Drugs and Liberty

Drugs are undoubtedly bad for our health and we could even make a case that recreational drug use is immoral. However this should have no bearing on whether drugs should be illegal or legal. It is clear there is no chance of the perfect solution where drugs can be completely eradicated from society. We must therefore decide what is the harm of having drugs illegal and compare that with the harm of having drugs legalised – and then choose the least bad option.

The main harm of making drugs illegal is that it creates enormous profits for some of the world’s most violent and unpleasant people, who murder, extort, bully and corrupt their way to power.  i.e. organised criminal gangs. It also supports corrupt regimes in some of the worlds nastiest countries and finances terrorism.

America’s attempt, in 1920-33, to prohibit the sale of alcohol (sensibly not copied in any other big country) inflated alcohol prices, promoted bootleg suppliers, encouraged the spread of guns and crime, increased hard-liquor drinking and corrupted a quarter of the federal enforcement agents, all within a decade. The drugs war has achieved all these things but, since the business is global, it has done so on an international scale.

Add to this the levels of crime conducted by users and addicts to pay the inflated prices, the high cost of law enforcement (police, customs, courts and prisons), the healthcare costs associated with poor quality and doctored products and the criminalisation of a nation’s youth and we have a very high cost to society for making drugs illegal.

Legalisation gives us the ability to easily reach out to users and addicts to educate them away from drug use.  We can also assure the quality of the product, making them safer and reducing the costs of treatment.  Tax revenue from the sale of drugs can be fed back into education programmes explaining the risks of drug taking.  Finally the poor producers in developing countries could get the financial benefits from a legitimate cash crop rather than the criminals in the current distribution chain.  In my opinion the biggest benefit would be taking an enormous source of revenue away from these nasty people in organised crime.

These benefits to legalisation must be balanced with a resulting lower social stigma from drug taking (if that was possible) and lower prices (to ensure nobody bought from illicit channels) possibly creating more users. But bear in mind that drugs are already very available in our society.  In any case most drugs users grow out of their habit if left alone.  Peter Cohen, of the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, followed a sample of cocaine users whom he describes as typical. After ten years, 60% had become completely abstinent and 40% remained occasional users. “Most drug users ultimately stop,” he says. “Drugs no longer fit their lifestyle. They get jobs, they have to get up early, they stop going to the disco, they have kids.”

So what is the least bad option – illegal or legal?  Governments already allow their citizens the freedom to do many potentially self-destructive things: mountaineering; bungee-jumping; cave diving; motor biking; alcohol and cigarette consumption; gambling and (famously) horse riding.  Some of these are far more dangerous than drug taking.

Perhaps John Stuart Mill was right. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.  Trade in drugs may be bad for our health, immoral and irresponsible, but perhaps it should no longer be illegal.