People want to have a good time; that much is a given. More stringently, we may argue that man is a pleasure-seeking animal and for this very reason, he will go to great lengths to achieve this pleasure. One of the ways is through the use of euphoriants (broadly construed), that is, chemicals used with the purpose of inducing pleasure. This much seems to be a given across cultures: if there is access to euphoriants, people will use them – and they will even incur great disutility to enable this use (case in point: “prison wine“, a truly horrible concoction brewed in prisons).
However, these euphoriants affect the body differently. They induce different highs, and some do great harm to the organism, while others are less harmful. They also differ in price. These differences form the basis for substitution in euphoriant use: I might choose to smoke a joint instead of drinking a pair of pints with a friend, because I have work tomorrow and know from experience that I tolerate cannabis much better than alcohol, etc.* This forms the basis of the utilitarian argument for marijuana reform: that because some people tolerate cannabis better, do less harm to their environment when using cannabis instead of alcohol, etc., they should be allowed to partake in the use of this. Simply put, cannabis is harmful, but if it is less harmful than alcohol in typical use, people substituting into cannabis use would be a societal good.
What I find interesting is that while pharmaceutical innovation is generally high, we have seen very little innovation from pharma companies when it comes to euphoriants. Certainly, there is black market innovation, which has led to the so-called “designer drugs”, but these drugs are plagued by the normal problems with drugs: no follow-up on effects, no testing prior to release, etc. The reason for this lack of corporate innovation when it comes to euphoriants is certainly not due to low ROI; the drug market is a large a market as ever. Rather, it is due to the fact that in many legal frameworks, it is the very capacity of inducing euphoria that is illegal, not the adverse effects – for example, in the Danish Law on Euphoriants (§1, link in Danish).
It is well-known that MDMA (ecstasy) has very few adverse effects, compared with other euphoriants**. For this reason, one could argue that MDMA should be legalised to allow more efficient substitution into this drug from more harmful drugs such as alcohol. However, my main point is that pharma companies should be able to develop varieties of, say, MDMA, which reduces the adverse effects even further and allows substitution into these drugs, reducing adverse effects much more. This would be a small, but important step, towards a better world. However, as long as it is the very ability to induce euphoria that is illegal, we will not see progress in this area.
*) This blog does not endorse the use of any euphoriant except mathematics.
**) Of course, the only euphoriant truly free of adverse effects is this.