a bird and a bottle

Yep, that about sums it up.
April 13, 2007, 2:44 pm
Filed under: blogsturbation, civil rights, criminal justice, drug war, frivolity, politics

From Jamie Spencer, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer:

“Judges Can’t Sentence “Drugs” to Prison. Instead, they sentence people to prison. So let’s just be honest about it, and start calling it the ‘War on Drug Users’, OK?”

How right he is. Punishing drug addiction is unconstitutional since addiction is an illness, so we punish behaviors ancillary to drug addiction. But really, the war on drugs is a war on people who use drugs.

And, because of the sentencing disparities, mostly on poor people or people of color who use drugs. But to admit that might — gasp! — garner some sympathy for users and antipathy to the government’s approach to them. And we can’t have that.

via Coleslaw; cross-posted at LG&M.

17 Comments so far
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“Punishing drug addiction is unconstitutional since addiction is an illness, so we punish behaviors ancillary to drug addiction.”

Careful, Bean. I hope you don’t use this argument in court some day. Even in the pysch community, there is an aknowledged difference between an *explanation* versus an *excuse*. Drunkeness, for instance, may explain why a car goes out of control and hits a pedestrian; but alcoholism, either as a dependency or abuse disorder, does not excuse the defendant according to law. The disease model provides a rationale for understanding and treating a known disorder — to understand, for instance, how a past experience or trauma informs present behavior. That is the *explanation* part. Taking responsibility for one’s behavior is the other goal of clinical psych. Just because an abused child grows up and abuses another child, the transgenerational explanation is not an excuse. There must also responsibility and accountability for one’s behavior. That is the *no excuse* part. The debate should be about what constitutes appropriate public policy with respect to these offenses; but lack of accountability in legal terms, even for addictive disorders, is not a winning argument.

Comment by Swampcracker

Swampcracker, point well taken. But there’s also a difference between thinking that a pithy statement gets to the heart of a matter and deciding that it’s the be all and end all explanation of a cultural phenomenon.

And while you’re right that alcoholism, say, doesn’t excuse a person from drunk driving (and shouldn’t), there’s a huge difference between that and the War on Drugs, which is not about preventing crimes that cause harm to third parties, but about, for the most part, jailing instead of treating people with addictions.

Comment by bean

Okay, let me clarify. I agree that laws covering drug usage are draconian, that mandatory rehab is preferred over incarceration. I think what distinguishes these issues is when another crime takes place in conjunction with an addiction. From both a psychological as well as a legal perspective, there must responsibility and accountability otherwise any offender can get off on a factitious addiction claim.

Some time ago, I expressed an interest in covering Anorexia nervosa. The etiology of the disease has family origins, i.e., the relationship between sufferer and parent. Banning sufferers from runway modeling is not an answer because the practice would victimize the victim. In other words, treat the disease at the point of origin [i.e., the family], not subject the sufferer to public ridicule and shame.

What always concerns me is the lack of psych research when considering new laws, regs, or public policies. Political hacks seem to choose punishment models but never consider the clinical evidence. Therein lie the injustices of the legal system. More on this later.

Comment by Swampcracker


Thanks for clarifying. I now understand what you were saying on this one. And I agree wholeheartedly with your complaint that there’s not nearly enough psych (or other) research done on the effects of laws before they go into effect. It always seems to be “punish first, ask questions later.”

Also, I want to add that I haven’t forgotten about your interest in discussing anorexia nervosa. I think that body image is an important and continually timely topic (since it doesn’t seem to be going away) worth discussing on a feminist blog. I just haven’t figured out my angle in, and what to say that hasn’t been said a gazillion times before. Any ideas?

Comment by bean

This is one area where the clinical evidence has an all-important role. The lack thereof can severely damage the sufferer, which is why I am so concerned about this. I’ll try to gather some clinical data for you and pass it along.

Comment by Swampcracker

What needs more attention [and regularly gets it from the beautiful fabulous HBO show The Wire] are the bad behaviors ancillary to the illegality of drugs – all the murder and mayhem because of the unenforcability of a drug-business contract, except by violent means. Not to change the subject.

Comment by Phoebe Love

The moment conservatives started ridiculing the notion of treatment as just a way of coddling drug users, it stopped being a war on drugs.

Comment by Alon Levy

I wonder how the landscape of law practice would change should the war on drugs end and the war for addicts’ health begin – which seems to be the utopia come people hope for. I don’t mean a middle ground of something like drug courts, but rather if liability dropped away and was replaced by social projects unattached to legal practice. (The only certain effect I can imagine is an added reason to the list of why med school is more useful than law school.)

Comment by coleslaw

I don’t think it would look too different… at least, it doesn’t in the Netherlands, where marijuana and hash are legal. The Netherlands doesn’t quite do it that way – it has a more libertarian “Smoke whatever you want” policy – but that’s probably how it’s likeliest to end up in the US. Governments don’t have a good track record at managing social projects like this without controlling people’s lives, least of all the US government, with its draconian welfare rules and its creeping restrictions on pregnant women’s habits.

Comment by Alon Levy

Coleslaw, I’m glad you bring up drug courts. It pisses me off that they’re seen as a fix. They’re not. It’s still dragging people into the criminal justice system to deal with their addictions. Yet politicians love them because they can support drug courts and seem both tough on crime and thoughtful.

I think we need more funding for treatment, more treatment beds, and a more honest idea about what recovery looks like. With as little government prying into people’s lives as possible. Alon is right to point to the specter of welfare law in this one. In that field, the government takes a huge chunk of people’s privacy before it allows people to receive benefits. That’s not a good model either.

Oh, and I’m not sure there’s really any comparison in terms of usefulness between med school and law school. We lose big time.

Comment by bean

If it makes you feel any better, compare yourself to people in grad school. Sure, I get stipends, which means I’m going to graduate debt-free. But after I graduate I’ll have a fairly low chance of even landing a full-time job, and a far lower one of landing one at a less remote place than Oklahoma State.

Comment by Alon Levy

True enough. But combine my useful but expensive law school degree with SF’s PhD in art history (he’s currently dissertating) and you get…a lawyer and an art historian living in Kalamazoo in two years? Sheesh, I hope not.

Comment by bean

Well, maybe. Or you get an ACLU litigator and an art historian who can afford to live off her while racking up lucrative but unpaid fellowships. You have to admit, with a law degree you stand a far smaller chance of being stranded in a town that votes Republican than with a number theory degree.

Comment by Alon Levy

“lucrative but unpaid” — such a phrase could only come from a grad student/academic.

Comment by bean

Well, it’s true. There are a lot of fellowships that give you access to precious letterhead and can give you a springboard to a tenure-track position… if only you can find money elsewhere. Some people just get adjunct positions for the money and then fellowships for the letterhead.

Comment by Alon Levy

Alon-Levy: First, whatever “legalized drugs” looks like in the Netherlands, I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like what legalized drugs in the States would look like for a long, long while (if ever?). (There would likely be a hectic learning curve.) And otherwise, I suppose I meant my question to address something more like: how many of us would be out of jobs (crim defense/pros), into other already existing areas of law, or even into new areas of law that might arise due to full-stop legalization (drug contracts?). Alternatively, I’d guess the practice of law would change if only for how self-medicated us self-loathing lawyers would be… P.S., If once-illegal-drug transaction fields spring up, I call dibs on naming my firm “Steinberg, Cheech, & Chong.”

Comment by coleslaw

Coleslaw, I cannot even imagine what a fully legalized drug US would look like; my guess is that prosecutors would lobby against it but defense attorneys would be happy to have lower caseloads. Public defenders handle hundreds of cases a year because of our drug laws (well that and the lack of proper funding for the defenders themselves).

Comment by bean

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