Some drug taking and some lethal sports are illegal in Britain. They are illegal regardless of the rationality of the participants. It appears that the state believes that some activities are so lethal that any participant couldn’t be compos mentis and therefore needs protection. That is, category ‘A’ drug users and some sportsmen are mentally ill. Is this an example of the state infantilising the adult British population? I believe that it is.
The state can, and does, influence behaviour by disseminating information. In Britain tobacco products carry blatant anti- smoking information on every pack. ‘Smoking Kills,’ for example, is an unambiguously severe warning of risk. Furthermore, the British state restricts the places where smokers can indulge their recreational choice. Thus the state has legitimised a lethal activity and simultaneously protected the individuals’ right to choose. The consequence of those choices is 100,000 annual deaths from tobacco consumption in Britain. That is better expressed as 164 per 100,000 of the British (smoking) population- the comparable statistic for suicide is 11 per 100,000. The inevitable inference is that the cost/ balance calculus used by the British state is that 100,000 deaths are regretted but acceptable. ‘Acceptable’ because the rights of the citizen, making a recreational choice, are protected.
Participants in lethal sports embrace the risks involved. These sports cause large numbers of injuries and some fatalities. Novice sky- divers suffer a death rate of 8 per 100,000 jumps and 500 injuries per 100,000 jumps. If successful suicide attempts are placed in this context the death rate isn’t too dissimilar to those actively trying kill themselves. Danger is part of the buzz. Less well known is that horse riding (not racing) is also extremely dangerous. There are 3.1M riders in Britain (10% ride weekly) the injury rate is 286 per 100,000. Worse 3% of all spinal injuries, causing paralysis, are from horse riding. About ten riders die annually and they cause at least a hundred road accidents. Professor Nutt* was sacked for pointing out that horse riding is as dangerous as taking ecstacy.
In January 2014 Texans could participate in a version of the famous Pamplona bull run, after they had signed an 1800 word waiver concerning death and injury.** This lethal spectacle is legal in the USA so why not a 2014 version of gladiatoral combat? The lethal benchmark in the UK is 110,000 acceptable deaths from alcohol and tobacco implying a 110,000 gladiatorial combats with a 50% death rate. And 110,000 gladiatorial combats per year should be enough to satisfy the barbaric bloodlust of the British public. However, could the promoters drum up 220,000 contestants, per year, for a sport predicated on a 50% death rate? Would spectators be sadistic voyeurs? And if the answer to both those questions is ‘YES’ does that entitle the state to intervene? State intervention might be based on the following points. Firstly, that gladiatorial combat is barbaric and has no place in a modern society. Secondly, the prospect of British citizens literally fighting to the death for entertainment is nauseating. Thirdly, the combatants couldn’t be compos mentis and therefore they need protection from promoters preying on them. But what if the combants were entirely rational? That is that they fully understood the rewards/ risks of the activity and freely and willingly undertook the activity.***
We have seen what is the case. Lethal drugs and lethal sports are regulated so that participants are fully informed about the implication of their choices. Their rights as citizens is protected by this model. This powerful model ought to be employed for all currently illegal recreational activities. The state accepts lethal danger for some recreational activities embedding regulation to inform and maintain quality; the logic of the position is to decriminalise all currently criminal recreational activities between consenting humans. The infantilising of adult British citizens should cease.
*Professor Nutt was chair of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs until 2009. He was sacked for making ‘odious’ comparisons between ecstacy and horse- riding.
** The Guardian 27th Jan 2014 Tom Dart 20 angry bulls: the jury is out on attempt to bring lethal spectacle to America
*** After all buying tobacco doesn’t also involve a test of rationality in the UK