Really breaking the taboo: ending the war on the right to choose

The 'war on drugs' is more than a war on the people that use some drugs, it is a war on perception, consciousness and human potential. [2,560 word essay]

Darryl Bickler
25 December 2013

The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is supposedly the vast international effort to protect individuals, communities and nations from the significant personal and social harms that can be caused by drug misuse. Given that 184 nations are now parties to the UN drugs conventions, the array of prohibition measures mandated by the UN are global. What are ostensibly vices[1] are made mandatory offences.

There are two immediate irrationalities; firstly the war targets only people concerned with certain drug orientations or vices, and secondly, any use of such drugs constitutes a misuse. Rather than reducing harms, the UN prohibitionist policies paradoxically result in harm maximisation for users and communities, this because of the criminalisation of the supply route and the social engineering of individual choices towards irrational drug-taking decisions.

So who or what is actually being controlled via the focus on certain drugs? Seemingly the pharmaceutical industry is free to develop and to profit from innumerable potentially harmful mind-altering drugs, whether they be prescribed or over the counter preparations[2]. Despite the harm caused through the use and misuse of lawfully traded commercial drugs, these activities are not the concern of the INCB, and nor are the misuses of sanctioned recreational drugs such as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, part of their curious equation.

The social cost of alcohol misuse and the health costs of smoking substantially outstrip the harms caused by the misuse of all of the internationally scheduled drugs combined[3], so there is obvious concurrent over- and under-regulation of persons when it comes to addressing harmful outcomes across the artificial divide made between persons with respect to drugs (being illegal or legal activities by reference to the divide). Is it so hare-brained a conspiracy theory to suggest that the administration of law favours certain commercial monopolies rather than others because some politicians are corrupted by ulterior motive? Following the money does seem to go some way towards explaining why policies are clearly not even-handed

As far as the insistence that any use of some drugs must constitute a misuse goes, whilst the regime does attempt to address some of the real harms caused through certain drug misuse, albeit ineffectively, it also targets the vast majority of peaceful persons who do not cause significant problems either to themselves or others through their drug use.

Current policy is irrational and violates the rights of peaceful drug users and others by ignoring the outcomes of drug taking activities, and declaring resolutely that any unofficial activity with any of hundreds of named plants and chemicals must be made into a criminal offence.[4] The determination of governments to send out blunt messages about the dangers of drugs can actually impact upon the very experience and outcomes of drug use. Media reporting is skewed massively towards highlighting incidents with certain drugs and brings about a climate of stigmatisation of any use of these, creating anxiety, paranoia and a 'front-loaded' belief in resultant mental illnesses. The entire experience of altered states of consciousness is a minefield of negative connotation projected straight into the psyche of users and the public mindset, thus paradoxically creating a destructive context.

The reform movement claims to have turned the tide, yet with the exception of some jurisdictions permitting wider access to cannabis, our lawful choices are as tightly restrained by policy as ever. Shockingly, hundreds of young people and parents are executed for drug offences every year, even for handling what has recently become the favoured drug of the reform movement, cannabis. Many people are waking up to the mantra that the ‘war on drugs’ is truly a war on people. This improved cliché is somewhat wasted if it’s only understood in terms of the collateral damage affecting people and communities, yes drugs do not suffer, people do.

Yet the essential issue at stake is that it is the self that is being censored, kept in relative darkness. The patent nature of the control involved is not over objects, but it is control of the person, of mind, of thinking and being. The ‘war on drugs’ starts not with the coca plantations and cannabis farms, but with human biology, our metabolism and how it manifests as our perception of reality.  Theirs is not an aspiration for a drug-free world, but the prevention of certain drug moderated possibilities for individuals.  Consciousness, human potential and evolution are thus defined in terms of political chemistry.

Whilst drug misuse activities can clearly be problematic for the individual and society, the reason many drugs are so popular or valued by persons who have experience of them, is that they can be used to some perceived advantage, perhaps real or perhaps illusory. Undeniably, many experiences of drug use cannot be dismissed as being about addiction or the crass desire for life avoidance through intoxication. Yet the 'people war' aims to stop persons from ever knowing about, utilising or even researching a myriad of molecules that can alter human consciousness in ways that benefit people in some regard. In short, the failure to distinguish between good and bad outcomes makes the latter more likely than the former. For thousands of years people have been altering consciousness with plants. Some people are prepared to cross the globe and to trek through jungles to share in a psychedelic trip induced through shaman-made concoctions, perhaps in part motivated by avoiding the antagonistic context of opprobrium they might experience in their own natural habitat, with zero carbon footprint and at no expense.

No scientist, nor indeed any person, even if they have direct experience, can explain what a profound drug-induced state of being is like to a novice. Language cannot communicate the experience, not even between persons who have shared a supposedly similar experience. Many people believe from their experience, that sublime, trance or visionary/revelatory states of mind are available via the ingestion of many of the scheduled molecules, and that it is the very possibility that is being denied them. ‘Prohibitionism’ abides in the majority, due to the deference too many people pay towards everyday assumptions abou life. This choice, to remain policed by proxy beliefs, is due to blindly succumbing to the fear-mongering adverse propaganda espoused by altered consciousness ‘virgins’. It has been the lament of human societies from ancient times through to the present day, the destruction of ancient wisdoms, medicines and rituals.

In short, we don’t want a ‘war on drugs’ because humanity's relationship with drugs is too important. This is about every person’s choice and possibility, about autonomy, about privacy and peaceful dominion over the self. Who can deny another the choice to discover what thoughts and connections can be had via any modality of thought, or what insights can be adduced from the most complex thing known in the universe, your own mind? Why accept that it is governed by a smaller selection of molecules than are known to exist ?

I think the way out of this box is to go back to basics. The various initiatives towards reform quite understandably start from where we are right now and seek incremental improvements, usually by reference to cannabis or specific research projects. But the status quo, the legislation and its outcomes are based upon profound misgivings and injustices that re-frame, objectify and enslave the individual protagonist in terms of our concerns over things. Currently we have an entirely non-scientific application of the existing legal and social control structure, yet it is purported to be neutral. It can never be neutral as it creates an artificial divide between types of drugs (being supposedly lawful or not), when the only way to approach the subject is via an appraisal of outcomes, that is, people demand back their legal agency, demanding to exist as autonomous citizens.

Governments proffer consumer protections to some persons, and impose criminal sanctions on others, quite arbitrarily. We should not accept this matrix of the harmfulness of drugs based upon ‘rational’ criteria as legitimate. Even though it is a massive advance from the pervasive belief-centred prejudice we have endured, it is nevertheless a flawed analysis. Harms exist principally because of contemporary socially constructed bias, creating artificially defined lawful and unlawful markets, and a complete loss of consumer protections suffered by the users of some drugs.

The law must control anti-social outcomes neutrally, not start with declaring the objects themselves to be good, bad or indifferent. Law that respects human rights, especially in this arena, must surely be outcome-based, person-centred with respect to a drug, not the belief that a substance or plant can be in and of itself, dangerous or evil. The interesting question is how we can ascertain the proper threshold for regulation (interference into how we define ourselves) with the criterion being something along the lines of the JS Mill ‘harm to others principle’. A policy that denies choice by ignoring actual outcomes or conflating intrinsic harms with those caused by the context of socially constructed ones (punishments, stigmatisation, lack of consumer protections, anxieties & fears), is forever doomed and incoherent. 

If we look at the harms caused by alcohol for example, these exist because alcohol is sold as part of a drug-dealing protection racket that makes excessive misuse seem rational. Being reasonably drunk can be socially demanded or at the very least, acceptable; governments talk about how much one should drink, and people are encouraged to accept restrictions and behaviour nudging over what is ostensibly in their own best interests. Whilst most people accept seat-belts, crash helmets and smoking bans as reasonable, these are very much the thin end of the wedge of ‘nanny state-ism’ that imposes specified conduct as arguably in your own best interests when, crucially, it is arbitrary.

By attempting to address alcohol misuse or cannabis use from within a human rights vacuum, so that the principles governing proposed new policies are not about choices, but led by harm reduction, treating drug use as a medical issue, public cost savings and the like, we end up with even greater regulation. Not only is the criminal justice system unnecessarily engaged, but to invite the further medicalisation of non-problematic drug use and the interventions of social service agencies simply spreads the tentacles of the control regime even further and more invasively, albeit in a cheaper and possibly less brutal way than people's current experience of authority.

The growth of cheap drug testing technology and its use to develop intolerant testing regimes is a real threat to liberty. We are already seeing zero tolerance towards specified drug driving; this means punishments being handed out irrespective of actual performance or need to show that impairment has reached a specific threshold. This is the case in prisons and ordered by courts against persons in the community in many jurisdictions. Policies that make a fetish of the presence of a molecule, as opposed to a concern over the problematic manifestation of a drug misuse, are being extended into the work-place, housing and other social welfare and benefit entitlement issues with very serious consequences for the private lives of the ordinary person. The solution is that we must move away from all arbitrary restrictions that make us unlawful without good cause, and we must begin by tackling the underlying moral misjudgement of heightened/altered conscious states of being.

False consciousness

Focusing on cannabis, for example, can only lead to the grant of a tiny fraction of the liberty at stake. The aim is to create an engineered displacement from alcohol misuse towards a greater role for cannabis. Whilst tempering alcoholism with alternatives is exactly the sort of thing that should happen when the law is rationally administered, the problem vests in the immaturity of the debate that still thinks about coercing behaviour based upon conventional or ideological belief, over evidence or any respect for the person. 

This is the whole false consciousness paradigm that pervades the ethos of the UN mandate. It is the market for the whole range of drug-induced effects that must be squarely addressed, for tinkering with one part can only cause displacements via the social engineering of choices, and these choices will never be complete or rational, not until the whole issue of what a human adult can do to themselves is settled. 

Take for example the calls for minimum pricing of alcohol and plain packaging on tobacco. At first the wide support for more restrictive policies garnered from many (except of course the alcohol and tobacco industries) seem progressive, even to many who see themselves as libertarians.

What occurs in public life has traditionally been of interest to the state. But in the past, individuals might be represented collectively through trade unions. Individuals tended to respect the cohesive nature of established institutions, and this created a genuine public sphere of engagement. Nowadays many of these certainties have vanished completely. The collapse of political ideologies into the centre ground makes establishing points of contact more difficult, and this has heralded a re-focusing on the personal. Whereas policing in the past my have been experienced at the picket line, in modern forms it is experienced by a Trojan horse multi-disciplinary task force of advice and entitlements. Sanctions and interventions now extend way beyond the front door. Now we expect policing of how to speak to colleagues, how to blog, what to eat and what we can Tweet, how much to drink and how to think. 

Small surprise nowadays that chewing Khat has been deemed unworthy by some governments. The notion of adult choice has been subsumed by a raft of propaganda, child protection and health and safety regulations. What we have done is abdicate responsibility for our own psyche and welfare, allowing our minds to function by remote control. We are deemed supposedly unqualified by persons entirely unfamiliar with the experiences being judged. 

As far as evidence-based policy goes, it is a moot point as to the role individual health should take in the legitimate policing of choices, and this is wrongly the main parameter argued for interference. The drug law in the UK is about preventing social harms. The notion of addressing individual addiction is perhaps a legacy from the 1912 Hague International Opium Convention, where it was the undeniably debilitating effects of widespread opium misuse that was accepted as a valid political cause for action. Indeed even in modern Britain, opium remains the only drug whose use parliament has expressly forbidden. Would it be wise to relocate the regulatory framework from the criminal justice arena to the health and welfare arena? If presently we are subject to arbitrary concerns about public order and drug misuse, merely redirecting the regulatory framework so that it focuses on health and welfare might actually invite ever greater regulation around ever more personal issues. Positively inviting regulation based upon health grounds is to grant more political power to doctors and scientists for them to decide what is in your own best interests, and this without being democratically accountable. 

The mind is the domain of free thought, yet in the contemporary discourse on “drug legalisation/decriminalisation” we see the human subject reduced to a demand for the re-scheduling of objects. It is as if drug users have no moral agency at all. As far as the ‘drug war’ is concerned, we have lost our human rights because we think the subject of regulation is a set of objects, when in fact, it is we ourselves. And who am I if not myself?


[1] Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property. In vices, the very essence of crime --- that is, the design to injure the person or property of another --- is wanting.  It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But no one ever practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others. Ref: http://www.lysanderspooner.org/VicesAreNotCrimes.htm

[2] Doctors now prescribe more of such drugs than ever; for just one class of such medicines, the anti-depressants known as SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), there were over 50 million prescriptions in the UK in 2012.

[3] Despite consumer protections and a legal marketplace for persons using so-called ‘legal drugs’.

[4] Sometimes private firms can profit from drug-dealing under licence, eg GW Pharmaceuticals sell cannabis.




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