Peter Hitchens believes we can deal with the problem of drug addicts by punishing them more harshly and giving a greater deterrent than there already is, but there are serious flaws to this proposal. There are two myths the conservatives continually refer to when informing their beliefs.
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The first is that people’s behaviour can be so easily manipulated. When the prohibition of cannabis was introduced to America, the level of drinking rose. The Netherlands has one of the lowest cannabis use rates in Europe despite its legality there, and in Portugal when drug taking was sanctioned, the usage actually dropped. Despite these findings many conservatives are still convinced tough action works when it looks to do the complete opposite.
The second myth is that when people take drugs they’re making a rational decision, considering all the potential consequences equally and with the consideration of potential punishment included. As advanced primates geared for survival, our judgement is no doubt finite. We can never think of any action we make as one that efficiently considers all options, and at no other point are humans more irrational than when taking drugs.
The potential pleasure from certain drugs greatly exceeds anything our brains have evolved to deal with, so the pleasure centres of our brain can become overwhelmed at their lure. When people are addicted the drugs have hijacked the workings of their brain; the frontal lobes (the part responsible for ‘rational’ decision making) deteriorate and the limbic system, the pleasure centre found in all other mammals, gains more control, with pleasure from activities other than taking the drug your addicted to becoming minimal.
The addict becomes more animalistic, striving for the only thing that brings them pleasure with little in the way of sensible thought being able to stop them. How then would the prospect of punishment help them? The small consideration they are left to have about bad consequences is already devoted to the misery the addiction has already brought them, is the idea of a prison sentence going to make a difference?
This doesn’t just apply to those already using. If someone is considering taking a heroin, would they be likely to say ‘I was going to take smack, risking the likely chance of becoming hooked, destroying my ability to experience happiness, ruining my life and facing a potential lethal withdrawal, but then I considered that I might get in trouble with the law so thought against it.’ These people have found themselves in a hole and in the darkness find one route out, the prospect of punishment can’t be taken into account and such depths.
It is easier to say that with harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine the decision to use is irrational; the pain a user could suffer is more severe than any punishment a liberal society could reasonably offer and its effect on the brain diminishes rational thought, but what about the drugs such as cannabis and MDMA that don’t cause as much harm and don’t bring about the same addiction related neurological changes, could punishment deter these people? Perhaps, but if they’re not that harmful, why must we severely punish someone for using them?