Criminalising people who use drugs is little more than persecution of a minority group
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labour 116 years ago next month. Fifty-seven years later, Alan Turing was chemically castrated, accepting the "treatment" to avoid prison.
The former sustained an injury that may have directly contributed to his death, while the latter committed suicide.
The dubious "crime" of which both were convicted was, of course, engaging in consensual gay sex.
As a famous playwright and a codebreaker partly responsible for significantly shortening the second world war, these are just two notable men convicted under an unjust law.
Not only had they done nobody else any harm, they had in fact made great contributions to their society. And yet their lives were ruined, and prematurely ended, because that society disapproved of what they were.
Times have moved on, and although small-scale acts of personal bigotry continue, the offence has long been removed from the statute book, and precious few would suggest today that if those prosecuted in the past didn't want criminalising then they shouldn't have had sex with other men.
And yet that very argument is made to attempt to justify the punishment of even harmless drug users. It cropped up again in almost precisely this form on one comment "below the line" on Simon Jenkins' excellent Guardian column this week: "If you don't want criminalising, imprisoning or your life wrecking – don't break the law and use illegal drugs. Simple!"
There is always someone expected to deny themselves to avoid offending the small-minded. We must always have someone to persecute. The liberation of gays began in 1967; just four years later drug users took their place with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act, a piece of legislative discrimination that unfairly criminalises several million people.
Not being a member of either of those constituencies makes it hard to say for sure, but this blogger would speculate that the reactions to restrictions on each are directly comparable.
Why shouldn't Alan Turing have been able to sleep with men? Why shouldn't stoners be able to smoke cannabis, or clubbers to drop pills? Because it doesn't suit you?
None of us likes to be told that we "can't" do something. There should usually be strong and definite reasons required before limits on behaviour are imposed. But drug users are, as gays once were, denied the right to find fulfillment in the way that best suits them, and all based on little more than public opprobrium.
More than this, each case involves dishing out unmerited punishment, a retribution for an act that hurts no third party and which nobody could seriously and objectively consider to be "wrong".
In fact, it's a complete logical contortion to simultaneously believe, as most do, that the state should stay out of our bedrooms, and that the law should restrict what chemicals we are allowed to imbibe, ingest or inject.
Either might impose a social cost: say, addiction-feeding crime versus unwanted pregnancy. Both risk harm to the individual: the possibility of overdose set against that of contracting HIV. (Interestingly, the probability of the latter, across the entire sexually active population, is higher than that of a fatality from using ecstasy.)
And yet the state intervenes – assumes jurisdiction over individual lives – in one case but not in the other.
At their hearts, both are an issue of self-ownership. Whether with sex or drugs, restrictions on what adults may consensually do in private is an unjustified violation of sovereignty over one's own body. Government should not have a say over what is put into your body or mine whether it's a pill or a penis. And people certainly shouldn't be punished for it.
In 2009, then-prime minister Gordon Brown offered a (very) posthumous apology for the "utterly unfair" treatment of Turing. The same year, his government jailed 9425 people for drug offences, and more than a tenth of them just for personal possession.
Perhaps in another half a century or so, a future prime minister of a rather more enlightened Britain might express a similar regret for them. They deserve an apology just as much as Turing or Wilde.