I can stop, you know. Any time. Honest.
Perhaps as something of a counterbalance to the generally pro-decriminalisation stuff I’ve been posting for the past couple of months, it’s worth pointing to Alexandre Erler’s piece on the issue on the Practical Ethics blog. The tone of the post is thoughtful and more sympathetic to the current state of affairs than the kind of thing I’ve been citing so far, admitting that
there might be something to the idea that decriminalizing the use of cannabis (and other drugs) would send the wrong message: presumably, we wouldn’t want a substance to be made freely available if its only possible use was to allow those who purchased it to kill themselves. And there is some scientific evidence that cannabis is actually more harmful than tobacco. Suppose this evidence were conclusive: it might then be argued that a state’s commitment to liberal principles cannot justify its endorsing the use of just any substance by its citizens, no matter how harmful it might be. A limit must be placed somewhere, and one might argue that cannabis (and “tougher” drugs), but not tobacco, goes beyond that limit. This line of argument might be the best way of developing idea that decriminalizing cannabis “would send the wrong message”. But even if it is, its proponents need to clearly present it in an open debate, and they might also need further scientific evidence to back up their claims about the harmfulness of cannabis use. The term “drug” is not a magic word that can justify prohibiting the use of any substance it is properly applied to.
There’s a lot that’s right about this – especially about the (mis)use of the word “drugs” and the way it gets used in a morally (and moralistically) loaded manner. Just as there is no such thing as a bad food, there is no such thing as a bad drug – it’s what you do with it that makes the difference. (The Greeks knew that: their word “pharmakon” was wonderfully equivocal. A poison is just a drug you can’t handle.)
I’m not so sure about the safety restriction, though. I can think of plenty of people who’d insist that there is no limit to the idiocy that people should be allowed to commit, as long as it’s an “authentic” action on their part, and noone else – or, at least, noone who hasn’t consented – is hurt. Often, these people cite R v Brown as a paradigm example of the law getting things wrong (or protesting a wee bit too much): it should, they say, have been much more permissive. Though I’m not much of a fan of Mill, I have to admit that something like the Harm Principle is, at least pragmatically, attractive: the Brown ruling does seem to me to hit the wrong note. This being the case, it’d be harder to accept the assumption about the free availability of deadly substances; and, mutatis mutandis, the same would apply to drug policy.
The real question concerns the unconsented harm to others that may be caused, and how to balance that with the demands of liberty. On this, it would seem that there is an argument of at least some sort against cannabis use: but even there, it’s only limited. We’d have to say, I think, that public cannabis use ought to be restricted for just the same reason that public smoking or drink-driving ought to be – but that’s really no big deal, and concerns the circumstances of cannabis use more than cannabis use in itself (or harder drug use, for that matter), which would remain something of which we might disapprove, but not something that we’d be entitled to ban outright.
So the end point would seem to be that we ought to be careful about these things. It’s remarkably trivial.