27. December 2021

Drug Policy, Panic and the Rule of Law

The Norwegian Royal Commission has published its report. This report makes it clear that punishment is counterproductive and that obligations under the international law point in the direction of decriminalisation. This in turn has made many people fear for the future. Loud voices warn against the probability of more use and the need for a drug policy clearly anchored in the prohibition regime.

Still, the report of the Royal Commission not only reminds us that the persecuted have rights and that the state must show that the prohibition is necessary in a modern society; it demonstrates that the relationship to human rights has never been explored and that politics have been governed by emotions rather than reason.

These traits must be stressed. Words or terms such as ‘public panic’, ‘unbalanced views’, ‘misleading perceptions’, ‘misapplication of punishment’ and ‘reality-resistant iniquity’ summarise the development of drug policy. We are dealing with a debate characterised by ‘stereotypical representations’, ‘moral indignation and revenge urges’, one in which ‘scientific understanding of the drug problem has played a minor role’. The word ‘Panic’ is used several times, and the opposition to reform cannot be divested from these findings.

Indeed, what we see is a moral panic that continues to spread. We observe not only that the supporters of the status quo have great difficulty in accepting the destructive consequences of the prohibition but also that they are equally eager to distance themselves from principled reasoning. This is not coincidental since there is an axiomatic relationship between human rights crimes and moral panic: To the extent that panic informs politics, politics will have a problem with human rights principles, and the key to overcoming the skewed course of drug policy is to deal with the problem.

Therefore, if we really want a more wholesome drug policy, we must first recognise that policy fails because it is a continuation of the scapegoat mechanism, our tendency to blame individual groups for problems that are a collective responsibility. When we look back, this is the psychological incentive that has fostered the great misfortunes of mankind. It is this impulse that makes us accept totalitarian rather than liberal politics, and whether we are talking about the witch-hunts, Nazism or drug policy, the driving force behind it is the same.

In short, we are dealing with a denial of responsibility. This denial is rooted in the refusal to think through taboos because the more a society is characterised by totalitarian principles, the more difficult it is to accept. Instead, because it is easier to blame outgroups, people are seduced by enemy images such as ‘heathens’, ‘Jews’ or ‘drugs’, and the result is that the society becomes more and more unconscious — more and more Orwellian.

Hence, just as the average citizens of Hitler’s Germany did not doubt that something had to be done with the Jews, so the common man did not doubt that ‘drugs’ are a problem that should be fought by law enforcement. The collective weight of prejudice makes it easy to accept authoritarian perspectives, and the extent to which we ourselves are part of the problem is ignored. Instead, we leave it to the state to define right and wrong, the connection between freedom and responsibility is forgotten, and a language arises which is more apt to conceal than to uncover the truth.

This is the disease that society is struggling with — and the result is prohibitionism. The opposition to reform depends on a reversal of constitutional principles because that is how the status quo came into being and how the prohibitionists have always done their calculations. Nevertheless, as shown by the Royal Commission, this reversal is not morally acceptable. Instead, it is the result of an oversized enemy image, and its influence makes us indifferent to the suffering of others.

For this reason, a comparison with former totalitarian regimes will appear untimely to those trapped by the enemy image. However, the principles of human rights bring clarity and provide a greater context. This is why most people do not want to think in principled terms, as it demonstrates that public panic has taken hold of the society to a point where the legitimacy of state-orchestrated terror campaigns is taken for granted. We have also moved beyond that level of irrational fear where a majority, protected by law, intimidate the minority without good reason, and where government officials, to protect the status quo, systematically ignore the rights of the persecuted.

Hence, the rule of law belongs to a bygone era. The persecuted groups remain without an effective remedy, and in the end, only a truth and reconciliation commission can resolve the tension. Hence, the Progress Party (FrP), the Christian Democratic Party (KrF) and other political parties should work towards such a commission rather than promote outdated and stigmatising thinking. Constitutional commitments remain to be vindicated, and to the extent that politicians stand up for the rights of the persecuted, posterity will salute their courage.

(Published on 26 February 2020 in VG)


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