The Moral Divide – Human Rights for Drug Dealers?
The Norwegian drug reform is underway. In this context, human rights have gained prominence, and the Royal Commission has elaborated on the international trends.
The drug law is definitely in trouble. Not only does the report of the Royal Commission detail how public panic has shaped the legislation, but it also shows how this phenomenon is receding and how; as a result, drug policy conventions have gone from being interpreted in the light of a drug-free ideal – and prohibition as a suitable strategy – to emphasising reality and the intention to protect public health.
The prohibition of drugs has made matters worse in this area. Rather than reducing supply and demand, it has led to additional side effects, and the Royal Commission, therefore, concluded that punishment is problematic.
Crime and punishment
For punishment to be acceptable, certain conditions must be in place. There must be a meaningful relationship between the means and the ends, the criminal must be morally blameworthy, and the use of force must be necessary. This is fundamental to the rule of law, and the Royal Commission, therefore, noted that punishment in this area was increasingly frowned upon.
What does this mean for the persecuted groups? It is one thing that illicit drug users should no longer be punished: As more and more people discover the irrational distinction between legal and illegal drugs, they see the hypocrisy of putting illegal drug users in jail while those who put them there are alcohol drinkers and smokers. But what about manufacturers, sellers, and others involved in the drug market? How about those with more than a few grams? Do they have relevant rights?
It remains to be seen. It was controversial enough for the Royal Commission to look at the rights of drug users, and to avoid this issue, the Royal Commission defined a moral distinction between use and sale.
Thus, the question becomes whether this distinction can be maintained with any credibility. Normally, whether it is alcohol, tobacco, sugar, chocolate, axes, or knives, it is the abuser of a product who is blamed. While all these products have a potential for misuse, it is absurd to charge those engaged in trading goods with what the customer does, and yet the opposite is true of illegal drugs. In this area, the law of supply and demand is distorted into one of victim and aggressor. “Drugs” become the common denominator for an enemy image that is not subject to due criticism, and so arises the idea of the drug shark and his prey, the helpless addict.
Based on this reasoning, the drug law is sustained, and there are severe penalties. Prohibition was created to protect society from the assault of international cartels, but not one true kingpin has gone to prison. In fact, around $500 billion has been laundered annually for several decades without the key culprits being revealed. Instead, it is often drug users or the friends and family of the users who get caught in the crossfire. This week, for example, a mother of three was arrested for accepting a large delivery of drugs. We must ask whether it is appropriate to let her children grow up with their mother in prison for the next 15 years.
What is the collective gain? What crimes has she committed against the society that an average goods-trading employee has not? Is it her fault that the youth is being corrupted? Is it her fault that the drug economy is connected to so much war and misfortune, or is it the politicians who have really failed?
We must dare to ask these questions. While politicians have ramped up the drug war with an oversized enemy image, more and more sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers have been grabbed by law enforcement. Prisons are filled with the nation’s poorest and most unseen groups instead of demons, and we need to reconsider the legality of drug prohibition.
It is, after all, a principle of law that the more severe the punishment, the stronger are the government’s obligations to the persecuted. The state has yet to acknowledge this. Instead, the demonisation of drug sales continues and since most users also sell to their friends and acquaintances, the issue is highly relevant.
The simple framework that politicians want to provide, which is to decide whether drug users will be subject to the Ministry of Health or Justice depending on the amount of drugs found, falls on account of its own arbitrariness. Not only is the attempt to maintain an absolute moral/human rights distinction between use and sale problematic, but it is also the result of a need to uphold – as well as perpetuate – the scapegoat mechanism that has been a prerequisite for the credibility and popularity of the prohibitionist crusade. It is an approach that relies on unconsciousness to survive.
Indeed, there are countless examples of illegal drug users being exposed to abuse that we would not accept against tobacco or alcohol users. There are also as many examples of us accepting the persecution of the sellers and producers of illegal substances that we do not accept for the sellers and producers of tobacco or alcohol. Thus, at this point, we are obliged to look closer at the law.
In fact, our justice system does not even accept such severe punishments for paedophiles or other rapists; even murderers often get away with milder punishments than drug offenders. Therefore, it is easy to see that we are dealing with two types of morality.
This double standard reflects the extent to which we, as a society, have been misled by public panic. It is the result of two completely different types of logic, and unless the proponents of prohibition can justify their position, this is incompatible with the principles set out in our constitutional tradition. The state will have the same problem with human rights as other corrupt regimes and the oppression of drug law violators will be another version of arbitrary persecution. Thus, it is to be hoped that society dares to face the prevailing lack of consciousness.
Originally published in Klassekampen 22. juni 2020