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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 3- Our Guiding Principles

Ethics, or the principle of reciprocal autonomy


Let us assume that science, with supporting evidence, had shown the harmfulness of a given drug – say tobacco – and that it is a “cause” of serious, indeed fatal illnesses. To what extent are doctors, judges, and in the end, the State, authorized to go to ensure that people do not smoke? What limits are there on intervention? This is the question posed by ethics, more specifically the ethics of “health”. Should we simply ban tobacco and punish both its users and its producers? Should we educate people through prevention campaigns? Should we discourage smokers through their pocketbooks, for example with a surtax for the hospital care that their habit could make necessary?

We see that ethical reflections take us through what is, through the realm of facts, to the realm of what should be, of what would be desirable. Moving therefore from recognized facts (that cigarettes “cause” lung cancer) to standards (the majority recognizes that smoking is harmful), but, more important than standards, to values (health is the greater good) and finally to the means of passing on and above all implementing these values (smoking is forbidden and subject to a fine). At any of these steps, one could speak out and say just a minute, I do not agree. I do not agree with the statement of fact: what is the basis of, what studies support this “finding”, one might ask. I do not agree with the standard: even though a public opinion poll may show that most people believe cigarettes cause lung cancer, is that reason enough to put an end to the debate? I do not agree with the established values: freedom is the greater good and not health - what is the use of being in good health under a totalitarian regime? Finally, disagreeing with the means chosen to implement the value - it being unacceptable to ban cigarettes under the pretext that they cause cancer because the means is disproportionate to the fact.

Anyone who has followed the debates on cannabis to any degree will have drawn a parallel. Because cannabis “causes” health problems (both physical and moral), the standard states that its use is “dangerous” and, under the banner of public health values (and of the protection of the most vulnerable: children, adolescents, etc.), its production, manufacture, sale and use, etc. will be prohibited. This is the basis of the existing public policy.

As Professor Malherbe reminds us, this way of setting out the cannabis problem – as in fact is true for other substances – encourages us to rethink our ideas on health, medicine and science. Moreover, going one step further, it obliges us to consider the issue of risk and of life itself in society.

We live in a risk-taking society, but in a paradoxical manner. On the one hand, we place great value on risk-taking: venture capital, risk management, putting no limits on success. We see this as much in the appreciation of certain kinds of political or corporate decisions, as in the emulation of certain kinds of risky activities, such as Formula 1 racing, paragliding, and other extreme sports. On the other hand, we are becoming intolerant of risks of life in society, of the risks that others represent to our individual lives. It is a search for safety, both individually and collectively, vis-à-vis the smalltime crook or the terrorist. Risk would be in conflict with safety and security as illness would be in conflict with health.

Between these two apparently opposed attitudes towards risk, a subtle change in connotation slips in and partly explains the paradox. In the first sense (risks we like to take or will accept others taking), the issue is clearly risk. Here, risk is seen as being positive, and offers a number of options: when faced with this kind of risk, the person can decide to forge ahead, to wait, or to give up. In any case, there is a broadening of possibilities, therefore of autonomy, an extension that is no doubt linked to the admiration these people elicit, which is also tinged with envy as we observe this action that our position as “mere mortals” rarely permits us. The shift in meaning happens with the second sense, which does not relate to our ideas on safety but rather of danger. Safety is a collective and individual good, as in food or occupational safety. Danger, on the other hand, is usually a loss or a limitation of freedom of action: when faced with danger, most of us stop, and withdraw from the scene. In this sense, danger reduces the range of autonomy. Therefore, it is not safety that is in conflict with risk, but rather danger.[1][4] The distinction is fundamental, because it refers us to the degree–whether real or perceived–to which we control our own existence. We sense that the “crazy Canuck” bombing down the slopes is at least in relative control of the risks he is taking; danger is different in that it implies loss of control. 

We are collectively learning how to manage this risk/danger equation. The “risk” here, if one can put it this way, is thinking of risk as a kind of acquired individual autonomy, and of danger as a limitation of this very autonomy by “the other”, bringing about in its wake withdrawal, intolerance, and concisely, fear. For if risk is the source of intense pleasure, danger generally gives rise to fear. If risk points to the improvement of the means that allow me to be more in control of my safety, danger points to threats coming from the outside, chiefly from the ‘other’, over which I have little control.

Some concepts in medicine, and in science in general, add to this paradox when they address risk factors, such as when smoking is considered a risk factor for lung cancer. This is also the case with delinquency: dropping out of school is a risk factor as regards delinquency. Within these meanings, risk here becomes a danger factor, the ultimate danger, of course, being death (cancer). This mechanistic and causalist concept of prevention erases the fundamental difference between the body-machine we occupy and the body-subject we are, to use the distinctions proposed by Professor Malherbe. There is, in fact, no direct link between the “objective” characteristics of our environment (including the personal traits of genetic history, family and culture, etc.) and the subjective perception we have of ourselves and of our relationship with our environment. In other words, it is precisely why two children born in a similar environment, in the same era and friends from a very young age, will take two entirely different paths in life. We have a body with a genetic inheritance and pre-dispositions; what we do with it and how we interact with others and our environment is something else entirely. Just as there is no immediate transfer of the recognized fact to the norm, neither is there any direct translating my biopsychological make-up into actions and thoughts.

The scientific approach searching to identify a statistical “norm” – the correlation between two facts – does not take into account the fact that we are not all equal in the face of this risk/danger equation. What for some would constitute a risk – going down an icy mountain on skis – would represent a real danger for another. 


[Translation] Despite all we think we know about addiction, a considerable number of well-informed subjects “happily continue committing suicide” through their dependencies. While health education is largely thwarted, and not only in the field of toxic substances, it is because human subjects are in fact subjects, that is to say “subjective” beings whose behavioural reactions are linked much more to the meaning they attach to their behaviours than to the objective mechanical-medical consequences which statistical analysis claims to define. 

Some risks are no doubt worth taking for life to be worth the trouble of being lived, for it not to dissolve into a maniacal and fearful sequence of endless precautions (…). Lastly, what is most human (the most autonomy, we dare wonder): succumbing to fearful hypochondria and enclosing oneself in a cocoon of universal prevention (to the point of death by asphyxiation and loss of will) or living one’s life through risks freely chosen and accepted. [2][5]


This is where the central position of the concept of autonomy comes in. Autonomy, however, is to be understood here in a critical manner as reciprocal autonomy, and not as autonomy where isolated individuals establish standards to their own liking. It should be borne in mind that autonomy, etymologically speaking, means “establishing one’s own laws”. This is not a question of arbitrary legislation, created for oneself, but of laws that permit, whenever possible, the successful interaction with others, which is the very bedrock of society. This autonomy is based on the ability to recognize the existence, the difference, and the equivalence of the other, allowing one to assume solitude, finiteness and uncertainty, respectively, to then move on to practice solidarity, dignity and liberty in return.[3][6]

The “dependent” person is not autonomous, some would say. Indeed, in their dependency, the drug addict, the alcoholic and the inveterate smoker are not. Neither the emotionally dependent person nor the person addicted to gambling, money or sex is fully autonomous. Next comes the question of the extent to which the state or society can intervene to encourage the slow achievement of this autonomy, and how to go about it. What are the respective roles of collective governance and criminal law as mechanisms of this governance? How can science contribute to this emancipation?

In any case, we note Professor Malherbe’s comment, that:


[Translation] (…) the fundamental problem of our civilization is not whether it is acceptable to prohibit the trade in cannabis derivatives or even their use, but rather not to repress the expression of anxiety when it arises and, even better, to invent new ways of taming it. On this point, it is useful to recall that every unjustified restriction, which adds to the already heavy burden of civilized individuals, can only increase their sense of being the object of some form of totalitarianism rather than the subject of their own destiny. From this standpoint, anti-drug campaigns seem decidedly like attempts to deny death rather than recognize its presence in collective and individual life. (…) In this respect, we agree with N. Bensaïd, who says that preventive medicine conceals our fear of death by making us die of fear. [4][7]


From this base ensues a definition of ethics as “constant work, to which we can consent and which we perform with one another in order to reduce, as far as possible, the inevitable difference between our values as practiced and our values as stated.”[5][8] With one another, indeed, thereby imposing constraints so that reciprocity and equivalence of the ‘other’ can be realized; this is the role of governance. 

As a guideline, we will adopt the principle that an ethical public policy on illegal drugs, and on cannabis in particular, must promote reciprocal autonomy built through a constant exchange of dialogue within the community.    




[1][4]  There is an interesting discussion on the subject in Professor Pires: pages 41 passim.

[2][5]  Malherbe, J.F. (2002) op. cit., page 7.

[3][6]  See Malherbe’s discussion of the subject on pages 23-26.

[4][7]  Ibid., page 21.

[5][8]  Ibid., pages 27-28.

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