This is the first part of an article on drug legalisation. Please find the second part here.
Should we legalise recreational drug use? The main arguments in favour of legalising recreational drugs are:
- Legalising or decriminalising recreational drugs will bring in additional tax revenue.
- Prohibition of drugs causes crime and benefits criminals.
- Legalising drugs would allow the state to control drug quality and access.
- Other, legal drugs are more harmful (alcohol, tobacco).
- In a free society, people should be free to choose themselves if they want to use drugs.
- Drugs have always been used in human societies.
This is the first of a two-part article. In the next part, we’ll discuss arguments against legalising recreational drugs.
Debate overview: Legalising recreational drugs
Before the 20th century, drugs were generally not regulated and even states engaged officially in drug trade (see, for example, the Opium Wars between Britain and China).
In the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, the US introduced controls for many drugs considered addictive and/or dangerous. This was part of a more general trend in US society towards safeguarding “Christian” values that had started in the 19th century and included the prohibition of alcoholic drinks that was put into law from 1920 to 1933.
Legalisation vs decriminalisation
Today, there is a movement of many societies towards a liberalisation of drug laws. This can be either a legalisation of particular drugs (the trade and consumption of the drug becomes legal) or a decriminalisation of its use (the drug is still not freely available, but its consumption is not considered a criminal offence; instead, it is regulated and controlled by other means). Often, decriminalisation is proposed only for the consumption of a drug by individuals, while the trade of the drug would still remain a criminal offence.
Different kinds of drugs
Obviously, there exist great differences between drugs, both in the effect that they have upon the user and in their potential to be addictive and/or harmful. Some drugs that are generally considered addictive are not actually strongly addictive, while others that are freely available (e.g. sugar or nicotine) are both addictive and dangerous to the users’ health, but still legal and widely advertised and used in society.
This fact makes the discussion of the legalisation of drugs particularly difficult, as it becomes almost impossible to draw a clear line between types of drugs with particular properties that would justify their prohibition.
Another important decision is that between recreational and medical use of drugs. Most societies agree that most drugs, even addictive ones, may be used in a therapy context by medical professionals; while they would not allow the same drugs to be used “for fun.”
In the following, we will discuss the main arguments for and against the legalisation or decriminalisation of recreational drugs.
Different experiences in different countries
Different countries have made different experiences with attempts to decriminalise or legalise recreational drugs. While Portugal, for example, decriminalised all personal drug possession and use in 2001 and experienced a reduction in drug use, the Netherlands have seen a rise in drug tourism from neighbouring countries and a rise in crime associated with drug trafficking.
This probably means that when evaluating the effects of drug decriminalisation or legalisation, one has to take into account many factors related to a country’s society, its trade relations with other countries, its geographical position, the rest of its legal framework, its religion and many other aspects. It is unlikely that drug legalisation will play out in the same way in different countries as both its benefits and its problems are likely to be highly dependent on context.
Six best arguments in favour of legalising recreational drugs
1. Tax income
A regulated market for recreational drugs would provide tax income to states that could be used to control drugs better or to assist addicts. A 1994 paper estimates the income from marijuana taxes in the US alone to be between 3 and 9 billion US dollars per year . For comparison, the US Education Department budget for 1992 was around 30 billion; and in 1993, US income from tobacco taxes was around 12 billion USD .
A critic could say that the expected income is relatively low in terms of state income and expenses. On the other hand, it is very hard to estimate the costs of drug use and addiction, because these include the costs of criminal activities, costs for the justice system to process drug cases, damages to property and life, medical treatment costs, reduced productivity, potentially shortened life span of some classes of drug users and many other items.
2. Prohibition causes crime and benefits criminals
During the alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s USA, criminal gangs took over the production and distribution of alcohol, making huge profits in the process. In contrast, nowadays alcohol is sold legally and is not associated with organised crime.
Prohibitions cause crime in two different ways:
Since the drug is outlawed, manufacturing and distributing the drug is a dangerous process that involves high risk and justifies a high price for the drug. The high price benefits the organised crime groups that control the illegal drug trade. Legal substances have much lower profit margins and don’t benefit organised crime. Therefore, the best way to get rid of the criminal organisations behind the drug trade would be to legalise drugs, thereby destroying the high-profits drug market.
On the side of the drug user, the high price of illegal drugs makes it difficult, and often impossible, to obtain the drug without committing additional crimes. Unemployed heroin addicts, for example, cannot easily find ways to finance their addiction without resorting to theft and robbery in order to obtain the means to buy the drugs they need. A state-controlled system of drug distribution could easily solve these problems and make these drugs available to whomever needs them at low or no cost. This would benefit society as a whole.
3. More state control over drug quality and access
Drug decriminalisation would allow governments to regulate access to and distribution of drugs better. Alcohol and tobacco are legal in many societies, but still effectively regulated: they are not easily available to minors, they are not permitted in workplaces and so on. A society-wide discussion about the health effects of particular drugs (e.g. the harms of sugar) can lead to incentives to reduce the use of such legal drugs or to provide less harmful alternatives.
Also, a big problem with drugs at present is that there is no quality control in their manufacture. The amount of the active substance in a dose of any drug sold on the streets can vary widely, and often these drugs contain additional, harmful ingredients. This uncertainty makes it impossible for the user to calculate the correct amount of the drug to take and leads to accidental overdoses and easily avoidable deaths. If recreational drugs were legalised, their production and composition could be monitored and taking them would be much safer.
A drug that is outlawed, in contrast, cannot be effectively controlled and its use cannot be monitored and regulated by the state. Since every use is illegal and punishable, the state loses sight of the drug users and thus cannot prevent that the drug becomes accessible to minors, for example. Criminalisation also inhibits a society-wide discussion of responsible drug use and alternatives.
4. Other, legal drugs are more harmful
One of the main arguments in favour of drug legalisation is that other harmful drugs are already legal: primarily alcohol and tobacco, but also sugar and coffee are sometimes mentioned.
According to this argument, the harmfulness of alcohol and tobacco lies not only in that they are addictive, but also in that the danger to health that they pose (tobacco) and in the fact that they cause aggressive behaviour and loss of control in the subject (alcohol). Combined with driving, alcohol can have particularly deadly consequences.
In contrast, the negative health effects of some drugs are much milder than those of alcohol. Cannabis, for example, if taken in a form that does not involve smoking, seems to have much milder effects on health:
Marijuana is roughly 114 times less deadly than alcohol, according to recent findings published in the journal Scientific Reports. Of the seven drugs included in the study, alcohol was the deadliest at an individual level, followed by heroin, cocaine, tobacco, ecstasy, methamphetamines, and marijuana. Previous studies consistently ranked marijuana as the safest recreational drug, but it was not known that the discrepancy was this large. (From: The Verge)
And the author of a study on drug use in traditional societies writes:
It is unfortunate that ancient, powerful “plants of the gods” such as peyote, ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, and hemp are sometimes treated by law enforcement as equivalent to dangerous drugs of abuse such as amphetamine, heroin, and crack cocaine. In fact, most natural and synthetic hallucinogens are non-addictive and have extremely low potential for abuse. Ironically,
alcohol and tobacco, the quintessential (and legal) social drugs of the West, may prove to be among the most addictive and deleterious drugs in human history. (G. Shepard, 2005).
On the other hand, the US CDC warns that one in ten marijuana users will become addicted, a number that rises to one in six for under-18-year-olds. According to the CDC, marijuana has negative effects on brain development and concentration, but may be beneficial in the treatment of chronic pain and cancer symptoms . But this then would not be a recreational use, and as such not in the scope of the present article.
Generally, it is very hard to say what “harmful” means in terms of drug use. Many drugs (including alcohol and marijuana) cause disorientation and often behavioural changes. Some of these changes may be harmful when one is driving, for example, but harmless if one is sitting on a sofa with friends.
Some drugs harm their users in the long run, either by facilitating particular diseases (sugar, tobacco) or by making habitual users less able to function in society (alcohol, marijuana, heroin and many others).
Generally, it seems a bad argument to say that one drug should be permitted because another drug that is more harmful is already legal. This would be like saying that tax evasion, on a grand scale, is more harmful than stealing another’s handbag. Therefore, since tax evasion can be legal (depending on the circumstances), stealing handbags should also be legalised. This doesn’t seem to be the right conclusion.
But, of course, it is desirable that our laws are rational and that they treat relevantly similar cases in similar ways. This is clearly not the case at present, where alcohol, tobacco and sugar (and perhaps other drugs) enjoy a special status that is not available to other, perhaps less harmful, drugs. Some kind of rational harmonisation of the legal treatment of these different drugs would certainly be desirable.
5. The freedom to choose
So-called “libertarian” arguments assume that the grown-up citizen is the best judge of what is good or bad for them — and that, therefore, they should have the last say when their own bodies are concerned.
Libertarian arguments are often used in the drug debate (“as long as I don’t harm anyone else, it’s my business…”) and in the debate about vaccinations. Our democratic systems emphasise this essential freedom of individuals to choose what they perceive as valuable.
In classic political philosophy, the “social contract” theories emphasise that states are nothing but voluntary associations of individuals that have the sole purpose to serve these individuals. As such, they many not unduly interfere in the choices of the citizens, as long as these choices don’t lead to harm for others.
The libertarian argument can be criticised both in general and particularly in relation to the drugs debate.
In general, people are often not able to make the right choices for themselves. This is shown, for example, in the very bad choices people make about food, exercise, education, social media, smoking, TV consumption, election outcomes, and a large number of other issues. This is due to, on the one hand, human nature (it is difficult for us to resist excessive amounts of sweets and fats); but, on the other hand, it is also compounded by a lack of education, even in affluent countries. As long as large numbers of citizens demonstrably make sub-optimal choices, even according to their own long-term values, the libertarian argument has little force. After all, it is based on the assumption that the citizens know best what’s good for them, but this can be shown to often not be the case.
Specifically concerning the drug debate, the assumption of a “free choice” is even more problematic: drug users might act under social pressure (for example, when first approaching drugs together with their peers in school) or they might act already under the influence of addiction. In both cases, they are not free to make a rational choice. For example, in the US, “85% of smokers say they have in fact tried to quit at least once in their lifetime, including 45% who have tried at least three times.” (Gallup )
This shows that the rational desire of the smoker to quit, which manifests itself forcefully in those multiple tries to quit, is overshadowed by the addictive effect of the drug, which effectively controls the smoker’s actual behaviour. In these cases, we cannot speak of smokers as “free citizens” who are able to make the most rational choices for themselves.
6. Drugs have always been used
Finally, proponents of drug legalisation point out that drugs have always been used by human societies and that, therefore, they should still be available.
It is true that we know of many ancient societies that they used drugs for medical and ritual purposes, but also for recreation and fun . From the ancient Greeks to the use of cocaine by Sigmund Freud, the history of human societies has always been a history of drugs too.
The question is, does this argument really support legalising or decriminalising recreational drug use?
One problem is that using an argument like that, you might justify anything. Theft surely has been with us for as long as human societies existed, and the same is true of murder, rape, wars and many other ills. Does this mean that we are justified in continuing to do these things, or that we should endorse them because they’ve always been around? This doesn’t seem to make sense.
But there’s also another problem with this argument: In many older societies, the use of the more dangerous and potent drugs was indeed regulated and restricted. Yes, people drank alcohol in ancient Athens, but the hallucinogenic drugs were used only in specific rituals, under the supervision of priests and under strict social control; and the same is probably true of most other examples of drug use in traditional societies. Even the use of recreational drugs like alcohol was likely much more under social scrutiny in these traditional societies, since everyone knew everyone else inside a particular social circle and people had to take care to not damage their social standing. The anonymity of modern society and its lack of social cohesion enables drug abuse in a way that would be much harder to accomplish (and to conceal) in ancient societies.
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Thanks for reading! Don’t miss the next article, where we discuss the common arguments against drug legalisation! Cover image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.