Don't Panic

Is taking drugs immoral?

From Colombian cocaine cartels to Afghan opium smuggling, there is a robust link between the illegal sale of narcotics and murder. Little wonder, when the stakes are so high - a 2007 Home Office report estimated the British drugs trade to be worth between £7bn and £8bn, with dealers earning around £100,000 per year.

So if drugs were legalised, would the following legislation, taxation and treatment centres make drug use morally acceptable? After all, plenty of morally dubious actions are legal, such as adultery, selling cigarettes and commodity trading. Furthermore, would we see a cultural shift akin to the smoking ban in pubs?

I doubt it. One of the vital characteristics of the smoking ban is that the law is self-enforcing. If someone lights up a cigarette in a pub, it’s not the landlord who needs to step in, as invariably other patrons will do so.

In this context, I doubt that we’d go from the surreptitious ingestion of drugs in pub toilets to racking up lines of coke over a curry - few people would stand for it. And it works the other way too.

Writer and commentator, Peter Hitchens, suggests that this sea-change would occur if you enforced the rules more strictly. Possession of cannabis would result in a caution, and if it happened again, you’d be imprisoned for six months. Zero tolerance. No more users.

But I find this unconvincing also. Quite apart from the practical element of how unenforceable this is, I find the moral question difficult. The world is a very stressful place and I’m reluctant to come down too hard on people who want to escape from it from a few hours, especially when I am so very tolerant of another form of escapism that has chalked up its own fair share of bodies - religion.

After all, if someone wants to experiment with their body, should they not be allowed to? If they would like to grow their fingernails as a tribute to Allah, is it time for an intervention in order that they don’t scratch their face (and the faces of others)?

Really, the only argument that Peter Hitchens makes that I really like concerns the effect drugs give. He argues that getting high from drugs is cheating - that real spiritual highs should be gained through making a positive impact on society (though I daresay, he and I differ on what that is).

I like this argument because I do think that there is a mind-numbingly tedious braggadocio that often comes with being inebriated in this way. This unhinged drivel exhibits itself as the evangelical rhetoric I’d expect of some religious huckster.

Terms such as ‘expand your mind’ and ‘unlock potential’ may feature, along with an endless stream of watery superlatives.

What also follows, however, are grief stricken Sundays and Tuesday come-downs that reduce users to miserable, trembling grumps. I doubt Peter’s ever gone through this particular trauma.

Ultimately, the needs of the state rarely align with pure moral valour. British society has made giant leaps from 1950 where homosexuality was illegal, just as that had from 1850 where kids were sent to workhouses, so forgive me if I don’t see the chronic moral breakdown that many commentators on the right predict. But while drug gangs continue to profiteer from this murderous trade, I find it difficult to make a case that buying drugs is morally acceptable.