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Back To Basics: Some Issues in the Drugs Debate
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Back To Basics: Some Issues in the Drugs Debate
By Geoff Page. Submitted to Quadrant Magazine Jan 1999

On-going proposals in the ACT for safe injecting rooms and a heroin trial have aroused much debate both in the local newspaper and in the community generally. So too has the apparent failure of a multimillion dollar heroin seizure near Port Macquarie last year to raise the substance’s street price. Much of this debate is quite properly concerned with practicalities of the proposals. And much of it is ill-informed about what the details and intentions of the proposals actually are. We are also, unavoidably, ill-informed about the true level of Australian heroin imports and even talk about street prices is for most people anecdotal. Underneath all this discussion, and needing rather more space than is available in correspondence columns, are some fundamental moral questions which are rarely thought through.

The most important of these questions, and one which isn’t asked often enough, is why are drugs such as heroin illegal in the first place. They haven’t always been so and there may well be an argument for returning to that situation. Does one need to remind people of the Opium Wars in China in the 1840s or the presence of heroin in cough mixtures in Australia in the 1940s? The standard argument is that these drugs are highly addictive, heroin in particular, and therefore potential users of the relevant substance have to be ‘saved from themselves’ by not being given the chance to sample them and so become addicted.

This argument has a number of problems, however, the most obvious being that we already have two major addictive drugs, alcohol and nicotine, which are not banned and which it would now be quite impractical to ban. We need only recall the prohibition era in the U.S. to remind us of those impracticalities. Even the most fervent anti-drug warrior in that country has received the message on alcohol. It may seem strange then that tobacco and alcohol cause many more deaths and more extensive human misery than all of the illicit drugs put together -- 18,124 deaths in Australia in 1995 directly attributable to tobacco, for a start (1). Of course, some might argue that if we had only maintained (or introduced, in the case of nicotine) a ban on these substances we would save, or would have saved, many lives. It seems obvious to almost everyone, however, that a ban on two such well-entrenched substances would cause massive problems of compliance, would destroy a range of important industries, would deprive the country’s governments of much needed revenue and cause massive corruption in law enforcement agencies. On balance then, the banning of tobacco and alcohol doesn’t seem a good idea even to those who ‘never touch the stuff’ themselves.

And it’s here that we come to the first, and most ignored, of the issues underlying the present debate. In a secular democratic society what right does anyone have to ban a substance and/or behaviour which gives pleasure to the user or participant and causes no direct harm to anyone else? We are all familiar with the small ‘l’ liberal dictum ‘Your freedom ends where mine begins’. Thus, while we do not ban tobacco, we have the increasing insistence that people smoke outside rather than in unventilated public enclosures. Analogously, we also have the relegation of legalised brothels, unused by the majority of the population, to non-residential areas. We don’t any longer ban prostitution all together. The problems with doing so have become only too obvious over the years.

The argument that cigarette smoking is not in our fellow citizens’ best interest is, despite powerful scientific evidence to support the assertion, ultimately a value judgement which, strictly speaking, is irrelevant to the case. The consumer or the participant has a right to information about a particular drug (e.g. the statistical connection between tobacco smoking and heart disease) but it is hard to see why, in a democratic society, he or she should be forcibly prevented from using it.

In Australia there has been for at least a century and a half a strong tradition of ‘wowserism’ where many people have felt entitled to legislate to create a society in their own image and where any pleasurable activity which, in their view, was either self-destructive or reflected badly on the society was banned. The teetotalling interior minister, King O’Malley, in the early days of Canberra was such a person. There have been many others, some of them with poignant personal reasons (alcoholic spouses or parents, for instance), but the fact remains that they have been, and still are, presuming to judge for their adult fellow citizens what is or is not in their best interests. In a democratic society it is obvious that the greatest right such people should have is to warn, i.e. to proselytize, rather than to legislate.

Another confusion in this area of the debate has been the conflation of what are clearly straight-out poisons with mood-altering drugs which people, albeit inadvisedly in many circumstances, want to use for pleasure. Obviously the availability of poisons such as arsenic and strychnine needs to be regulated. We don’t want to make it any easier for curious children or potential murderers than we need to. Substances which people use for pleasure, however, are clearly in a different category. Alcohol and nicotine are ultimately as deadly as arsenic and strychnine if taken in sufficient quantity and over sufficient time. Certainly, and properly, we regulate to ensure (or try to ensure) that alcohol and nicotine are available only to those who are old enough to make up their own minds about the risks involved. In the case of adults, however, we don’t ban nicotine and alcohol, we regulate them. Both of them can cause life-threatening addictions and are already destroying many lives. But again we don’t, in a democratic society, ban them. That’s the kind of thing you see in theocracies and other forms of ‘we know better than you’ totalitarianism.

In view of all this it is hard to see that most currently illicit drugs are any different in kind from alcohol and nicotine. They may be more difficult to ‘come down’ from. They may, in certain cases, cause some strange behaviours -- but when this is significantly anti-social it can be dealt with just as the anti-social consequences of alcohol and nicotine are currently dealt with i.e. via the relevant equivalent of ‘drying out rooms’ or powerful exhaust fans. If people using a certain drug threaten serious injury to others they can be dealt with in the same way that random breath testing currently addresses the problem of drink driving.

This is not to argue for a moment that currently illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and cannabis are harmless. That would be extremely naive given the scientific literature and what many of us have seen from personal observation. The apparent statistical implication of heavy marijuana smoking as a trigger for onset among those predisposed to schizophrenia is just one example. Ordinary poisons such as arsenic and strychnine -- and, coincidentally, semi-automatic weapons -- need to be very limited in their availability because of their potential to injure the innocent bystander. Illicit drugs tend to damage consumers only (which is not to say that their family and friends don’t suffer -- as they do with tobacco or alcohol). The virtual banning of straight out poisons (and semi automatic weapons) is a worthwhile endeavour given their potential to damage others but the presumptuous banning by the majority of substances which a minority uses for its own pleasure is bound to be, as history suggests, resoundingly unsuccessful and corrosive of the society as a whole, if only through the inevitable, and widely observed, corruption of law enforcement in such matters.

It will not take long for some people to muster the usual objections that such an ‘Opening of the Floodgates’ approach calls up. Many more people, they say, will try these drugs and become addicted than was the case when they were illegal. The state will have to pay much more in the form of ‘damage-control’ i.e. rehabilitation. The ‘security fence’ of banning drugs should be put at the top of the cliff rather than having the ‘ambulance’ of rehabilitation at the bottom. The cost of any effective education campaign about the real effects and side-effects of the newly legalised drugs would be considerable, verging on prohibitive. There would be unwelcome costs involved in setting up a regulatory apparatus (as there are now for controlling the distribution of alcohol and tobacco).

If it were purely a financial issue there would be some delicate accounting to be done here. One would have to offset the dollar cost of current law enforcement (and its corruption), court costs relating to drug offences, prison costs, tax non-compliance by dealers, losses suffered by individuals and businesses being robbed to sustain existing heroin habits which now cost much more than if the substance were legally available. The costs of having certain drugs continue to be illegal in Australia have been estimated at anywhere between $10.3 billion to $13 billion per annum. The current turnover in the illegal drugs trade is estimated at a tax-free $7 billion. (2) Certainly there would be costs in legalisation -- or, more accurately, regulation. It’s hard to calculate how many people might become occasional users or addicts if prohibition on the drugs were lifted. Certainly some would and these would involve extra costs for rehabilitation facilities for those who wished to end their addiction. It would also obviously cost money to administer and regulate the supply, irrespective of what form the market eventually took. Experience with the effective decriminalisation of cannabis in the ACT and South Australia indicates that usage in those places has stayed at much the same levels, levels comparable to usage in other states where using cannabis is still a criminal offence.

More important, however, is the moral issue here which goes well beyond mere accounting. The question is whether the government should have the right to ban activities or the use of a substance which citizens indulge in for their own pleasure, a substance or activity which does not have any measurable negative impact on other individual citizens. Fortunately, the principle of not letting citizens die in the streets from diseases traceable to their own misguided behaviour (lung cancer and emphysema, to name two) is well established. To assist future addicts wishing to address their medical problem would be simply an extension of the existing principle. So too would harm minimisation measures which helped to manage addictions until such a time as the addict was ready psychologically to come off the drug. In some cases, certainly, this might never occur -- as is currently the case with some alcoholics. The difference is that these alcoholics are addicted to a legal substance despite a considerable bank of information being available about its harmful effects. We have not diminished their status as independent adult humans by wagging our forefinger at them and telling them that we know, from our lordly omniscience, that alcohol will be bad for them and therefore they will have to buy it at a sly grog shop (which will almost certainly not sell true quality, will not pay taxes and will have had to pay off the local police). Nor do we wave a similar finger at those already obese people in Kentucky Fried who are almost certainly hastening their own death by the over-consumption of chicken burgers and chips.

It should be emphasised that I am talking about adults here. The arguments against allowing minors who are not yet in a position to make an informed decision about drug taking are much stronger. Those who sell drugs to minors (whether it be heroin or cigarettes) are in effect exploiting their ignorance and inexperience and must obviously be deterred. Admittedly this is never going to be much easier than enforcing the current prohibition on the use of illicit drugs generally but at least it would be being attempted for logical and morally worthwhile reasons. It might be easier, too, if law enforcement resources were concentrated on this important, but finite, sector of the problem. As far as education is concerned much would need to be done to counteract the so-called ‘cool effect’ where illegal behaviour is seen by the user’s peer group as romantic. If the substance being used was not illegal after age eighteen some of this glamour factor may be removed -- but not all of it, obviously. The inclusion of young ex-addicts in such education programs would again be an obvious advantage in rendering the whole issue of illegal drug taking less romantic. As far as adults are concerned, however, it is hardly logical, or morally justifiable, to be telling someone who is fully qualified to vote that we forbid him or her from embarking on any activity which may prove, in our superior opinion, to be self-destructive.

As indicated already, this tendency runs deep in Australia. Something of this presumed omniscience is what led many Aboriginal children to be separated from their mothers in the first sixty years or so of this century. We were, in effect, telling those mothers that, in our view, they were unqualified to look after their children. In a few cases, as was the case with some white children, this may have been true -- and could be legally established in the courts. But in the vast majority of instances a presumption was made and the child taken away ‘for its own good’. The treatment of children from Liverpool who were similarly ‘taken away’ to Australian orphanages in the 1940s and 50s indicates that the motives for such policies were not always racist; they too proceeded from the same moral assumption of ‘knowing what was best’ for someone else.

One final factor which may be preventing the acceptance of a pro-legalisation (or pro-regulation) viewpoint is something extraneous to our own political culture i.e. the American enthusiasm for ‘the war on drugs’. The Americans, with their Puritan origins, have probably got a bigger case of moral presumption than we have but one does not need to be seriously paranoid to suspect that the continuance of the present drug (or ‘anti-drug’) regime in America is in the interests of many powerful Americans. As any hippy will tell you much of this goes back to the U.S. federal government’s banning of hemp cultivation just before World War 2 at the behest of big cotton and synthetic fibre interests. Cannabis smoking was suspected by the WASP majority as being something nefarious, even threatening, and carried on by Mexicans and Negroes (as they were then called). More sinister perhaps is the acceptance by much of the white majority of the situation where the inhabitants of black and Chicano ghettoes self-destruct via crack cocaine dealers fighting over turf and others being caught in the crossfire. Drug use in these communities is a similarly convenient way of sopping up whatever extra money blacks and others might acquire to break out of the underclass and make problematic demands of the white majority. And naturally it also keeps a few police palms greased. If illicit drugs were suddenly legalised in the U.S. many important aspects of the majority’s way of life might well be threatened. It should not be surprising then that successive U.S. governments have rewarded those countries who seem to be vigorously going prosecuting the ‘war on drugs’ and have penalised others which might, from time to time, toy with the idea of taking a different approach.

 Clearly, there are no simple solutions to what both sides of the debate are, not inaccurately, calling the ‘drug scourge’. Those who have tried unsuccessfully many times to give up tobacco will not be surprised to learn that giving up heroin is not something achieved over just a few days of ‘strong-mindedness’ or even through six months in a sympathetic rehabilitation facility. All are agreed that the lifestyle involved in sustaining a significant (illegal) heroin habit does no one any good. Advocates of ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘abstinence’ treatment methods continue to clash with ‘harm minimisers’ who argue that a functioning human being who has an on-going but managed habit is better than one sprawled in a toilet and dead from an overdose. Most agree that no single approach is going to work for every addict and that a range different strategies needs to be employed.

Underlying all this, however, is still the issue of whether any drug used for pleasure should be illegal in the first place. In the short term, the consequences of legalising (or regulating) for adult consumption all of these drugs might seem, in some ways, apocalyptic (and would undeniably have some negative consequences). Even so there seems to be no logical or moral reason why those of us who don’t use illegal drugs should continue to ban them on the grounds that we know better than our fellow Australians what is good for them. Perhaps in some cases we do -- but as democratic citizens we have no right (let alone any obligation) to enforce our viewpoint on them. The fat person with his (or her) Burger King comes to mind. We have long recognized the limits of our interdictive powers in relation to alcohol and cigarettes (and fast food). Why is it taking us so long to attempt the next rational step?


1. Australian Illicit Drug Report, 1996-97, Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence.
2. See Access Economics, October 1997.