Scrap “unwinnable” war on drugs and fight antibiotic misuse instead, says philosopher

Governments around the world should stop squandering resources fighting an "unwinnable war" against illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. Instead, they should work on curbing antibiotic misuse, which poses a far more serious threat to human health, an American philosopher argues in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Dr Jonny Anomaly, of Duke University, says that concerted collective action is needed to tackle the excessive and casual prescribing of antibiotics, which has led to a worrying rise in resistance to these medicines. "Government action is both more appropriate and more likely to be effective in regulating antibiotics than it is in criminalising narcotics," he writes. 

The misuse of antibiotics is also more significant morally, as the harms it causes are borne by the individuals rather than society. How about violence and crime? These are mostly "caused by laws that prohibit drug use, rather than drug use itself," he says. There is little evidence that using recreational drugs makes people more violent.

He accepts that a drug habit takes its toll on friends and family. “But what follows from this? Should we criminalise behaviour that may lead people to disappoint their friends and family? There are many ways we can disappoint people we care about, including converting to Islam, working on Wall Street, or forgoing the family business in favour of a career in pornography. These choices may infuriate other people. But behaving in ways that make people angry or disappointed is hardly sufficient grounds for imprisonment.”

At the very least antibiotic resistant infections have the power to harm others and make illness more costly to treat, and they can often kill, he warns.

"This feature gives antimicrobial drugs a fundamentally different moral status from recreational drugs, and it suggests that current policy priorities are based on moral confusion, scientific ignorance, or both," he suggests.

He puts forward several possible ways of tackling antibiotic resistance. These include phasing out the use of these drugs in farming, along with factory farming; cash incentives for pharmaceutical companies to conserve existing drugs; banning over the counter sales of antibiotics in developing nations; and global surveillance of resistant bacteria, spearheaded by the world's wealthy nations. In addition to this, a flat user fee should be levied on courses of antibiotics, the monies from which could be used to fund antibiotic research, he suggests.

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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