View attachment 47041 This interview, the latest in a series on political topics, discusses philosophical issues concerning the criminalization of drug use. My interviewee is Douglas Husak, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of “Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law.” – Gary Gutting
Gary Gutting: A bill moving through Congress is proposing reductions in sentences for violations of drug laws. Some critics of the bill, including The New York Times editorial board, think it doesn’t go nearly far enough. What’s your view?
Douglas Husak: I’d go much further, at least regarding penalties for drug use. I think it’s a serious moral wrong to send people to prison for the recreational use of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. What we need is a total decriminalization of drug use.
G.G.: What leads you to that conclusion?
D.H: Everyone agrees it is seriously unjust to punish people in the absence of very good reasons to do so. But the case in favor of punishing people for using drugs has never been made.
G.G.: I suppose popular thinking is roughly that punishment is a good way to deter people from doing something that they would otherwise be very tempted to do and that may well lead to terrible consequences if they do it. The pleasure that drugs bring makes them attractive, and the consequences of using them can be overwhelmingly hideous. So, unless there’s reason to think that the consequences of drug use are not as bad as we think or that no form of punishment is likely to deter drug use, then it seems reasonable to punish it.
The goals of drug-law enforcement are valuable. The problem is that far too many innocent drug users get caught in the net and suffer as a result.
D.H.: I think it’s wrong to punish people just to get them not to do something bad. That principle would allow us to punish overeating, smoking, failing to exercise, and lots of other activities that virtually no one proposes to punish. Most crimes we punish (murder, rape, robbery) do serious harm to other people. Almost all people who do drugs at most harm only themselves. The hideous effects of drugs on users and their families we hear so much about occur in only a very small minority of instances.
Most drug users do not suffer substantial harms, and we should be cautious about generalizing from worst-case scenarios. We should not subject tens of millions of Americans to punishment because of bad effects that materialize in only a small subset of cases. In addition, threats of punishments don’t do much to deter drug use. Most drug users don’t believe they’ll be caught, and they are right.
G.G.: I’d like to hear more about two points you just made. First, why do you think that drug use is not “substantially harmful”? Maybe there’s not much substantial harm done by smoking marijuana, but what about heroin addiction? Also, what’s the evidence that threats of punishments don’t do much to deter drug use? Most drug users may rightly believe that they won’t be caught, but that doesn’t mean that those who don’t use drugs aren’t deterred by the threat of punishment.
D.H.: I say that drug use itself is not substantially harmful because longitudinal studies indicate that health and life expectancy of the roughly half of all Americans who have used drugs (with the exception of tobacco) is virtually identical to that of the half of Americans who have not. Again, no one should generalize from worst-case scenarios to criminalize conduct that is harmful in only a small percentage of cases. These generalizations would allow the prohibition of lots of behaviors, including the consumption of alcohol.
And efforts to prevent these worst-case scenarios almost certainly cause harm that is greater than whatever harms they prevent. When adolescents are caught and punished for using drugs, the consequences of punishment are worse than whatever harm the drugs are likely to have caused.
The evidence that threats of punishment don’t do much to deter drug use involves comparisons of prevalence rates in times and places where punishments are more or less severe. If these threats deterred, one would expect less drug use when and where those threats are increased. But there is no such correlation in the United States or indeed anywhere in the world. (See, for example, “Drug War Heresies,” by Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter, pp. 78-86.)
View attachment 47042 G.G.: Those of us who aren’t experts in the relevant area aren’t in a position to evaluate empirical evidence put forward in favor of a policy recommendation. The only thing we can rely on is consensus among those qualified to judge the matter. Is there a scientific consensus that the relevant evidence supports the conclusions that drug use is not substantially harmful and that punishment does little to deter drug use?
D.H.: I don’t suppose a “scientific consensus” could be said to exist on many of these matters. But criminologists concur that the deterrent effect of punishments for drug offenses is minimal. In any event, since well over 120 million living Americans have experimented with illicit drugs, one would like to hear from them (and not just from the most extreme cases) as to what harms they have suffered. In most cases, I’ll bet those who have been caught and prosecuted would report that the punishments did more damage to their lives than the drugs they were using.
G.G.: The case against allowing drug use is often tied to the need to protect children from taking them. Specifically, I suspect much of the intense opposition to drug use is due to parents’ fear that their children will become addicted.
D.H.: Adolescents seldom behave in the way their parents would like. Some experimentation with drugs should be expected. Since legal drugs should be less dangerous than illegal drugs, parents should prefer a regime of decriminalization. Today, parents should be more worried that their children will get caught and punished than that the drugs they use will harm them.
G.G.: What about the suggestion that punishing drug users is necessary to reduce drug-related crime (for example, robberies to support a drug habit)?
D.H.: No one can be too sure how drug decriminalization will affect rates of economic crime (e.g., theft, burglary) committed by drug users. Many variables contribute to the incidence of these crimes, including the cost of decriminalized drugs. As long as they are affordable, and not taxed excessively, we should expect these crime rates to fall. We don’t see too many alcoholics or nicotine addicts committing economic crimes to finance their habits.
G.G.: Even many opponents of decriminalization agree that current penalties and enforcement policies need rethinking. But don’t we have to distinguish between the question of the most fair and effective ways of punishing drug use and the question of whether there should be any punishment at all? How do you go beyond the case for reforming our legal penalties for drug use to a case for abolishing them?
D.H.: Obviously, a more severe punishment requires a stronger rationale than a less severe punishment. But any punishment, even a slap on the wrist, needs to be justified. We don’t think we should punish other behaviors that primarily hurt just those who engage in them — here, getting drunk might be the closest comparison.
G.G.: There’s also the fact that punishing users is well established as a major way of opposing the bad effects of drugs. It’s one thing to reform this approach to eliminate some of its obvious failings. But if we move to a very different approach, don’t we risk unintended consequences that could well make things much worse?
D.H.: Sure, moving in a new direction has risks. New approaches always do. But it’s hard to be impressed by what we’ve been doing for the past 45 years or so. What have we really accomplished? Those who support our present policy could allege that success is around the corner if only we could identify “the right way to punish drug users.” But no better ideas are on the horizon, and we’ve been trying to find them for decades.
Finally, I repeat that a truce in the drug war should be called not simply because we are unable to win it, but because we had no good justification for waging it in the first place.
G.G.: So far we’ve said nothing about the production and selling of drugs. Do you think they also should be decriminalized?
D.H.: In my view, we have to resolve the more basic question of what the law should do with drug users before we decide how to regulate manufacture and sale. If drug use itself is decriminalized, there is lots of room for trial and error to find the best system of distribution. Our models governing alcohol are a sensible place to start.
G.G.: Supposing we decriminalize drug use along the lines you suggest. Do you think there are any steps we should take to discourage the use of recreational drugs?
D.H.: Sure. I am all in favor of state efforts to promote healthy and productive lifestyles. The private sector should contribute to these goals, too. We should all be encouraged to eat better, exercise more and study harder. But criminal law and punishment should not be used for these purposes.
G.G.: Given the failures and frustrations of the “war on drugs,” why do you think the police continue to place so much emphasis on drug-law enforcement? Is it, as some suggest, a part of the racist structure of our society?
D.H.: The racist aspects of drug-law enforcement are real, but frequently exaggerated. In the hands of many police and prosecutors, drug offenses give the state leverage to prevent and solve crimes — not drug crimes, but the kind of serious crimes we all care about. The existence of drug offenses gives police a pretext to detain and arrest people they believe to be suspicious. Police collect DNA samples, frisk for weapons, and use the threat of prosecution to extract information about serious crimes that have occurred or might occur. If I am correct, the goals of drug-law enforcement are valuable. The problem is that far too many innocent drug users get caught in the net and suffer as a result.
The real question for philosophers is to identify a satisfactory rationale for fighting a “war on drugs.” Even though most of us now realize that this war cannot be “won,” we were never very clear about why we were waging it in the first place. Someday we may look back at this era the way we now think about (alcohol) Prohibition: a failed experiment that was indefensible in principle.
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Read the entire series of interviews with philosophers on political issues, here.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. His new book, “What Philosophy Can Do” offers essays, expanded from his Stone columns, on politics, science, religion, education and art.
By Gary Gutting - The NY Times, Opinionator/ Nov. 24, 2015
Art:1-NY Times Brennan, Lindsey; 2-street-art: Plaid Zebra; 3-Huffington Post
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.