Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Should Class 'A' Drugs be Legalised?

The recent debate about reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug from its lowered C category has brought the subject of legalising drugs back into the spotlight. I recall Ben Elton writing a novel which argued the case with some passion and many others, including respected newspaper editorials have suggested this might be the way forward.

The Case For:
1. This begins with the libertarian argument that people should be allowed to do what they like-subject to harming others- even if it inflicts self harm;
2. It goes on to state that the major problem is not the drugs themselves but the criminal underworld which gives millions of pounds to criminals who invest in people trafficking and worse. If drugs were made legal then at one fell swoop these criminals would be put out of business and addicts would not have to rob and mug to raise the money required by their habit. The state should control the supply of harmful drugs and tax them to earn money for the national exchequer.
3. Because most of the damage inflicted by intravenous drugs is through the stuff drug dealers mix in with it to add body to their wraps, legalisation would also solve this problem too.
So, we have a drugs culture: let's legalise and control distribution and problem will be solved? Sounds simple and effective and radical and so why not? Careful thought reveals possibly why not.

Case Against:
1. As alcohol use has burgeoned under its socially legitimised, legal status, surely class A drugs would do the same? Make heroin, cocaine and cannabis legal and demand will increase.
2.We already have a society laden with alcoholics and addicts; do we want to risk accelerating such numbers by a substantial further factor?
3.Dissuading people from smoking is proving difficult enough; should we establish even more hurdles for addicts to jump over?
4.Being addicted to heroin is a very debilitating condition- even if the drug is free from harmful mixers; increasing their numbers hugely would not add to the sum of human happiness, prevents people from looking after their children and can lead to irrational and tragic consequences like violence and suicide.
5.Prescription drugs are legally controlled but many become damaging addicted to those as well.
6.To limit availability prices would have to be set pretty high but this would create another loophole for criminals to undercut the price by illegal sales. I'm not sure, either, that legalising such substances has been proven a success in other countries.

Legalising drugs would provide certain benefits admittedly, but it carries with it many more disadvantages which outweigh the gains legalisation would produce. On balance, despite being advocated by many well meaning liberal people, it is a disastrous idea and one to be avoided.

It is rather difficult criticising your arguments on a philosophical level since you knowingly swap from one (Classical JS Mil Liberalism) in favour to one against (utilitarianism), and then in your conclusion assume that utilitarianism is the right/best option. Personally I'm inclined to disagree.

Even on a utlitarian calculation, however, you have erred because you do not take into account the happiness of the drug users themselves; the pleasure they derive from use. If that was a very great degree of happiness indeed, taking drugs for them might be rational and might increase the sum total of human happiness despite the negative side effects. It takes another view, paternalism, to suggest that utilitarian calculations require the banning of drugs.

Further, on a rather harsh utilitarian economic calculation, drugs might save society money overall since drug users die young, thus saving NHS and pension/care home costs, plus other expensive medical care old people need more than young. (This is ignored by anti-smoking campaigners.)

One intangible problem is that drug dealers are not going to become blameless good citizens overnight, thus they might turn to other forms of crime to buy their BMWs etc, and these might be worse for society as a whole (say, increased burglary, muggins etc which harm a lot more than voluntary drug users). On the other hand, however, as you point out the crime associated with addicts themselves, who steal etc to fund their habits, _would_ disappear, and society would benefit as a whole.

Next you assume that addiction will increase greatly; I'm not so sure. Since as you point out alcohol etc is already available might it not be the case that those prone to addiction will not necessarily increase, just that they might choose drugs over alcohol?

Moreover, I know from personal experience (not direct, a first cousin who became a severe heroin addict) that many addicts wish to give up but are hampered in doing so by the lack of availability of heroin substitutes such as methodone etc which form part of the way of coming off addiction.

One could go on and one; I will make one further point. The economics of banning drugs cannot work. The more you ban, the greater the profit margin in selling illegal drugs, the more ruthless drug dealers become and the more crime addicts will have to commit to fund their habits. The film Traffic, though somewhat ponderous and pretentious, makes this point quite well.

As much as alcohol has caused problems in the USA, I don't think anyone's seriously thought about going back to prohibition, have they?
Political Umpire assumes just one conception of utilitarianism - that is, the crude, Benthamite application of the felicific calculus. You refer to Millian liberalism in opposition to utilitarianism, but Millian liberalism was premised on utilitarianism. In fact, the vast majority (possibly all) of political arguments are utilitarian in nature. If proponents of these arguments don't admit this, it's probably because they, like Political Umpire, conflate happiness with pleasure.
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