A reply to Bruce Anderson: it's high time we weeded out the drug myth

It is philosophically unstable to want both the legalisation of drugs in principle, but subject the resulting economy to heavy regulation. Either trust the people, or don’t

Drugs: not a pretty picture
Peter Smith
On 22 November 2011 12:18

Bruce Anderson thinks that it is a fundamental tenet of modern political philosophy that the state should only regulate those activities absolutely necessary for a civilised society, such as imposing rules on the road, governing the use of land, and ensure physical security.

Drug taking he regards as an activity that responsible adults can rightfully choose, provided, he implies, that no extraneous harm is caused to others.

After all, when I sit in a pub and have a drink, my freedom is restricted only to the extent that I cannot become rowdy and upset the freedoms of others, and the same should apply when I sit in a cafe with a spliff.

But the problem is, Anderson assumes that drug takers know the extent of the risks and harms of their activity. This patently is not the case. We tolerate alcohol because it is less addictive than cannabis (and much, much less addictive that cocaine or heroin), and because it generally has a socialising effect.

Consumption of alcohol breaks down inner restraints on behaviour and makes us friendlier – at least in its initial marginal effects. Too much alcohol can cause aggression, and we lose inhibitions regarding use of language and sex.

No one denies there are large problems with drink in the UK today, but unlike with drugs we have a combined system of policing, law and moral shaming that has evolved to respond to overstepping of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

An experienced drinker will know of the effects of alcohol, and they will build up a relationship with drink based on this knowledge. An experienced addict, however, will not, because the effect of drugs is hidden in its use.

The loss of reason and inhibition is not evident to the drug taker because the very faculties which govern these are damaged by the drug use. The Americans have it right in using the term narcotics, from the Greek narko, “I benumb”. It is not only sensation that drugs numb, but reason too.

So the state’s attitude to drug taking should be like its attitude to children or those lacking mental capacity: it should govern and regulate in the drug taker’s best interests.

Because they do not know the latency of its harms, it is not in the drug taker’s best interests to break into the cycle of addiction and dependency that Anderson acknowledges will result.

It is ludicrous to suggest that legalisation will reduce drug-related crime – species of property theft in particular – yet propose that access to drugs be in ‘limited quantities’ with a ‘biometric’ ‘document...to be stamped every time they made a purchase’. Pharmaco-tolerance of drugs ratchets up the amounts needed both for a high and to satisfy cravings; once the state ration is exhausted, the addict will be back to the underworld for more.

There are plenty of other objections to Anderson’s scheme of regulation. Given the ‘snowballing’ nature of drug addiction, how is the market price to be set? What about those who will see the opportunity to compete on price and undermine the state’s market? If adults are capable of deciding whether or not to take drugs, why can’t their wonderful properties be advertised after the watershed (if your concern is about children)?

Surely today’s illegal drug dealers would – rather than retire - be early entrants to tomorrow’s legal trade in drugs? After all, they probably have a brand reputation, an existing client base, in-place supply and distribution chains, and a detailed knowledge of both product and competition.

Entrepreneurial dealers and substantial barriers of entry to the market would deter any reputable company from entering the business.

It is philosophically unstable to want both the legalisation of drugs in principle, but subject the resulting economy to heavy regulation. Either trust the people, or don’t.

When the Government seeks to install discipline in the British people – less consumer debt and obesity, harder work and greater productivity – and invigorate civic virtue in the Big Society, bringing Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane to the 21st Century is the last thing we need.

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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