This is the dissertation I wrote for my Philosophy undergraduate degree in 2012. Some of the statistics may be a bit out of date, but recent developments in drug liberalisation (such as in the US) and research on the illicit drug trade – as well as the therapeutic application of certain illicit drugs – are still consistent with the arguments presented here.
Drug use and abuse is a sensitive issue. For many cultures and religious groups, however, the use of drugs is uncontroversial. Shamans of the Amazon basin are known to drink the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, Native Americans ingest peyote in a religious setting, and cannabis is supposed to be a sacramental herb to the Rastafarians. Arguably, humans have been seeking to alter their consciousness through the use of different plants and substances for thousands of years. Yet in Western society, ayahuasca, peyote and cannabis are illegal, whereas our drugs of choice – alcohol and tobacco – are legal.
We are aware of the harms of these legal drugs, of the notorious effect alcohol has on the liver, and of the cancerous effect tobacco has on the throat and lungs. Of course, a huge host of harmful drugs are also illegal in Europe and America, including heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.
Given that some drugs are legal, and some not, it is important to inquire as to why this is the case and what the ethical implications of current drug laws might be. I will be arguing that by keeping many drugs illegal, some serious harm is incurred, and that, by legalising drugs, these harms could be easily avoided. There is, therefore, a broad utilitarian justification for the legalisation of drugs. Furthermore, I aim to illustrate why the philosophical justification for current drug laws (on the basis of preventing addiction, minimizing harm, and acting paternally) is much weaker than the justification for the legalisation of drugs.
By examining John Stuart Mill’s conception of freedom, it should become clear that if we want to be truly free the state should allow us the right to buy, sell, and use drugs (within certain limits). But, just to clarify, I will not be advocating the position that says all drugs should be decriminalised. Decriminalization means removing the penalties (fines or imprisonment) that can be given to individuals for selling or possessing certain drugs. Even though criminalization can be shown to be unethical in many ways, even if we remove the penalties for selling or possessing illegal drugs we are still left with many of the harms caused by prohibition, such as those resulting from a black market.
Nonetheless, I will still formulate arguments in favour of the claim that criminalizing drug users is unethical, since a model of legalisation is concordant with this claim. A defence of civil liberties seems to suggest quite clearly that all drugs should, in fact, be legalised. Yet perhaps legalisation should be a gradual process, with the legalisation of all drugs as a goal. This could work by attempting to legalise, what we believe, are the least harmful and destructive drugs first. Some drugs, such as cannabis, many psychedelic drugs, and possibly MDMA should at least first be legalised in a medical and psychiatric setting in order to maximise their benefits. In making my case for legalisation, and against current global drug laws, it is worth examining the harms caused by the global ‘war on drugs’.
The War on Drugs: More Harm Than Good?
The ‘war on drugs’ is a global campaign of prohibition and military intervention, the aim of which has been to reduce the illegal drug trade. This campaign has been very strong in the United States. Whilst the term, the ‘war on drugs’, was not used until 1971 by President Nixon, the initiative of the United States to prohibit and prevent the illegal drug trade can be traced back much further in history. The Harrison Tax Act of 1914 restricted the sale of heroin and cocaine in the United States. Then in 1954, President Eisenhower formed a cabinet committee whose aim was to stamp out drug addictions, and the mandatory penalties for the possession of marijuana, cocaine, and opiates were severely increased with the Narcotic Control Act of 1956.
These events in American history can be seen as initiating the war on drugs. However, the global campaign of prohibition gained serious momentum after the Nixon administration added the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) to federal law enforcement, which to this day works to incarcerate drug users and drug dealers. It should be asked, as Douglas Husak does, “why has a militaristic response been thought appropriate?”
Contrary to drug-related legislation, enforcement and government money that has encouraged the war on drugs, a panel of world leaders, under The Global Commission on Drug Policy, announced in June 2011 that the war on drugs has failed and has been increasingly counter-productive. If this is indeed the case, as the panel argues, then legalisation should be considered as an alternative. To justify this alternative, it is worth examining the harmful consequences of the global prohibition of drugs.
There does seem to be an ethical problem with “branding hundreds of thousands of American youths as criminals, by virtue of experimental or recreational use” (The Facts About Drug Abuse, Drug Abuse Council, 1980). The war on drugs has meant that 30% of drug-related incarcerations are for possession alone, whilst for marijuana-related convictions a staggering 80% are for possession. Admittedly these statistics apply to American prisons, so rates of incarceration for possession in the UK may be lower; nonetheless, the criminalisation of recreational users is still common practice.
Husak points out that “punishment…is the worse thing our state can do to us”, therefore, “punishment must satisfy a very demanding standard of justification”. If the punishment and incarceration of drug users are to be justified, some solid arguments should be presented for the prohibition of the drugs that these criminals are using. Arguments in favour of prohibition will be addressed later in the discussion in order to find out whether the criminalisation of drug users is unethical and whether this implies drug laws should be changed. Some commentators argue that police time could be better spent on tackling more serious and violent crimes, such as rape, murder, domestic violence, and child abuse – crimes that, unlike drug use, are defined and characterised by the harm they cause to others.
Around 80 to 90 million Americans have used illicit drugs, yet there is no evidence to suggest that this group of people cause more harm to others (or even to themselves) than non-drug users. Even if drug-users did cause more harm to themselves than non-drug users, Husak sees no justification for punishing every user of an illicit drug, in order to prevent a small minority from becoming less healthy. In much the same way, it would be unjust to throw drinkers, smokers and people who enjoy fast food in jail in order to protect their health. In addition, to punish someone simply because we cannot demonstrate the benefits of not punishing them seems not only unjust, but a cause of great harm and misery to the individual drug user, to their family and to those who depend on her.
I will now turn to some other harmful social consequences of the war on drugs.
Monetary Costs and Drug Use
One striking negative consequence of the war on drugs has been the monetary cost in funding it. It is estimated that there are over 400,000 drug offenders in jail, about 130,000 for possession alone and the average annual cost of each inmate is around 3,000 dollars. Not only is this a cost to the taxpayer, but prison populations are becoming so large that “prisons cannot be built fast enough to accommodate drug offenders”. In terms of drug enforcement, the US Government spends $11bn each year on employing DEA officers, court judges and for financing customs control – yet only $2bn is spent on drug treatment.
Despite the war on drugs costing the US Government about $35bn each year and “despite progress in a number of areas, more Americans use and misuse more psychoactive drugs than ever”, according to the Drug Abuse Council. The possibility that more people are using drugs since the war on drugs is suggested by the estimates of the UN, which underscore that from 1998 to 2008, opiate use increased by 28%, cocaine use by 27%, and cannabis use by 8.5%.
An increase in drug use since the war on drugs began is also confirmed by public opinion. In a study of 1999, 56% of adolescents aged 12-17 said that illicit drugs were “easy to obtain” (Legalize This! The Case for Decriminalizing Drugs, Husak, 2002). It is a speculative question whether legalising drugs would further increase the misuse of drugs, but we can at least conclude that the aims and goals of the war on drugs have not been achieved – the war on drugs has in fact been counter-productive.
On the other hand, if all drugs were legalised, drug misuse could very well increase even more. The fact that tobacco and alcohol kill more people than illicit drugs is due partly to the harmfulness of the drugs themselves, but also because they are legal and easy to access. In any case, we should be considering ways to more effectively use taxpayers’ money to prevent drug abuse and addiction, by way of “more effective public education and health measures”, since drug-related policies are focusing on the drugs themselves and “not often enough on the problems of the people using them”, as the Drug Abuse Council highlights.
The Black Market
The worst consequence of the war on drugs has been the creation and growth of a black market, which perpetuates a wide variety of harms. Historically, prohibition has always brought with it a great burden. For example, the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s in the United States was directly correlated with the crime and violence carried out by the al Capone gang in Chicago. According to the World Drug Report of 2009, “the strongest case against drug control is the violence and corruption associated with the black market”. Many have seen this as a reason to prefer legalisation over prohibition, and over decriminalisation as well for that matter. The attorney and writer James Ostrowski has said that “the day after legalization goes into effect, the streets of America will be safer. The drug dealers will be gone. The shoot-outs between drug dealers will end”.
Ostrowski makes some salient points here. It is an uncontroversial fact that if all drugs were legalised, there would be no business for the drug dealers. And since there would be no business for them, there would be no competition that would lead them to acts of violence against other drug dealers. The war on drugs was initiated in order to crack down on drug barons and impede the global drug market. However, because the market is unregulated, violence and murder have become the methods of competition. If drugs were legalised, we would then see a major decline in gang-related violence and death.
Also, when drugs are illegal and unregulated, they are prone to be highly addictive. This is because it is in the interest of drug dealers to have reliable customers who consistently buy their products. To get customers ‘hooked’ early on, and remain an addict, drug dealers will often sell a drug in its most addictive form. In the US, there has been a form of heroin known as ‘black tar heroin’ becoming popular on the streets, which is so pure that it is arguably the most life-threatening drug available. In contrast, some drugs in the black market can be adulterated with other, cheaper (and possibly harmful) substances so that the drug dealers can sell more of their product and make more of a profit.
Drugs such as LSD, peyote and hallucinogenic mushrooms will rarely ever be adulterated, however, it is drugs such as heroin, cocaine – and even ecstasy – which are sometimes ‘cut’ with substances such as painkillers, aspirin or other sedatives. Someone could have a fatal allergic reaction to one of the cutting agents in these drugs. The proliferation of adulterated drugs would not occur in a regulated, free market. Moreover, in a black market, the dosage of the drug in question can be unknown or the drug user may, in fact, be purchasing a completely different drug altogether. Someone could therefore easily overdose due to using a drug of unknown strength or be harmed by unintentionally using a different drug.
The black market, therefore, poses very serious risks to the drug user and many cases of drug overdose (from heroin especially) could otherwise be avoided. Furthermore, criminals have a clear incentive to target ever-younger people, to get them addicted early on so that they remain reliable customers. The fact that drugs have to be sold on the streets – instead of in designated and licensed shops – means that drug dealers will be in close proximity to schools and parks, where many vulnerable children and young adolescents will be.
In impoverished communities, the drug barons are also likely to be idolised by those growing up in the community. With few opportunities to succeed and climb the social ladder, adolescents might be prone to copy the lifestyle of a drug baron if it seems like an easy way to make money and gain social status. This point equally applies to wealthier communities – since illegal drugs are untaxed, anyone may see this as a reason to become a drug dealer if it can be substantially profitable. In light of this, in order to protect the interests of children and adolescents, legalising drugs should be considered as an option that does away with the harms incurred by a black market.
Some writers have noted that the illicit drug market appears to make adulterated or highly addictive drugs available to more people by way of ‘pyramid selling’, where drug users sell to new users, who in turn recruit other users. Ostrowski is also correct in highlighting the death and violence that arises from a black market for drugs. In 2010 the death toll from drug cartel conflicts in Mexico stood at 15,273, a 60% rise from the previous year and the number of deaths caused by the Mexican Drug War are continuing to escalate.
This evidence, therefore, indicates that the war on drugs is ineffective and is also an indirect cause of violence and death. By legalising all drugs, we could certainly do away with all the harms of the black market. Some may argue that legalisation will cause greater harms through an increase in drug misuse and addiction rates. This argument seems to apply to alcohol and tobacco, two legal drugs that are commonly abused. In addition, drugs are more expensive in a black market – this is due to the risk of illegal production and distribution that is built into the price. If legalisation would do away with these risks and make drugs cheaper, someone might argue that this will lead to a massive increase in drug misuse. On the other hand, price only matters to those who already use drugs, so we have no reason to suppose that legalisation would result in new drug users and addicts.
We should not forget that because drugs are so expensive in the black market that this has resulted in property damage caused by 130,000 drug-users who steal around £7 million worth of goods each year in order to pay for drugs. There is also at least some evidence to counter the claim that legalisation would lead to an increase in the use of some illegal drugs. A recent study on cannabis use in the Netherlands (where the drug is tolerated) suggests that the Dutch have the lowest rates of cannabis use amongst teens and adolescents.
Given the great societal harms just discussed, strong arguments are required to justify the prohibition of drugs.
The Problem of Addiction
One common argument made in favour of prohibition is the idea that prohibition leads to fewer people becoming addicted to certain drugs – and addiction, of course, is as a societal problem that we should prevent. Intuitively this appears to make sense. If we want to prevent people from becoming addicted to a substance, then we should prohibit that substance. Conversely, if we look deeper into the matter, there are many flaws and inconsistencies with this kind of reasoning and the way it relates to current drug laws.
First of all, if it is the addictiveness of a substance that warrants its prohibition, then it follows that alcohol should be illegal, given that an estimated 10% of drinkers are somewhat addicted to the substance. Likewise, with tobacco, 90% of users are addicted, so this kind of reasoning would require that tobacco is prohibited as well. If the justification for prohibition is that it aims to prevent people from abusing addictive drugs, it is a curious fact that many non-addictive drugs, or at least drugs less addictive than alcohol or tobacco, are still illegal. Drugs such as LSD, mescaline and psilocybin do not have addictive properties and the abuse of such substances is unheard of – yet these drugs are still illegal.
Furthermore, it would be short-sighted to prohibit a substance for its addictive properties alone, irrespective of whether the substance carries benefits with it as well. Current drug laws mean it is possible to be prescribed Ritalin and become addicted to it (since the Ritalin bears pharmacological similarities to cocaine). But we would not want to ban the substance simply because it has addictive properties. In reply to this kind of counter-argument, someone in favour of prohibition may concede that drugs such as LSD are non-addictive, whereas drugs like heroin are vastly more addictive than alcohol, tobacco and Ritalin, and so should be banned for this reason. I believe this kind of reply calls for an examination of what addiction involves and whether the nature of heroin addiction can justify the prohibition of heroin, and other substances similarly addictive, such as methamphetamine and crack cocaine.
One philosopher who tackles the subject, Louis Charland, argues that “the brain of a heroin addict has almost literally been hijacked by the drug”. With this kind of view in mind, we could sympathise with current drug laws if the aim of them was to prevent this sort of brain-hijacking from occurring. However, it is not entirely obvious that Charland’s characterisation of heroin addiction is a fair one. Charland’s depiction of addiction suggests that the heroin addict’s desires must be compulsive; whereas, as Neil Levy underlines, we cannot view their desires as compulsive since the addict is able to voluntarily give up the drug.
On the other hand, Levy does concede that the autonomy of the heroin addict is still impaired since they have a strong desire to avoid the withdrawal symptoms (which in the case of heroin are severe) that come with giving up the drug. Autonomy is further threatened in the case of the heroin addict because the scientific evidence suggests that heroin can reconstitute one’s brain to be chemically dependent on the substance. If it was true that the use of heroin forces one to constantly use the drug, perhaps one could justify the prohibition of that substance (and others like it). Currently, though, the evidence indicates that this is not the case.
But perhaps those in favour of prohibition would still like to see heroin remain illegal because of the way it makes user chemically dependent on the substance. In reply to this sort of argument, it is useful to look at what specific kind of brain chemistry is involved in addiction. In one study, it was found that heroin “…despite being stronger and resulting from exogenous chemicals, affects the same processes as sugar”. In light of this evidence, the bioethicists Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu have claimed that “we should believe that drug-orientated desires are the same as food-orientated desires or other appetitive desires”. Both drugs and foods (like sugar) interact with the ‘reward system’ in our brain in a way that makes us seek out the pleasure which results from using these substances again and again.
This implies that heroin does not actually ‘hijack’ the brain, nor does it create a kind of addiction so extreme compared to an addiction to chocolate that it cannot be overcome. And if certain drugs act on the chemical dopamine (which gives us pleasure) in the same way as sex or fatty foods do, then perhaps we should treat drug addiction in the same way as we treat sex addicts or the obese; by treating the person instead of punishing them. Also, just because it is easy to prohibit heroin, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to prohibit promiscuous sex or fatty foods, this does not mean that heroin (and other similar drugs) should be prohibited.
According to some statistics, 15 million Americans every month use some sort of illicit drug and no doubt, some of these people will be using some kind of addictive drug. It is questionable whether the number of heroin addicts would increase if the drug were legalised – but, since people will use the drug anyway, we should focus more on how to treat addiction as opposed to simply prohibiting the substance and incarcerating addicts. If legalisation can accommodate this sort of treatment, while getting rid of the burdens of the black market, then we should prefer a model of legalisation. We are able to recognise the fact that addicts can respond to powerful incentives, meaning that they can influence themselves, or have others influence them, to either keep abusing the drug or to give it up. The addict appears to crave the pleasure from using the drug on the hand (or is chemically dependent on it, in the case of heroin) and desires to be sober and healthy on the other hand.
The most effective way to persuade people not to become addicts is by way of education, and the most effective way to encourage addicts to beat their addiction is through treatment programmes. Legalisation can accommodate both of these methods and it seems, given the existence of a black market and other harmful consequences, that prohibition is a very costly way to tackle the problem of addiction. The problem of addiction, therefore, seems to be an unconvincing justification for prohibition. Yet some of those in favour of current drug laws have claimed instead that prohibition is justified because it minimises harm.
One argument that is commonly made in favour of prohibition is that it reduces or minimises harm because it means that fewer people will use and abuse harmful drugs. A negative-utilitarian, who believes that harm should be minimised, rather than happiness maximised, might support this kind of argument. Such an argument, however, assumes that by minimising drug use, drug-related harm will also be minimised, a line of reasoning which, as the Drug Abuse Council says, fails to “…distinguish responsible from irresponsible use”. Some users may use a drug without causing any harm to themselves.
It is also up for debate whether global prohibition does reduce drug-related harm, especially considering the harms incurred by the illegal drug market that I previously noted. With respect to the argument that prohibition reduces drug use and abuse, this might not the case, as Paul Smith re-emphasises a point I made earlier, that “…the numbers of people using illegal drugs has steadily increased over the decades”. The reason for an increase in drug use may be because of ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, whereby people will be more likely to indulge in something if they know they are not allowed to.
Thus, the opinion of James Q. Wilson that “legalisation would entail increase in use” is not necessarily true. Wilson’s use of this argument against the legalisation of illicit drugs may simply reflect the prevailing attitude of the early 70s in America that global prohibition would minimise drug-related harms. Drug-related harms, such as HIV infections caused by habitual heroin use, have shown signs of decreasing in Portugal where the drug is actually decriminalised.
Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that the prohibition of heroin would reduce the rate of HIV infections if people will use the drug anyway. Initiatives such as needle exchange programmes (which the UK has adopted) do have this potential to reduce drug-related harm. The key to minimising harm by reducing drug abuse is by viewing drug abuse as a health problem, as opposed to a criminal offence, and by viewing drug abusers as individuals in need of treatment, not punishment.
Those in favour of prohibition may, in fact, concede these points and still maintain that prohibition is justified on the basis that it does minimise harm in some sense. Peter de Marneffe believes this is true when he says that “…if heroin was legalised, some individuals will be at a much higher risk of heroin abuse than they would otherwise be”. This is because people who are tempted to do something will be more likely to do it if it is legal, easily accessible and cheap, as would be the case with legalisation. In light of this, and by way of a cost-benefit analysis, de Marneffe concludes that “…the benefits of protecting young people from irresponsible and self-destructive use can justify the burden of heroin prohibition of the responsible recreational user”.
This kind of argument can be justified on utilitarian grounds. But what de Marneffe discounts in this argument is that the ‘burden’ of prohibition is much greater than he supposes – the liberty of recreational users is not only compromised, but the many harms (and burdens) of the illegal drug trade must be taken into account as well. Furthermore, de Marneffe lacks any statistical evidence to back up his claims – there is, in fact, no evidence of increased drug abuse in Portugal or the Netherlands, both of which have quite liberal drug laws relative to the rest of the world.
When considering exactly which drugs are legal and which drugs are currently illegal, there is no way to justify, on negative-utilitarian grounds at least, the argument which says that current drug laws in the UK and the US work to minimise harm. Just by looking at the number of deaths in the United States which result from different drugs in the year 1998, 1,805 were the result of illicit drugs, yet 33,000 were accounted for by alcohol, 120,000 by tobacco and 100,000 from adverse reactions to medication. From the 1,805 deaths that result from all illicit drugs, the majority of these deaths can be attributed to the contraction of HIV and a minority of these deaths can be attributed to fatal injuries. Very few deaths actually result from the drugs themselves. So, in light of the evidence that legal drugs kill more people than illegal drugs, with “tobacco causing 4 million premature deaths every year”, the argument that prohibition minimises harm cannot justify the fact that tobacco is legal and relatively harmless drugs like cannabis are illegal.
Even if we could predict that legalisation would lead to an increase in the use of drugs, some drugs that are currently illegal are not necessarily the ones we should be worrying about. A recent study conducted by David Nutt, Leslie King and Lawrence Phillips, on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, suggests that, on the basis of their data, “…present UK drug classification is not simply based on considerations of harm”.
This study was a multi-criteria analysis and therefore involved many factors to help the team ‘rate’ different drugs on overall harm. Overall harm could be subdivided into harm to the user and harm to others. Both of these sub-divisions were further subdivided to include physical, psychological and social harm to both the individual user and other people. Physical harm includes: lethality, accidents, disease, seizures; psychological harms included: dependence, mental disorders; whilst social harm included: crime, environmental damage, economic costs and child neglect. After this vast array of data was collated, each drug that was studied was given a score of 100 for overall harm.
Surprisingly, the most harmful drug in this study was alcohol, followed by heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and tobacco. Admittedly, Nutt neglects the fact that alcohol and tobacco might score so high on the ‘harm’ scale because they are both legal, therefore, they are easily available and more likely to be abused. Moreover, Nutt seems to be suggesting in this study that alcohol is a more harmful drug than drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. In fact, if these drugs were legalised, it is possible that more physical and societal harms could result from them. On the other end of the ‘harm’ spectrum, with the least harmful drugs, we find many illegal drugs to be relatively benign compared to alcohol and tobacco – these include cannabis, MDMA (or ecstasy), LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient found in magic mushrooms). These drugs score so low on both ‘harm to the individual’ and ‘harm to others’ that it is not clear whether legalising them would lead to an increase in overall harm.
Nutt’s results are consistent with scientific experiments involving illicit drugs as well. For example, in a study of MDMA’s application to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), Rick Doblin found “clinical trials [to] have demonstrated that MDMA can be administered without evidence of harm to pre-screened subjects…” Illegal drugs, such as opiates, cannabis and ecstasy are not strongly linked to violence at all, like alcohol. In fact, one of the most obvious effects of these kinds of drugs is a reduction in aggression. Hence, even if the Nutt study overstates the relative harmlessness of some illicit drugs compared to alcohol, the fact that alcohol leads to an inhibition of actions explains why so many violent crimes are alcohol-related. It is troubling that we are so uncritical and unworried about the use of alcohol because, as Nutt states that, “…even in terms of toxic effects…alcohol is more lethal than many illicit drugs”.
If the aim of society is to minimise drug-related harm, then the focus should not be on banning drugs that are likely to result in harm. Once we realise that people will use harmful substances whether they are legal or not, the government should work to minimise the harms that result from the abuse of these substances. David Nutt believes wholeheartedly that “…targeting alcohol harms” should be handled by a public health strategy and not by the criminalisation of the drug. Effective public health strategies should include clear advertisement of the drug’s harm, as is the case with cigarette packets and warning labels on bottles of beer, wine and spirits. This use of advertising, Husak says, is the reason why there have been “declines in the use of alcohol and tobacco…even without the threat of criminal liability”.
Other initiatives likely to reduce drug-related harms (whether the drugs are illegal or not) include needle-exchange programmes to prevent HIV infection, better education in schools about drugs, better rehabilitation programmes, methadone programmes (which the UK has undertaken) and even the prescription of heroin as a treatment for heroin users. With respect to this last initiative, a group of Dutch researchers from 1998 to 2001 prescribed controlled doses of heroin for addicts and they found a substantial increase in physical and mental health.
With all these points considered, those in favour of prohibition should concede that prohibition does not minimise drug-related harm, but is in the fact the cause of greater harms than the drugs themselves. The discussion so far has not touched upon a vital idea attached to the arguments of many pro-prohibitionists. This is the idea that the state should act paternally with respect to drug use and abuse – that it should act like a parent towards us, interfere with our liberty, and stop us from putting certain substances into our bodies. An assessment of paternalism and drug use is therefore needed.
The Paternal State
Jonathan Glover, in his book Causing Death and Saving Lives, remarks that heroin should remain illegal because “the suffering [involved] is very great” and “there is very little uncertainty that the suffering will occur”. This argument for paternalistic intervention, therefore, relies on the assumption that the use of heroin, unlike other drugs, will predictably lead to immense suffering. This assumption can be disputed though, as the evidence presented by Nutt and his scoring of the harms of drugs seems to suggest that alcohol and tobacco also reliably lead to great harm. In any case, de Marneffe believes that the main argument for the prohibition of heroin is paternalism.
Some may criticise de Marneffe’s apparent inconsistency in allowing the state to prohibit adults from using heroin, yet in disallowing the State to prohibit adults from eating fast food, a lifestyle which can equally lead to health problems, disease and premature death. In reply to this kind of criticism, de Marnfeffe contends that one should not try to draw a comparison between the more debilitating aspects of heroin use and the consumption of fast food. In his own words: “although longevity and physical attractiveness are valuable, they are not…as important to one’s ability to have a happy and successful life [and] adequate emotional development”.
Wilson has similarly rejected arguments made against prohibition that state that if tobacco is to remain legal, then for the sake of consistency other harmful drugs, like cocaine, should also be legalised. Like de Marneffe, Wilson believes comparing a drug like cocaine to tobacco is entirely misplaced. The main reason that tobacco is legal and cocaine is illegal is that tobacco “…does not destroy the user’s essential humanity, like cocaine does”. Wilson also cites a study by Dr Frank Gawin and Dr Everett Ellinwood who looked at the psychological effects of regular and high-dose cocaine use. They found these kinds of users to be “uninhibited, impulsive, hypersexual, compulsive, irritable, and hyperactive”. These kinds of psychological effects cannot be attributed to a lifestyle of eating fast food and nicotine addiction.
De Marneffe and Wilson are able to properly distinguish between the mentally debilitating effects of some illegal drugs and the psychologically safe effects of some legal substances, yet this does not mean they have presented water-tight arguments for the prohibition of these illegal drugs, let alone all illegal drugs. My aim is to clarify why de Marneffe’s and Wilson’s arguments are flawed and also why their endorsement of paternalism, which favours prohibition, is also subject to serious criticism. It will be interesting to see whether all forms of paternalism are subject to this same kind of criticism.
To begin with, the mentally debilitating effects of alcohol cannot be overlooked. Alcohol addiction is a serious affliction, affecting the well-being not only of the alcoholic but also the family members who depend on her. Alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related accidents incur many medical costs and drain taxpayers’ money. The substance’s effect on inhibiting actions can also account for why so many violent crimes involve the use of alcohol. One could say that the paternalistic justification for prohibition that de Marneffe and Wilson use is discredited due to these facts about a legal drug. Or one could instead try and save this paternalistic kind of argument by being consistent and allowing for the prohibition of alcohol as well.
The bioethicists Andreas Hasman and Soren Holm take issue with the idea of paternalistic intervention for some very substantial reasons. These two bioethicists argue that if we are to accept that the state should protect us from ourselves, then, on paternalistic grounds, the state could be justified in administering a nicotine conjugate vaccine to children so that they would not gain any satisfaction from smoking.
This kind of governmental action seems to protect children and their future lives, and arguably could be justified on some utilitarian basis. However, there are a number of reasons for rejecting it. One reason is that many other lifestyle choices increase morbidity and mortality rates, such as fatty foods, mountaineering, rugby, allergens, weapons, and stressful careers. These lifestyle choices imply that a paternalistic justification for the prohibition of drugs is inconsistent. Another reason for rejecting a government decision in making this vaccine compulsory is presented by the lawyer Joel Feinberg who stresses that parental powers are limited by the child’s right to have an open future.
Thus, if paternalists try to draw a comparison between the powers of the parent and the power of the state, we should recognise nicotine vaccination as an affront to our rights because it is irreversible and therefore prevents us from having an open future. The main feature of strong paternalism, where we are forced by means of punishment to withhold from risking harm to ourselves, is objectionable as well. Smith writes that “when the state prohibits adults from voluntarily risking harm to themselves, it treats them as children”. If the State allows us to be responsible for our dietary and other lifestyle choices, then we should be responsible for our drug-taking behaviour as well.
According to Ann E. Cudd, we should not prefer a ‘liberal’ form of paternalism to the stronger version (which seeks to punish drug users) because liberal paternalism is still in tension with the freedom of individuals to use drugs. Some commentators actually say that ‘liberal paternalism’ is oxymoronic. Liberal paternalism says that interference with a person’s liberty or autonomy is justified “when the person acts irrationally, either because she miscalculates the consequences of her actions or she acts on irrational desires or preferences”. A liberal paternalistic justification of current drug laws would seem correct if all illicit drugs always led individuals to miscalculate the consequences of their actions. However, this is not always the case. We cannot ignore the fact that responsible and moderate users of drugs “…can rationally evaluate drug use as preferable…”
Liberal paternalism, therefore, over-generalises what recreational drug use involves and so should not be used as a justification for the prohibition of recreational drug use. In addition, a liberal paternalist view on drugs ignores positive aspects of the use of certain illicit drugs and assumes there are only negative effects that need to be prevented. For example, the author Ken Kesey and the poet Allen Ginsberg have applauded the effects of psychedelic drugs such as LSD in aiding creativity in their work. And much like practices such as meditation, “drugs are often taken because they make us perceive reality differently”. Other positive effects of drugs such as cannabis, MDMA and psychedelics include an increase in sociability, euphoria, relaxation, joy, and empathy.
Even if want to reject liberal paternalism for overlooking these aspects of drug use, it does not follow that the state should not care about the well-being of individuals who use and abuse drugs. This point brings me to an examination of the role of the state with respect to drug use, which will further help to make my case for the legalisation of drugs.
John Stuart Mill and the Role of the State
At the beginning of the discussion, it was suggested that the criminalisation of drug users might be unethical and unjust. This possibility brings into question what the role of the state should be when it comes to individual actions. We should ask: is the state justified in interfering with drug using activity by way of prohibition and therefore criminalisation? If not, then perhaps we should completely re-evaluate global drug legislation.
John Stuart Mill’s salient and relevant work, On Liberty, can provide a suitable answer to this question. In the first chapter of On Liberty, Mill states that we need a principle to test whether the government should be allowed to interfere in the lives of individuals. Mill proposes a principle, now known as the Harm or Liberty Principle, which says that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”. The Liberty or Harm Principle, then, would imply that if taking illicit drugs harms only the individual, and if taking the drug is completely self-regarding, then such drugs should not be illegal. As Husak asserts, it is difficult “to show that I harm someone or violate his rights when I inject heroin or smoke crack”. Indeed, the person who injects heroin or smokes crack may never harm anyone else, since the drug’s addictive and physically harmful qualities usually affect only the user.
The Harm Principle is also consistent with the fact that many other harmful substances and harmful self-regarding actions are legal. On the other hand, we should still ask what Mill’s grounds are for asserting that the state is not justified in preserving the mental and physical well-being of individuals. Mill’s grounds for this assertion can be summarised in this famous statement: “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. And the idea that we have sovereignty over our own body is also essential to Mill’s notion of freedom.
So, if we are to be sovereign over our own bodies, then we should be able to put whatever substances we want into our bodies. In Chapter 5 of On Liberty, in Mill’s discussion on free trade, Mill recognises that our personal liberty demands that we should be able to purchase whatever product we like and concludes that “the Maine Law [which prohibits alcohol]…the prohibition of the importation of opium into China, the restriction of the sale of poisons…are infringements on the liberty…of the buyer”. Arguably then, such products should be legalised and be commercially available to consenting adults.
For Mill, freedom also has no meaning, and liberalism cannot be defended, if we do not have control over our “inward domain of consciousness” or our “own health, whether bodily or mental or spiritual”. Since many drugs are taken to alter one’s consciousness, to induce different ‘highs’ and emotional experiences, by prohibiting these drugs the state could be viewed as invading our private sphere of consciousness (which must belong to us). If we are prohibited to take drugs in order to alter how we think or experience the world, then should we not also be prohibited from reading certain material which can alter how we think and experience the world?
Husak recognises this inconsistency by pointing out the Californian criminal statute regarding nitrous oxide that makes it a crime for anyone to “breathe something in order to change their mental processes”. The person who wants to change their thought processes by ingesting a substance does not appear to be harming others any more than someone who changes their thought processes by meditating or reading a book. In fact, since our minds are first and foremost our own, it should be a basic right that we can “regulate the ways in which the mind processes the sensory data it receives from the world”. This right is denied with prohibition.
Someone in favour of prohibition may reply, however, that drugs are still physically harmful to oneself, whereas practising meditation and reading books are not. But this is irrelevant – Mill, and many other notable political writers, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Locke – contend that harming ourselves should not warrant state intervention. For example, Jefferson remarked that “was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now [under the state church]”.
Jefferson seems to be saying here, much in the spirit of Mill, that it is just as tyrannical for the state to control what substances we put into our bodies as it is for the state to force a particular religion upon us. Jefferson goes on to presciently defend Mill’s Harm Principle when he argues that “the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others”. This kind of principle can justify the smoking ban in the UK for example since second-hand smoke is harmful to non-smoking individuals who are in the vicinity of those smoking.
In a similar fashion, Locke, who helped to sanctify many ideas in the First Amendment, claimed that “no man can be forced to be…healthful” because each individual’s body belongs only to themselves. Locke would therefore probably agree that individuals should be allowed to harm their own bodies by using certain drugs. Furthermore, Locke concedes Mill’s Harm Principle when he states that “the magistrate should punish its subjects if they violate another’s rights”; and by rights, Locke meant the life, liberty and health of each individual. Mill would consider these the interests of others upon which no individual should encroach.
In light of the ideas of these liberal thinkers, it can be argued that if we want to be truly free, so long as others are not harmed, then all drugs should be legalised. This situation would not necessarily preclude drug users being ‘punished’ for their self-regarding actions. Mill thinks that some behaviour carries along with it certain natural penalties. There is, therefore, no need to punish an addict, because the harmful consequences of their actions, such as a deterioration in physical and mental health, will be a sufficient punishment. In addition, Mill believes it is appropriate for there to be a social stigma attached to purely self-regarding, but harmful actions, since this will help to shun certain self-destructive behaviour, without the unjustified use of coercion.
It is important to emphasise, as Smith does, that by advocating the right to use drugs the state is not, in turn, advocating drug use. In much the same way, the state may advocate free speech, but it does not have to advocate any speech that is ignorant, hateful or discriminatory. Mill does also discuss how the state should respond when an individual’s self-regarding action can sometimes turn into an other-regarding action. This situation is conceivable with people who misuse drugs.
In Chapter 4 of On Liberty Mill recognises that someone who “deteriorates his bodily or mental faculties” through the abuse of substances is liable to harm others. For example, the individual’s dependents (those who rely on her services, such as children and creditors) may be harmed if the individual is rendered incapable of giving these services. These consequences may arise from “drunkenness” and by “addiction to bad habits”. We can include heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine misuse as examples of addictions to bad habits. Mill goes on to argue that if an individual, because of these extravagances, breaches a duty to his family or creditor, they should be duly punished. But Mill is sure to emphasise that no individual should be punished “simply for being drunk”, nor should alcohol be outlawed because it can often lead to these breaches of duty. Rather, people should be punished for their harmful actions. In keeping with Mill’s call for individual liberty and his Harm Principle, punishing an excessive drinker for their harmful actions, and not their misuse of a substance, both preserves their liberty and aims to prevent harm to others.
Defenders of prohibition may sometimes argue that the abuse of drugs, whilst not harming other individuals, may still be a cause of harm. They will often cite that the idleness that results from drug abuse, which makes these individuals unproductive, is harmful to the economy. The problem with this kind of argument, first of all, is that it assumes drug users are more unproductive than non-drug users. Secondly, it suggests that idleness is somehow a state of mind that should be prevented. But Mill is quick to point out that “we do not punish idleness”, in much the same way as we do not punish drunkenness; we instead punish the violence and failure to uphold legal duties that result from these states of mind. Thirdly, ‘harm to the economy’ would not fall under Mill’s Harm Principle because the ‘economy’ is not an entity which has any interests and so cannot have the interest of not wanting to be harmed.
Also essential to a liberal argument for legalisation is Mill’s concept of autonomy and his defence of ‘experiments of living’.
Autonomy and Experiments of Living
As Stephen Darwall posits, personal autonomy for Mill is not necessarily something to be respected in itself, but, rather, “it is a constituent part of [the person’s] well-being or happiness”. For Mill, if we were to be restricted in actions that affect only ourselves, then our own humanity and sense of individuality would be numbed. And it is the development of our individuality that leads to our own fulfilment. When Mill says, “he who lets the world…choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation”, he is saying that if we were to let the state dictate our plan of life, we would be unable to flourish as human beings because we would be forgoing our essential human characteristic: autonomy. Likewise, Darwall, a contemporary Kantian, argues that “…the dignity of persons makes it wrong to interfere with autonomy…”
If we apply this argument to recreational, experimental or even abusive drug use, one could argue that it would be unethical for the state to restrict drug-taking behaviour because it would restrict the scope of our autonomy and therefore make it difficult for us to fully develop as individuals. To rebut this kind of argument, we could say that the connection between recreational and experimental drug use and development of individuality is actually unfounded. In reply to this criticism, Mill would contend that because individuals are so varied, we cannot justify this assumption – “the same things which helps one person towards the cultivate of his higher nature are hindrances to another”.
Therefore, so long as drugs are used in a purely self-regarding way, it is the task of the individual to “find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character”. To assume drugs cannot offer these applicable experiences is to assume we know the characters of every individual, which clearly is not feasible. In short, every individual for Mill has a different conception of the good. And this brings me onto Mill’s notion of ‘experiments of living’.
In a pluralistic society like Britain, some people are bound to follow lifestyles which are alien to others but which are essential to own their well-being. In Chapter 3 of On Liberty, Mill argues that, so long as no harm is caused to others, “there should be different experiments of living”, which means individuals should be allowed to develop “varieties of character…[and]…modes of life”. This relates to Mill’s concept of individuality that recognises each person’s unique nature. In conjunction with the fact that people have different lifestyles, it is also clear that human beings have many different sources of pleasure. Therefore, to prohibit recreational or experimental drug use, which for many people would be a lifestyle choice, this would serve to restrict the ability of these people to be as content as they see fit.
For Mill, it would be immoral for the state to prohibit any form of taste, however peculiar, simply because it does not lead to the happiness of every individual. The use of LSD in one’s home may seem like eccentric behaviour to some, but for others, it can be an essential part of their spiritual development. The artist Alex Grey, in his book The Mission of Art, notes that the use of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, has enabled him to become a more creative artist and bases many of his works on the experiences gained through these types of substances. If using illicit drugs can be a lifestyle choice that can contribute to the development, and therefore the happiness of the individuals who use these drugs, then it would be wrong for the state to prohibit them.
A Kantian Approach
Immanuel Kant never specifically addresses the question of prohibition or legalisation, however, I believe that his moral theory can be applied to the subject. In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he argues that because ‘persons’ are rational, “such a being [is] an object of respect…and [this] sets limits to what anyone can choose to do”. Kant goes on to state that “rational nature is an end in itself”. This means that to act morally is to act in a way that preserves our own, and others’, rationality. Furthermore, by respecting rationality in this way, we are also preserving the dignity of others, because it is rationality, which is unique to humans and gives us our inner worth. It follows, then, that any action that serves to undermine or abdicate our own rationality, or the rationality of others, is immoral and should be avoided at all costs. It is vital then for us to ask ourselves whether the use of drugs undermines our rationality in this way.
On the one hand, we could argue that the taking of any drug destroys our rationality because it takes us out of a sober mindset. On the other hand, we could argue that it is possible to maintain our rational faculties without being completely sober. In any case, according to Kant, the intrinsic value of rationality means that we have certain self-regarding duties. He says that every human being has a duty not to destroy their own body because he who does “…has employed his choice to destroy the power of choosing itself”. What Kant means by this is that by destroying our body, we are putting ourselves in a position where we are less able to use our rationality, for example, by fulfilling our duties to others.
Hence, the person who is addicted to heroin may have harmed themselves in such a way that they cannot go to work, earn a living, and feed their family. Overdosing from heroin would be an obvious case of someone destroying their body and in the process irreversibly destroying their rationality and subsequently, their ability to perform duties to others. We could argue then that it would be wrong for us to treat our bodies in this way through the use of drugs.
However, if it is possible to use heroin, and other addictive drugs, in a way that does not impair our rationality in this engulfing way, then we are in no position to say that the use of such drugs is categorically wrong. Moreover, many less addictive (or non-addictive) and less harmful drugs can be used at least moderately and recreationally without impairing one’s rationality. In his Lecture on Ethics, Kant goes on to claim that we have specific duties regarding the way in which we treat our bodies. As Kant sees it, “…our duty in regard to it [the body] is that the human mind should first of all discipline the body, and then take care of it” – the reason being that this serves to preserve our rationality.
So, if people are able to use drugs in a sensible and disciplined manner, without causing harm to the body, then this kind of behaviour can be justified and should be tolerated. Kant actually makes a direct reference to drinking in this case. He recognises the benefits of drinking as increased sociability and talkativeness, but goes on to say that if the negative aspects of drinking (such as violence and bodily damage) overpower the positive ones, then drinking becomes a vice. Likewise, we can notice many benefits from illicit drugs (such as euphoria, empathy, spirituality, increase in creativity), but if these drugs are used in excess, then they might undermine our rationality and so the drug-taking behaviour becomes immoral.
It seems, then, that if people can use drugs moderately, and not let the drug’s negative aspects outweigh its positive aspects, then they should be available for people to use. The political theorist Robert Taylor seems to be correct in identifying self-control, for Kant, as “good for all sorts of purposes [and] even seem[s] to constitute a part of the inner worth of a person”. Obviously it is more difficult to maintain a sense of self-control by using addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine; however, if people can maintain a sense of self-control with their use of cannabis or LSD, then I am sure Kant would have no issue with people using such drugs in this way.
Now that I have outlined how a Kantian approach to this debate can justify some forms and varieties of drug use, I would like to expand on what the benefits of legalisation could be.
Solutions to the Harms of Prohibition
One substantial benefit that could arise from the legalisation of all drugs is that all drugs would be taxed, in much the same way as alcohol and tobacco are. The international illegal drug trade has been said to be worth £500bn per year and the total spending on cannabis in America is estimated to be worth $45 to $110 billion. So if all drugs, or even cannabis alone, were legalised and taxed, a lot of revenue could be generated which could serve to ameliorate many of the problems of drug abuse.
From a utilitarian perspective, this kind of approach is appropriate. As Mill himself opines in On Liberty; “taxation…of stimulants up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue is not only admissible, but to be approved of”. Mill does not elaborate on how this revenue could be put to use, but there are some obviously beneficial ways in which it could. Rehabilitation programs and drug education from an early age could be funded, at least partially by this revenue, to help drug addicts beat their addiction and to ensure that children are deterred from the dangers of the most harmful drugs.
A worrying issue with the illegal drug market is that there is no way the government can prevent children and people of a young age getting hold of, and using, illegal drugs. Also, as previously stated, drugs in a legal and regulated market will not be adulterated, so if all drugs were legal, they could at least be used more safely. Milton Friedman supports the notion that responsible adults have a right to use any drug they wish, but wholeheartedly believes that in order to prevent children from becoming addicts drugs need to be restricted to adults. We should restrict the use of drugs in this way because children cannot make free choices like adults do. Likewise, Mill believes that children and the mentally incapable cannot be free to the same extent that adults are, so different rules should apply to them. These kinds of restrictions are only possible if the drugs are legalised and regulated. Hence, the benefit of safeguarding children is supported by the legalisation of drugs.
There are also ways to ensure that if drugs were bought from regulated shops, like cannabis is bought from ‘coffee shops’ in Holland, then this could minimise harm. As a case in point, Mill suggests that the licenses of the owners of these shops should be withdrawn if the owners irresponsibly sell their products. It would appear that society would be safer if there were cannabis shops, cocaine bars, and ecstasy clubs instead of having these drugs sold on the streets by untrustworthy and unlicensed drug dealers. We can imagine an even more beneficial system whereby owners of various shops would have to pay the costs of the harms customers cause to themselves and others. The advantage of this proposal is that it means shop owners will have a greater incentive to make their products as safe as possible, in order to avoid paying for costs which will be detrimental to their business.
Despite the controversies surrounding strong paternalism and the drugs debate, not all forms of paternalism are incompatible with the right to buy, use, and commercially sell drugs. For example, Robert E. Goodin thinks it is possible to legalise drugs, as well as having the state trying to protect people from using drugs that are harmful to them. Goodin proposes that public policies should make it harder for current smokers to carry on smoking (by making cigarettes expensive or inconvenient to purchase) because this kind of action, even though it runs up against people’s choices, it “is grounded in their deeper preferences”. These deeper preferences would include longevity of life and physical health. If the aim of the state is to direct us towards our ‘preferred preferences’ as it were, then there is a case for restricting the advertising and promotion of products, especially ones which people will later regret having grown to like, and later be unable to resist.
The legalisation of drugs could also enable companies and shop owners who sell drugs to clearly advertise the (potential and actual) harms of the products they are selling. It is undeniable that tobacco is a leading cause of throat and lung cancer and this fact is emphatically labelled on cigarette packets. The point of this is to prevent people, without force, from harming themselves, as well as others (since second-hand smoke is also harmful). This kind of advertising could also apply to other drugs and still be consistent with the liberal model. Mill, for example, suggests that “…labelling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character may be enforced without violation of liberty”.
If the state has the well-being of its citizens in mind, as well as their freedom to affect only themselves, then this kind of weak paternalism becomes justifiable. It is true that the dangers of some illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine are sometimes advertised sometimes on television. But the prohibition of these types of drugs means that users cannot be constantly reminded and warned of the drug’s dangers, like with tobacco. A model of legalisation coupled with weak paternalism could resolve this flaw.
This model is certainly consistent with legal, medical drugs where the side effects are listed on the packet. Drugs such as cannabis and LSD, which are not strictly physically harmful, may nonetheless cause emotional disturbances in the user, such as paranoia and anxiety. If these drugs were legalised, these harms could be advertised on the products, in much the same way as these harms are expressed on ‘magic mushroom’ products that are available in Holland.
Considering the benefits of legalisation, this discussion has so far under-estimated the possible benefits of specific psychoactive drugs; benefits which legalisation could make more widely available.
Specific Drugs and Their Utility
A broad utilitarian argument may be able to justify the use of some drugs. If it can be shown that the use of some drugs can maximise certain desirable states, which contribute to one’s well-being, then perhaps it is right that we should legalise these specific drugs. The strength of this argument also depends on the assumption that the benefits of experimental or moderate use of some drugs outweigh the harms (if any) that may arise. The previous criticisms that have been made of arguments for prohibition, and my defence of Mill’s conception of liberty, have hopefully bolstered the claim that all drugs should be legalised. This should be viewed as a goal. On a utilitarian basis though, the process of legalisation should be gradual and orderly, with some drugs being legalised first.
There are some good reasons for thinking that some drugs should be legalised first. One important reason for legalising the less harmful drugs first is that if a substantial amount of revenue could be generated from taxing them, then this money could ensure that drug education becomes highly informative and all-encompassing. So, by the time all drugs were legalised, people would be more careful in how they approach highly addictive and destructive drugs. Furthermore, even if people used these harmful drugs regardless of the information available, at least rehabilitation programmes and centres could be set up to reduce the risk of a further relapse.
For these reasons, it is a sensible decision for policy change, with regard to drugs, to be gradual. Cannabis should justifiably be legalised first, and then perhaps other physically benign and mind-altering drugs could be legalised, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline, DMT, and possibly MDMA (ecstasy). Most likely it would be some time before crack cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine were legalised. In any case, I have claimed that drugs such as cannabis, LSD etc. should be legalised first because they are relatively harmless and even carry some benefits with experimental and moderate use. To justify this claim, I will now examine some of these possible benefits.
Going back to Mill’s idea of ‘experiments of living’, it was suggested that some drugs may help some individuals to flourish in various ways – in the case of the artist Alex Grey, LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs were attributed to many of the ‘visions’ which influenced his work. The novelist Aldous Huxley wrote extensively in Doors of Perception just how important his experience with mescaline was, and the philosopher William James also wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience how “in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation”.
Whether these experiences are ‘delusional’ or not seems irrelevant; countless other writers, artists, and no doubt recreational users, have found experiences with these drugs to be significant. It would, therefore, be harsh, some may say, to make these drugs illegal if this would prevent people from having these experiences. The law in America allows Native Americans to use peyote (usually a Schedule-I drug) in religious ceremonies; likewise, it is legal in America for people to take the illicit drug ayahuasca, so long as it is in a designated ayahuasca ‘Church’. If we are to grant these groups the rights to use these drugs because they are central to their religious activities, I can see no reason as to why we should not grant individuals the right to use drugs for any religious, spiritual or personal reason.
Also, drugs such as cannabis and the other hallucinogens can offer users a ‘high’, a state of euphoria and other desirable states. No doubt this is the main reason why individuals use these types of drugs. Since fatalities from these types of drugs are unheard of, and since they also lack any toxic properties, a cost-benefit consideration could justify the pleasure that drug-users gain from these drugs. And yet the ‘high’ is not the only possible benefit from the use of these drugs.
In a study on the effects of MDMA on those suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), Rick Doblin found that the drug causes a rise in levels of oxytocin, the chemical that induces feelings of trust and affiliation. These are feelings that a sufferer of PTSD desperately needs to overcome their psychological affliction. A study on psilocybin (the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’) also looks promising. Out of the 30 volunteers in the study, 22 out of 33 reported having a ‘mystical’ or ‘sacred’ experience and 67% rated the experience as being one of the “most meaningful experiences of his or her life”.
There were also reports of “sustained positive changes in attitudes and behaviour”. The study was careful to point out the physiologically benign effects of this drug as well. Since the mystical nature of the psilocybin experience has the potential to promote meaningful experiences and positive changes, if these types of drugs were legal then they would be more widely available and their benefits could be maximised. Some studies certainly suggest that spiritual states can be conducive to one’s well-being.
Nevertheless, a critic may reply in response to this sort of argument for legalisation that in order to sensibly reap the benefits from these specific drugs, we should only legalise them in a medical or psychiatric setting. If LSD can break down “psychological barriers”, then this effect of LSD should be utilised in a therapeutic setting where it can benefit the individual the most, minimising any risks of a traumatic experience. Moreover, if LSD “is capable of improving the lot of dying individuals by making them more responsive to their environment and family” as Eric Kast emphasises, then the use of LSD should be restricted to hospices as well.
Other authors have claimed that mind-altering drugs could be useful in treating disorders such as alcoholism, destructive habits, and depression. Ketamine has recently been of interest to some scientists who say that the drug can be used to treat depression far more effectively than prescriptive drugs like Prozac. In the case of cannabis, there are clear medical benefits surrounding its use, especially in the case of people suffering from chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cataracts, cancer, and AIDS. In the case of people suffering from cancer and AIDS, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in cannabis, “is effective at relieving nausea and vomiting…and is also effective at inducing appetite in some of these [cancer and AIDS] patients”.
Thus, a strong ethical argument can be made for at least legalising cannabis for medical use since the negative side effects of smoking cannabis, which are never serious, are heavily outweighed by the potentially life-saving effects it has for some patients. A defence of civil liberties and a recognition of the benefits of legalisation would support a model of full legalisation. However, in tune with my proposal for gradual legalisation (with the least harmful drugs being legalised first), it might be sensible for drugs such as cannabis, and possibly the psychedelics, to be legalised only for patients who can significantly benefit from them. With this process of legalisation, research with these kinds of drugs could also become more thorough in order to understand the full benefits (and harms) these drugs can have for patients and individuals who are suffering. This route has apparently already been taken with the introduction of medical marijuana dispensaries in several states in America.
The arguments in favour of prohibition are not strong enough to justify the global prohibition of drugs. Furthermore, the existence and burden of the black market mean that we also should not prefer a model of decriminalisation to one of legalisation. In order to preserve our liberty, a model of legalisation can be defended, meaning that all drugs should eventually be legalised. As I have already outlined, the legalisation of drugs would also carry substantial benefits. But even though the legalisation of all drugs is defensible, and should be viewed as a goal in mind, the process of legalisation should be gradual, with drugs being legalised in a specific order and in a certain way.
For example, it might prove to be beneficial to legalise only some drugs in a medical or psychiatric framework first so that more research can be conducted with them, in order to understand their full benefits, harms, and side effects. If drugs such as cannabis, LSD, MDMA and ‘magic mushrooms’ were legalised in this kind of setting, and if the benefits of these drugs could be shown to massively outweigh their harms (if any), then it would be easier to completely legalise, regulate and tax these drugs in the future.
If the goal is the legalisation of all drugs, then there should be an incentive, perhaps with the revenue generated from the legalisation of other drugs, to promote rehabilitation programmes and public education about drugs in order to give people reliable information about their harms. Individuals should have the freedom to use heroin and crack cocaine (so long as no-one else is harmed) but this does not mean that the state should not offer support to those vulnerable to drug misuse and addiction.