Criminalising drugs, legalising murder, and the actual goals of our politics
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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Should things be banned because they destroy many lives? An initial response might be YES. But consider what we’re actually replying to by saying “YES”. We’re not saying we want banning in and of itself, really: we want the thing being banned to not have the negative effects and think the act of banning, removal, criminalisation will achieve this.
But these actions don’t necessarily make the phenomena any less destructive, potent, or dangerous. In fact, these responses can have the opposite effects. We know because currently criminalised items and services, such as narcotics, sex work, and so on, still lead to suffering.
The question isn’t whether drugs, sex work, pornography and other commonly criminalised things can be significantly harmful: Of course they can. But so can everyday, decriminalised or legalised items, like cars, fast-food, and medical care.
If the criteria for banning is harm – even significant harm – then our societies would be very stale, largely inhuman places; a society that’s more post-apocalyptic or dystopian than one that recognises human autonomy and multiple threads to flourishing. No cars, no sports activities, no dangerous jobs, no surgeries, and so on.
Do we ban cars or make them safer? Do we give up on all doctors and health-care, or study ways to improve medicine? The answer is obviously improvement, betterment.
Thus, if things are causing us harm, why do we remove instead of improve?
Improvement and Removal
Naturally, not everything that exists should exist; not everything done should be done.
Consider capital punishment and marijuana: two areas where the responses that exist shouldn’t.
Capital punishment remains for convicted criminals in a few parts of the world, notably still the United States. We’ve improved the methods of execution, focusing on safety, reduced suffering and instantaneous death.
However, capital punishment seems ineffective at best in crime reduction and unnecessarily destructive of lives at worst (not to mention possibly racist). Its Final Door property means if we discover a new piece of evidence that undermines a conviction, we have no way of making amends (after execution) – which, for punishment in a civilised society, should be essential.
On the other hand, marijuana – a proven effective drug that helps reduce chronic pain without significant side-effects and is significantly safer [pdf] than other, legalised substances like cigarettes and beer – is criminalised in many parts of the world.
This despite numerous scientists, researchers, and medical specialists urging a complete reversal of marijuana laws (and drug laws in general), due to: the arbitrariness of picking on such a non-lethal substance, the unnecessary crowding of prisons, the forever tarred record for harmless individuals (who themselves often become dangerous since their records now are stained, thus they struggle to find proper work), etc.
As we noted in the beginning: What is the purpose of our responses, in banning, executing, and so forth?
What’s the Point
What do people want when supporting capital punishment?
The primary factor should be a reduction of crime, not pacifying bloodlust. If revenge of a murderer or rapist or whatever is satisfied by his execution, that is secondary to whether the punishment helps deter and thus prevent more horrific crime. But primary for our response is crime reduction and prevention. The data seems to indicate capital punishment does not do this. There are safer, reversible alternatives that are more effective.
Thus, we should go for these if we agree crime reduction is primary, not revenge.
Similarly, criminalisation as always comes with a fallout: driving the product or service underground where it goes unregulated by proper authorities/regulated by improper authorities; no legal safety-nets or protections are in place – or if they do exist, the people who need them are stigmatised and feel afraid since they could get arrested (for what should otherwise not be a crime).
This applies to both sex workers and drug users.
To focus on drugs: If the point is to reduce the number of people using drugs, to reduce the crime associated with drugs, almost everyone already knows that the “war on drugs” is not that solution; that criminalising drug users, instead of treating them, thwarts that goal and instead creates more criminals.
Like capital punishment, the goal is not achieved by this method: in this case, criminalising drugs and drug users. Better methods, as demonstrated in Portugal for example, exist: the goal is achieved by recognising our knee-jerk reactions calling for bans don’t help.
We must ask: What are we trying to achieve?
The answer doesn’t lie in how much we dislike drugs, how much we loathe sex workers, how much we want to see murderers suffer.
First, these are not all the same thing just because suffering is involved, because each has been deemed wrong, illegal, bad. Sex workers and drug users, for example, deserve at the very least equal treatment as citizens – not stigmatisation or hatred. Not only are we treating people morally, but we’d be achieving the goal of reducing the crimes associated with those areas. Health and security can be offered, instead of handcuffs and a prison term.
Thus, even if you still view drug users and sex workers as "beneath" you – which would be unfortunate and rather short-sighed – at the very least you can recognise that treating them as criminals makes matters worse for your society.
This applies to capital punishment: no matter how much you might like seeing criminals die, this is secondary to knowing you’re not supporting measures to actually lower crime.
If its crime reduction, lower number of addicts, less spreading of sexually transmitted diseases, less abortions and so on, there are laws – often associated with conservatives – which do the exact opposite of what they should: laws which create, not reduce, the very problems people want stopped but continue to support anyway.
We must ask constantly what we're trying to achieve and use evidence-based approaches to find the answer: not knee-jerk reactions or appeals to traditional views.
We might find that better dialogues will develop when we talk about what we all want, rather than what we each despise; when we start getting rid of party-lines and focus on societal benefits, using evidence and scientific-approaches, we do everyone – including ourselves – a favour.
Policies effect others: thus, we must ask the empirical, not ideological, question of whether they are effective, whether they actually work.
It is unlikely, for example, that conservatives actually want all women to suffer and die; it’s unlikely that liberals want all guns taken away; and so on. Instead, almost everyone wants less crime, less violence, etc. Even abortion rights defenders want less abortions! Again: what works isn’t determined by ideology but evidence.
So keep asking: “What are we all trying to achieve?”
'The Warren Hill Execution: A Late Challenge Over Lethal-Injection Drug' by Andrew Cohen - a rather startling case involving an intellectually-challenged death-row inmate, who might be executed a few hours after I post this.
The horrific case of Elaine Prince-Patron, who in 1994, writes Phil Reeves in the Independent:
was dispatched to a maximum security jail in the United States. Her crime did not involve murder or terrorism. She was not caught with a gun, or a bomb. In fact, she did not commit violence of any kind.
Yet she was sentenced to spend 25 years behind bars and razor wire. The earliest she will be eligible for parole is 2017, when she will be 79. She does not think she will live that long.
The offence which attracted this, the harshest penalty in America short of capital punishment, was far from uncommon, although few would seek to justify it. Drugs squad detectives found 80lbs of marijuana at her home in Tucson, Arizona, along with wrappers and traces on her clothing. She was found guilty of possessing the drug with intent to sell.
Worse, it was her second conviction, and came only weeks after she had been placed on four years' probation. Several months earlier she was caught at Tucson airport preparing to board a flight to New York with 18lbs of marijuana stuffed inside a suitcase.
But the extreme severity of her sentence has astonished lawyers. She has no other criminal record, beyond one petty offence (forging a pounds 20 cheque more than 30 years ago). David Bjorgaard, her lawyer, said: 'There is only one other single crime under Arizona law that could attract a sentence like this - and that's first degree murder.'
The clear hysteria involved here, of mere drug possession resulting in the same punishment as first-degree murder should immediately make us recognise the absurdity of certain responses to what we call "crime".
Image Credit: Gts / Shutterstock
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