Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Timeout: Crime or Sickness?

Martin Langeland commented on my post, An Unfixable Law-Bug He said, "But why criminalize a health problem? Wrong approach all together. No way to turn that into a feature."

Before I continue my previous train of thought, I want to comment on this quote. I believe Martin is arguing that drug-related issues (marijuana at least) ought to be treated as health problems; if he's right, my implicit suggestion that the law should prescribe smaller penalties for these acts is just wrong.

I cited a small quantity of marijuana in my example (in the post). But there are many kinds of drug-related crimes, and I think that many of them should be treated as crimes. It's also possible that some drug-related recreation should not be criminalized at all. Criminalizing all drug use has actually produced the kind of law-flouting that alcohol prohibition generated in this country. A remarkable percentage of drug users swell our prison population, and drug-related profits fuel a lot of the worst violence in our towns and cities. It's amazing that, to us citizens in general, these two stories -- the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of drugs -- seem different enough to warrant different solutions. Wake up! They are remarkably similar, so why did the first one lead to decriminalizng, while the other does not?

I doubt that we worked out the ideal solution for alcohol either, after prohibition. We don't know how to moderate alcohol use, how to prevent drunk driving deaths, and how to prevent way-underage kids from drinking, to the detriment of society. Having said all this blather, I would like to share with you the insight I had, while serving on a grand jury:

Many of the crimes we voted to prosecute were against drug dealers. Sounds serious, doesn't it? But I'm talking about dealers who earn a hundred or two a week when they can get a supply. Tiny dealers serving customers with minuscule needs. The arresting officers told us how they identify a person as a dealer, and one of the things they look for is a small amount of cash (under a hundred), distributed among a person's pockets. I believe that arresting these dealers in a city tends to make the city a more lawful place, because it prevents dealers from staking out a part of the city and regularly working there, creating an area of lawlessness. But it does not cut off or slow the supply of drugs. The people who want these little regular hits always find another dealer. The USA has a terrible procedure for criminalizing drugs, and we make too many people go to jail and ruin their futures to keep the enormous drug business a little more tidy. Can't we think of some other way, and stop putting so many people in jail?

1 comment:

Martin Langeland said...

As you rightly point out, our societal attitudes towards drugs are very charged, emotionally as well as politically. Advocates for all sides are easily overwhelmed by passion. This is not the best way to hold rational discourse!
But after the forty or so years of the "war on drugs" I believe it is time to accept that it is a failed approach, just as the alcohol prohibitions of the early 20th century were failures.
The true bug is our failure to grasp this failure and wring from it a better, more positive solution.