who chose to use drugs.

The place of drugs in the good society is not about the drugs as such, but 
rather the freedom and the value to individuals and their society of 
openness to experimentation and alternative behaviours and lifestyles. The 
good society is permissive, seeking to protect third parties from harm but 
not presuming to order people to take this or that view about what is in 
their own good.
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