Who Owns Your Body?

The UK’s General Election, which has for the first time included televised debates on issues ranging from Britain’s place in the EU to support for care workers, has seen comparatively little attention given to drug policy. The prohibition of drugs is undeniably one of the most important economic and social influences in British society. A read through the manifestos of each party, however, reveals not only a disturbing lack of awareness about the impact of prohibition, but a far more disturbing and often unnoticed facet to government’s approach to drugs.

The Labour party manifesto devotes only 55 words to drug policy:

On drugs, our message is clear: we will not tolerate illegal drug use. We have reclassified cannabis to Class B and banned 'legal highs'. More addicts are being treated, with a higher proportion going on to drug-free lives. We will switch investment towards those programmes that are shown to sustain drug-free lives and reduce crime.

The wording of this paragraph is revealing. In the same few lines we see cannabis and legal highs immediately followed by a reference to addicts. The difference between addictive drugs like alcohol, nicotine and heroin and plant medicines like cannabis is vast, both pharmacologically and socially. The fact that current policy does not reflect this has already been levelled against Labour by Professor Nutt and others in the ACMD – their response was to dismiss Professor Nutt and in doing so confirm his original accusation.

The Liberal Democrats are fairly hazy about their perspective on prohibition and the Conservative manifesto devotes a lot of space to linking drugs and crime, though very little to suggest that they have a good grasp on the massive differences within our pharmacopeia of medicinal and recreational drugs.

There is one crucial aspect of drug law that none of these manifestos discuss. It is never mentioned on TV, never debated in school health classes and brought up in parliament. It can be summarised in a question we often assume we don’t need to ask ourselves: who owns my body?

The answer in a society that prides itself on the inalienable dignity and right to self-realisation of the individual should be ‘me’.

This truth is not reflected by drug policy. In our current system of government, we hire people to make important decisions for us. By definition, politicians believe that ultimately they know what’s best for their constituents and up until now they have decided which drugs we should take and which we shouldn’t.

To many this seems like a perfectly reasonable system, to others it is a flawed system that sees the individual projecting their own personal responsibility onto others; most people don’t really seem to care. It is this apathy that allows prohibition to continue.

It is an approach to social control that has been shown time and again to fail in its stated goal. It also violates the very rights we pride ourselves on, rights that have had to be wrestled from monarchies and dictatorships over and over again in the last 250 years.

In theory most people would agree that they own their body and they should be able to decide what they do with it. Yet somehow, many simultaneously accept prohibition. One reason people give to justify this discrepancy is that some drugs cause social problems and as such should be banned to ensure law and order. This argument works only within a framework contingent on prohibition itself.

Prohibition creates an incredibly lucrative underground market that is more appealing the less you have to lose. Drug policy usually creates the problems it tries to solve, as even the most cursory glance at alcohol prohibition in the USA in the early 20th century will reveal. For even more striking evidence, one only has to look at drug policy in the 21st century.

More importantly, the objection above completely misses the most important aspect of this issue, which is how much control the state should have over the individual.  If you believe that individual freedom is the highest and most sacred right we have, then the fact that a government can jail you for exercising it is incredibly offensive. If you believe that your government knows best for you and see it as a parental, moral agent, then it is less offensive.

The individualist’s response to the objection above is that they have no innate moral responsibility to regulate anyone else’s behaviour. Drug use comes down to education. Smart people use drugs intelligently, stupid people use them stupidly. Drugs themselves are neutral – the individual must bear responsibility for their own actions.

From this perspective the way to tackle drug abuse isn’t prohibition, it’s education. With a fraction of the money spent on prohibition, we could create a drug education and addiction support framework that would completely change the way we perceive drug use. It would allow us to use medicinal drugs as they are supposed to be and understand the underlying psychological issues that cause drug abuse.

Current drug education strategies are inadequate and the drug policies found in the three main manifestos, while often ambiguous, all contain one unchallenged assumption: the government owns your body. They, not you, are responsible enough to decide what drugs you can take. They choose which drugs are legal, not based on scientific evidence, but on political interest.

Accepting prohibition is to turn your back on the most hard-won rights our ancestors struggled for.  The prohibition of any drug or behaviour that does not harm another person is a violation of the inalienable right of self-determination and until we radically challenge the foundations of a power relationship which limits personal freedom while claiming to protect it, we will never live up to our own potential.

Alexander Beiner is an author living in London. His first novel 'Beyond the Basin' explores shamanism, drug law and spirituality. For more information on his work, visit