Personal risk and choice should be
free from State mis-manipulation

Deciding what goes into our bodies is a basic human right: why then do politicians interfere selectively in our freedom to choose? Regulation and education could take supply of drugs away from criminals, and let adults make their own, educated decisions about which drugs, if any, to ingest: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, whatever.

Personal risk and choice should be free from State mis-manipulation

By Rhys Jones*

The right to decide what we eat and drink and otherwise put in our bodies is considered a basic human right in Australia. We are entitled to refuse medical treatment, even when we will die without it. We are entitled to eat burgers every day even though it will inevitably lead to an early grave through heart disease and diabetes.

We can engage in all manner of dangerous recreational activities including motorcycle riding, horse riding, beach swimming, unsafe sex and rock fishing, despite these activities resulting in numerous serious injuries and deaths every year in Australia.

We can smoke tobacco which leads to around 15,000 deaths per year in Australia. We can drink alcohol to our heart’s content which can and does lead to numerous serious health consequences as well as serious consequences for society with increased levels of violence and crime.

Whilst we recognise the dangers of these activities, we feel that people should be entitled to weigh the risks and make their own decisions. We do not imprison people for possession of tobacco, nor do we imprison winemakers or motorcycle dealers. We do not make criminals out of those people who make a living out of or engage in horse-riding activities.  Most people would think it a gross infringement on their basic human liberty and dignity if they were to be arrested and charged with unhealthy eating.

  • Why then do we think it reasonable to arrest an adult for the heinous crime of smoking marijuana?
  • Why do we think it reasonable for the government to apply criminal sanctions to an adult for taking an ecstasy pill?
  • Why do we apply a different standard to the liquor merchant or tobacconist than to the ecstasy or marijuana dealer?

Surely it must be that marijuana is far more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol or horse-riding…so much so that the government is justified in imprisoning people for selling these products to adults.

The truth is that marijuana is significantly safer than both alcohol and tobacco, and immeasurably safer than mountain climbing. There has never been an overdose of marijuana, whereas deaths from alcohol overdose are commonplace. Likewise, while there is some risk associated with ecstasy, it is not nearly as dangerous as horse-riding, alcohol, tobacco smoking or many other activities that we consider worth the risk.

While there are risks associated with all illicit drugs, many of these risks are generated or exacerbated by the prohibition rather than the substance itself.

Heroin carries a significant risk of fatal overdose. However, this risk is made far worse by the fact that the purity of heroin on the street is utterly unpredictable. A heroin user who is accustomed to 10% pure heroin will accidentally overdose when supplied with 80% pure heroin. If they were purchasing their heroin from a pharmacy this would never occur.

The other detrimental effects of heroin addiction such as needing to prostitute oneself or steal in order to feed the addiction are also due to the extortionately high prices generated by the black market. Heroin itself does not instil in a person a desire to steal or have sex for money. It is the effect of addiction combined with prohibition that causes these social ills.

The most detrimental effect associated with marijuana for most users is the risk of criminal conviction which can prevent a person from getting a decent job and condemn them to a life on the margins of society. While most of our politicians admit to having used marijuana at some stage in their lives, none of them would be where they are today if they had been caught and convicted.

While most of us would hope our children will not become drug users, we also hope they will not engage in unsafe or promiscuous sex, develop problems with alcohol or become obese. The difference with these other risky activities is that the consequences of them are restricted to the risks of the activity itself. We can console ourselves with the thought that at least if they get fat, they won’t go to jail for it.

Clearly drug laws have provided a great opportunity for politicians to exaggerate the risks, generating fear in the electorate which they can then exploit by being “tough on drugs”. Unfortunately this “tough” approach does nothing but exacerbate the harms of drugs and pits otherwise law abiding people against the police.

In addition it does nothing to limit the access of drugs to children. Dealers of illegal drugs do not generally ask for proof of age when selling their wares. At least with alcohol and tobacco, the sellers will generally be careful to only sell to adults.

It is time that as a nation we stopped pandering to the scaremongering politicians and media, and developed some consistency in our approach to risk-taking behaviour. If I can risk my health playing rugby or riding a motorcycle or drinking alcohol, I should also be able to risk my health taking ecstasy or marijuana.

All people who believe that a person should have the liberty to decide what they do with their own body should find the current laws against recreational drugs abhorrent. It is time we took a rational approach to drug use. Take the supply of drugs out of the hands of criminals and regulate it as we do the other legal recreational drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Educate the population on drug harms, but then let adults make their own mistakes as we permit them to do in every other area of life.

–  * Rhys Jones, CLA member and law student, South Lake WA


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