The War on Drugs and Contemporary Moral Failure
Increasingly we are told that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and the evidence for this is persuasive. In spite of the challenges of legalisation it is clear that criminalising everyone associated with the drugs trade is, in the words of one report, ‘as costly as it is ineffective’.
Throughout history some people have sought ‘to get high’. Cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine are the most widely used and accepted drug-like substances in the world, but there are many more ‘drugs’ that are culturally ‘accepted’ in parts of America and Africa. Whether helping to unwind with friends or to wake up more quickly a number drugs will always be a part of human life and the dividing line between alcohol and marijuana, or caffeine and cocaine, seems to some rather arbitrary at times.
At the root of the problem is the morality of intoxication. It is difficult to establish at exactly what level of intoxication use might be deemed immoral, although where a drug renders the user incapable of socialising there is present, surely, an indication of ‘a few too many’. Physical side-effects are a consideration but these do not shed much light, if any, on intoxication, being ancillary to inebriation. Addiction and physical dependency are further indications of substance-abuse and of the danger inherent in consuming certain chemicals, but drug users are naturally inclined to separate these from the experience of getting high. After all, deeply ingrained bad habits may be just as disruptive and harmful as addictions. If I must have my cup of tea on getting home from work, and become very grumpy if I do not get it, have I not become ‘dependent’ on tea in just as I might be dependent on nicotine? Is it, then, morally wrong for me to become so dependent (if, indeed, that is what I am)?
The line has always been difficult to draw and it looks as if one man’s drink really is another’s poison. While law-makers may be able to legislate against very harmful or very addictive substances, it is difficult to see how so generic, and so blunt, an instrument can regulate behaviour effectively while also retaining a serious claim to moral authority. Indeed, morality has historically been most visibly upheld in the churches among institutions. Although lacking the coercive force of secular law churches and religious groups have historically been able to command no small degree of moral authority. In essence their message does not change, and they are in no hurry to provide reflex reactions to the latest crises that preoccupy governments. They can usually be found objecting to legislation they see as flawed rather than proposing the best ways to tackle issues like immigration or income inequality. Their more sedate approach, combined with practical, pastoral experience, naturally facilitates a more nuanced and humane approach to moral issues that avoids both overt authoritarianism and ‘liberal’ indifferentism.
In our secularised society it is perhaps naïve to hope for a stronger religion-rooted voice in affairs of state, one that will go far beyond seats for bishops in the House of Lords and occasional articles from religious leaders in the newspapers. It does appear, however, that, where drugs are concerned, there has been a modern moral failure to articulate clearly and effectively where the real roots of the problem are to be found. Even if we are to concede that de-criminalisation might go some way towards reduction of drug-trafficking and that licensing might clean up portions of a very dirty trade, it is merely fanciful to suggest that legalisation could ever be a genuine panacea for Britain’s, or indeed the world’s, drug problems. We must instead start looking at drug abuse as a question of morality. It is simply evasion to look upon it as a matter of straightforward legal and economic expediency.