The ABC of Harm: Drug Classifications and the Law

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


There are days when I feel like a smoker even though I have never touched a cigarette in my life. The stench of my hair and clothes after I leave a pub is what creates this feeling and it is by no means a pleasant one. What is even less pleasant is the thought of all the passive smoke that I have inhaled and the health implications this may have for me in the years to come. For me the solution is simple. I try to stay away from smoky areas but this issue has implications that reach far beyond a discussion of my own health. The critical issue here is that smoking is an activity that, notwithstanding the undisputed evidence regarding how much harm it can cause, is legal. One cannot help asking, therefore, as to what makes something legal or illegal other than the piece of legislation that tells us that this is so. What factors ought we to consider when deciding that a law ought to be passed? And is it the individual that the law ought to look out for or society as a whole? The basis of legislation seems to be the prevention of harm. Laws surrounding speed limits and seat belts seem to fall broadly into the category of issues that are aimed towards preventing harm. Our drug laws are no different. However, this week's article in the Lancet suggests that certain legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, for example, are, in fact, more harmful than some illegal substances like cannabis and ecstasy, thereby casting doubts on the current system of classifying drugs into A, B and C classes.I do not propose to rank drugs on the basis of level of harm. This is a task best left to the experts who are better equipped to consider levels of harm in the context of addiction, harm to self, harm to society, etc. What the paper in the Lancet has brought to light is the moral inconsistency of legalising drugs. If tobacco, a substance that is harmful not only to the smoker but also to those around him, is legal, then why is cannabis illegal even if taken in very small quantities and even in cases where there is no harm to anyone else?From a moral standpoint, there are two types of harm. One is harm to self; the other is harm to others. All the classified substances under discussion, as well as alcohol and drugs, can fall into either category of harm depending on the circumstances under which they are used. Competent adults ought to be able to make decisions that affect them alone; when their actions affect others, the law has the right and duty to protect its people and thereby infringe upon the freedoms that these adults may wish to enjoy.

This model of legislation may seem reasonable; yet, the law is not context dependent. Either it grants blanket permission for something or bans it totally. This means that someone who smokes twenty packs of cigarettes a day in the presence of others is acting legally, whereas someone who has severe pain and uses a small quantity of cannabis to alleviate her pain is acting illegally even though her actions have absolutely no impact on anyone else.

The Government is so concerned about our safety that we have no choice when it comes to wearing seatbelts or observing speed limits. These are clearly legal issues and are aimed at preventing harm to us and to others. But notice how these are actions that are not merely encouraged but required by law whereas smoking and excessive drinking are actions that are discouraged but still well within the law.

On the specific issue of harm related to drugs, I do not suggest for a moment that the new findings published in the Lancet should lead to the legalisation of certain drugs. However, where a drug has medicinal value when taken in the right quantities, it ought at the very least to be available on prescription and in that sense become legal. Similarly, certain otherwise legal substances ought to be illegal under specific circumstances where harm to others is a real possibility.