Drug policy is one of the major ethical issues of our time. It affects, not only the millions of drug users and those around them, but a far wider network that draws in the producers, traffickers, and law enforcement. In recent years there has been increasing recognition that the cuurent policy of outlawing drug use and penalizing users does not work. Given the scale of the issue and the extent of harm involved, it is essential that drug policy be based, not on failed historical approaches or moral hysteria, but on sound ethical reasoning and evidence.
This is a large topic with complex ramifications. I plan to write a series of posts on the issue, in which I hope to flesh out a principled approach based on Buddhist ethics. In this initial post I will state my basic ethical argument. Subsequent posts will take up various ramifications of the issue, including points raised by commenters.
My basic position is that drugs should be legalized – all of them – and that their use should be carefully regulated to minimize harm.
The use of all drugs and intoxicants for recreation, including alcohol, is of course against the fifth precept, a basic ethical standard for all Buddhists. This is because the use of alcohol and drugs dulls the mind, increases delusion, and leads to various kinds of harmful actions.
This ancient Buddhist ethical principle has been fully bourne out in modern times. In NSW there is currently a push to reduce the blood alcohol limit for drivers from 0.05 to 0.02, since even that tiny amount has a significant effect on reflexes and consequent impact on the safety of road users.
As Buddhists, clarity of mind and non-harming are two of our most cherished values, and so there is every reason to respect this traditional guideline. In modern times the absention from alcohol extends to the many other forms of drugs, licit and illicit, that have mind-altering properties.
However, there is a big difference between an ethical principle and a law. There is no reason why something should be illegal just because a group of people think it’s wrong. If we as a society wish to criminalize something, we should have a sound basis. Of course, often enough laws are made irrationally; but I am constructing an ethical argument here, not describing how law happens in practice.
The basic issue is what I will call the liberal principle. This is the simple proposition that people should be allowed to do as they wish, unless there is good reason. This principle, I believe, underlies all legal systems, even totalitarian ones. They simply have a very different understanding of what a “good reason” is. Generally, though, even the worst totalitarian society doesn’t tell people how to cook a meal, when to scratch, what to watch on telly, what to call their kids, or a million other things.
In other words, our “default” position is no laws. If a government wishes to impose a law on its people, it is up to the law-makers to prove their case. The burden of evidence lies with them to show good reason. I think we have got so used to thinking of drugs as illegal that we simply imagine it is the natural state of society, and can’t imagine how things could be different. The reality, of course, is that the criminalization of drug use is a modern innovation, a failed experiment of the 20th century.
To define a “good reason” is difficult, but to begin with let’s say that a law should should prevent more harm than it causes, and/or it should create more good than it prevents.
It is not so simple, however, as there is an important distinction between what is good or harmful for oneself and for others. Behavior that is harmful to others is more readily legislated against than behavior that only, or primarily, affects oneself. In practice it is sometimes hard to maintain this distinction, and the use of drugs is certainly a case in point.
There is no doubt, of course, that drug use is harmful, and that the harm extends beyond the user. It is also clear, however, that the current policy of criminalizing drug use causes harm. It therefore is an empirical question as to which approach causes the greater harm.
I have been motivated to start this series of posts after reading of the dreadful impact of the illicit drug trade in developing countries, especially Latin America. It seems to me that the harm caused by the criminal trade far outweighs any of the possible, though themselves dubious, benefits that criminalization brings. Seen in this light, legalization of drugs is not merely a matter of domestic social policy, but is an urgent ethical requirement.