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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A.C. Grayling on drug prohibition

This piece by Anthony Grayling dates from 2002, but I've only just come across it. Well worth reading. He puts the arguments for individual liberty very clearly and succinctly.

H/T Tauriq Moosa.


TaiChi said...

"In logic is no difference between legal and currently illegal drugs. Both are used for pleasure, relief from stress or anxiety, and 'holidaying' from normal life, and both are, in different degrees, dangerous to health. Given this, consistent policy must do one of two things: criminalise the use of nicotine and alcohol, in order to bring them in line with currently illegal substances; or legalise currently illegal substances under the same kinds of regime that govern nicotine and alcohol."

This is clearly a slippery slope argument, and as such is fallacious. I agree that the danger of using various kinds of substance falls on a spectrum, but there is no contradiction between thinking that and also thinking that the dangers posed by some substances at one end of the spectrum aren't dangerous enough to prohibit, whereas the dangers of substances at the other end are too extreme to allow their use. The latter substances, one might say, pose risks so severe that no informed rational person would use them. In that case, laws which prohibit the use and distribution of such drugs are justified in that only ignorant or irrational behaviour is being restricted by them: we can presume an absence of informed consent.

Of course, the question of what the risks are is another matter - all I'm doing is pointing out a possible rationale for drug prohibition. I find the matter interesting in particular because I'm from New Zealand, and the intent of our government looks to be to impose a total ban on smoking by 2025. Having a parent who is dying from cancer likely caused by her smoking habit, I'm inclined to support this move.

Rorschach said...

"This is clearly a slippery slope argument, and as such is fallacious."

It's not a slippery slope argument at all, it's just a logical deduction. And a SSA is not in itself fallacious anyway, it being an informal logical argument, it might be weak, or open to debate, but it's not automatically fallacious, as arguments in formal logic are.
Grayling is right, booze does much more damage to society than smoking weed, and one is legal why the othr is illegal, it doesn't make sense.

TaiChi said...

On reflection, you're right: it's a false dilemma. But it's still a fallacy: Grayling assumes that there is no moderate position that is reasonable, and yet there clearly is.

Felix said...

I wouldn't say he assumes that, rather his conclusion having considered the evidence is that the harm of the current prohibition regime is worse than the negative effects of legalisation.

Considering that, following Columbia, Mexico is now becoming a drug state as well, I agree with him.

Sakura said...

Couldn't even get past the first paragraph due to this terrible assertion, that the choice to take drugs is of "principally concern only themselves"

Um, no.

Society pays for drug use. 14 400 hospitalisations in one year for drug use in Australia, 1031 deaths in 2001 due to overdose. That's before taking into consideration drug-related crime, lost production and/or employment, mental illness and broken homes.

EVERYONE in this country pays for hospitals and for social security. Heoin, cocaine, ecstasy and marajuana can and do damage the social fabric.

Kirth Gersen said...

I agree with Grayling up until he begins implications that heroin's dangers are more hype than substance. I've known junkies, and they are indeed prone to criminal behavior -- down to the very last one I've ever known -- because after a point any vestige of ethical reasoning is completely drowned out by withdrawal. I still don't know if that should make it illegal, but I do believe that that makes it more dangerous than, say, nicotine (which is equally addictive, but seemingly far less destructive to the personality).

Russell Blackford said...

Everyone pays if someone has an accident while surfing or rock-climbing. That's partly because we've gone down a path as a society of covering people for self-induced harms. I'm not arguing against this - the alternative would be an administrative nightmare as well as being inhumane. But that's how it is.

Generally, we ban things outright only if they cause direct harms to others. We don't ban things that have an effect on the person concerned that leads to indirect effects on others or on society as a whole (by soaking up tax dollars or whatever). The latter is not needed for society to function, and in any event that way lies totalitarianism. The most we do usually do is introduce regulation and perhaps a tax to discourage the behaviour.

That's leaving aside the powerful arguments that banning well-known recreational drugs like heroin (at one end of the scale) and marijuana (at another end) actually produces more suffering, social damage, etc., than it prevents.

steve oberski said...


No need to worry about illegal drug use with our old friend alcohol around.

The solution is not prohibition but education so that people can make truly informed choices.

Suggest you do a bit of research on that other legal drug, tobacco, and get back to us on what you find.


Collateral damage from alcohol abuse: the enormous costs to Australia


Past studies have found that alcohol abuse plays a significant role in violent crime. It is estimated that about 13% of Australians aged 14 years and over (well over one million people) have been physically abused at least once by someone affected by alcohol, while 16% have had their property damaged at least once. Alcohol has also been implicated in about one-third of sexual assault cases. In 1992, 294 people died from alcohol-related assaults in Australia.


The financial burden of alcohol abuse to the Australian community is substantial. In 1992, the costs of alcohol abuse were estimated to be $4.5 billion, or $250 for every man, woman and child in Australia.

Thalamus said...

That a substance is deleterious is not sufficient grounds for prohibition. Rat poison and innumerable pesticides can kill a person in a matter of seconds. Indeed, these have been used a number of times for that very purpose. And obviously the fact that a dangerous substance is 'attractive' or 'desirable' as well has not impeded our judicial system to prohibit the commercialization and ingestion of:

- saturated fats (being responsible for most heart and vascular related ailments)
-excess sugar, excess salt, and for that matter excess tobacco and alcohol.

That's why we have a most fundamental principle of personal autonomy: We ought to be able to do as we will with our own bodies and our own lives, to choose the risks we're willing to take and the trade-offs that we personally value.

This is why Christopher Hitchens can reasonable state that he understands that his current condition was incurred in large part by his excess use of tobacco, but if he had the chance to go back in time and redress his misdeed, he would not.

Regulation and education are glaring keys to this drug-related quasi-dilemma.