Your mind, your high: is recreational drug use morally wrong?

Saturday 29 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

Politicians making the case for prohibiting certain drugs usually argue they are harmful, while those against insist it should be a personal choice, and that prohibition creates additional risks for drug users. But some believe that even if the harms are exaggerated, there is a moral case against drug use. They insist there is a difference between taking drugs to fight disease or alleviate pain, and taking them for pleasure, or to achieve ‘artificial’ highs, arguing the latter is less acceptable. Considered morally rather than medically, is there anything wrong with seeking altered states of consciousness?

Many argue it is hypocritical to criminalise cannabis, cocaine and party pills when society allows the use of alcohol, despite the associated social harms. But should we be more liberal about ‘outsider’ drugs, or less tolerant of booze? Or is there nothing undesirable about taking an inconsistent approach to different substances? Even if we accept it is here to stay, should all drug use, legal or otherwise, be seen as regrettable fact of life, to be contained as much as possible, or is there anything positive about it? For many of us, drinking is something nice - a social lubricant and even a valued component of the good life. But isn’t the same true of cannabis, at least in certain subcultures? While few would stretch the argument to heroin, for many, drugs like cocaine and ecstasy have more in common with a glass of wine with a good meal than a crack pipe paid for by prostitution, or a can of super lager downed for breakfast in a doorway, or habit-forming prescription drugs for that matter. Isn’t cultural context more important than pharmacology?

A cultural understanding of drug use perhaps clashes with the more narrowly medical view, and especially the tendency to see addiction as an illness, even a disease, rather than a moral failing. When drug use does get people into difficulties, and especially when a habit becomes a debilitating addiction, how useful is it to understand the problem in moral terms? Most people use drugs without causing problems to themselves or others, while others develop a habit that greatly harms both themselves and others, yet it can be impossible to predict how an individual will be affected when they first begin experimenting with drugs. It could be argued that any individual’s experimenting carries a morally indefensible risk of developing into an antisocial habit. Some argue that given the powerful effect of drugs on the human body and psyche, it is unfair to blame people for losing control. And given the influence of advertising and peer pressure – and perhaps genetic predisposition, family background and other factors – maybe it is unfair even to blame anyone for taking drugs in the first place. So should we focus on reducing harm rather than judging drug users? Or is moral agency in fact the key to recovering from drug problems, as suggested by the language used in 12-step programmes? Whether we think drugs should be strictly controlled or otherwise, is there a place for moral judgement in debates about their use?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Roger Howard
former chief executive, UK Drug Policy Commission; chair, Build on Belief

Professor Neil McKeganey
director, Centre for Drug Misuse Research

Professor Fiona Measham
professor of criminology, Durham University; director, drug and alcohol NGO, The Loop

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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