Friday, January 11, 2019
The War on Drugs, and the conundrum of laws versus human nature
My blog post yesterday, 'So much for drugs being a "victimless crime" ', attracted numerous commenters. Some waxed almost vitriolic about how stupid I and others were being for not understanding that human behavior is a constant, and one can't legislate morality (or words to that effect). I won't repeat them here, but I invite you to click over to the earlier article and peruse them for yourself. When you're done, come back here and continue reading.
I suppose commenters there can be divided into two main groups. The first are those who believe that there is absolute good and absolute evil; things that are intrinsically right or wrong. (I fall into this group.) Drug abuse would fall under the "intrinsically wrong" category. Therefore, measures to discourage and/or prohibit drug abuse are essentially moral, and exist for the good of society. (Note that this view does not specify what measures are good or bad, effective or ineffective. I'll be the first to agree that many of the laws, regulations and measures enacted in the name of the War on Drugs have proved to be very damaging to society, and need to be ended. Nevertheless, I agree with the need for a legal prohibition on the illegal use of narcotics.)
The second group might be called libertarians, to a greater or lesser extent. They argue that the abuse of narcotics, or alcohol, or anything else, is inevitable, because some human beings simply roll that way: therefore, to prohibit it is to defy human nature, and doomed to failure from the start. Therefore, they argue, there should be no such laws - or, at least, the laws should punish behavior while under the influence, but not the use of the mind-altering substances themselves. Some argue that to think otherwise is evidence of a belief system, a closed mind, rather than an understanding of reality.
I suspect the real problem is that neither side of this debate is willing to accept that there is no "hundred per cent solution". Yes, laws on drugs can never succeed in eliminating the problem, human nature being what it is; but they can reduce the scale and scope of the problem. I've personally spoken to many drug users (and a few dealers) who were "scared straight" by an encounter with law enforcement, or some other official intervention. Sure, such encounters don't work for all of the people, all of the time; but they do work for some of the people, some of the time. To my mind, that makes them worthwhile. If the laws are too onerous, or are applied in a way that prejudices society more they should, then we should by all means reform those laws. (So-called "asset forfeiture" is a prime example, as are no-knock raids where the officers concerned make no effort to avoid injury to innocent persons or damage to innocent people's property). Those things are bad, and should be stopped. However, that should not prevent more worthwhile efforts and interventions from proceeding.
Those of us on the more "law and order" side of the spectrum will also have to accept the truth of the libertarian argument that, human nature being what it is, we'll never succeed in eliminating the drug problem by diktat. Our society is not prepared to accept the level of official violence that would be needed to do so (and people like myself are not prepared to accept it on moral and ethical grounds), so it's a non-starter. We shouldn't fool ourselves that efforts to prevent or discourage illegal drug use will completely succeed. On the other hand, I think if we targeted our efforts to tackle areas where intervention has proven to be most effective, we'd improve our success rate overall; and by curtailing efforts in areas that have proven to be less successful, or more onerous to society, we'd reduce the burden that the War on Drugs has come to represent.
I suspect the Pareto Principle (the so-called "80:20 rule") applies. Most of our success will be achieved by just a few targeted, highly effective programs. We need to put our effort behind those programs, and push them hard, because that's where we'll achieve the best results. The remainder of the programs, needed to achieve the last 20% of success, will probably require much more effort for a far smaller return - and, in doing so, they'll probably affect society negatively to a much greater extent. Should we not be willing to let go of those elements, and concentrate on what works best?
As for libertarians and those opposed to legislation, what about trying the same approach? Given the reality of human nature, why not support programs that don't deny it, but seek to channel it into avenues of self-interest and "what's good for me"? They would include drug education, diversion programs for those who haven't gone too far down the path of addiction to be helped, health care for those still able to benefit from it, and support for law enforcement in tackling the supply side of the problem. Would it really be anti-libertarian to do that - and, even if it would, is ideological purity worth the cost to society in this case? Why not be willing to negotiate and compromise on, say, 20% of your principles, if it would achieve 80% success? If the other side is also willing to do so, wouldn't that be a win all round?
We have to stop talking past each other, acknowledge that each perspective has at least some right on its side, and find common ground. If we don't, we won't be part of the solution: we'll be part of the problem.