Section 11: Recreational drugs
Because our moral code promotes wellbeing and happiness, individuals should have the freedom to take recreational drugs as long as they do not harm themselves or others.
Recreational drugs are substances which are eaten, drunk, inhaled or injected in order to alter physical
sensations and mental attitudes. These substances have been taken in every society since before recorded history.
Recreational drugs include alcohol, coca leaf and its derivative cocaine, coffee, heroin, marijuana, mescalin,
varieties of mushroom, qat, tea, tobacco and a range of manufactured products such as ecstasy, ketamine, proprietorial and genetic
sedatives and stimulants.
6.11a Legality and impact
The legality of recreational drugs varies from society to society and from one generation to the next.
Alcohol is freely available in South Africa but not in Saudi Arabia. Heroin derivatives were taken by many respectable Victorians whose descendants today are eager to see heroin users thrown into jail.
The impact of recreational drugs also varies, depending on the strength of the drug, the frequency with which it is taken and
the individual's physical and mental reaction to the substance.
Some, such as tea, harm very few people. Others, such as crack cocaine, cause almost instant addiction and lead rapidly to declining physical and mental health.
There is no link between a drug's harmful impact and its legality. Ecstasy is much less harmful than alcohol - there are
reportedly 7 ecstasy-related deaths per million users in the UK, compared with 625 deaths per million from alcohol use [source] - yet ecstasy is illegal while alcohol can be bought almost anywhere in the country.
6.11b Benefits and harm
All recreational drugs, when taken in moderation, give us an enhanced sense of well-being. They make us feel good.
Some recreational drugs, however, cause harm when taken to excess. These include heroin derivatives and nicotine (a component of tobacco), which are both addictive and highly damaging to our health.
It is not only the user who is harmed in such circumstances. Addicts whose behaviour is driven by the need to get their next drug can neglect family and friends and steal from them or from strangers to get the money they need. Ultimately addiction can lead to a total breakdown in an individual's life and even death.
6.11c Society's response
Society's rationale for banning recreational drugs is to reduce harm - a moral and praiseworthy motive. However, when examined more closely, the motive is too general and the mechanism is ineffective.
The motive - to promote welfare and reduce harm - is only partly met by making recreational drugs illegal to all people in all circumstances. Restricting access to drugs for those who would be harmed by them obviously reduces harm. But blanket bans also restrict access for those who can both control their use of drugs and who would benefit from such use (such as marijuana use for pain relief, ecstasy for most users, hallucinatory drugs for artists). In other words, the praiseworthy motive of promoting the welfare of some (those who cannot control drug use) is compromised by the side-effect of diminishing the welfare of others (those who can control and benefit from drug use).
The mechanism - use of the law - is highly ineffective. Not only are some relatively harmless drugs (eg ecstasy) illegal in some countries while very harmful drugs (eg nicotine and alcohol) are legal, but the legality or illegality of a drug has very little impact on drug use. The long-term reduction in smoking in Western countries has been achieved by education and legal control and not through criminalisation.
6.11d A rational - and moral - approach
What is the most moral approach to recreational drugs?
Firstly, we should recognise that it is not the use but abuse of recreational drugs that leads to harm. Whether or not drugs are legal, help should be offered to those who are harmed by drugs. That includes both those who take drugs and those affected by their actions, such as their families, and the victims of crimes prompted by addiction.
Secondly, we should recognise that making a substance illegal - like making
abortion illegal - does not make it inaccessible. The fact that cocaine is illegal has little impact on cocaine use, nor does it reduce harm. The opposite appears to be true. In Mexico the murder rate rockets as gangs fight for control of the drug trade and in Afghanistan the Taliban make a profit from the illegality of opium[source] - ironically after eradicating poppy production from in 2000.
We must therefore adopt an approach which both allows access to drugs for those who benefit from them and helps those directly or indirectly harmed by them. The only rational - and moral - approach is legalisation of all drugs. This would (a) remove the drug trade from the hands of criminals, (b) reduce the impact of violence in areas controlled by drug gangs, (c) reduce the number of individuals imprisoned for victimless crimes (ie where no others were affected by their drug-taking), (d) increase the tax base for governments and (e) allow effective regulation of drugs to ensure they were of good quality, only sold through licensed outlets and only to adults.
6.11e Don't hold your breath
Recreational drugs offer us pleasure. If our moral code promotes wellbeing and happiness, it must recognise that substances such as caffeine, ecstasy and marijuana achieve that goal on a temporary basis.
Because our moral code promotes wellbeing and happiness, individuals should have the freedom to take any recreational drugs as long as doing so does not harm themselves or others.
Addiction to or continual use of these or any drug is not a good idea - but individuals should have the freedom and responsibility to determine which substances to take and how often they do so without harming themselves or others.
Governments should guarantee that freedom and responsibility - but the reality is that we are unlikely to see any changes in the law soon.
Chapter Six: Section 12 Do good ...
Are atheists immoral?
Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith,
apparently, keep us moral.
It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values
guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.
What's good for us?
6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired
6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual
6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be
6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control
6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect
An ethical approach
6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral
6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity
6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?
6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake
How do you live when you realize that religion is false?
Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and
The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live
moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.