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May 21, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Freedom of Mind

Why you have a right to do drugs

In the summer of 1953, when Francis Crick stumbled through the front door of his home announcing to his dear wife that he had uncovered the double-helix structure of DNA, he brought about the single greatest leap in the field of genetics in history. At the time of this epiphany, he was tripping on LSD.

It was while high that ‘Lisa’ from ‘Hataitai’ came to terms with just how blissfully insignificant her brief life is in relation to the vast galactic planes of the universe. And it was while sipping on a not-quite-sharp-enough G&T that your correspondents finally relaxed for the week. These are all drug experiences and they are all valuable. This value is not bound up in the contribution these moments made to society or to the story of human progress. These individuals were all directing their energies at a particular end: the shaping of their consciousness. It is this that is valuable. On reflection, this is not at all different from what we do every moment of the day.

For what reason do we listen to music, read novels and watch theatre, for example, but to create within ourselves a certain feeling, an emotional response that we would not otherwise be able to have? That very same desire compels us into the company of friends or lovers, seeking to feel a moment’s connection to something outside of the self. We attend this very University for the
purpose of changing the fabric of our thoughts and coming to new understandings. A way of feeling that we desire or hope to discover.

In a truly free society, we would never dream of prohibiting these activities because it is clear that at their heart lies a right that is the most basic recognition of people as beings born free. It is the right to use our minds freely, to think what we want, and ultimately to shape our consciousness as we choose.

This is what is at stake in the drugs debate. ‘Recreational’ drug use—as it is so often reductively called—is the exercise of one’s freedom to their mind. But this belief is not mirrored in the law.

The possession and consumption of marijuana, MDMA and LSD—to name but a few—is illegal. And there are no signs of this changing. In fact, governments across the world have for decades waged a ‘war on drugs’ in the hope of achieving their eradication.

Moreover, our Government is taking steps to restrict the access to currently legal drugs, with initiatives to tighten liquor laws and progressively increase excise taxes on tobacco. Despite the Law Commission’s recommendations that the law surrounding the possession of cannabis be relaxed, the Government has no plans to do so.

Does the Government give any consideration at all to the positive value of drugs to the individual?

The recent Law Commission report on drug law reform came, for a fleeting moment, close to acknowledging the benefits of drug use: “surveys show that people take illicit drugs for the same reasons many people drink alcohol: relaxation, fun and a desire to fit in socially are common reasons given.”

These reasons are acknowledged also by parliamentarians. Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne told Salient that the reasons behind an individual’s choice to indulge in drug use is a matter specific to the individual, adding that “people find the use of all of those substances in certain settings to be relaxing and personally beneficial.”

Surely, that people find some worth in the use of drugs ought be manifest in policy. University of Canterbury Senior Economics Lecturer Dr Eric Crampton told Salient that, “when we’re thinking about policy, we have to weigh that enjoyment against potential associated external harms.”

But when we consider the legal status of drugs, it seems that this perspective is ignored when it comes time for law- making. Crampton says, “that people enjoy consuming recreational drugs gets left to one side in policy discussions.” Indeed, in the Law Commission’s report, consideration of the personal benefits of drug use conspicuously absent following their brief acknowledgement in the introduction.

Indeed, for Dunne, these are factors that should be ignored when developing policy. “I think it’s very dangerous actually. If policy makers cease to focus on the objective and start to go for the subjective […] I think there is a real risk of some quite arbitrary and capricious decisions being made.”

It is of course true that negative externalities such as public health costs are easier to calculate than subjective qualities such as experiential value, but that any personal value is completely disregarded, and even considered “very dangerous”, is indicative of the Government’s contempt for the individual’s capacity to make judgements about what they value.

Crampton agrees. “When I take off my economist hat and look at things instead from an individual rights perspective, I’m appalled by what the new prohibitionists are up to. They have pretty much assumed away any capacity for moral agency… They take health as the only permissible goal in life and tell us we’re irrational if we decide to enjoy ourselves at the potential expense of our own health.”

This is truly a clash of worldviews. For Dunne, while he would not ban the use of drugs such as alcohol, when asked whether he would consider it a ‘perfect world’ if no one chose to use mind-altering substances of any nature, he conceded, “yes, probably.”

This stands in stark contrast to the other world, a world that understands drug use as holding a place in the pursuit of the foremost goal of every waking moment: the direction of one’s mind toward the shaping of one’s experience. It is at this point appropriate to defer to Sam Harris’ more eloquent affirmation of the right to use drugs:

“I can think of no political right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness.”

This is what is at stake in the drugs debate.

Of course however, we cannot pretend that drugs are all self-exploration and pleasure. They pose serious health risks, and many are highly addictive. We have to ask what policy provides the best outcomes, and whether our current approach of legal sanction and imprisonment is an appropriate response to the potential harms of drug use. But this is a policy question that, not only ought be further explored, by one that must stem from a sound principled basis. First, the philosophical question of where the appropriate balance of rights is struck must be settled.

As it stands, government decisions apparently consider only the negative externalities, and never the underlying rights of the drug consumer to their own minds. It is for that reason that, regardless of the efficacy of current policy at affecting responsible drug use, the government decision making calculus must be considered broken. Debate is couched in the rhetoric of victimhood with those who choose to take drugs reduced to the amorphous group of ‘users’ and ‘addicts’. Neglected then, is any acknowledgement that there is a reason that people make such decisions in the first place. We are cultured into thinking that the altering of one’s consciousness by way of drugs is a sin, not a right.

It is time that our Government vindicated that most fundamental of rights, our freedom of mind.

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