Rational Distinctions


Our modern world of “reality” consists of processes, sequences of events, patterns of relationship in a context of change. This concept of the world is consistent with modern science and mathematics. The language with which we think and communicate has grown out of a less modern concept of reality: i.e. a world consisting of entities, instances, identities, categories in a context of stasis and absolutes. When our semantic habits are out-dated, not consistent with the world as we understand it today, we pre-judge, mis-evaluate, draw false inferences, jump to conclusions, mis-label and often fail to understand each other. Human alienation and conflict escalate.
Our semantic habits (including observing, feeling, labeling, generalizing, reasoning, speaking, etc.) can become a subject for study. With study and practice they can be corrected to fit more accurately our modern concepts of reality. Improving our semantic habits requires fresh opportunities for observing what goes on inside and outside of our individual skins. These opportunities should preferably include much that is non-verbal: practice in perceiving; distinguishing between fact and inference; noting similarities and differences; observing the infinity of relationships and sequences, etc. Then we need opportunities for listening, intuiting, feeling, weighing, and observing our body functioning. There also should be practice in using more accurate expressions to describe and communicate our experiences.
With improved semantic habits should come a heightened awareness that all fields of study are fundamentally related and basically interesting. Awareness of the kinship of one person to another and of people to nature should bring with it a greater appreciation of human worth and the necessity for mutual cooperation. [Rachel Lauer]

Familiarity leads to conscious evidence-based rational distinctions:

Supposedly Eskimos have 20 names for different types of snow. Their familiarity with snow, and its importance in their lives, leads to 20 distinctions, consciousness of the diversity of 20 different types of snow. Each type may have different properties, different risks & benefits, each requiring different regulations (avoid some and approach others, depending on the purpose, e.g. for safe quick travel).

Governments are familiar with the drugs traditionally used by the majority of the public, alcohol and tobacco and medical drugs. This familiarity has lead to consciousness of 4 types of risk/benefit distinctions applicable to every drug, each requiring different types of regulation, different ways of using their power appropriately:

  1. Beneficial use [encourage] v non-beneficial use [don’t encourage].
  2. Reasonably safe use [tolerate] v unreasonably harmful use [intervene].
  3. Unreasonably harmful use only harming the user [educate against] v unreasonably harmful use harming others [legislate against].
  4. Unreasonably harmful use only harming the user who is a consenting adult exercising free & informed choice [respect autonomy, educate against] v unreasonably harmful use only harming the user who is unable to exercise free & informed choice (e.g. ‘vulnerable groups’ - young people, drug dependent users) [protect autonomy, legislate against].

In contrast Governments are unfamiliar with non-medical drugs used by minorities. As a result they fail to make these conscious distinctions, instead focusing only on their risks. These drugs are judged ‘harmful and no-one should use them’, thereby denying the distinctions made for equally harmful but more familiar drugs.

As a result governments make an unjustified distinction between:

  1. Familiar drugs v equally harmful unfamiliar drugs. Familiarity leads to acceptability and acceptability leads to legal status – all become grounds for unjustified discrimination.


These distinctions apply to any analysis of rights restricted by Government - rights of autonomy, property and liberty.

1. Beneficial use (consumption and trade) v reasonably safe use:

It is assumed that people take ‘recreational’ drugs for ‘non-medical’ purposes but is this justified? Most people take these drugs to reduce stress and stress is a major killer. Such recreational use may then be a form of self-medication. Relaxation and socialisation are both forms of recreation that help us unwind at the end of the day – recreational activities allow us to ‘re-create’ ourselves after we have spent the day in our various roles as employee/employer, parent etc.

2. Reasonably safe use v unreasonably harmful use: the principle of necessity

This distinction is required since reasonably safe use imposes no costs on society while unreasonably harmful use does. There is no necessity for the State to intervene with reasonably safe use. Blanket prohibition of all use fails to target the problem, unreasonably harmful use, and so is not suitable, not cost-effective - resources are wasted trying to prohibit reasonably safe use and those affected will be denied rights for no good reason so they are likely to disrespect the law and not comply.
However this does not mean that unreasonably harmful use only should be prohibited due to the costs it imposes on society in terms of public services (e.g. NHS costs). The costs of all drug-related public services can be internalised within the drug market via taxation of the trade. Then those who risk imposing costs on society are responsible for paying for that cost, not the general tax-payer.
However the UK Government refers to the distinction between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' use or 'responsible' use and 'irresponsible' use. These refer to subjective factors which are non-transparent, perhaps unconscious: (a) acceptable to who? - the Government and majority of voters; (b) 'responsible' probably does not refer to 'reasonably safe' but to 'legal' - Government believes tobacco can be used responsibly.

3. Use unreasonably harmful to the user v use unreasonably harmful to others: voluntary v involuntary risks

Risking self-harm does no infringe anyone's human rights so Government has no responsibility or right to interfere. Risking harm to others does infringe others' human rights and Government does have a duty to intervene - e.g. the prohibition of smoking in enclosed public spaces targets consumers imposing risks on others. Education is a proportionate intervention to reduce self-harm while respecting autonomy, property and liberty.
More on voluntary and involuntary risks.

4. Use unreasonably harmful to users exercising informed choice (adults) v use unreasonably harmful to users unable to exercise informed choice (vulnerable groups):

Vulnerable groups such as young people or those dependent on drugs require greater protection than consenting adults able to take personal responsibility and exercise free and informed choices affecting their health.

5. Familiar v unfamiliar drugs:

Department of Health’s Communicating about risks to public health:

Risks are generally more worrying (and less acceptable) if perceived to arise from an unfamiliar or novel source.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology leaflet Safety in Numbers:

Familiarity – People appear to be more willing to accept risks that are familiar rather than new risks.

United Nations definition of ‘drugs’:

What are drugs? A very basic question but one that needs to be clarified. For, if we start thinking of drugs as just the substances that cause problems or are abused by people we know, then we are likely to ignore other substances that, for one reason or another, are not thought of as drugs by our immediate communities. A psychoactive substance is any substance people take to change either the way they feel, think, or behave. This description covers alcohol and tobacco as well as other natural and manufactured drugs.
http://www.unodc.org/youthnet/pdf/handbook.pdf - Chap 2, p.1 [no longer available?]

Government’s drug education website, Talk to Frank:

alcohol can play a major part in many people's social lives. That's why it's easy to forget that it's actually a very powerful drug.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report, Drug misuse and the environment:

1.17 The environment can encourage or oppose drug use partly through greater or lesser physical access to drugs, the presence of drug markets and knowledge of them, the number of dealers and the level of enforcement. In addition, the environment comprises prevalent, normative attitudes towards drugs which make these drugs more or less attractive and acceptable to the individual.
6.15 For many young people alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs inhabit one and the same world rather than constituting separate domains. The possible influence of their illicit drug-taking behaviour which is exerted by the climate of ideas on licit drugs needs therefore to be considered. The majority of people who have used illicit drugs have previously used tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol and cigarette smoking have been found to be the most powerful predictors of marijuana use.
2.27 it is important to also look at the use of tobacco, alcohol, and solvents, since early use of these drugs has been shown to predict later use of illicit drugs.
50. If society intends to provide young people with an environment which helps them not to take illicit drugs, or to reduce the harms which they do, the climate of awareness and beliefs on alcohol and tobacco must be seen as part of that context.
58. We question whether it is sensible to confine drug prevention messages to the health consequences of taking drugs. We give some examples of other approaches, involving social unacceptability, which might be considered.

Historical development of distinctions:

In the 19th century a consensus was established based on the unconscious distinctions that medical drugs were ‘good’, while the traditional non-medical drugs, alcohol and tobacco, were ‘neutral’ (like food). Toward the end of that century increasing problems with alcohol lead to the view that alcohol was ‘bad’, expressed first by the Temperance movement and eventually by calls for alcohol prohibition. After the failure of alcohol prohibition in the United States, frustrated prohibitionists turned their attention to the new drugs being imported by immigrants. These non-traditional non-medical drugs used by minorities were declared ‘bad’, ‘harmful and no-one should use them’ unless prescribed by doctors as medical drugs. Alcohol then lost its ‘bad’ status becoming once again ‘neutral’ along with tobacco.

The late 20th century consensus was that medical drugs were ‘good’ and so should be provided to all UK citizens in need free of charge, traditional non-medical drugs, alcohol and tobacco, were ‘neutral’ and available through the free market but non-traditional non-medical drugs were ‘bad’ and so prohibited.

Increasing familiarity with medical drugs and alcohol and tobacco lead to increasing distinctions which showed that these drugs all have very significant risks. Medical drugs proven beneficial in clinical trials only have to benefit around a third of patients with symptoms they are designed to tackle; the other two thirds are at risk of side effects without any benefit and tens of thousands of deaths are caused by medical drugs each year in the UK. The risks of alcohol and tobacco have become increasingly obvious from the 1950s onwards with evidence now showing they are every bit as harmful as other drugs used ‘non-medically’.

In contrast new evidence about non-traditional non-medical drugs has been ignored. In particular, governments have refused to consider the distinctions made for equally harmful but more familiar traditional drugs – why should they consider this new evidence when they already all agree that they are ‘harmful and no-one should use them’? End of story – a closed mind. The rational distinctions for unfamiliar drugs used by minorities remain unconscious and even denied and repressed.

If we don’t make active, conscious distinctions and decisions based on evidence then, by default, we make passive, unconscious distinctions based on assumptions and prejudice (pre-judgment). Human consciousness drives us to change our environment by changing our behaviour toward it, actively, consciously altering both. This contrasts with our natural tendency as unconscious animals to do what we have always done, what we are familiar with, what we feel safe with. Life was tough when humans were more unconscious animal than conscious human and such unpredictable risks could not be taken. Perhaps Neanderthals decided 'fire is harmful and no-one should use it' and closed their mind to change, while our ancestors remained open and accepted the risks involved with regulating fire use, going on to apply those principles to regulating the natural forces within their environment and within themselves, their instinctive behaviour (e.g. fear of the unknown).


Effective regulations depend on rational distinctions:

Regulations aim to maximise benefits while minimising risks but this depends on making the correct distinctions. ...

Distinguishing drug risks (drug), drug user risks (mind-set) and drug environmental risks (setting):

Regulation of an activity allows increased activity AND decreased harm. To be most effective the whole system must be regulated - the object (drug), the individuals involved (consumers, suppliers and producers, individual attitudes) and the environment (market, social attitudes). And if harm occurs, it can always be treated better than before.
There are always multiple causes and multiple consequences (cf 'drugs are harmful'), often at these 3 different levels. And the cause-and-effect chain continues unbroken into the past and future. If A caused B, then what caused A? Did B cause C? Effective regulation of a system depends upon accurate modelling of that system.

Distinguishing drug regulation risks from drug, user and environment risks:

Regulations are ineffective and cause unintended harmful consequences if :

These are different perspectives on the same problem: inadequate, simplistic modelling of a complex system.