There's been a fair amount of comment recently on the subject of the "War on Drugs". Things heated up earlier this year when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an organisation with some very heavyweight members published a damning report that suggested the war had already been lost, and that moves in the direction of decriminalisation or legalisation were the only rational way forward. Since then responses have fallen broadly into two camps:
- There is no war on drugs. It's all a lie, we're actually far too tolerant on drugs. See e.g. this paper. Explanations range from incompetence through politically-motivated equivocation to outright conspiracy, if you listen to the Lunatic Jesus Fringe (man, these people scare me). The solution for these people is to just fight harder. Corporal/capital punishment for serious drug offences is a suggestion that seems to crop up a lot.
- Decriminalisation is the best way to fight drug usage. These people accept the Global Commission's position and believe that the war on drugs is enormously counter-productive. If you want to deal with drug usage we need to take it out of the hands of criminals and apply greater regulation. Unlike their opponents, these people tend to come from all sides of the political spectrum: Conservative, Liberal and Left(ish).
Right now, it would seem that opinion most places outside of the US is generally swinging towards a more evidence-based approach to tackling drug harm. But I was struck today by an article in today's Independent by Suzie Dean. It was notable both for its clear-headedness and the fact that it was a genuine rarity in the current discussion: it actually addressed the moral question of whether drug usage is wrong, rather just how best to stop it.
One thing that saddens me about this whole debate is that it remains couched purely in terms of harm reduction. Drugs can indeed be harmful if misused, as can everything else in life. Cars are dangerous when driven without care; almost every foodstuff is "bad for you" if eaten to excess; even excessive and badly controlled exercise can be damaging to your health. Furthermore, our understanding of habit and addiction has developed enormously over the past decades, and it is clear that there are many socially acceptable activities (sex, internet usage, even working) which can sometimes develop into pathologies that are at least as destructive as the habitual overuse of drugs that do not produce physical dependencies (e.g. MDMA).
We allow all of these things in our society because we judge that the risk of a transition into harm is outweighed by the size of their perceived benefit. Clearly, this calculation consists of two parts:
- How big is the risk?
- How big is the benefit?
(1) The Risk
This does get discussed, but without sufficient rigour. What is pathological drug use? Most of the anti-drug commentators talk of socially destructive behaviours that end up in court, lead to violence, neglect etc. etc. I'm going to assume that these are the risks we're concerned about; I don't accept that the chemical alteration of consciousness is *inherently* bad (see (2) below).
To make a meaningful assessment of these we need hard evidence of what percentage of total users of each drug end up exhibiting these behaviours; and we need to find a way of removing the effects of confounding variables such as social class, economic status, prior mental health etc from these figures. I imagine this will be extremely difficult because (a) efforts to record drug usage have generally been hampered by the unwillingness of users to self-incriminate, (b) surveys of drug harm are often highly partisan and conducted without statistical rigour and (c) many of the worst activities are inextricably linked to the current illegal status of the drugs in question. If we want to move this debate forward, there's a big research hole here that needs filling.
From a purely anecdotal point of view, I would note that as an ordinary professional, middle class individual approaching middle age, I have come across a great many people who take drugs, some infrequently, some habitually. With a very small number of exceptions, they all live happy and fulfilled lives, holding down a variety of jobs in fields as diverse as management, finance, academia, and the arts. Whether regular users or not, these individuals have something in common: moderation. They also have another thing in common: they are all people that it was plausible I would meet and engage with, i.e. very few of them are from deeply underprivileged backgrounds. This is a story that I hear again and again, including (by implication) from prohibitionists who wish to undermine their liberal opponents: drug use among comfortably-off middle class people tends to be moderate and without real harm. But surely this implies that the enormously greater prevalence of drug harm among those from poorer backgrounds is not a function of the drugs themselves but their combination with pre-existing social disfunction. And to suggest that this is an argument for prohibition is akin to suggesting that we should ban cars because bored kids on housing estates cause mayhem by joy-riding.
(2) The benefits
This is the topic no-one seems willing to discuss, but it is absolutely central. There appears to be a background assumption that there is something inherently wrong, bad or dirty about altering your consciousness chemically; that there is no conceivable benefit to "getting high" which could justify the risks. And this, frankly, is nonsense. I'd like to make a few brief points:
- Drugs are enormously varied. There's a world of difference between someone snorting cocaine in a pub toilet and consuming ayahuasca in the context of a ritual for which they have prepared over the course of several days. You cannot describe either benefits or risks without engaging with this diversity.
- Drug use is a product of an inevitable human desire. I'm sorry to be bald about this, but every human society of which I've ever heard has found some way to alter their consciousness for spiritual or recreational purposes. Most have done so through some form of drug, be it alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or peyote. Those societies that have most successfully engaged with this are those which have developed social norms about the appropriate contexts and quantities for consumption, not those which have attempted to suppress the desire itself.
- Many drugs have enormous medical potential that is currently being underexploited as a result of the legal situation. THC has numerous well-documented medical applications; MDMA, LSD and Psylocibin have all been used with great success in the treatment of psychological conditions. There's peer-reviewed, published research on all of this, but it's still very limited because the whole field is viewed with deep suspicion.
- The benefits don't stop at treating pathologies. Mind-altering drugs have been lauded by all sorts of individuals throughout history as a means to personal and spiritual development, if used correctly. In the last century, people as diverse as Aldous Huxley, Steve Jobs and Baron Mayhew have all described psychedelic drug experiences as among the most profound and significant of their entire lives. Among those people that I know personally who have tried such substances, a similar story emerges: this is not always a pointless thrill or a cheap high, it can be a life-changing, profound experience that changes your perspective on the world.
I'm not for a moment trying to pretend that all drugs are always beneficial. Like anything else, they come with their risks and costs (some enormously more so than others). But until we stop framing this debate in terms of a naive assertion that "drugs are bad" and start on a genuine assessment of the risks and benefits of individual drugs, we're never going to get beyond the stage of moralising assertion.