Legalise drugs

Drugs – by which I mean currently illicit recreational drugs like marijuana, ecstacy, LSD and the like – should be legalised and regulated, and they should be done so with some urgency because every day the war on drugs continues the problem gets worse. Philosophically it seems to me fairly obvious that many if not all drugs should be legalised. This must be the case for anyone approaching political philosophy from a liberal non-perfectionist way of looking at things. In the tradition of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill, the government shouldn’t, in general, tell us what to do. There are many different ways of living a good life which we should respect even if we disagree with them and can’t understand them. The lives of hippie stoners, or pill popping ravers (and maybe even junkie dero’s) included. The government should stop people doing harm to others but not necessarily harm to themselves. Having said that I’m not an ideologue. Freedom is not absolute, and sometimes if the practical benefits of a policy are overwhelming, a state can get away with telling people what to do. I’m ok with seatbelts being compulsory. So I guess you need to look at the specifics of each case and work it out. So let’s do that with drugs.

I might start by pointing out that the vast majority of drug users are occasional recreational users for whom drugs do not represent a serious threat to the success of their lives. After all 1 in 10 Australians over age 14 have used ecstasy. And Australia has the highest prevalence of marijuana use per capita in the world according to the 2012 United Nations World Drug Report. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard have both admitted to using marijuana. Barack Obama used it regularly until he graduated from college, along with other drugs including cocaine. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, around 40 percent of Americans have tried pot, and ten percent in the last year. The point is most people who use drugs turn out fine.

But someone might respond that for some people drugs completely and utterly ruin lives. I wouldn’t dream of denying this. Indeed there does anecdotally at least seem to be a large correlation between homelessness and drug addiction. Certainly there have been many deaths directly related to drug use. So maybe drug legalisation is a middle class issue, a niave bourgeois pursuit for a recreational legal high which ignores all the damage it does to the poor, the mentally ill, the less educated and so on. This is the kind of argument that might suck me in; I wouldn’t want to be accused of being bourgeois!

However the fact that drugs do cause such damage to the vulnerable is exactly why they should be legalised. And given how much damage they do, they must be legalised and regulated as a matter of some urgency. This may seem counterintuitive but it’s the point of drug reform. Legalise drugs to protect people. Drugs can do enormous damage to someone’s life. Someone might become addicted, lose her family and friends, lose her job, end up with few life skills and future prospects. And right in the middle of this terrible situation, as she’s buying drugs to feed her addiction she is arrested and thrown in jail! Criminalisation makes a bad situation worse. Even if it’s not jail, even if it’s just a fine, remember she’s a drug addict, she’s not going to stop buying drugs; so all the fine does is mean she has less money to buy food or pay the rent. Now she’s evicted and living on the street.

Drug criminalisation overwhelmingly disadvantages the already disadvantaged. Most people arrested for drug offences are not your high flying lawyers letting loose with some coke on a Friday night or even your middle class twenty somethings doing speed at a music festival, but are aboriginal people, poor people and those with mental illness. (as a side note, the link between drugs and mental illness is a matter of debate and a bit of a chicken or the egg thing – did the person become addicted to drugs because they have a mental illness or did they develop a mental illness because they became addicted to drugs?) They are thrown in jail for 30 days or whatever, or given a warning and a mark on their criminal record which makes it harder to get a job or rent a house, and then chucked back out on the street to fend for themselves. These arrests seem to make no difference in terms of changing society’s attitude to drug use, and do not stem the use of drugs. They drain police resources and cost billions in tax payer money. In 2007 there were around 80,000 Australians arrested (60,000 of which were marijuana related) for drug offences. The vast majority of these were for possession rather than selling. The courts are clogged with useless cases that do no good to anyone.

You might think that throwing her in jail for buying drugs sets an example for others to hopefully discourage them from buying drugs. (And we want to discourage people from doing drugs because their bad for their health right?) It might also be the necessary catalyst for getting her to turn her life around. I guess the fundamental idea is that criminalisation discourages drug use. But this doesn’t seem true. I would contend that drug use is highly inelastic. It’s like downloading music. Making it illegal does very little to stop people from doing it. Certainly alcohol prohibition in the 20s and 30s in America did little to stop people from boozing. All it did do in fact was make criminals of average normal people and force them to turn to gangsters to engage in their commonplace behaviour, empowering some really nasty criminal organisations in the process. And this, of course, is what is occurring today with the case of drugs. The current widespread use of drugs that I mentioned above surely proves that making it illegal does little to stop people from doing it. Furthermore, as Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, says there is little to no evidence to support the idea that significantly more people would do drugs if they were legal. Indeed in both the US, which criminalised weed in the 30s (two decades after US media mogul William Randolph Hearst began a scare campaign against a largely then unheard of drug, fuelled in part by fear that hemp paper could undercut his wood-pulp market share) and in Australia, marijuana use only became popular after it had been made illegal. Basically, in large part, most people that want to do drugs already do them whether it is illegal or not. Public policy must respond to real human behaviour, whether they like it or not a government cannot make laws that ignore how people like to live their lives. In its 2011 report, the Global Commission on Drugs found that the “global war on drugs has failed” and there seems little doubt that this is the case; despite all the money spent on law enforcement, illicit drugs are as common as ever.

I guess you can respond to the current failure of government’s attempts to stop drugs in one of two ways. You can say, ok, so that means we need to spend even more money, adopt an even harder line approach and go even further in our war on drugs. This was the approach of the former Australian conservative government. In 2007 a parliamentary committee headed by Bronwyn Bishop recommended a zero tolerance approach to drugs including the default removal of children from homes where the parents were found to be drug users (Not only did the Howard gov refuse to apologise for the stolen generations, apparently they wanted to create a new one!). Luckily this draconian idea was shelved by the incoming Rudd Labor government.

The other way you can respond to the failure of the war on drugs (which the Rudd and Gillard governments did not pursue, preferring to ignore the failure of drug policy all together) is to move towards legalisation and regulation of drugs. This is what the Global Commission on Drugs, headed by several former heads of state and a former UN Secretary General, concluded. This response is not motivated by a ‘well the war on drugs isn’t working so let’s just give up’ strategy. Rather it is motivated by a recognition that, as I said above, drug criminalisation actually makes things worse. The Commission stated that criminalisation has created and empowered organised crime and undermined potential safeguards on the health and safety of citizens.

Let’s think about this. Our poor downtrodden drug addict has lost her job and her family. Criminalisation pushes her even further into the margins of society. It means that when she needs to feed her addiction she is forced to go and wait in some dark alleyway for a gangster who might hit her, might rip her off, who might threaten to break her legs if she fails to pay her debts. If drugs were legal and could be sold by legitimate companies at a store, then many of the worst parts about drug addiction might be alleviated. Our drug addict won’t get ripped off, she doesn’t have to wait in some dark alleyway, if she fails to pay her debts she might declare bankruptcy but she won’t be at the mercy of bikie gangs or the mafia.

Most importantly, by creating a legal and regulated drug market the government could significantly reduce the physical dangers of taking drugs. In legal and regulated businesses the government requires companies to care at least to some degree about the safety of their customers. As it is, the people who control the drug black market don’t really care at all about the safety of their customers. If some gangster is mixing methamphetamine in his bath tub he won’t really care about not getting the mix quite right, even if doing so makes the dosage much more dangerous. Australia 21 is lobby and research group made up of 21 prominent Australians, including former Foreign Minister Bob Carr. They noted that ‘by defining the personal use and possession of certain psychoactive drugs as criminal acts, governments have avoided any responsibility to regulate and control the quality of substances that are in widespread use.’ They stated in a report that just as alcohol and tobacco are regulated for quality assurance, so should other drugs such as marijuana, MDMA and cocaine.

And the thing is most drugs that are currently illegal aren’t necessarily as dangerous as is often made out. The Age reports that 30 years of scientific research widely shows that MDMA, for example, is pretty much a benign drug with few health risks. Where it can get dangerous sometimes is when gangsters get the mix wrong and/or add other risky chemicals. And the fact that gangsters are mixing drugs with weird chemicals is partly our fault. They wouldn’t be doing this if drugs were legal, or at least the people that were doing this wouldn’t have any customers, as drug users would flock to the quality and safety regulated legitimate legal drug businesses. The point is drug criminalisation makes taking drugs more dangerous. Even with these dangerous chemicals being added to the drugs that people buy in clubs and on the street, people admitted to hospital to be treated for MDMA effects are rare according to Dr Alex Wodak, who was director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent Hospital in Sydney. They certainly pale into significance compared with those treated for alcohol. In a legal and regulated market, companies selling ecstasy would be legally required to sell the drug in its least risky form, in the same way that a shop is legally required to sell power adaptors that have only a very low chance of electrocuting you. If we legalise and regulate, we will have legitimate companies who are inspected by government inspectors selling MDMA in its pure and benign form. The risk to the drug user will go down significantly. At Australia’s only government run safe heroin injecting room, in King’s Cross Sydney, there has never been a death in over 15 years of operating. I’m certainly not saying Heroin isn’t bad for you, but when it is administered properly above board, rather than pushed underground, the risks can be managed. This is what the government should be doing more of – bringing drugs and drug users into the mainstream so they can be regulated and managed properly. Prohibition never works.

Of course, even if we can reduce the immediate risks of overdose and death, long term use of drugs is generally thought to have bad health effects. Most studies show marijuana if used regularly over a long period of time has some links to mental illness and lung cancer. However, of course, it is plainly obvious that just because something is bad for you over the long term, doesn’t mean we make it illegal. Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are very bad for you if you use them regularly over a long period of time. The science is still being debated about how bad long term use of marijuana might be but there is no doubt about tobacco and alcohol. Eating junk food must also be banned if we are criminalising things that are unhealthy over a long period of time. In 2010 Professor David Nutt, a former chief drugs adviser to the British government, ranked the harm various drugs do to both the individual user and to society at large. He found ecstasy to have negligible harm and infamously said taking E was safer than riding a horse. Of illicit drugs, only Heroin and Crack Cocaine were more dangerous to the health of the individual user than smoking Tobacco. LSD and Mushrooms were deemed to have virtually no negative impact on the health of the user, or on society at large. Alcohol was deemed by far the most dangerous for the health of the individual user and for society at large (think drink driving, pub brawls, the cost to the taxpayer of treating liver disease). Basically current drug laws really have little to do with health or damage to society, they are a mess and don’t make much sense at all.

Drug legalisation seems to be one of those things where all or most experts agree with reform – Professors, public servants, health professionals and even economists; whereas churches, conservative lobby groups and populist tabloid media are all against it. No longer can people in favour of drug reform be dismissed as stoners. I say the time has come for legalisation and regulation. I’m envisaging a world where someone can go down to the store buy some drugs (maybe in plain packaging with health warnings!) which she can be assured have been monitored to eliminate most of the extreme health risks. Government can tax the drugs and use it to fund rehabilitation clinics and other things like schools and hospitals. Most drug users would be willing to pay a bit more for their drugs for the luxury of being able to buy them over the counter and not in an alleyway from a gangster. The potential tax dollars are huge. In 2005 five hundred economists, including 3 Nobel laureates, signed letter in support of marijuana legalisation. It is estimated that the illegal drug market in Australia is worth 6 billion dollars a year. Not to mention all the money we will save on not having to enforce drug laws. And all the extra time police will have to hunt down murderers and thieves. Maybe we could ban advertisements and political donations from drug companies to stop them from getting too powerful.

I know it’s not quite a straight forward issue; the details of how the regulation should work, the question of whether we legalise all drugs or just some (i’d start with marijuana, MDMA, LSD and Mushrooms). The issue of whether government should try to adopt some sort of prescription or voucher system to attempt to regulate how many drugs each person can buy each week or month or not bother (I probably wouldn’t bother – we don’t do that with alcohol), are all worth considering. However the general response to the question of whether drugs should be legal or not is a resounding yes.

Elliot Brice is a high school teacher with an Honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne.


One comment

  1. Like u said, most of the illicit drugs aren’t that harmful. IMO most of the harm comes from the negative environment bred from the criminalisation of these drug. Great article, I wonder if schools would be brave enough to show a scientific/informational video ranking the most harmful drugs. It would surprise a lot of people to see how highly alcohol ranks in comparison to the “hard drugs”.

    Great article btw 🙂

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