Compassion versus punishment in the War on Drugs

America’s War on Drugs is often a sticking point in conversations I have with my fellow Christians about the moral superiority of liberty. When I suggest that the War on Drugs is both impractical and lacking in compassion, the standard response is invariably something close to this: drugs are bad so they should be against the law, and if you break the law, you should go to jail. Some are reasonable enough add that the criminal justice system is inhumane and that we need to reform the War or Drugs, or supplement it with a greater focus on drug treatment, with the implication that they mean more taxpayer money spent on treatment run, approved, or funded by the government.

It says something profoundly troubling about American Christians that the best response you can usually hope to get is that someone else should try to help addicts—and bear the cost of doing so, while most seem to be quite OK with continuing to punish them. That’s not surprising given that, informed by a casual reading of Romans 13, the default position of most Christians toward the secular law of the state is that it is a divinely ordained instrument of enforcing on society law and order based on their understanding of Christian morality. But in cases where the state’s law clearly encourages us to take a non-Christian view on something, why don’t we have the imagination to see that maybe it might be the law that’s the problem?

In the case of drug use and addiction, I think the issue is the natural desire to make oneself feel somehow better or more secure by putting others in an unfavorable light when comparing them to ourselves. If we don’t have any contact with drug users (as far as you know—many people would be shocked to learn how many regular users of illegal drugs who function just fine) it makes it easier to avoid having to empathize with them, and allows us to feel that, even though we might not be perfect, at least we’re better off than them.

National Public Radio affiliate WAMU last week posted a heartbreaking story that illustrates what happens when someone who has this view is forced to reconsider:

A Drug Cop. A Daughter On Opioids. One Family’s Story Of Addiction. | WAMU

“I felt like I was doing God’s work, and then when it hit my own family I was in for an awakening,” says Kevin Simmers, a “veteran police officer.” Later in this story, he adds, “I believed wholheartedly that enforcement and incarceration was the answer to this, but then when addiction hit my own house I seen {sic} that that was not true…We need drug treatment, we gotta help the person.”

He cites a statistic, which of course may or may not be accurate, that only one in nine addicts can find drug treatment soon after they decide to seek it. One reason is, of course, that government programs—in this as well as everywhere else—crowd out more efficient private initiatives, especially faith based ones. Another is that an addicts are far less likely to seek treatment when it may mean discovery by the justice system that might decide instead to put them in jail and/or take custody of their children.

Simmers has, in addition to changing his harmful views on the War on Drugs, begun work on a project designed to help addicts like his daughter—an incredibly admirable endeavor. But how tragic that, like so many others, his change of heart—and mind—came only after witnessing drug addiction in the life of someone he knew and cared about.

To learn more about the War on Drugs, and why just about all conventional wisdom about it is wrong, start by reading Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days in the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari. You can listen to Hari’s appearance on The Tom Woods show here.