Differences In Civic and Legal Attitudes Towards Drugs

I am constantly amazed at the differences between civic and legal attitudes towards recreational drugs.

i — A Thought Experiment

Assume Billy admits to using recreational drugs, and might even be excited about the prospect, speaking at length, with vigor, about their latest shroom trip or ketamine binge.

What do you do about this?

I expect that the answers to this question, for the demographic reading this blog, might vary from “I start hanging out with them less, I don’t like drug users” to “I ask them to hook me up”. Now think about your group of friends and relatives, assume that the same person speaks with them, I’d wager you’d expect reactions on a similar spectrum.

Maybe the most unfavorable reaction would be “I try to direct them towards a mental health clinic for help” or “I inform their friends and family to intervene”, though even that I’d expect from only the most extremely conservative of folk.

What I certainly don’t expect is reactions along the lines of:

  • I will call their employer and try to get them fired
  • I will call the local police department and try to get them arrested and persecuted for their crimes
  • I will cut all contact with this person, inform all of our common friends and acquaintances about their behavior, and cut out any of them that refuse to themselves cut contact

Well of course nobody would do that, common, were all reasonable people, even if they do something we disagree with why would we try to ruin their lives for it or judge them to be subhuman !?

Fair enough! Take a few more hypothetical:

Assume Billy admits to sometimes raping people, he might even be excited about the prospect, speaking at length, with vigor, about the time he sexually assaulted his prom date, or a recent victim of his late at night at the grocery store.

Or

Assume Billy admits to sometimes murdering people, he might even be excited about the prospect, speaking at length, with vigor, about the time he strangled a sex worker to death in the woods or the time he shot a homeless person in an alley.

Now, how unreasonable would those reactions sound? Presumably they have become the norm, and even the most spinless of people would report them to the police, and distance themselves from them. A morally righteous individual might even take justice into their own hands to some extent, and try to apprehend Billy until the police arrive, at the least.

I think these reactions would vary from person to person, but, by en-large, the divide would remain. Even the most despicable of humans, your violent mafia dons, gangbangers, white supremacists policemen, bioethicists and evangelical preachers, would probably react orders of magnitude more severely to repeated offenses of murder and rape, as opposed to class A illegal drug use.

ii — The Law

And yet, in all but the most civilized of countries, which is to say a handful of historically liberal and prosperous European ones, the sentencing for all three crimes are similar, at least on paper.

For example, here are they for NY (1, 2, 3), quick googling reveals similar numbers for more illiberal European countries and other NY states, with the trends in some Asian countries being that drug use is the most severe of the three.

I give murder and rape here as examples precisely because of the unanimous legal and moral condemnation they have. But you may have similar reactions if Billy was doing something that was legally much more innocuous, such as robbing homes, torturing dogs, frequently drunk driving, writing antisemitic pamphlets, cheating on their spouse, or practicing medicine without a license. All of which almost unanimously carry less severe de jure sentences than recreational drug use.

You could argue that anti-drug sentiments don’t exist in the population at large, and the existence of such law is simply the propagation of an unjust and undemocratic ruling class… and while this is true to some extent, most polls will find that somewhere between 20–50% of Americans support criminalizing drug possession, with the amount being smaller but still double-digits in most European countries, and higher in most Asian countries (though some might take the validity of those number into question).

This is in itself a rather odd thing. Most of the time capital crimes are crimes we all agree upon. We might have mixed feelings in regards to how we sentence murderers, with extremes ranging from death to many-year stints in hotel-like prisons with community interactions and mental-health support for rehabilitation, but the fact remains that about 0% of people would want murder to be illegal.

The same goes for almost all prison-worthy offenses, including non-violent ones like tax evasion. We generally all agree that they are punishment or rehabilitation worthy, even if we disagree on the exact nature of said punishment or rehabilitation.

iii — Self Boundaries

In itself, this might be an example of attitudes around self-boundaries. Since, if I think hard enough, I can come up with three similar examples of activities with very harsh sentencing, where the population remains divided upon whether or not they are criminals:

  1. Draft dodging, i.e. men denying the government the right to use their bodies as weapons.
  2. Abortion or abortion past a certain term, i.e. women removing a fetus from their bodies.
  3. Killing a man to protect your property

However, in both of these cases, there is a very clear reason as to why this divide is happening.

Conscription is a necessary utility for a state to exist, or at any rate, was until recent decades, and while most people understand it’s abhorrent on a moral level, they weigh this against its utility at a national level, and a lot of the weight the calculus towards the national level. This is helped by the fact that the law is enforced upon a minority, young able-bodied men, and most voters don’t have to worry about the law affecting them directly.

Abortion touches on the fundamental issue of when a human is to be considered “fully human” and whether unprotected sex is equivalent to a commitment to carrying said potential-human. This is helped by the fact that the law. This is helped by the fact that the law is enforced upon a minority, fertile sexually-active women, and most voters don’t have to worry about the law affecting them directly.

Killing someone who intruded on your property, be them a thief, squatter, or intruder of unknown motivations, is a somewhat equally contested topic. Though in this case, the issue is not over ownership over your body, but rather ownership over your property.

Other than that, the only examples I can think of illustrating such divides are now widely considered to be abhorrent, for example harboring persecuted groups(jews, roma, etc) in Natzi Europe and harboring escaped slaves in pre-civil-war America.

Drugs do fall into that pattern of being an issue of self boundaries, some see the usage of drugs as harming the nation as a whole, and as such, the liberty of doing so shouldn’t belong to the individual.

Yet, this doesn’t explain the attitudes of people when it comes to not personally holding such people liable and trying their utmost to get them arrested. There are ample cases of people reporting draft-dodging, abortions, harboring of persecuted groups, and so on. You can I, of course, consider such people to be immoral and blame-worthy, but nonetheless, they represent and represented a large minority of the citizenry.

iv — A Problem Of Resolution

One issue here might be that of the resolution, namely that are laws aren’t sophisticated enough to reflect what people actually want.

I think that supporters of criminalizing drug use hold a stance around the lines of:

If a person is obviously incapable of caring for themselves, stealing money from their friend and family, committing misdemeanors, sleeping on the streets and have an obvious addiction problem, or consuming a given drug every day of their lives, they should be forced to choose between breaking that habit or going to prison.

While I and (hopefully) you agree that this stance is morally abhorrent, it does sound like a much more “reasonable” opinion, something I could see a large fraction of people believing.

Indeed, de facto this is how drug laws get enforced. I’m sure there are very few genuinely insane policemen, prosecutors, and judges that would send someone to jail for smoking a joint. But the vast majority of them would probably react with much more laxity.

The legal system will use drugs as an easy-to-prove offense to arrest people they seek out on more serious charges. It might also use drugs to remove homeless people and other “trouble makers” in the community with no prison-worthy charges besides drugs.

A policeman might scare the crap out of some kids smoking a joint, maybe even bring them in for the night to give testimony as to where they bought weed from, but they wouldn’t arrest them.

A prosecutor might sternly warn a student found in possession of psychedelic mushrooms, issue them a fine, and demand some information as to their origins, but they wouldn’t forward the case to a judge.

A judge might viciously insult a factory worker found shooting heroin, and might even threaten them with a few months in prison if they don’t pass some drug tests for the next year, but he wouldn’t throw them in jail.

In the process, some unlucky people, which happen to meet the most repugnant of individuals at all three levels, and don’t have the money to lawyer up and move the case to a more able-minded courtroom or pay the required bribes, might get a life sentence for a harmless act. But this happens rarely enough that we all shrug at it as being a bureaucratic tragedy rather than the purpose of the system.

Yet, de jure, this is the exact purpose of the system. It is only because of goodwill from all parts of society, including those enforcing the law, that we are currently not engaged in a genocide against recreational drug users, instead, we are simply denying the right to life to a few of them who are too poor and unconnected for society at large to notice.

The question of why this lack of resolution exists defeats me. It might just be that law and their interpreters are too outdated to parse anything more complex than existing laws. It might be that it’s politically unfavorable to do the “obvious thing that everyone would agree on” and make the law reflect reality. It might be that drugs have become such a good proxy for criminalizing activities we as a society dislike, that removing the proxy would require thousands of pages of new laws and a complete reworking of policing.

I for one don’t know, but remain stumped by this issue, and stumped at the general lack of care around it. Then again, part of me is stumped and understands that the only ethical thing I could do is to dedicate my life to correcting such an atrocity, while another part of me understands that the chance of it affecting me or anyone I care for is so slim, that I feel completely unmotivated to care at an emotional level. It’s yet another sad example of Newtonian ethics.

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George Hosu

George Hosu

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You can find my more recent thoughts at https://www.epistem.ink | I cross-post some of the articles to medium.