Norway’s decision to push drug felons through treatment is a huge step forward.
The question of whether to punish criminals or attempt to reform them is not new. While some are for maximum enforcement, including solitary confinement and the death penalty, others take the more humane route of trying to rehabilitate criminals to integrate back into society.
This question is especially heated when discussing drugs. America’s war has been a continual failure, from crack in the eighties through to opioids today. Defining what a drug is, how it can and can’t be used, and who can use it has proven to be more about politics and corporate interests than biology. Sugar is the most potent and deadly drug on the planet today, yet it is widely available, cheap, and celebrated.
So integrated into the fabric of society has sugar become that even the mention of it as a “drug” is certain to incite scoffs and sneers. We know alcohol is a drug, yet since it’s also wildly sanctioned (and wildly taxed) we consider it not to be that bad. Ditto cigarettes, even if those two kill hundreds of thousands more people a year than marijuana. Pull back far enough and everything we ingest is a drug, since everything results in a chemical reaction in our bodies.
Some countries are realizing this. Norway recently voted to completely decriminalize illegal drugs, as well as send offenders through treatment instead of prison. While parliamentary support for this bill has passed, it still must find its way through the government.
Sveinung Stensland, a deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, commented on the decision:
The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: Those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.
This is no sudden decision; Norwegian politicians have been debating this for years. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in HIV infections, overdoses, and drug-related crime. In 2001, for example, HIV infection affected 104.2 new cases per million; by 2015 that number had dropped to 4.2 cases.
Another big reaction was in social stigmatism. As The Guardian reports:
The language began to shift, too. Those who had been referred to sneeringly as drogados (junkies)—became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs” or “people with addiction disorders.” This, too, was crucial.
João Goulão was one of two men behind Portugal’s first CAT (Centros de Atendimento a Toxicodependentes, a rehab facility) in 1988. He helped draft legislation for decriminalization in 1997. He notes that Portugal is a conservative country. The decision was more financial and social than about liberty and freedom. But drug use in the eighties and nineties had spread to affect every family in the nation:
There was a point when you could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’
Twenty years later American families are struggling with an opioid epidemic that is still gaining force—fentanyl deaths increased 540 percent between 2014-2016. The 2017 data so far are not promising.
It is well known that Richard Nixon tied addiction to crime in order to suppress minorities and political radicals in the seventies. That mindset forced American legislators—and the American public—to relate certain substances as bad and others as good, or least benign. Since opioids are tied to the white working class, there has been much criticism of opioids being treated as an opportunity for compassion and understanding while crack, an inner city problem, was seen as a blight to be eradicated.
Full decriminalization might be the only way to sift through the scattered and conflicting reports on how substances act in our bodies. By understanding what drugs do and how they are either helpful or harmful, we can make appropriate decisions on how to treat their users.
Psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD—all considered Schedule One substances, meaning they supposedly have no medical value—are proving to be clinically relevant for treating anxiety, depression, and end-of-life care. Marijuana is quickly becoming decriminalized on a state-by-state level as the positive effects of cannabinoids continue to roll in.
Norway’s decision to push felons through treatment is a step forward, though hopefully more detailed consideration of what drug each person is caught with will be taken into consideration. Heroin makes for a good candidate; marijuana, not so much, unless abuse level is truly crippling. That’s the problem with blanket regulations on disparate substances: you’re unfairly equating dissimilar drugs.
That said, progress is progress. Let’s hope America follows suit. First decriminalization, then a government-funded increase in technology and sugar addiction centers to combat our two main culprits.
One can dream.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Here's what Israel Guillen learned about life by studying 8 hours a day during his 22-year prison sentence.
Being "tough on crime" doesn't work. Former inmate Israel Guillen is proof that what does work is nurturing people's sense of humanity through philosophy, theatre, and teamwork. Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them training to understand and manager their emotions. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Israel Guillen. Israel recently shared his personal story of what he learned throughout his 22-year prison sentence at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.
Malcolm Gladwell does a post-mortem of the U.S. presidential election, speaking to issues of sexism and moral licensing, and makes a bold prediction.
This election was one for the record books. Donald Trump became the president of the United States with a solid electoral victory despite a loss in the popular vote. The statistical data is still coming in, but interpretations of it exist already.
Two days before the election, English-Canadian thinker Malcolm Gladwell discussed his interpretation of the election up to that point, and offered his shocking prediction of what will become of President Trump. Mr. Gladwell is a well known author, with works on crime, psychology, and the viewpoints of dogs.
He suggests that this election is going to be recalled as strange in every way. One in which the “elite” candidate was born in the middle class and the populist was born a millionaire. "One guy is the child of privilege who grew up in a multi-million-dollar household, and has every advantage handed to him on a silver platter," Gladwell says. "The other is a woman who came from the most ordinary of circumstances." One in which pending lawsuits were given less airtime on major networks than criminal investigations which never materialized. Where coverage of those lawsuits earned more time than discussion of issues. One in which the winning candidate “caught ten different breaks.” An election so odd, he feels the confidence to say “This is not going to happen again."
The boldest statement he made, however, is his prediction that Trump “will be in jail within a year”. Citing the various lawsuits for fraud in cases such as the Trump University suit that the President Elect finds himself dealing with, Gladwell supposes there will be “criminal charges” forthcoming as well. Such a situation would be nearly unprecedented; the only comparison would be to Watergate, which did not occur to an incoming president but to one that was re-elected in a landslide two years prior.
[Before the election results were in, Harvard psychologist Susan David came to the Big Think studio and questioned the media's role in normalizing Donald Trump's hate rhetoric. Should journalistic ethics override human ethics?]
He suggests a reason that this election has been going as it has: the idea that our election of a black president has given many of us a blank moral check. This idea is called “Moral Licensing”. Having taken a positive action, we grant ourselves the freedom to act in a less moral fashion at a later time.
In this case, Gladwell suggests: “Having taken the extraordinary step of electing a black man as president… Americans feel free to indulge every dark impulse inside their hearts, because they think they have proven to the world how open minded they are... I think there is something to that theory.”
He also sees this election as a frank statement on the condition of our views of women in power in the United States. To an outside observer, it demonstrated that Americans would not vote for a woman of a particular description. In this case, one who was honest in her desire for power, who was more aggressive and less modest in her disposition than seems becoming for a woman in politics. "To me, the most disturbing lesson about this election is that the United States is a good deal less open to women in positions of power than it would like to pretend that it is," he says.
Mr Gladwell offers us an interesting view of what the election says about Americans, not all of it is good. He suggests that the only way to explain the number of breaks that Donald Trump has seemed to have in this election is by way of sexism. A sexism that reflects on Americans in general. It shows to him that the American media is more concerned with story than substance, and that the nature of this election will be recalled for years to come.
Watch the full interview here.
Can you legislate for good human behavior, or does proposing laws to imprison those who use racial slurs distract from actual progress?
Last week, the South African government proposed a draft law to criminalize hate speech. The proposed law would place a first time offender in jail for up to three years, while a repeat offender could be sent for up to ten years. Currently, South African law allows for hate speech to be dealt with as a civil issue; last month a judge ruled a man who used an epithet in an argument owed the insulated party 7,000 U.S dollars.
The incident that prompted the drafting of this law, in which a woman lashed out at black police officer with the word “kaffir”, a slur on par with the “n-word” in South Africa. A video taken of the incident has spread like wildfire on the internet and sparked condemnation from all elements of South African society. Of course, the proposed law also has portions of South Africa in a similar uproar.
The proposed law would define hate speech broadly, as: “direct or electronic communication that advocates hatred, incites violence or causes contempt or ridicule”. Critics of the law suggest that it will do little to curb racist sentiment while eroding the freedom of expression. The director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Tusi Fokane, said of the proposed law: “You cannot legislate for good human behavior; you cannot legislate for social cohesion”.
But why does this idea trouble us so? What about the idea of Free Speech makes us uncomfortable with regulation of hate speech?
Most Americans are familiar with a Millsian idea of free speech. In his work "On Liberty", Mill proposed that the only limit to personal freedoms that can be justified is a restriction on activity which causes harm to others. This restriction is called, simply enough, the “harm principle”.
For Mill, as for many people, this means that the only speech that can be limited is that which would directly and immediately cause harm to others. An idea incorporated later into American law by the Supreme Court as the “clear and present danger” and the “imminent danger” standards.
Mill tied his idea of free speech to the Utilitarian notion of the greatest total happiness as a goal of the state. While some speech is false, misleading, or even detrimental to society, the banning of it would be worse. We are made happier in the long run, he supposes, by allowing objectionable speech in all instances where it causes no harm.
However, while America only tends to regulate speech that is an immediate danger to others, many other nations have laws that go further. Many countries in Europe have laws against denying the reality of the holocaust in public speech. Canada and several Western European nations already have hate speech listed as a criminal offense.
There is evidence that the use of hate speech causes real harm to the targeted groups. Work by the American author Mari J. Matsuda has argued that hate speech can cause “direct physical and emotional changes” in targeted groups. If this is the case, and the data suggests that it is, the “harm principle” would support the prohibition of hate speech. The idea that certain treatment can cause lasting harm to a group was the basis of the ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education, with the court ruling that discrimination "generates a feeling of inferiority as to... status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
The debate also raises old questions about power distribution in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid the ultra-majority black population has held political power. However, cultural and economic power remains in the hands of the less than 10% of the population that is white. Critics suggest that the law will not only do little to reduce prejudice, but may even divert attention from structural issues promoting racism across the country. Issues which go beyond the use of slurs.
South Africa is a country with deep-seated racial tensions, and the recent incident is but one of many similar events to plague the nation over the years. The recent discussion to limit free speech with regulations on hate speech has ironic echoes of the extreme social conservatism implemented to help enforce apartheid, for example: television has only been available there since 1976. The discussion of how free speech should be is relevant not only there but everywhere.