Why do we punish drug users?

Seriously.  Really interesting NYT Q&A with a philosophy professor making a strong case for why we should not punish drug users (a positions with which, of course, I strongly agree).  Some highlights:

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.

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…

D.H.: I say that drug use itself is not substantially harmful becauselongitudinal 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.

Good stuff!  There may be a reasonable debate to be had on the selling of drugs, but one thing we sure don’t need to be doing is punishing people simply for using.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Why do we punish drug users?

  1. r. jenrette says:

    It’s that old Puritan strain in America. No pleasure can go unpunished unless it has a religious purpose. Punish the flesh and save the soul.

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