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On the illegality of (certain) drugs November 6, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society, Uncategorized.

As Singaporeans, we learn to never question the law. If something is illegal, then it must be inherently wrong. How do we know stealing is wrong? Because it is illegal! Why is murder bad? Because the police will catch you and put you in jail! It’s funny (or sad, really) when people mix up causes and effects.  Laws may stem from value systems, morals or the harm principle, but ideally their ultimate function is to protect our rights, our safety, and in some cases, our “moral values”.  But when one is brought up to fear the law, to never question it and to accept it as an unchanging truth, it’s no surprise when he gets things mixed up.  The law doesn’t seem to serve our interests anymore; instead, it appears almost like a state endorsed scripture dictating what is acceptable and unacceptable, good or bad, right or wrong. The morality of an action is now decided based on whether or not the law allows you to perform it.

An interesting effect of this mindset is the average Singaporean’s misconceived opinion on the issue of drugs. If you ask someone on the street what he/she thinks about drugs, chances are that you are going to get the standard reply: Drugs are bad. They’re bad because they’re illegal. Don’t you know you can get sentenced to death for the possession of drugs?

In other words, the average person rationalizes that drugs are bad because the law prohibits them. If pressed further, he might bring up the adverse health and social effects of drugs, but how does one know that such effects are really that bad? “Well, they’re bad enough for the government to outlaw drugs!” That is simply putting the cart before the horse, an unfortunate (and sometimes disastrous) result of putting unquestioning faith in an authority to always look out for our best interests. Goodness or badness is no longer an inherent trait, but is instead dictated by an authority.

It seems that the biggest misconception of all is that drugs are prohibited only because of the immense harm that they cause to the individual and to society. To illustrate how that is not the case, we just have to look to the drugs that aren’t illegal: alcohol and tobacco. Just a couple of days ago, a paper was published in The Lancet, accessing the relative harms of different drugs with regards to the user and to wider society. Considering 16 criteria including the drug’s effects on the user’s physical and mental health, adverse effects on the family, crime, and economic cost, alcohol emerged as the most harmful drug while tobacco was evaluated to be about as harmful as cocaine. Other illegal drugs such as ketamine, marijuana (cannabis) and LSD were ranked markedly lower than alcohol.

So why are alcohol and tobacco still legal, while everything else isn’t? There are a myriad of reasons, ranging from the social approval and acceptance of these drugs, to the power of the tobacco and alcohol industry, to the amount of tax these drugs generate. [1] In all cases, the amount of harm caused is but a minute factor contributing to why these drugs are selectively allowed over others.  As a result, we mistakenly believe that alcohol is a much safer drug than say, cocaine, simply by virtue of the fact that the government allows it. Similarly, we start dreaming up reasons why marijuana is evil and bad for health, whilst accepting tobacco smoking as a social activity.

 Is it fair then, for a piece of legislation to be falsely rationalized as intending to protect us, but when it is instead driven by economic, political and social pressure? Is it fair then, to demonize certain drugs as deadly, additive and destructive (not to mention demonize those who use them), when tobacco and alcohol are equally, if not more deadly, addictive and destructive?

I wouldn’t suggest banning tobacco and alcohol. But neither would I suggest legalizing drugs (not at this juncture with Singapore society’s maturity level, anyway). The takeaway message is this: the law (the authorities, the government, or anyone else who makes “the rules”) should never be shielded from question, and should never be immune to change. Instead of blindly accepting definitions of acceptable and deviant, moral and immoral, and what is “for our own good” from a source which is so influenced by politics, economics and power, we should instead ascertain for ourselves whether a piece of legislation has any rational merit. The mere act of questioning the norm, a tradition, or the status quo, is an act in freeing oneself from the constraints of authoritarianism and paternalism. Ubi dubium ibi libertas – Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

1. Interestingly, the criminalization of marijuana as opposed to tobacco in the United States in the 1970s was somewhat influenced by the fact that marijuana, a drug long used by African Americans and other minority cultures, was now linked to the negative values of individualism and youthful rebellion. The so labelled deviant youths, along with the minority races lacked the resources or power that the tobacco-using and producing elites had in order to influence policy. Marijuana was seen as a threat to the established order and to the tobacco industry, and was thus prohibited. Today, it is this fact that tobacco remains a hugely profitable industry run by big corporations which make generous donations to political parties that makes the suggestion of criminalizing tobacco almost unthinkable.
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1. SN - November 8, 2010

You are oh so radical.

And obviously you have not lived with a druggie. I have. He smoked like a chimney. And he was also addicted to heroin. And by god I can tell you the latter is far worse than the former. For him, and for the people around him.

Perhaps you should start living life, for once, outside the libraries which you inhabit.

laïcité - November 8, 2010

And you have obviously not lived in a closed minded society where people immediately treat you with condescension and self righteousness if you dare to mention cocaine, cannabis or LSD with so much as a neutral tone.

I never argued for legalization of these “softer” drugs, let alone harder ones like heroin. My only issue was with self rightousness and hipocrisy. If you rely on your own personal experiences to tell you that smoking tobacco is better than heroin, that’s good for you, you formed your own opinion. That’s better than people who rely on their only source of information: what the government tells them, to demonize and decry drugs and their users.

AF - November 8, 2010

Try living with a drunk, let alone an unreformed alcoholic. Heroin addiction is, from what I’ve seen, indeed potentially very bad, but it’s largely only worse than alcohol because, being illegal, it creates a need that the addict must break the law in so many ways to satisfy. Smoking to my mind is a total irrelevance and total BS all round – there’s just nothing wrong with it – if it kills you in fifty or sixty years, that’s your choice.

I, like Lacite if I’ve understood correctly, do not say that drugs should be legalised (at least not many of them), but that we should ALWAYS question the motives of those in authority because they are rarely as they are presented.

ALL tyrannies, whether internal self inflicted ones like addiction or from outside such as those that have their root in self interested authority are abhorrent!

laïcité - November 9, 2010

Thanks, Adam, that was my point exactly :)

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