Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The problem with legalising drugs

While the US elections dominated the news for the last week, two US states – Washington and Colorado – took the opportunity to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. For proponents of legalisation and for those who believe that the “war on drugs” has failed, this was seen as a major victory. But having thought somewhat extensively about the problems that drugs pose to modern societies, I have to say I have doubts as to just how much of a victory this was.

Firstly, and from a more bureaucratic perspective, it is only within the borders of these individual states that the recreational use of marijuana is now possible. These Acts were also passed in direct defiance of federal law, policy and it must be said, Obama’s inclinations. If the history of drugs has taught us anything this will mean that while one might be allowed to consume marijuana “recreationally” within the borders of the respective states, any federal measures will take precedence and will in all likelihood override any gains made by the states. Moreover it is at the federal level that national and international drug policy is made and enforced, with international consequences – while the inhabitants of Washington and Colorado may be able to toke up in the comfort of their own homes, the real “war on drugs,” the one the pundits of legalisation should really be worried about, will rage on.

My second worry is a little more substantive and concerns the pragmatic and theoretical concept of legalisation itself. In my personal encounters with proponents of legalisation, and especially of marijuana, most differentiate between marijuana and “other” drugs. Marijuana, their argument generally goes, has numerous health benefits, is not very addictive (taking into account habit as well as chemical dependency), hurts relatively few people, and is even used medically. Furthermore with the legalisation of marijuana the quality will be guaranteed, exploitative relationships will be eliminated and the courts will be freed up to deal with far more pressing problems. All of these “facts” are indeed true.

But it is the logic of legalisation that is rarely taken into account. It seems to me that often legalisation is simply a knee-jerk reaction to prohibition. The argument goes something like this: marijuana is not bad, but is made bad by being illegal, and therefore it is the law’s fault and this should be changed. Moreover the above argument(s) all rely on a primary distinction, between marijuana and “other” drugs. But drugs, in their potency, use, and manufacture all lie on a spectrum – it is not simply that one substance can be “good” and another “bad”. Cocaine, for instance, is still used medically, as is morphine (the precursor of heroin) and so on. So while marijuana may indeed be less “damaging”, from both an institutional and normative perspective, if you legalise the one you put yourself in the position of having to continue to differentiate between marijuana and other drugs, the distinctions of which become, in my experience, ultimately subjective. This is not exactly a good basis for law. Of course when I have told this to people I have been told to stop talking rubbish and once again been informed about the benefits of marijuana. The distinction outlined above, my actual concern, is left ignored.

The same holds true for the concept of “recreational” drug use. What distinguishes recreational drug use from other forms of use? Rate of use? Addictive potential? Monthly spending? All of these again encounter a slippery normative slope – where does one draw the line? I know people that use cocaine rarely but marijuana heavily. Does this make them “addicts” or would the intake of the two drugs have to be reversed for the person to be thought of as such? Addiction is as much a social phenomenon as it is a psychological one.

From a personal perspective I do think there are different “levels” of drug use, and from a pharmacological perspective there are definitely drugs that have a higher addictive potential to others. But simply arguing for the blanket legalisation of even one substance makes problematic the very concept of legalisation. We see this in debates concerning two very dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco. What is needed, I think, is a far more critical and self-reflexive engagement with what we think constitutes a drug, why we think a substance should be deemed a drug (Ritalin, for instance, has similar pharmacological effects to that of ecstasy) and then, and only then, enter into debates as to how we might intelligently legalise/regulate the production, distribution and consumption of these substances. Simply jumping on the legalisation bandwagon, in my mind, paradoxically continues the logic of the “war on drugs” – the very paradigm that has caused so much damage in the first place.

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