Two years ago a friend of mine drunk herself into a stupor and ended up in hospital having her stomach pumped, at risk of alcohol poisoning. Within two days she was happy and appeared to be better. But she was not better; the doctors informed her it would take around 3 months for her liver to fully recover. She nearly died from one night of alcohol abuse. On the New Years Eve of 2005/06 I did much the same; I nearly killed myself in one sitting with alcohol.
In the public eye, Christopher Hitchens died from oesophageal cancer which was almost certainly caused by his love affair with whiskey and cigarettes. I doubt he’d have regretted any of that. After all he did say that the only real sin was to be boring. His life may have been shorter, but he enjoyed it and that was the point.
My point is different, however. In both cases here, this was legal. Both my friend and Christopher Hitchens had the freedom to do as they wished with their bodies and did not break the law; both the people and the government knew and accepted the risks.
This raises some interesting questions. I have been to college and university where I have met people who take illegal drugs recreationally. Why don’t I have stories of people nearly killing themselves in one night of abuse involving marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy? Why do these illegal, but still obviously used drugs not have the same attached stories? The health effects are well documented, and I do not doubt that the illegal drugs have some negative health effects. I even have a friend-of-a-friend account of a person having a psychotic episode after a 96 hour, sleepless bender of every illegal narcotic he could find. But are they worse than being able to kill yourself in one night of abuse, or slowly over your life?
I know the obvious response is to mention Leah Betts, the girl who reportedly took one ecstasy pill and died. Personally, I hope her parents are ashamed of how the media dealt with her tragic death: she took four pills, not one. She also consumed alcohol. But the thing that actually killed her was water intoxication; she drank 7 litres of water in 90 minutes. This odd behaviour can be put down to bad, and restricted flow of information on the issue of ecstasy. What I mean to say is that if the drug were legal, and the taboo didn’t exist in schools, there is a chance Leah Betts would have received the advice ‘do not drink excessive amounts of water’, and survived. The advice could have come from her school, if only people dared talk about it.
Most MDMA (the defining drug in ecstasy) related deaths are actually the result of drug-related clumsy accidents, water intoxications or ‘bad’ pills (ones that have been cut with other chemicals – the other chemicals being the ones that cause the intoxication-related death). Pro-ecstasy campaigners say, controversially, that there are no direct MDMA deaths, i.e. no MDMA-intoxication deaths. Statistically, according to that link, MDMA is safer than rugby and horse riding.
What’s my point? Well, if all drugs were legal there the government could standardise strengths and regulate impurities. The ‘bad’ pills could be eliminated, the strengths could be better advertised and information could be better disseminated. If marijuana and MDMA were for sale along cigarettes and alcohol, with all the appropriate warnings, schools would not be criticised for actually teaching about them, allowing children to make better informed decisions, earlier. Better information, as I have already argued, could have saved Leah Betts’ life. Batch-control and quality control could have saved the life of Lorna Spinks, who died from taking ecstasy from a rogue batch, thus took double the amount she meant to take.
What else can happen if the drugs are legal? Well, they can be sold and taxed. The UK desperately needs more money for the NHS, schools and police force. This is a genuine and real source of huge amounts of money. Plus, if drugs were legal there wouldn’t be the illegal drug-dens; no one makes alcohol illegally. That would help the police force: stop making criminals out of these people. Less ‘bad’ or contaminated pills would take some strain off of the NHS.
Also, I believe that if the government can allow my friend to choose to almost kill herself with alcohol, and allow Christopher Hitchens to trade in a large part of his life for enjoyment in alcohol and tobacco, the same liberties should be extended to drugs that can be demonstrated to be safer. And they would be safer still if they could be regulated.
Won’t everyone just become a drug addict? I think not. The big argument in support of that question is that marijuana is a ‘gateway’ drug; which is to say users are more likely to move onto ‘harder’ drugs than non-users. I think the cause of this pattern is not inherent in marijuana, but instead where you buy marijuana from: the guy that sells heroin and cocaine. The guy that runs the corner shop, or Tesco’s Express near where I live has never encouraged me to buy cigarettes when I buy a bottle of wine, and I think the same will be true of those that buy marijuana. But, more important than that, it’s hard to find someone aged 18 to 26 who doesn’t know where to get drugs if they want them. I could, as a non-user of all drugs (except alcohol, of which I am a light user), possess cocaine, MDMA and marijuana within an hour; I can’t get my food shopping done that fast. I can get these drugs, but I don’t. And legality isn’t the issue, it just doesn’t appeal to me.
So what have I said? We, as a public, are given the choice to kill ourselves with alcohol and tobacco if we wish to. However no good reason is available about why we don’t have that freedom over our bodies with respect to currently illegal drugs. Legalisation of drugs would make drugs safer for those who want to take them, and I still wouldn’t. The government can, and should, make money from the drugs to support a struggling public sector. The lack of information is more dangerous than the actual drugs.