Criminalisation Is a Social Opiate

For me, drug policy is the clearest example of social protection at a remove: restricting a choice not because of the direct outcome being negative, but because the possible outcome of that outcome could be negative. As I believe the law should only intervene when necessary, I have always been uncertain about banning certain drugs for reasons other than the harm they cause. I was therefore interested in Ethan Nadelmann’s talk on why legalisation could prevent more harm than criminalisation:


I don’t have a comment on Nadelmann’s statement that drugs were banned because of prejudices against minorities. I can see how it fits the facts as stated, but haven’t seen enough evidence to say that is the reason. In any event, the question of why a law was made is less relevant than the question of whether it should remain now.

There are two reasons why someone doing something is bad: risk of harm to them and risk of harm to others.

If someone wants to harm themselves or is uncaring of the risk of harm to themselves, is it society’s task to stop them? It seems ethical to wrestle a child to the ground if they are going to step into traffic. So, if someone is not capable of making an informed decision on what to do, then applying force (whether physical or social) can be acceptable. However, that just moves the question from whether society should stop people to who is allowed free choice. Assuming we answer that question with anything other than nobody, we cannot ban those people from taking drugs because they are putting themselves at risk.

So, does justification lie in preventing harm to others? If you are in a locked room and take some drugs, no one else is placed at risk. So there is no direct harm to others purely from taking drugs.

Once you introduce a second person into the room, there might be risks. Injecting the drugs effectively makes your body the locked room, but preparing them for inhalation by burning or vaporising does effectively open the room, forcing bystanders to take – or at least risk taking – the drug against their will. However, as partial cigarette bans show, controlling the situation or method of use can address this risk.

So the risks of the drugs themselves to the self and others do not justify a ban. But, there are secondary risks to others. Taking certain drugs and then operating machinery increases the chances you will lose control and injure a bystander. However, we already have restrictions on driving while under the influence of alcohol, so this risk to others would only justify a total ban if the same act performed under the influence of a different drug somehow had a worse outcome than under the influence of alcohol; if, for example, hitting a pedestrian while high on cocaine not only broke their leg but also made them unlucky in love.

Which brings us to the issue of protection at a remove: addicts need to buy their fix, and drug dealers charge a large amount of money. So, addicts are more likely to turn to crime than other similar people because they need a frequent supply of money. Maybe reducing crime by banning drugs for all because we cannot predict or control the some who become addicted does justify the policy.

But is this a self-creating risk? The black market allows dealers to charge what they will; in fact, the illegality makes it seem more acceptable on a visceral level that they charge a premium to cover the greater risk. So would addicts need so much money if it was legal?

Legality would reduce many of the other risks too: legal drugs such as alcohol cannot contain certain substances and are subject to testing, so taking them (by choice or by passive inhalation) poses less of a health risk; legal drugs a required to have health and usage warnings, so people are less likely to put themselves and others at risk by lack of understanding.

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3 thoughts on “Criminalisation Is a Social Opiate

  1. Interesting. A long-ignored study of Vietnam vets who used heroin while in the combat zone found that they had little trouble quitting when they got home (can’t think of the reference offhand). One of the arguments against legalization is that drug use would proliferate, creating huge populations of productively useless people. This is obviously based on the assumption that being high is so attractive everyone would do it, and no one would work, but the Vietnam study casts doubt on that assumption.

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    1. Similarly, alcohol: almost any adult could go out and buy a huge amount of it, and yet alcoholism in the USA was allegedly highest during prohibition.

      Some people will take drugs to escape their lives, but that is usually because their lives aren’t great rather than because being on drugs will be great.

      I don’t have access to figures, but I do wonder if we took the money we are currently spending on the war on drugs (plus potentially tax revenues from legal drug sales) and spent it on reducing the issues in society that make people want to escape, whether we would both reduce drug usage and make society happier for the people who face issues but don’t take drugs to deal with them.

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