The Intrinsic Link between the Movements for LGBT Rights and Drug Law Reform

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The movements for LGBT rights and drug law reform are natural allies in the fight for an equal, inclusive, and diverse society.

LGBT communities in the UK, particularly people involved in LGBT clubbing scenes, have a seemingly stronger association with drug use than the wider population. Indeed, research has consistently suggested that levels of drug use, both recreational and problematic, are higher among people who do not identify as heterosexual.

Perhaps more importantly, besides these practical realities, LGBT rights and drug reform issues connect at a much deeper philosophical level. One of the key underlying principles of both movements is the concept of personal sovereignty: the idea that every person has the right to be the exclusive controller of his or her own body. This principle may have been best articulated by philosopher John Stuart Mill in his text On Liberty, in which he declared that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Accordingly, the law should not be concerned with an individual’s choice, whether this is a decision to consume a certain substance or to have sex with a certain person, so long as this choice does not cause harm to anyone else.

While LGBT-related legislation in the UK has increasingly aligned with Mill’s approach in recent years, the war on drugs is one of the key vehicles by which the state continues to assert its moral judgements on the LGBT community.

Drug control is a means by which the state can continue to control sexual behaviour, and acts as an excuse for the surveillance of LGBT spaces by law enforcement officials. For instance, the attempted ban on poppers, otherwise known as alkyl nitrates, through the heavily-criticised 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. Or the state’s reluctance to support harm reduction initiatives, such as needle and syringe programmes (NSPs), despite the rise of ‘chemsex’ parties - and the fact that such drug use is one of the key drivers of HIV transmission amongst men who have sex with men.

As seen with respect to certain LGBT issues, if the majority of society no longer disapproves of a proscribed activity the law will continue to be flouted and cease to remain relevant. The moral framework of society could thus be interpreted, to some extent at least, as fluid.

Whilst illegal drug use is far from socialised in the same way as the use of alcohol or tobacco, for many young people “the regulation of tobacco and alcohol and the prohibition of drugs presents a dichotomy in terms of harm”, according to a Home Office report published in 2010. Many consider substance use as a continuum that the government has artificially divided into legal and illegal activity, as it once did for LGBT sex and marriage.

If young people cannot understand the reasons behind the distinction, then how can they be expected to accept it? If the law does not reflect reality then it risks losing its legitimacy.

Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that drug use is becoming increasingly socially accepted, despite the stagnation of the law. For example, over half of the UK public support either cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation, according to a 2013 Ipsos Mori poll. If the drug reform movement can continue to build on this sway in public opinion then the government’s hand could eventually be forced in a similar vein as it has been with certain LGBT rights.

Additionally, for the reasons elucidated at the start of this article, should the LGBT movement lend its public support to the drug reform movement, it also stands to gain a direct and substantial benefit.

A still from the 2014 film Pride, where an LGBT movement supports the miners' strikes (Source: YouTube)

Inspiration can be taken from the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement - the LGBT campaign to support the miners’ strikes in 1984-85, as depicted in the award-winning film Pride. During this period, alliances formed between the LGBT community and British labour groups proved to be an important turning point in the progression of LGBT rights in the UK as their voice was heard in sectors of society where it had previously been unheard. Thus, both groups were empowered in their cause by the alliance.

A similarly successful collaborative approach in social activism has recently taken place in Uruguay where formerly disparate minority groups joined forces with each other so as to reach a wider audience and gain greater political influence. According to the Uruguayan sociologist Diego Pieri, rights groups were keen to collaborate “once they were able to identify our common enemy: conservative Uruguay and its hypocritical, intolerant structures”. Their coordinated efforts helped Uruguay become Latin America’s most LGBT-friendly country; as well as a trailblazer for drug reform, not just in Latin America but across the globe. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalise the cultivation, distribution and consumption of cannabis for recreational use with the world’s first sale of over-the-counter cannabis in pharmacies due to commence in July.

The UK is currently facing the unsavoury prospect of a coalition between Theresa May’s Conservative Party and the regressive and homophobic Democratic Unionist Party. A common enemy is clearly identifiable, and the potential benefits of a strong and proactive alliance between the LGBT and drug law reform movements are more apparent than ever.