Blanket ban on legal highs marks a new low for liberty

Sucking all the fun out of life. balloon image from www.shutterstock.com

Most of us would choose to experience pleasure – however we may define it – as often as possible. The public health and criminal justice systems are set up by the government partly to shape how, when and where we find pleasure, so that we balance our enjoyment with working and paying taxes. But some are protesting that the government’s new blanket ban on psychoactive substances goes a step too far – and imposes on our freedom to control what goes on in our heads.

The rhetoric of risk, harm and wrongdoing is used to persuade us to make “rational” choices about our consumption. One common rhetorical strategy is demonisation: this is when certain substances or activities are framed as risky, bad for us and bad in themselves.

A glance at recent media stories charting the downfall of sugar, chastising those perceived as overweight and condemning new psychoactive drugs shows how our troubled relationship with pleasure is often expressed in stories of self-indulgence, danger and death.

A broad bill

The proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill has been justified to the public on the basis of such harms. While many drugs are outlawed in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the new bill proposes to outlaw other psychoactive substances, which are used to alter mood and behaviour. Some of these have been repurposed – such as ketamine (which is used in veterinary medicine) – while others have been specially designed to provide altered states of being and pleasure.

But as it stands, the bill is too broad and imprecise. It defines a psychoactive as “a substance that produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. Yet there are many different substances that alter the way our minds function and how we feel.

Multipurpose nitrous oxide. promo-cymru/Flickr, CC BY

Any substances we eat, and many activities – such as exercise – alter our moods, our perceptions of the world and how we experience life. Some, like opiates, may make us feel better in a dual sense: as well as enhancing our subjective experiences, they may also form the basis of medical treatment. As a result, the bill proposes to ban many everyday products. An obvious example is nitrous oxide: commonly known as “laughing gas”, this substance is also used to aerate whipped cream, by dentists as an anaesthetic and to make fast cars go faster.

Where’s the evidence?

The justifications for this bill rest on questionable assumptions about the risks posed by psychoactive substances, the amount that they are used and the likely impacts of the bill, should it become law. What’s more, the status of currently lawful psychoactive substances, including food, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, remains unquestioned, despite evidence that alcohol and tobacco are potentially more harmful than many outlawed drugs.

The bill is based on a restricted vision of how humans use psychoactive substances. Throughout history and across many cultures, humans have used various psychoactive substances to achieve altered states of consciousness (ASC) or non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC), as well as taking advantage of their properties as medicines and poisons.

Bodily practices such as yoga and meditation have also been deployed to attain ASCs and NOSCs. Years of official suppression of research into this area means that we have very little idea of the potential range of ASCs and NOSCs, how to induce them reliably, or what their health benefits and risks may be.

A right to cognitive liberty

This information, along with safe, standardised supplies, could enable us to exercise our cognitive liberty safely and responsibly. In the US, supporters of cognitive liberty argue that the Constitution’s First Amendment on Freedom of Thought is meaningless without an inherent right to control what chemicals are present in your brain. This would entail not only the right to make our own decisions about consuming psychoactive substances, but also the ability to refuse pharmaceutical interventions, such as vaccines that block the pleasure-inducing effects of illegal drugs.

It is difficult for the government to justify denying us such rights, on the basis that the risk of harm to others outweighs our freedom to seek personal happiness, although so far English courts have refused to accept such arguments. Indeed, if we’re going to talk about harm, it can be said that we suffer significant harm if we are denied the right to choose how we pursue happiness, self-transformation and cognitive liberty.

Research into the neuroscience of psychoactive substances could illuminate the potential of psychedelics in health care and help us to clearly classify psychoactive substances, based on their individual characteristics. It could enable us to make informed choices about how to exercise our cognitive liberty, and create lawful, safe psychoactive substances, which provide pleasure without provoking addiction.

The benefit to our physical, mental and spiritual health could be substantial, and redirecting our efforts to this end would undoubtedly promote human flourishing.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.