Often people ask me; “how come you’re involved in recovery work, when you spent such a large proportion of your working life furthering the enforcement of drugs legislation and the punishment of addicts… doesn’t that create a conflict of interest or purpose?”
The simple answer, at least to the latter part is no but let me quantify this by answering the two-part question more fully; (1) My mind always questions (then and now) why someone would choose to make the ‘choices’ they make (actual or perceived), be they socially or criminally unacceptable and (2), there is no conflict, my personal drivers have always been to support and protect others on their journey through life. It’s unfortunate but as a society, we also have a requirement to create and enforce laws designed to bolster the protection afforded to the majority from a minority. And sometimes, we even have to at least try to protect individuals from themselves!
Unfortunately a consequence of this is; a good deal of the legislation on our statute books, despite being mostly developed and applied in good faith, can sometimes deliver long-term unforeseen and unexpected consequences. When you examine the legislation born out of our desire to combat the negative impacts that illicit substances have on our society – laws supporting the so-called ‘War On Drugs‘ – you will find a clearly documented and evidenced example of this.
If it wasn’t for all the international hidden political / financial agendas substantially involved here, history should have told most legislators that this ‘war’ was probably always destined for failure. Did US Prohibition of alcohol in the 1900s work? No, as many in the field of addictions will tell you, particularly in the USA; today America has some of the greatest negative social impacts contacted to alcohol, along with all the individual medical issues that alcoholism and addictions create… Of any nation in the so-called civilised world (see NIAAA statistics).
In March 2015 it was reported that; 30 Percent of Americans Have Had an Alcohol-Use Disorder – “America has a drinking problem, and it’s getting worse. A new study shows that 32 million Americans, nearly one in seven adults, have struggled with a serious alcohol problem in the last year alone” (Newsweek.com).
Add to that a 2005 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs & Crime which stated; “the global drug trade generated an estimated US$321.6 billion in 2003” and you should start to understand – money is a powerful driver! With a world GDP of US$36 trillion in the same year, the illegal drug trade may be estimated as nearly 1% of total global trade.
With most of those estimated ‘sales’ being made in North America (44%) and Europe (33%), yes, consumption of illegal drugs is widespread globally however; with such significant amounts of cash involved here, before you even start to consider all the personal morality and national political factors, will the arrest, conviction and possible incarceration of a few heroin users or the occasional spliff smoker ever constitute a significant decline in this “immoral” trade? Highly unlikely!
November 2016: The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world and there needs to be an end to all criminal and civil penalties for drug consumption and possession for personal use. – Global Commission on Drug Policy
Why would America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, realistically expect to see significant success in trying to legislate against the ‘illegal’ drugs trade any more?
In his book – CRIMINAL: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things – Tom Gash argued that; despite politicians on both sides of the political divide disagreeing wildly about the ‘best’ responses to crime, they actually share some common beliefs… They think that crime is essentially rational, a causation factor that is “deeply entrenched in popular consciousness, as well as political discourse.”
For left-wingers, it is a rational response to poverty. For those on the right, it is a product of greed encouraged by lenient punishments. As David Cameron put it in 2012, ‘Committing a crime is always a choice. That’s why the primary, proper response to crime is not explanations or excuses, it is punishment’. – Tom Gash
Based upon my knowledge and personal experiences around legislation and addictions, I have to agree with Tom Gash when he points out; “We need to study the psychological and cultural forces that shape criminal behaviour in action, rather than relying on crude ‘general rules’.” We also must remember that “those who commit crime don’t always consider the odds or make good decisions.” Often the strategy for policy makers is to blindly follow their pre-conceived strategic pipe-dreams and assume that ‘tougher sentencing’ will achieve the desired results…not so!
Punitive policies aren’t generally effective but when they prove not to be it becomes perversely tempting to prescribe more of the same. – Tom Gash
Many of our social, political and journalistic responses to crime (and the negative after effects), come from the perspective of personal and individual morality, as Gash says; “I so frequently notice that what I thought at first was an argument about evidence is in fact a debate about values.” You can’t realistically expect that anyone will ever hold exactly the same values that you do. Holding onto that expectation, when presenting your arguments, facts and figures in any debate, especially one so entwined in morality issues, will only ever result in your viewpoint being seen as a form of personal attack.
At this juncture I’m reminded of a well-known and well-used phrase from my Health & Safety days; “You can’t legislate against stupidity!”
OK, perhaps not very PC, a little crass or probably even seen as offensive by some however; it’s also a realistic assumption, and one usually born out of a wealth of experience.
Any attempt to place a blanket ban on an individual’s human right of choice will always be fraught argument and/or perverse outcomes. Who am I/you to tell another individual that their choice is wrong? Especially when you/I base that direction upon little more than our own brand of morality or personal beliefs.
No, far better that we aim to help and encourage people to make their own ‘informed’ decisions. Allow them to select what it is that they do / don’t do, based upon reasons which are ‘right’ for them and hopefully in the long-run, also the correct choice for those around them i.e. family, friends and our wider society.
In short, we need to help people to make the choices that, despite our morality or beliefs, they actually have the right to make. People may have chosen to use substances in the past for particular (actual or perceived) however; having made that choice then, they can also make a different one now and in the future… Choice, hope and belief are some of the relatively few things we can exercise and still own as individuals!
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Tom Gash: is an independent advisor, researcher and writer, who helps people to think differently about the big challenges facing governments and societies worldwide. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, and an expert adviser for the Boston Consulting Group.