The Wasteland of Legal Highs

Posted on May 27, 2011

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From a guest blogger:

‘What shall we do to-morrow?                                                                                                                                   What shall we ever do?’ – T. S. Eliot

If a substance were proved to be edible, legal, and productive of no physical or mental effects beyond an extremely pleasurable but incapacitating intoxication, would it be reasonable to say that there were any moral problems in taking it recreationally?

While there are manifest ethical problems about people indulging in such substances during working hours the use of ‘legal’ drugs in one’s own time, recreationally, is, it might seem, a less clear-cut case. I certainly should not wish to have a surgeon operate on me while he was in an ecstatic stupor and scarcely able to keep his eyes open let alone make the neat incision necessary to reach my stomach. Nor, quite rightly, would an employer feel he was getting his money’s worth if I turned up to work drunk and incapable of constructive activity. Our society, however, finds it more difficult to be judgemental about what goes on privately, behind closed doors.

Whilst not exactly advocating wanton drug-fuelled intoxication a recent BBC report does seem to take the line that the only serious problem with recreational drug use is the unpleasant physical side-effects. There might perhaps be a utilitarian calculation which demonstrated that unpleasant side-effects suffered by large numbers of people are likely to strain the resources of the NHS. With a centralised healthcare system this would inevitably place some strain on all of us. In itself, however, this is hardly a very good argument for the wrongness of taking legal but potentially harmful drugs recreationally. If anything it might actually provide a good argument for privatising the NHS since then people could do whatever they wanted in their own homes without forcing the rest of us to work an extra twenty minutes a week to pay for their stomach being pumped or for other detoxifying medical procedures.

Many a pleasant evening

Many, however, hold intuitively that self-intoxication to the point of incapacitation, whatever the pleasure accruing, is not morally good. Leaving apart side-effects and addictiveness, there is a sense that there must be something deeply anti-social and morally reprehensible about knocking oneself out with 20 milligrams of heroine of an evening. I do not mean to suggest that it is always wrong to take any substance recreationally, for some really are re-creative. In having a drink or a smoke with a friend after work one is not simply enjoying the alcohol or nicotine. In company one has society, however small. Evenings at the pub might even build a true friendship. But when intoxication by means of alcohol, or any other substance, impedes relationships we surely recognise that someone (be it ourselves or one of our friends) has had too much. In fact, hangovers are a useful side-effect of alcohol, since they remind us unmistakably that we had too much to drink the previous evening. Where alcohol or any drug, legal or otherwise, so changes a person’s character that we cease to recognise him or her, the society of friendship is compromised. In the worst cases friendships may come to an end, and what began as a perfectly innocent foundation for society ends up undoing it. Such intoxication can only lead to an emotional and social wasteland.

To many, it seems, the idea that drugs should be outlawed is an affront to personal liberty. But to spend one’s private life either high as a kite or so drugged as to be barely able to move is an affront to one’s very dignity as a human being. It is for this reason, more than any other, that ‘legal highs’ should be proscribed or outlawed, for when sensuous pleasure is detached from friendship social and moral decline must surely follow.

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