Why So Eager to Punish? The Police, Drug Reform, and Common Sense
(This article was published in Dagsavisen, December 23, 2000. It was a response to an article by Benedicte Bjørnland, head of the Police Directorate, which advocated for persecution and punishment)
While more and more people see punishment as unsuited for combating drug abuse, the police continue to insist on the need for coercive measures. Even so, principled thinking shows why the police is struggling to win the trust of youth and AROD recommends a perspective of human rights.
We believe that principles of equality, proportionality, self-determination, and a presumption of liberty offer perspectives that can help us overcome disagreement, and that those who oppose their influence have an agenda different from helping others. We, therefore, emphasize the need for a constitutional review of the drug policy.
Our constitutional heritage is based on principles that we have good reason to follow. When it comes to alcohol, we see the result in a policy that weighs the free will of the individual against society’s need for protection, and we adjust the policy to ensure that both viewpoints are considered.
It can be further discussed whether we should sell liquor in grocery stores, whether it is okay to ban the sale of beer after a certain hour, on Sundays, and so on. This is a healthy debate about where the line should be drawn when it comes to the individual’s right to self-determination and society’s need to reduce the harms of alcohol.
Still, we are not considering a prohibition on alcohol, precisely because we know that it created a fertile ground for organized crime, more toxic supplies, and a control regime offensive to the population. We also acknowledge that persecution is a serious matter and it is, therefore, better to regulate our passion for pleasure and other states of consciousness by means other than the police.
The opposite is true for illegal drugs. In this area, many people take it for granted that criminalization is vital to protect the citizenry. They also take for granted that they have the right to decide this on behalf of others. But why?
Why do the police insist on punishment for the users of illegal drugs, when we manage with less intrusive means against alcohol? And why is it so difficult to understand the suffering that accompanies coercion?
As more thoughtful police officers have noted, it is inconceivable to transfer this logic to young people who consume alcohol. When we all know that we will do better without this sanction, why does the chief of police insist on the need for punishment as an argument against drug reform?
Maintaining a liberal logic for legal drugs and a totalitarian logic for other substances does not make sense when we know that the distinction between the classes of drugs is meaningless. It is impossible to contest otherwise, and so why is it taboo to think holistically about the drug policy?
The responsibility of the Police
If the police seriously want to debate drug policy, it is important that they consider this and include human rights in the calculation. Only this way can we ensure a debate aligned with constitutional responsibilities, and, in this context, the question of decriminalization is a derailment: not only is it inherently contradictive (although it will be illegal to use drugs, people cannot be punished), but it is an intermediate solution that does not align with constitutional demands.
After all, from the constitutional perspective, it makes no sense to go from a regime of criminalization to infantilization and medicalization, without first examining whether there is a place for self-determination. This is the crux of the matter—and if human rights principles are applied, a regulated drug market cannot outright be excluded.
This can be difficult to understand for police officers who have distorted the law of supply and demand into one of victim and aggressor. In upholding the drug law, a policeman depends on the demonization of drug producers and drug dealers, and it is not easy to imagine that they too have a right to freedom.
Instead, as the police have a high stake in the matter, it is more tempting to disregard difficult questions and commit to the myth of the drug shark—the no-gooder who corrupts our young.
The Police Director is a supporter of this tradition. Likewise, the chief of police in the Eastern Police District, who recently authored an article boasting of parents paying tribute to the police for helping their drug-using children. Such stories are reminiscent of the homosexuality debate 50 years ago. Back then, worried parents would call the cops on sexually experimenting children, hoping that a sermon from the authorities would get them back on the right track.
The children themselves were not as grateful for the intervention; several took their own lives, and so it is today.
The fact that most drug users would much rather deal with their dealer than the police, speaks volumes. Contrary to the police claim, the vast majority hate to be stopped by the police. To a drug user, it is hypocritical to be denied free choice, as the drugs authorized by the state are far worse. That is why more and more drug users deny the authority of the law, taking their case to constitutional courts.
The fact that more and more constitutional courts are deciding in their favor should be a warning to the police as to where society is headed. Friends of liberty are on the march, and the police must one day issue a much more comprehensive apology than that given to gay people.
While the homosexuality ban was mostly dormant, the Norwegian police solve around 30,000 drug cases a year. With such persecution, it becomes crucial to address the problem of drug prohibition with the dignity that constitutional challenges require, and AROD encourages the police to look inside their own hearts and minds rather than perpetuate the sins of the past.
Confidence in the police depends on this. Historically, young people tend to oppose totalitarian tendencies and it is their job to challenge the status quo. The threat of punishment, therefore, not only promotes thrill, belonging, freedom and protest. It also contributes to the rejection of authority, as there are good reasons to resist immoral double standards.
This is the reason why the deterrent effect of prohibition does not have its desired effect; this is also why the forbidden-fruit effect is real, and the police can only undermine their position if they refuse to see the connection between constitutional principles and the drug policy.