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Risky activities and breaking the law

By Rhys Jones - posted Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The right to decide what we eat and drink and otherwise put in and do with our bodies is considered a basic human right in Australia. We are entitled to refuse medical treatment even when we will die without it. We are entitled to eat burgers every day even though it will inevitably lead to an early grave through heart disease and diabetes. We can engage in all manner of dangerous recreational activities including motorcycle riding, horse riding, beach swimming, unsafe sex and rock fishing, despite these activities resulting in numerous serious injuries and deaths every year in Australia.

We can smoke tobacco which leads to around 15,000 deaths a year in Australia. We can drink alcohol to our hearts content which can and does lead to numerous serious health consequences as well as serious consequences for society with increased levels of violence and crime.

While we recognise the dangers of these activities, we feel people should be entitled to weigh the risks and make their own decisions. We do not imprison people for possession of tobacco, nor do we imprison wine makers or motorcycle dealers. We do not make criminals out of those people who make a living out of, or engage, in horse riding activities.


Most people would think it a gross infringement on their basic human liberty and dignity if they were to be arrested and charged with unhealthy eating.

Why then do we think it reasonable to arrest an adult for the heinous crime of smoking marijuana? Why do we think it reasonable for the government to apply criminal sanctions to an adult for taking an ecstasy pill?

Why do we apply a different standard to the liquor merchant or tobacconist than to the ecstasy or marijuana dealer?

Surely it must be that marijuana is far more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol or horse riding: so much so that the government is justified in imprisoning people for selling these products to adults.

The truth is that marijuana is significantly safer than both alcohol and tobacco, and immeasurably safer than mountain climbing. There has never been an overdose of marijuana, whereas deaths from alcohol overdose are commonplace. Likewise, while ecstasy has some risk associated with it, it is not nearly as dangerous as horse riding, alcohol, tobacco smoking or many other activities that we consider worth the risk.

While there are risks associated with all illicit drugs, many of these risks are generated or exacerbated by the prohibition rather than the substance itself.


Heroin carries a significant risk of fatal overdose. However, this risk is made far worse by the fact that the purity of heroin supply on the street is utterly unpredictable. A heroin user who is accustomed to 10 per cent pure heroin will accidentally overdose when supplied with 80 per cent pure heroin. If they were purchasing their heroin from a pharmacy this would never occur. The other detrimental effects of heroin addiction such as needing to prostitute oneself or steal in order to feed the addiction are also due to the extortionately high prices generated by the black market. Heroin itself does not instil in a person a desire to steal or have sex for money. It is the effect of addiction combined with prohibition that causes these social ills.

The most detrimental effect associated with marijuana for most users is the risk of criminal conviction which can prevent a person from getting a decent job and condemn them to a life on the margins of society. While most of our politicians admit to having used marijuana at some stage in their lives, none of them would be where they are today if they had been caught and convicted.

While most of us would hope our children will not become drug users, we also hope they will not engage in unsafe or promiscuous sex, develop problems with alcohol or become obese. The difference with these other risky activities, is that the consequences of them are restricted to the risks of the activity itself. We can console ourselves with the thought that at least if they get fat, they won't go to jail for it.

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About the Author

Rhys Jones is a psychiatric nurse and is studying law at Murdoch University in Perth.

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