ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NR 59 JANUARY 2010
THE UNBEARABLE ARGUMENT FOR DRUG LEGALIZATION
RECREATIONAL DRUG USE AS A MORAL RIGHT
This year more than ever, we have seen a growing support for drug legalization. Important political figures, former presidents and The Economist joined the international drug policy reform movement which has been calling for an end to the decades-long failed war on drugs. Some of them even dare to say that legalization of drugs would do more good than bad to society.
Many arguments have been used by these important figures to convince governments, UN bodies and the general public that the focus of drug policies should shift from criminal justice to a public health approach.
Those arguments that could be categorized as “utilitarian” can expose many reasons why drugs should be legal. Even the most conservative politicians must ultimately surrender to data showing that the current system is not working. Little can be said against the argument that billions have been spent on law enforcement while drugs remain widely available; that millions could be generated through tax revenues and failed state budgets could be saved by simply legalizing marijuana; that tax money could be redirected to finance drug treatment to thousands of addicts; that the decriminalization of drug users would drive them to health care, improve public safety and prevent infectious diseases; that drug prohibition is denying patients access to substances with important medical properties.
Little disagreement can be posed against those economic and health arguments. And it is probably because of those arguments that discussions about drug legalization reach the mainstream of public debate as we see today. It is also not by chance that more conservative advocates choose those arguments to make their point. Whoever uses “utilitarian” arguments is walking on the safe grounds of rationality and evidence while avoiding confrontation with moral values and concepts like liberty, autonomy and the right to choice.
Drug use is incomprehensible to most people, many regard it as unbearable. One can not say categorically that drugs are either good or bad. All will depend on how and by whom they are used. One thing is sure however: people use drugs for specific reasons. Some use drugs out of curiosity or for religious purposes, others do to relieve physical or emotional pain and others use drugs simply “to feel good, to feel better and to do better”.
No use of drugs is so misunderstood and so hard to accept as the latter, the “recreational usee”. This form of drug use, intended to promote pleasure, happiness, or euphoria, is by far the most widely practiced, and even well accepted when legal drugs are considered. But when we are talking about recreational use of so called illegal drugs, the tone of the conversation changes.
It is easy to prove that humans have been using drugs for the sole purpose of amusing themselves for centuries and, in doing so, they have not endangered the future of the species or society. Therefore it should not be that difficult to acknowledge that adults have the right to continue using their drug of choice in the privacy of their homes (see “Drug Use and the Rights of the Person), if they are not harming anyone else. So why is this form of drug use often considered illegitimate and therefore neglected as a valuable argument?
Is it because the pursuit of fun is perceived to be so shallow and trivial that many people feel obliged to find some other basis to defend their choice? Is it because many drug users express guilt about their indulgence, and then have the necessity to insist that they use drugs only for “serious” purposes? Or is it because getting “high” has been considered by our society to be sinful and “morally wrong” and the use of drugs goes against the “ideal of human excellence”?
All those popular objections, usually expressed in the strongest possible terms, have been subjecting drug use to moral criticism for decades now. This has made the argument of recreational drug use as a moral right virtually taboo to most drug policy reform advocates.
If it is so difficult to convince others that drugs should be legal because adults have the right to legally obtain drugs for recreational use, why should drug legalization advocates use this argument at all? I can find at least three good reasons. Firstly, those who use drugs recreationnally are unlikely to support a defense that portrays their behavior as responsive to an underlying disease or symptom. Secondly, no empirical evidence can falsify the fact that users sincerely believe that drugs are pleasurable. And thirdly of course, because this is a matter of principle and respect for other people’s choices, states should not rule over decisions people make over their own bodies.
In 2009 I have seen “utilitarian” arguments been used much too often in this debate, but I also have seen many brave people challenging governments and authorities, simply because they believe in the moral right to use drugs. For the coming year I wish to see more! I wish to see more Polaks defining Costas, more Marijuana Marches and protests in front of UN buildings, more Nice People Take Drugs riding on buses, more speeches like the ones from Marcus Day at CND, Craig McClure at IHRA and Ethan Nadelmann and Liese Recke at Reform, more blueprints and creative ideas to regulate markets like the ones from Transform and FAC, more audacious initiatives coming from developing countries and from people who use drugs.
Because it is thanks to their efforts and to the efforts of other thousands of anonymous activists around the world, that the drug legalization debate is gaining each day more space and important allies, making the end of drug prohibition an achievable goal rather then a utopic dream.
Marisa Felicissimo (with the help of Peter Webster)