The Place of Drugs
in the Good Society

A.C. Grayling

What, essentially, is a good society? General democratic consensus says it is one in which individuals can flourish, are free to enjoy relationships with their fellows, and can pursue goals they regard as worthwhile, with real opportunities to achieve them, so long as neither the goals nor the means to their realization harm others.

Much is required and implied by such a characterization. Justice in society and autonomy for individuals are both necessary for a good society, and therefore have to be rendered consistent, for they are not invariably so. Through collective action the members of such a society do best if they co-operate to provide a framework for their individual flourishing, by defending against external aggression, keeping peace and order within, and collecting and distributing the means to provide the kind of infrastructure (roads, police) whose presence benefits the society and its individual members mutually.

The lineaments of such a society are recognizably those of a civil polity of the kind that, thus vaguely sketched, both conservatives and liberals in the contemporary West generally agree about. The differences of emphasis which separate the political groupings, who otherwise sign up to it, exemplify a characteristic symmetry. Conservatives opposed to “big government” and who therefore like to see less regulation of business, less welfare, lower taxes, etc., are nonetheless likely to favor more paternalistic intervention over personal behavior in such matters as sex and drugs.

Liberal attitudes generally manifest the reverse pattern. The difference is a major one, because it touches the very nerve of whether the polity in question can genuinely be described as a good society. When some talk of “flourishing” they generally mean the possession of a job, a home, a family, the means to make consumer choices, and to purchase such social goods as enhanced medical care and education for their offspring. The personal dimension of flourishing is taken by such folk to have an important part of its realization in these life achievements. In this view “autonomy” has the sense of “independence” and “self-sufficiency,” and these are doubtless significant values.

Others, whether or not they mean all or some of these things too, might have in mind more personal, private, alternative and various features of experience not necessarily related to conventional marks of “flourishing.” Someone who devotes himself or herself to lifelong study, or to involvement in the arts for reasons other than profit, or indeed any activity which has a mainly inward-directed personal point just for the doer, might fall into this category. In such a view, autonomy is not just independence and self-sufficiency (and for some may not even be either or both of these) but is freedom, understood in the positive sense of “freedom to do (this or that,)” and this can and often does include freedom to do things with or to their own lives, bodies, minds and senses, which give them enjoyment or relief. They might well (and very arguably should) accept the usual restriction that such freedom can only be exercised if it does no harm to others; but they will not accept that someone who thinks differently about what is pleasurable, acceptable, or appropriate for human beings, can tell them what to do and not do in these respects, and, still less, coerce them in their choices.

In short, the question of whether a good society really is one, comes down, at least in important part, to the question of whether, centrally among the standard things we expect of such a society, its individual members have the kind of autonomy which frees them in the private domain of personal behavior to do as they choose in what principally concerns only them. One reason why the debate about heroin, cocaine and marijuana is so vexed is that it touches precisely on this question. In my submission, a society in which such substances are legal and available is a good society not because drugs are in themselves a good, but because the autonomy of those who wish to use them is respected. A society in which autonomy is respected in this way will, for other and broader reasons, many of them practical, be the better for it too. The argument is as follows:

I begin with what looks like a contradiction in my personal view about drugs. I have never taken any form of drugs other than alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and medicinal drugs. Of these, I have for many years not taken the two former. I think it is inimical to a good life for people to be dependent for their pleasures and their personal fulfillment on taking chemical substances for the express purpose of altering their states of mind in ways which gloss or distort reality and interfere with rationality; and yet as stated, I also think that all drugs of the controversial kind, both “hard” and “soft”—heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and cognates of these—should be legal and available in exactly the way, and under exactly the same kinds of limitations and safeguards, as nicotine and alcohol.

The reasons for the second component of this apparent contradiction are heterogeneous. They include civil liberties considerations, pragmatic considerations, and historical evidence, all relevant to the question of the good society.

The civil liberties consideration is combined with a point of logic. In logic, there is no difference between currently legal drugs and currently illegal drugs in the general respects (a) that both kinds have the same kinds of uses: for pleasure, relief from stress or anxiety, and “holidaying” from normal life, and (b) that both kinds are, in different degrees dependent upon manner and frequency of use, deleterious, and ultimately, dangerous to health.

Given this, consistent policy must do one of two things. A consistent paternalist policy which seeks to regulate private behavior, justifying its interference as being for the good of people some of whom seem not to be able to act for their own good, must criminalize the use of nicotine and alcohol also, in order to bring them in line with the currently illegal substances. Or, a consistent tolerationist policy must legalize the currently illegal substances under the same kinds of regime as governs the availability of nicotine and alcohol.

On civil liberties grounds the latter is the preferred course because there is no justification in a good society for policing behavior unless, in the form of rape, murder, theft, riot or fraud, it is intrinsically damaging to the social fabric, and such that it involves harm to unwilling third parties. Good law protects in these respects; bad law tries to coerce people into behaving according to norms chosen by people who claim to know and to do better than those for whom they legislate. But the imposition of such norms by one section of a community on others by means of law and its attendant sanctions, is an injustice. By all means let the disapprovers in such matters as these argue and exhort; but giving them the power to coerce and punish as well is unacceptable.

Arguments to the effect that keeping currently illegal drugs illegal for everyone in order to protect children fall by the same token. If this is the consideration, nicotine and alcohol should be banned too. And in fact there is greater danger to children, and to adults who are not much given to reflection or the making of responsible choices, from the illegality of drugs, as the following pragmatic considerations show.

Almost everyone who wishes to try drugs, does so; almost everyone who wishes to make use of drugs does it irrespective of their legal status. Opponents say that legalization will open the floodgates to unrestrained use and abuse. In doing so they rely upon the “slippery slope” argument, suggesting that even moderate decriminalization of some of the currently illegal substances will have this effect. The slippery slope argument (“eat a banana and you’ll immediately eat a million more”) is a fallacy, and needs no refutation here. More to the point, the evidence from jurisdictions where laws have been relaxed on drug use suggest that there is little variation in frequency or kind of use.

The classic consideration in this respect, and with regard to the connected matter of the immensely heavy and largely futile burden of policing the production, distribution, sale and use of drugs, is the example of Alcohol Prohibition in the USA during the 1920s. Prohibition created a huge criminal industry, and in the end proved unpoliceable. When Prohibition was lifted it did not result in a nationwide frenzy of drinking. It did however leave a much-enhanced crime problem, because the criminals simply turned to the substances that remained illegal, and supplied them instead.

While criminals are in charge of the supply of any substance, its quality and safety are left without guarantee. The criminal drug world is not only, or even mainly, a drugs problem. Gangland rivalry, the use of criminal organizations to launder money, to fund terrorism and gun-running, to finance the trafficking of women, and to buy political and judicial influence in countries where these commodities are more than usually for sale, destabilize the conditions for a good society far beyond such problems as could be created by the use of drugs by private individuals. Indeed, the criminalization of drug use is merely the occasion and the instrument, not the cause or the main issue, in the spread of a far-reaching, dangerous and destabilizing criminal opposition to a good society. If drugs were legally and safely available through chemist shops, and if their use was governed by the same sensible provisions as govern alcohol purchase and consumption, at one swoop the main platform for organized crime would be removed, and thereby one large obstacle to the welfare of society.

Legalizing drugs would also remove the sources of much petty crime in society. Many users work hard at petty crime to get the funds to sustain their habit. If addiction to the major drugs were treated as a medical rather than a criminal matter, so that addicts could get clean, safe, regular supplies on prescription, the crime rate would drop dramatically. Recent efforts by police chiefs to argue this case have been among the most interesting developments in the debate to date. Putting an end to this source of crime, while freeing police resources to deal with other problems, would be, as the police professionals themselves aptly point out, a major contribution to the betterment of society overall.

The benefits would not only be found at home. Countries like Afghanistan and Colombia, which produce the poppy and the coca plant respectively, could find themselves with a valuable cash crop which could go someway to helping their economic development and stability.

The question of drug safety is an important one, given that most people who wish to take drugs will take them whether or not they are legal. The safety issue is a simple one. Consider the fact that paracetemol is more dangerous than heroin. Taking double the standard dose of paracetemol, a non-prescription analgesic, can cause permanent liver damage or death. Taking double the standard medical dose of heroin causes sleepiness and no lasting effects. Heroin purchased from criminal sources is dangerous because it is of variable strength, and too often mixed with such other substances as, “drain cleaner, sand, sugar, starch, powdered milk, talcum powder, coffee, brick dust, cement dust, gravy powder, face powder or curry powder” (Nick Davies, Guardian 14 June 2001).

This is obviously unacceptable, and by itself a powerful argument for legalization. It points, as good instances do, to a principle: a good society is not one which so arranges itself as to make worse a problem it cannot solve

Still more to the point, however, a good society is one which should be able maturely to accommodate the existence of practices which are not destructive of social bonds (in the way that, as mentioned, are theft, rape, murder and other serious crimes), but mainly have to do with private behavior. In fact, a good society is one which should only interfere as it were in extremis in private behavior, and legalizing drug use would be no greater threat to social well-being than smoking and drinking already are.

A major part of the ground for claiming that drugs should be legalized is that a good society is enhanced by tolerance in each sphere in which intolerance cannot be justified. The point is not the drugs themselves, but the way society regards their use and those who choose to use them. Until a century ago the now-criminal substances were legal and freely available, and some of them (opium in the form of laudanum) widely used. Just as some people are damaged and turned into a social burden by misuse of alcohol, so a few were adversely affected by misuses of other drugs. Society as a whole was not adversely affected by the use of drugs; but it was benefited by the fact that it did not burden itself with a misjudged, unworkable and paternalistic endeavor to interfere with those who chose to use drugs. So little a problem was it that examples of people who made something of the issue–Thomas de Quincey, Coleridge–are salient for that reason.

The occasional recreational use of drugs, as is tolerated in the case of alcohol, cannot be objected to as a matter of personal choice, any more than bungee jumping or acquiring tattoos. More timid or fastidious tastes might spurn these latter as they spurn the use of cocaine or marijuana, but timidity and fastidiousness are not grounds for interfering with other people’s choices of behavior.

To iterate: the point about the place of drugs in the good society is not about the drugs as such, but rather the freedom, personal autonomy, and (as John Stuart Mill eloquently and familiarly argued long ago in his classic On Liberty) the value to individuals and their society of openness to experimentation and alternative behaviors and lifestyles, among all which drugs play a part for some. The good society is permissive in respects of personal autonomy, seeking to protect third parties from harm but not presuming to command, even if it presumes to advise and exhort people to take this or that view about what is in their own “good.” The alternative is a massive and unjustified presumption, which turns what might be a good society into an authoritarian one in precisely the wrong respects.