Tag Archives: Politics

Doing better than Decriminalisation

UNGASS2016 is rapidly approaching. On a more local level, an Australian Senate committee recently considered issues around recreational cannabis legalisation.

Discussion of the best way forward for drug policy is certainly in the minds of those advocating for reform this year. In an ideal world, it would on the agenda of political parties as they decide their policies for the next election.

A solution that does seem to crop up with some regularity, especially for cannabis, is decriminalisation. Essentially this would mean that for a given drug (or possibly all drugs), people caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs, and in the case of cannabis growing a small number of plants, would not face criminal charges. Rather, people would be subject to a range of civil sanctions including fines and/or community service, and are encouraged into counselling or treatment if appropriate. I have read here that many cases in the Portuguese decriminalised system are ‘suspended’, meaning that many people receive no penalty at all, but I’m not going to assume that this would happen in other contexts.

Decriminalisation is the official drug policy of the Australian Greens. Smaller parties such as the Australian Sex Party and Liberal Democrats have (in their own distinct ways) policies that tend to support legalisation, though in both cases, this seems only to extend to cannabis. Unsurprisingly, The Coalition and ALP are at the more conservative end of the spectrum, though I can’t speak for the individual views of party members & parliamentarians.

I want to talk about the idea of decriminalisation as it strikes me as a philosopher. What I’m going to argue is that decriminalisation, as an endpoint for drug policy, is based upon assumptions that are much less progressive than they seem (at best). Decriminalisation as an interim step on the way to legalisation, as argued by Julian Buchanan – that’s another matter.

What argument, in its simplest form, might support decriminalisation?

  1. Drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e.: via decriminalisation.

This might seem reasonable. But parts of this argument are distinctly lacking in nuance. Namely, the first premise – that drug use is harmful. Without any further qualification, a philosopher would reads this as ‘drug use is always harmful’. This is very strong opinion. Depending on the drug in question, it would be very difficult to show that this is the case. So we are now back to ‘Some drug use is harmful’. The argument still works, but the conclusion seems weaker somehow.

With the strong version of premise 1, reduction of drug use is always justified because it always reduces harm. If only some drug use is harmful, then aiming to reduce all drug use means reducing the incidences of drug use that are not harmful as well as the ones that are. Why is this a problem? Take a look at premise 3: ‘Harm should be minimised’. This is where the argument moves from what ‘is’, to what we ‘ought’ to do. Implicit in that statement is that minimising harm is a good reason for doing something. This isn’t to say it’s the only reason to do something, though (I’ll come back to this shortly), but it certainly fills the role of justification in this argument.

If reduction of harm is the only justification for an action then only harmful drug use is the proper target of state intervention. The only way this would not be true is if targeting all drug use – including non-harmful – was an effective way to reduce harms associated with drug use, which seems unlikely. If there are reasons, other than reducing harm, for reducing drug use, then they need to be included too and not left unstated. This might be that drug use, even when not harmful, is somehow immoral or unethical. Such ideas require their own justifications and are likely to be controversial.

Alternatively, someone could argue that all drug use was always harmful. This would require the net of ‘harm’ to be cast exceedingly wide, to the extent that it moved into metaphysical, spiritual or religious territory. This is, in my opinion, not a good way to formulate policy in a modern pluralist democracy, and would face the more serious problem of dealing with multiple subjective and unverifiable judgments regarding non-physical & non-psychological harms.

In any case, pushing too hard with health interventions would seem pointless. To use a specific example, most people in Australia who use cannabis, do not so with enough regularity to be considered dependant. Nor do the bulk of people who use it seem to experience significant mental health issues that can be attributed to their use. If we assume that people caught in possession of cannabis are a representative cross-section of all users, then it follows that most (but not all) people caught will not have significant dependence or mental health issues. If this is true, then any scheme that aims to send everyone caught with a small amount of cannabis to a counsellor or other health intervention would be misguided.

In the Portuguese system, if the defendant is not an addict, and will not submit to treatment or community service, then they can be fined. Without belabouring the point too much, fines have the potential to be regressive in that they impact most heavily upon the least wealthy. The ability to avoid custodial sentences, or even being charged in the first place, is already heavily skewed in favour of those with more disposable income, and any regime that further adds to this should face scrutiny.

Considerations of the practicalities of decriminalisation aside, there is one more flaw in the argument I’ve put forward. Even if all the premises are true (and I’ve argued that they aren’t), I made a tricky, and illegitimate, move right at the end.

Even if you agree that ‘drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible’, it does not follow that the only (or even the best) way to do this is via decriminalisation. A regime of heavy taxes and regulation (such as we have for tobacco), while far from my preferred option, would be in line with that conclusion.

The largest flaw, for me, is still the problem of harm. I can summon no good reasons to think that all drug use is harmful. Nor can I find good reasons for reducing drug use that are not somehow based in the concept of reducing harm.

Base on that, I think a more plausible argument would be:

  1. Some drug use is harmful
  2. Criminal sanction is harmful
  3. Harm should be minimised

Therefore, harmful drug use should be reduced with as little criminal sanction as possible – i.e: via legalisation, education and sensible regulation.

Let me be very clear, decriminalisation would be a vast improvement over the current state of drug policy in Australia. But to argue that it is the best solution – better than legalisation – is to rely upon at least one flawed idea, the worst of which is that drug use is always harmful.

photo credit: Great White Shark3 via photopin (license)

Do Australians Care About Personal Choice?

The Senate Standing References Committee on Economics is accepting submissions on one of several inquiries:  Personal choice and community impacts. The aim of this, ostensibly,  is to look into ‘measures introduced to restrict personal choice “for the individual’s own good”.’, (which actually sounds vaguely interesting).

The terms of reference cover a range of areas that I expected to generate some interest:

The economic and social impact of legislation, policies or Commonwealth guidelines, with particular reference to:
a. the sale and use of tobacco, tobacco products, nicotine products, and e-cigarettes, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
b. the sale and service of alcohol, including any impact on crime and the health, enjoyment and finances of drinkers and non-drinkers;
c. the sale and use of marijuana and associated products, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
d. bicycle helmet laws, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of cyclists and non-cyclists;
e. the classification of publications, films and computer games; and
f.any other measures introduced to restrict personal choice ‘for the individual‘s own good‘.

The submissions received so far are available for download, other than any that have been submitted confidentially or whose authors chosen not to be identified publicly.

Given some of the conversations I’ve had over the years, I would expect that many of these terms of reference would attract attention. Having perused the published submissions, it is pretty clear that, thus far, only (d) – regarding bicycle helmet laws – has many submissions – that are publicly accessible at least.

I wonder, what is behind this occurrence? Is it that only anti-helmet activists are contributing? Is it that all the other submissions, on other matters, are confidential? Personally, I find that a little hard to believe. We have not reached the deadline yet, so perhaps cyclists are just more organised than everyone else.

Assuming that the makeup of the submissions does not change between now and the 24th of August, I would like to know what is going on here. Perhaps other campaigners are reluctant to be politically associated with Senator Leyonhjelm, who was behind this inquiry. Or maybe they are more jaded than anti-helmet activists, having spent more time struggling to have their voices heard.

Or maybe, despite the fact that Australians seem to break such laws pretty regularly, most are not interested in challenging laws that exist to restrict their personal choice.

Ethical Living, Personal Choices and Political Change

I recently read Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change by Derrick Jensen. He argues that that individuals making environmentally appropriate choices as consumers is problematic for a range of reasons. He is particularly hard on the concept of simple living as a political act. I’m going to look at the reasons he gives, and then take the argument a little further. Many people, either explicitly or not, see simple living as a more ethical (or sometimes moral) choice of behaviour. I will show that this individualized concept of ‘ethical living’ is itself ethically problematic, though this conclusion depends on accepting at least some of Jensen’s premises.

So why does personal change not produce the results we might want? Jensen notes several instances where individual consumers, even taken together as a group, are not the major users of a resource or the major contributors to a problem. An example given is that consumers take shorter showers in reaction to water shortages, but that residential water consumption is only a small percentage of the total used – most going to industry and agriculture.  His article does not cite sources as such, but this seems consistent with the figures supplied by the USGS here. A similar situation exists here in Australia with agriculture  (if not manufacturing) using significantly more water than domestic consumers.  The point is that the actions of an individual, in this case, how long your showers are, are not what is causing the problem, directly at least. So in one sense, certain forms of individual action might be just plain ineffective at achieving their stated aims.

I think there is a bit more to this that it seems. In terms of effectiveness, and depending on what conditions you place on a hypothetical scenario, very different outcomes might be likely. Consider the idea, that personal change on that part of individuals can’t affect certain changes because it isn’t individuals who contribute to the bulk of the problem, whereas industry or corporations does. In a nutshell, even if all consumers cut back, industry rolls on and the destruction continues. However, I think this is a problem of degree rather than anything else. I have to ask, what is industry making and who are they selling it to? If enough individuals stopped consuming certain products, then surely the industries that support the manufacture of those products must either adapt or ultimately fail. So why don’t they? A large part of this in the cases mentioned above is that not enough around the world people stop consuming enough different products. Consider water use in the US. To reduce overall water usage, not only do consumers in that country need to use less water, but consumers everywhere need to stop buying products manufactured/grown using that water. Hypothetically, if everyone in the world had shorter showers but still consumed like crazy, we would still face water shortages. Alternatively, if enough people everywhere stopped consuming to a great enough extent, then maybe our showers could be as long as we liked. Where water use in agriculture is concerned, there is a possible Malthusian factor though – maybe we have too many hungry mouths to use less water. I would dispute that this is necessarily the case as it is at least possible that agriculture in the US could make more efficient use of water. A similar situation might obtain for problematic areas such as carbon pollution.  What should be noted is the sheer enormity of such a change in behavior and massive unwinding of our current economic system that it might entail. As I’ve speculated elsewhere though, degrowth does not have to be such a bad thing. Clearly if enough people stopped consuming enough different things, then something would change. So what is exactly is Jensen getting at?

Jensen presents further reasons why the approach of simple living as a political act fails.

The first is that it is based upon the idea that humans inevitably damage their environment. Now, I’m not an expert on whether or not this is, as Jensen states, a ‘flawed notion’. But I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that it isn’t necessarily true.This notion certainty assumes a very one dimensional and non-dynamic conception of ‘environment’ – as if it s a separate thing from us humans.

The second reason is that “it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual”. This is, I feel, at least slightly contentious, because while individuals are not directly responsibly for certain things, they do play a role in maintaining the political status quo. Yes, individual choices as consumers don’t lead to social change – but many people making these choices are quite happy with that arrangement and thus should bear some responsibility.

The third reason is that accepting the definition of ‘consumer’ as a political choice cuts off other legitimate avenues of social and political resistance. I am not sure if it is the case that if people think of their ethical and environmental choices in terms of them being one sort of consumer or another, that this leads to them eschewing other forms of political expression. But if it is the case that you think that your choice of bottled water or footwear makes a bigger difference to the environment than who you vote for, I’m intuitively inclined to say that you are mistaken.

The fourth reason given is a little more complicated. If every action in an industrialized economy is destructive and the best we can come up with is non-participation in this economy, then the ultimate form of non-participation must be death. (That’s my reading of it anyway). I’m not sure how to call this one. But I do appreciate that for some, the symbolism would seem quite compelling.

Jensen’s claim is that simple living cannot produce broad and deep social and political change. I think that if enough people everywhere lived simply enough, that profound changes would occur. In the context of a finite system, this must be at least likely. The point that Jensen is driving at, is whether or not simple living as one’s only political act will lead to widespread change. I’m not sure I can properly test this claim, but offer the following observation. Unless your choice to live simply, in and of itself and without any further political or social action on your part, convinces a lot of other people everywhere to live simply, then the answer must be that your act will not.

If your aim in living simply is to follow something like the Categorical Imperative, then it can seem like your choice is nonetheless justified. This is because if we universalize the choice to consume less, we have (for those who believe in degrowth at least) an acceptable outcome. However, if we universalize the idea that individual choices in consumption would be the only political act one would undertake, then we have a situation where adverse political and social outcomes are possible. Simple living does not, in and of itself, negate the possibility of fascist or feudal political systems – even if it did somehow achieve the desired environmental ends. And that is before we even include the possibility of the choices we make as consumers being subject to duress, structural restriction or manipulation. The disconnect between patterns of consumption and the political situation is a key weakness with the idea that if everyone just buys less everything will be OK. If you do not address the politics, then things might not be.

Likewise, a simplified utilitarian analysis of simple living  as the sole political act indicates that it is possibly problematic (even if we leave out the possibility of problematic politics). If we assume that the this act does not lead to positive changes, then surely it does not do much for ‘utility’, however you want to measure it. The utility of an individual act of living simply is different to the hypothetical utility of everyone living simply.

This is where the other key mistake in reasoning regarding simple living could be. If you live simply enough, then yes, it might well be the case that if everyone did it, that the environmental outcome would be positive. But they don’t, and they won’t just because you do. Unless there is reason to think that your choice will lead to many people making the same choice, you are not actually achieving much at all and it is a form of ‘magical thinking’ to believe otherwise. If you thing you have an ethical or moral obligation to hep the environment and this is the only thing that you do, I would argue that you have not met this obligation.

So there you have it.  If simple living – the act of an individual deliberately consuming less – is the only political act this individual undertakes, there is no guarantee that environmental, social or political changes will follow. This is because a reduction in consumption has to be very widespread to even have a chance at achieving these aims and it is unlikely to become widespread without additional political or social action. In addition, cutting oneself off from political participation, except for choices in consumption, even if it were widely adopted, would be no protection against adverse political and social outcomes. The effects of your choice as an individual, or even a large community, should not be confused or conflated with the hypothetical effects of everyone living as you do.

None of this means that there is no point to living simply and sustainably, and being more mindful of what you consume – it’s a choice that many people enjoy and it does help. But, by itself,  it only helps a little. If you desire political or social change, or if you think you have a deeper ethical or moral obligation to the environment, then (at a minimum) you need to convince more people everywhere to live as you do. This means that your choices as a consumer are no longer your sole political act. And this, I think Jensen would agree,  would be a good thing.