Earlier this week the Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that he would make the drug Methadone a Class B drug, joining Cannabis and Amphetamine Sulphate among others, and thus carry a 5 year jail sentence for possession and a 14 year sentence for supply. This move followed a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which made the recommendation. Not only has this decision led to one member of the Advisory Council resign because he thought it was rushed, it is also completely the wrong decision and indicative of the incorrect way in which we view drug laws in this country and by extension the way in which the law is used.
Drug laws are currently constructed loosely on the basis of danger to the public (with the notable exceptions of Alcohol and Tobacco). The most dangerous, like Heroin and LSD are Class A drugs and carry the most severe sentence, whereas less dangerous drugs like Tranquilisers and Ketamine are Class C drugs and carry a far less severe sentence. You get a more severe sentence for supplying drugs to other people than you do for simply possessing them for your own usage. These laws seem to make sense (apart from the ones about Alcohol and Tobacco), if you make the assumption that laws are there to protect the citizens of a country.
However this is to forget that laws are also there to protect civil liberties, not curtail them. There is no obligation for the law to protect citizens from themselves; if they choose to take Acid then they live with the potential consequences of a bad trip. The government exists not to say what its citizens can and cannot do with their own bodies, but to protect their right to do what they want, no matter how harmful that might be to themselves. It is only when in individuals actions impinge on the freedom or safety of another citizen against his of her will that the government is morally obliged to intervene.
Drug laws assume that it is the role of government to tell people what they can and (more often) cannot do. This is to say that the role of government is to provide a moral compass for citizens. This of course makes one wonder how the government plans on deciding what is moral and what is not. Given that the only authority a government has is that given to it by the democratic process, that is the power of 51% of the populace, it has no authority to tell the other 49% what they should do. Indeed given that, after an election, those in power have 5 years to do what they will without reference to the populace, they have no right to tell anyone what they should do. Even if a law has the favour of the vast majority of the populace (as drugs laws tend to), they still have no right to make that law because it will inevitable go against the will of a few citizens. Government is for everyone, not just the majority.
The government’s role is to protect the right of the citizens; those rights are life, liberty and property. So the government’s sole role is protection, not prescription of morality. This is not to say that anything goes morally; there are still moral principles which everyone should abide by, but these take the form of virtues; way of acting and ways of being which cannot be prescribed by government. It is up to the individual to decide how they should act, not the government. This requires that people take responsibility for their actions and abstain from something not because it’s illegal but because it’s immoral.
I don’t think drugs should be legal because I think it’s moral to take drugs (I think any kind of drug taking to excess – yes that includes alcohol – is deeply immoral), I think drugs should be legal because I think it is deeply dangerous to allow the government to dictate ethics to us. Laws should not be based on what could potentially harm the individual; it should be up to the individual to decide he or she should be doing with his or her own body. Allowing the government to take the responsibility of deciding what is and is not moral will not mahe us better people. It also skews our vision of morality, so that it no longer focuses on in the individual, as it should, but focuses on the collective. I think it would be worth us bearing in mind that a society is simply a collection of individuals; we should not elect people on the basis of what would be best for the society as a whole, but based on what would be best for the individual within that society, and that is always more liberty and fewer laws trying to pamper and protect citizens from responsibility.