Why A High Society is a Free Society
By Dr. A.C. Grayling
Dr Anthony Grayling
MA DPhil (Oxon) is Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of
London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.
This essay of his appeared in The
Observer on May 19, 2002.
Drugs Should Be Legalised - Their Prohibition Is An Intolerable Intrusion
Into Private Behaviour
One measure of a good society is whether its individual members have the
autonomy to do as they choose in respects that principally concern only
them. The debate about heroin, cocaine and marijuana touches precisely on
this. In my submission, a society in which such substances are legal and
available is a good society not because drugs are in themselves good, but
because the autonomy of those who wish to use them is respected. For other
and broader reasons, many of them practical, such a society will be a
I have never taken 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 to be dependent for pleasure and
personal fulfilment on substances which gloss or distort reality and
interfere with rationality; and yet I believe that heroin, cocaine,
marijuana, ecstasy and cognates of these should be legal and available in
exactly the same way as nicotine and alcohol.
In logic is no difference between legal and currently illegal drugs. Both
are used for pleasure, relief from stress or anxiety, and 'holidaying'
from normal life, and both are, in different degrees, dangerous to health.
Given this, consistent policy must do one of two things: criminalise the
use of nicotine and alcohol, in order to bring them in line with currently
illegal substances; or legalise currently illegal substances under the
same kinds of regime that govern nicotine and alcohol.
On civil liberties grounds the latter policy is preferable because there
is no justification in a good society for policing behaviour unless, in
the form of rape, murder, theft, riot or fraud, it is intrinsically
damaging to the social fabric, and 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 is an injustice. By all means let the disapprovers argue and
exhort; giving them the power to coerce and punish as well is
Arguments to the effect that drugs should be kept illegal to protect
children fall by the same token. On these grounds, nicotine and alcohol
should be banned too. In fact there is greater danger to children from the
illegality of drugs.
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 legalisation will lead to unrestrained use and abuse. Yet
the evidence is that where laws have been relaxed there is little
variation in frequency or kind of use.
The classic example is Prohibition in the USA during the 1920s. (The
hysteria over alcohol extended to other drugs; heroin was made illegal in
the USA in 1924, on the basis of poor research on its health risks and its
alleged propensity to cause insanity and criminal behaviour.) Prohibition
created a huge criminal industry. The end of Prohibition did not result in
a frenzy of drinking, but did leave a much-enhanced crime problem, because
the criminals turned to substances which remained illegal, and supplied
Crime destabilises society. Gangland rivalry, the use of criminal
organisations to launder money, to fund terrorism and gun-running, to
finance the trafficking of women and to buy political and judicial
influence all destabilise the conditions for a good society far beyond
such problems as could be created by private individuals' use of drugs. If
drugs were legally and safely available through chemist shops, and if
was governed by the same provisions as govern alcohol purchase and
consumption, the main platform for organised crime would be removed, and
thereby one large obstacle to the welfare of society.
It would also remove much petty crime, through which many users fund their
habit. If addiction to drugs were treated as a medical rather than
criminal matter, so that addicts could get safe, regular supplies on
prescription, the crime rate would drop dramatically, as argued recently
by certain police chiefs.
The safety issue is a simple one. Paracetemol is more dangerous than
heroin. Taking double the standard dose of paracetemol, a non-prescription
analgesic, can be dangerous. Taking double the standard medical dose of
heroin (diamorphine) causes sleepiness and no lasting effects.
A good society should be able to accommodate practices which are not
destructive of social bonds (in the way that theft, rape, murder and other
serious crimes are), but mainly have to do with private behaviour. In
fact, a good society should only interfere in private behaviour in
Until a century ago, now-criminal substances were legal and freely
available. Some (opium in the form of laudanum) were widely used. Just as
some people are damaged 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 endeavour
to interfere with those who chose to use drugs.
The place of drugs in the good society is not about the drugs as such, but
rather the freedom and the value to individuals and their society of
openness to experimentation and alternative behaviours and lifestyles. The
good society is permissive, seeking to protect third parties from harm but
not presuming to order people to take this or that view about what is in
their own good.
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