A few weeks ago I asked whether there was a good argument that those who harm themselves by taking drugs should be imprisoned for doing so. I didn’t open comments, but did invite email comments. Few took up the challenge, although Thom Brooks discussed this on his own blog and sent me his remarks. Thom didn’t attempt to justify punishment, although he did express an aesthetic preference for seeing drunks, rather than junkies slumped in the streets. I suppose I agree if the drunks are healthy looking office workers or teenagers after a night on the town (and in Newcastle, where Thom lives, this is a common enough sight). However if we are talking about street drinkers I find this a harder one to call. Yesterday my tennis game in Lincoln's Inn Field in Central London was accompanied by the random, shrill, highly abusive jabberings of a toothless alcoholic. The junkie on the next bench was comatose.
The issue has come to prominence in the UK with a front page story in yesterday’s Independent which summarises findings from a report attempting to order drugs in terms of the harm they do.
Current regulations place illegal drugs into three classes of seriousness, ordered, presumably, by the panic of the minister in charge of regulations when a new drug is discovered. Sometimes classes change. Cannabis was downgraded to Class C fairly recently. The existing classes correlate badly with the new list, ordered by a combination of harm to the individual and harm to society
No surprise to find heroin (Class A) at number one in the hit parade, with cocaine (A) following. Then come barbiturates (B) and street methadone (A) and then alcohol (legal). The rest of the list runs Ketamine (B), Benzodiazopines (C), Amphetamines (B), Tobacco (legal), Buprenorphine (C), Cannabis (C), Solvents (legal), 4-MTA (A), LSD (A), Methylphenidate (B), Anabolic Steroids (C), GHB – liquid ecstasy (C), Ecstasy (A), Alkyl Nitrates (legal), Khat (legal).
One hopes that this will help inform future drug policy.
What, then, about my question about punishment? The best argument I can think of is loosely adapted from an argument given by Warren Quinn; that the right to punish derives from the right to threaten. If I have the right to threaten you with punishment in order to protect myself, then that threat would be idle unless I could actually punish you if you attack me. Therefore the right to punish is needed to make the threat effective. By extension, if government has the right to protect me from myself, then it may have the right to threaten me with punishment to deter me from doing bad things to myself. If I then do those bad things to myself the government, reluctantly, should punish me, because otherwise it would show that its threats are empty, with no deterrent effect.
Another way of thinking about this is that punishing people for harming themselves is perplexing on a retributive theory of punishment, but makes perfect sense on a deterrence theory. First, though, we should make sure that the behaviour we want to deter really is worth deterring. This is why information such as that reported in the Independent is so important.