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Legalise all drugs or, at the very least, cannabis.

Comment 6th July 2010

I believe, for the reasons set out below, that all drugs should be freely available to those who want them, even drugs such as heroin and crystal meth which are capable of causing immense damage to the user. However, I am willing to accept that not only is the legalisation of such drugs well nigh impossible under the current political climate, but that there are numerous valid arguments against such a step. However, there is one drug which these arguments simply do not apply to: cannabis.

Let us compare cannabis to alcohol. This comparison is a cliche I know, but one worth repeating because it seems to have made no impression even on many of those who accept it as such. Alcohol is highly addictive, causes long term and short term liver damage and is very easy to overdose on. Cannabis, by contrast, is not physically addictive (of course it can be psychologically addictive, but so can chocolate fingers and football) and it is literally impossible to overdose on as the lethal dose is so high. Of course it can, in large quantities over a number of years, cause lung cancer and paranoia, and worsen psychosis in those predisposed to it.

However, lest we consider that legalisation would cause a sudden upsurge in use, bringing a wave of paranoid cancerous psychotics in its wake, let us not forget that cannabis use is lower among the Dutch than among the British or Americans. This is because cannabis is a highly cultural drug – that is to say, a substantial proportion of young adults, of which I am one, choose to use it, and a substantial proportion choose not to. This is, as I say, a matter of choice. You would be hard pressed to find any young adult in the UK, apart from those living in remote areas, who wishes to use cannabis and is unable to. If you want cannabis in the UK, you can get it, and it has ever been thus.

All of the above may go some way towards persuading those of a 'nannying' bent that not only are we the People safe to be let loose with cannabis, we are also able to get hold of it anyway so all legalisation would do is cut off a source of funding for criminals. Now, however, we must consider the more important and generalised importance of drug legalisation, for as they stand, the drug laws are contemptuous of the individual's right to choose what she may do, harmful or no, to her own body.

Why does this matter?

Let us consider the circumstances in which a chemical should be prevented from falling into the hands of the populus. The chemical must be capable of allowing an individual who desires to harm another or others to amplify the harm she causes. It must also have no other uses. Sulphuric acid, for instance, is an incredibly dangerous chemical, capable of causing severe harm if used as a weapon, but it has a vast multitude of industrial uses. Besides this, the damage which may be caused by sulphuric acid may be replicated just as easily with a kitchen knife or a cheese grater. Thus, sulphuric acid is legal.
 
Sarin or semtex, on the other hand, have no use but murder, no purpose but harm. Even if they did, the danger of allowing even one individual bent on causing harm to others loose with either would almost certainly be too great to allow their legal trading. One disgruntled and unstable soul driving a car into Trafalgar Square with 100kg of semtex could cause the deaths of hundreds. Without access to explosives this individual may with the same sentiments attack others with a knife or a shotgun and cause the deaths of just a handful; still tragic, yes, but certainly preferable to the alternative.
 
Are these the only criteria by which the state may legitimately restrict access to chemicals? Access may only be restricted if their use may, through accident or design, cause harm – I hope we are agreed on that point. Now we reach the point where we must distinguish between harm to the self and harm to the other. Harm to the other I have approached above, so I shall move on to self harm.
 
Should an individual be allowed to commit self harm? If an individual is committing deliberate self harm then perhaps a case may be made for intervention, possibly bringing the full weight of the state’s violence to bear in prevention of further damage. However, this is only because the deliberate self harmer is almost by definition mentally unstable. Some external circumstance or some internal chemical imbalance are the only causes known for such behaviour (this statement may sound presumptuous, but I challenge the reader to find another). The imbalance of chemicals in the brain is, at the end of the day, equivalent in form to an imbalance of chemicals in the liver, in the blood &c. The diabetic has an imbalance of hormones and takes insulin to compensate. The chronic depressive has an imbalance of neurotransmitters and takes SSRI’s to compensate; if she does not then self harm may indeed ensue. Deliberate self harm caused by external circumstance is rather different, but again some psychiatric intervention, detaching the individual emotionally from the offending memories, may easily draw her away from the destructive path she has hitherto chosen.
 
When we come to behaviours which may cause long term harm but provide short term entertainment we reach troubled waters. The skydiver is certainly putting herself in a position of much greater danger than the non‐skydiving member of the general public, all other things being equal. Is this a sign of mental imbalance? I say, and I hope that the reader would agree with me, that she has no deliberate desire for self harm. If skydivers could receive a pass from Vishnu which would ensure their total safety from parachute malfunctions, ankle breaks on landing &c. I am sure many would take it; perhaps some would refuse it, but only because the risk of harm, and the excitement this generates, is part of the reason for their pursuit of skydiving. It is simply something they do in order to provide excitement, variety, to their lives. The fewer activities the human is allowed to do, by circumstance or law, the less enjoyable her life may be because for every activity outlawed or priced too highly for her the chance she will find an activity which is agreeable to her constitution is that much lower.
 
What then are the motivations of the marijuana smoker, the MDMA dropper or the alcohol drinker? It would be profoundly psychoanalytical to suggest that a subconscious desire for self harm was at the root of such activity. It is possible, as with the skydiver, that the potential harm that may be caused by such drugs is a part of the appeal to imbibe them. However, I would argue that for the most part the appeal is much more prosaic than that – the simple pleasure of experiencing the enjoyable mental states these drugs, and others, induce. They are thus to be interpreted in the same way as any other activities performed by human beings.
 
As in skydiving, horse riding and driving a car, a cost benefit analysis must be performed by the individual. Does the risk of lung cancer outweigh the enjoyment of a marijuana high? Does the risk of overdose and addiction, and the unpleasantness of a hangover, outweigh the enjoyment of drinking? Does the risk of a car crash and the horrific injuries this may entail outweigh the benefit of avoiding a two mile walk?
 
These decisions, and all others like them, must be left for the individual to make – they are not the fit domain of government. Thus, those chemicals which are capable of causing harm to the user and the user alone, chemicals such as those already listed, are outside the proper domain of government control. The state should not prohibit them, nor should it subsidise them. It may, for sure, educate either for or against them with impunity, but it is totalitarian to place them within the sphere of legislation.

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