Are Drug Users Guilty or Not Guilty?

January 15th, 2013 5:47 pm

James Jackson

At the WSCF Europe “Guilty or Not Guilty” conference in Bratislava, many of the talks were unsurprisingly concerning the question of ethics. Ethics can be broadly divided into two subcategories – applied ethics, the question of how to act in a certain concrete situation, and meta-ethics, which is the deeper question of why is a certain action ethical or unethical?

Briefly, there are two types of answers to the meta-ethical question. The consequentialist perspective states that things are wrong because of the consequences, and as such decisions should be made on the basis of the outcomes of the decisions. Many consequentialists would then, in the abstract at least, have no problem with killing an innocent child to save the entire world (a question which Dostoyevsky posed in The Brothers Karamazov). This is often criticized as clinical and calculating, but it has the benefit of being explicit about the motivations of action – to bring about the consequentially best outcome, whatever the cost.The other main branch of meta-ethics is deontological ethics, which sees certain things as inherently wrong, regardless of the consequences. The problem with deontological ethics is that who or what decides whether an action is moral or not? A Christian answer to this could be natural law, the Bible, or the teachings of Jesus Christ, with the first being preferred by Catholic understandings of Christianity, the second by Protestants and the last with liberals of any denomination.

I want to use this article to discuss the somewhat taboo subject of drug use and apply the ethical question to this topic. Drugs can be damaging, dangerous, and addictive. I think it is worth mentioning at the outset that, whether recreational drug use is ethical or not, that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to take them. Illegal substances can get you a criminal record or jail time, or much worse, a drug habit.

The War on Drugs

Some countries, notably Portugal, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, have adopted a progressive approach, with the former two decriminalizing drugs completely, and the latter giving addicts free heroine supplies. The results of these somewhat counter-intuitive actions (how do you stop drug use by giving people drugs?) have been questioned, but generally are seen to have had a positive impact. Few politicians in Portugal or the Czech Republic wants to go back to the old system, where ethnic minorities are disproportionately arrested, where non-dangerous recreational users can have their lives and careers ruined just by being one of the unlucky percentage of users who gets caught.

Last summer, I worked in a think-tank which has funded a number of studies into the medical effects of psychedelic drugs, and there I learned that LSD would make an excellent treatment for alcoholism, psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) for depression, and MDMA aka ecstasy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, it should be stated that medical use is a different topic to recreational use. Just because these chemicals have medicinal qualities within certain limited situations, this does not necessarily have any implications for the ethics of recreational use. One could easily legalize a certain drug for medical use only, as has happened in 17 states, including the most populous state – California, in the USA.[1] In fact, 1 in 3 US Americans lives in a state where cannabis is legal for medicinal usage.[2]

Some politicians think that, if cannabis (and by extension other drugs) were to be legalized, it would lead to an increase in the amount of people taking the drug. This is possible, but not definitive. Dutch teenagers, for example, smoke less cannabis than their British counterparts, despite the fact that cannabis is decriminalized in Holland, whereas it is a ranked “class B” in the UK, the same level as methamphetamine.

There is no doubt that the political element of this debate should have a prominent position. However, I think it is interesting to note that the philosophical and ethical dimensions of drug use are often avoided, consciously or not. Most rhetoric seems to be based on the assumption that taking drugs is morally wrong, either for the individual, or for society. Using what I have learnt about ethics at the conference, I would like to question this assumption. In fact, many people who themselves have taken illegal drugs oppose legalization or decriminalization, and I believe that this demonstrates either that they have internalized the dominant rhetoric (“drugs are bad/winners don’t do drugs”) leading to a peculiar cognitive dissonance of believing that taking drugs is morally wrong yet simultaneously believing that they themselves are not doing anything wrong by taking drugs. Or perhaps people merely state that drugs are bad, because they don’t wish to be seen as a dangerous and unrepentant criminal, or even worse, a “druggy”. The purpose of philosophy is to question underlying assumptions, and so we should examine the question of whether it is ethically unsound to take drugs.

Drugs and Ethics

Is there something inherently wrong with drug taking? Assuming that you are a conscious moral agent and making the decision for yourself and not for anyone else, I simply cannot see what is wrong with the simple act of ingesting a plant, or a chemical, and feeling different because of it. Doesn’t this happen every day when we eat food? Sugar makes us feel hyperactive and chocolate can cheer us up. Does this mean that they are bad? I think all but the most puritanical, hair-shirted ascetic would agree that they are not. This is one difficulty with the argument that drugs are inherently bad – there is confusion on the most fundamental level, as to what a drug actually is! Are sugar and chocolate drugs? Tobacco and alcohol? Some could argue that taking drugs is unethical because it is damaging to your health. Many Christians believe that we do not own our own bodies, rather they are temples to God and that therefore it is wrong to do things that defile them. This argument against drug use is based on a number of assumptions – chiefly, that drug use is unhealthy. It can be, but many drugs are surprisingly safe. LSD and magic mushrooms, for example, have little to no physical toxicity: they are close to harmless to the body, but can cause serious damage to a susceptible mind. Also, scientists have rated alcohol and tobacco as more harmful than illegal drugs such as ketamine and ecstasy. Therefore, if one is say that drug use is unethical because it is unhealthy, then that discounts usage of alcohol and tobacco as well, something few people would do, particularly followers of a religion where wine is one of the main sacraments!

We can accept that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with drug use, but believe that such usage cannot be separated from its context, and that it is this context which makes taking drugs unethical. I think that this argument has some strength. If taking a particular drug causes violence, either in the user or in the production and trafficking then this it would be fair to say that this drug is unethical. Behind the conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, the War on Drugs in Central and Latin America is the most violent conflict in the world, worse (in terms of lives lost) than in Sudan.[3] People are murdered every day in Mexico; many are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, some are politicians and officials that the drug cartels make examples of. The cause of this violence is undoubtedly the drug trade. The drug market is extraordinarily lucrative, and can be highly profitable for ruthless criminals, who could then use these profits to purchase weapons and further destabilize the region. It could be said that taking drugs is contributing to this horrible situation, and that this is the reason that drug use is unethical, as it leads to further violence in poor countries that produce and traffic the drugs to the richer western countries. This argument fails to take account of the significant variation in the production of illegal drugs – many are created in laboratories or grown in gardens, with nothing to do with vast criminal organisations. I think that given this variety, the ethics of each drug should be analysed individually. On the other hand, one could also argue that the drug trade exists because, rather than in spite of, drug prohibition. If cocaine was sold in bars legally, there would be no profit for gangs to use to destabilize Latin American governments and fight bloody turf wars, the money would be used in more legitimate businesses.

Applied ethics

Cocaine, for instance, is nearly impossible to separate from this violent context, and therefore it makes sense to conclude that taking it (or at the very least buying it) is in most cases unethical – it makes violent criminals richer, and creates problems for South American society.

What about cannabis? Although some people may naively believe that it all comes from Jamaica, different types of cannabis originate in different parts of the world. Cannabis resin (also known as hashish) is produced mostly in Morocco or, more worryingly, Afghanistan. It has been estimated that the Taliban and other Afghan warlords make more money from selling cannabis than the other drug they are commonly associated with, opium. Whatever your opinion on the invasion of Afghanistan by Western forces, it is doubtful that many people would support indirectly funding the Taliban themselves! A majority of cannabis in the UK is of the herbal variety, and comes mostly from Europe or Africa. Increasingly cannabis is being grown in this country, in order to cut the risk of it being seized by customs officials. Some of it will be grown by users, in order to supply their own needs and often those of their social group. A surprisingly large amount, however, is grown by gangs in rented houses, and there are reports which indicate that Vietnamese gangs are particularly bad as they force trafficked people to work in what is effectively slavery in these intensive cannabis farms. If we accept the earlier statement that supporting violent groups is ethically wrong then we should conclude that actually cannabis, despite being the most commonly used illegal drug in Europe and the world, can be one of the less ethical drugs to take.

To conclude, there are many things to consider when looking at the topic of ethics and drugs. The fact that drugs are often harmful and illegal is relevant. It is difficult to maintain that drug use in itself is unethical, largely because there is little which separates illegal drugs from legal ones. The main problem, taking a consequentialist viewpoint, is that participating in the drug economy can lead to violence and suffering. This is not true of all drugs, principally of cocaine, heroin and certain strains of cannabis.

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[1] “17 Legal Medical Marijuana States and DC Laws, Fees, and Possession Limits”, Medical Marijuana, 1 June 2012, 24 July 2012.

[2] “2010 Census State Population and the Distribution of Electoral Votes and Representative”, 6 January 2012,, 24 July 2012.

[3]“List of ongoing military conflicts”,, 27 July 2012,, 24 July 2012.

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