The late Bill Hicks once joked, ‘not all drugs are good… some of them are great’. Today I want to briefly offer what may be seen as a controversial idea: the ‘common good’ drugs may foster, not on the basis of what these substances offer the individual -- the personal pleasures and experiences often attributed to drugs, probably what Bill Hicks was referring to -- but on the basis of a cultural good, that they have the potential to offer something valuable and meaningful in society.
This is not a commonly discussed notion, that drugs can offer something more than self-seeking pleasure, a sin which detracts from the civic responsibilities of participation in society. But suggestions that drugs may serve a ‘common good’ are tainted by the threat of ‘passivity’, disengagement, and ultimately a questioning of the very fabric of a liberal democracy. Indeed as Peter Hitchens argues:
“The purpose of drugs is to befuddle us, to cloud our brains, to make us passive. If we are discontented with the society in which we live, surely it is utterly wrong and immoral to turn away from that, to dope ourselves into passivity, to make ourselves perfect fodder for dictators, despots and propagandists, rather than to criticise change and reform the society which we find repulsive.”
But how ontologically real is this idea that the taking of drugs will deterministically lead to ‘passivity’? If Hitchens is right, then we are to look to the widespread and endemic use of alcohol and caffeine for landing us in our current state of affairs, which I think on the whole, doesn’t look too promising.
Clearly, it is necessary to break down the divide between licit and illicit substances before extending such damnation, and to judge each substance based upon its individual characteristics, effects, and use. Once we do this, and examine substances without the weight of fear and historical distortion on our shoulders, it becomes apparent that lots of people use a variety of illicit substances without succumbing to the dystopic fate of the popularly imagined drug user.
The fixation of drug policy is generally on morality and harm, and in plenty of ways, rightly so. But an interesting and underdeveloped idea is, "What can some substances offer beyond their moral and medical limits?"
I want to contend that in certain ways and with certain substances, there is potential for their use to contribute to a broader common goal of happiness. I want to very briefly look at two examples of alcohol and cannabis to try and demonstrate the positive social effects of substance use.
First, is with our most beloved alcohol. This is probably the easiest to imagine for most people as it exists within our accepted schemas of knowledge. Public houses are a long tradition in Britain. Not only is it a legal provider of addiction and death, but in a positive way the consumption of alcohol in a pub provides solidarity, camaraderie and belonging in a community. A meeting place, an eating place, a place to celebrate, socialise and mourn – all incredibly important aspects for the promotion of healthy social relations, which boosts our happiness and wellbeing. So despite the negative effects that alcohol does to individuals and society, we can still see its use as a positive social good.
Now we turn to the illicit, and similarly, the coffeeshops in the Netherlands are home to some of the worst affected by cannabis. But yet, the coffeeshop and cannabis consumption also offers social benefits for society. When I was over in the Netherlands conducting fieldwork, an invaluable part (and one advised to me by a right-leaning politician) was to go and experience what coffeeshops were like. I spent a fair bit of time observing in one coffeeshop in Amsterdam which was mostly used by local residents, and what I saw was very interesting – men, women, young and old, people watching videos, playing games, people with their pet dogs, ‘suits’, people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It seemed like it didn’t matter what you did or who you were, because the consumption of cannabis serves as a common cultural good with the coffeeshop as a platform to share and bond, meet new people, or simply co-exist peacefully. But even where there are no coffeeshops to fulfil the need for shared space, cannabis culture is known for its rituals and practices, a lot of which promote group belonging and shared values.
So looking at these two examples, it seems apparent that there are social benefits of substance consumption, regardless of whether they are legal or not (and in the latter case, the law threatens this very benefit). Such ‘goods’ should not be reduced to economic value, but rather they speak to a broader conception of what it means to achieve the ambition of what Andrew Sayer terms, ‘human flourishing’, in an incredibly complex, divided, multicultural and global world.
It’s not been my intention here to suggest that cannabis and other illicit drugs should be made more freely available solely based upon their social benefits, and neither is it to suggest that the state should support and advocate drug use; but it is to argue that there should be at least some recognition of the potential social benefits of drug use within the consideration of weighing up harms, costs, and benefits involved with drug policy. The key and obvious question from a utilitarian perspective then is whether the harms to oneself or society outweigh the benefits, social or otherwise, in a more accepted system of drug use.