25 June 2015

Police, Drugs, and Shame

Stephen Kershnar
The Police Should Feel Ashamed When They Arrest People for Drugs
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 23, 2015

Recently, there was a significant drug bust in Dunkirk. Earlier, there were the usual stream of SUNY-Fredonia students being ticketed or arrested for marijuana. At issue is whether the police, prosecutors, and related officials should feel ashamed at what they’re doing.   

Two weeks ago, The Observer reports that six Dunkirk homes were raided in an attempt to prevent people from distributing and using cocaine and heroin. A smorgasbord of agencies were involved in planning or carrying out the raid the houses including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Southern Tier Drug Task Force, Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office, Dunkirk Police Department, Fredonia Police Department, and county SWAT team. Six Dunkirk and four Buffalo residents were arrested. Money was obviously dumped into this effort.

SUNY-Fredonia’s paper, The Leader, reported that in one weekend at Fredonia State, eight students were arrested or ticketed for marijuana. Such tickets and arrests are a staple of college life at Fredonia.

Drug laws trample liberty. A free country leaves people alone. More specifically, a free country leaves people alone when they are not engaging in force, fraud, or theft. The idea that people should be left alone explains familiar rights, such as the rights of free speech, religion, association, property, gun ownership, and so on.

Philosophers differ as to why the state should leave people alone. John Stuart Mill argued that the state should leave us alone because it almost always makes our lives go worse when it interferes with them. John Locke argued that people should be left alone because such interference fails to respect the fact that they, and not their government, own their bodies and labor. Robert Nozick argued that such interference is wrong because people have a basic moral right to shape their lives according to their own vision, even if the government has a different vision.   

The right to be left alone doesn’t depend on whether someone is doing something that is good for him or his neighbors. It protects those who want to have an open marriage, drink copious amounts of alcohol, eat so much they become obese, get garish tattoos, or join the Westboro Baptist Church regardless of whether these choices are wise or whether they create the sort of community favored by mothers of young children. 

Part of being left alone is the right to put what you want in your body, whether it be tattoos, penises, or gallons of soda. This applies to drugs. No one seriously believes that the occasional use of some drugs (for example, marijuana) is very bad for you, but even if it were, the right to be left alone protects it anyway. Alcohol prohibition and drug laws don’t leave people alone. Instead, they treat adults as undeserving of control over what goes in their body and thus like children.   

There might be an exception to the right to be left alone for certain types of public goods. These are things that benefit nearly everyone and for which it is impractical to make people pay for their individual use of it. Examples include clean air, national security, and roads. This clearly doesn’t apply to drug and alcohol prohibition as it doesn’t benefit everyone. Also, people can have a drug-or-alcohol free life regardless of what others do and, hence, can individually pay for the benefit.  

Enter the police. In our system, the legislative and executive branches get to decide what acts are illegal and when they should be pursued. The police’s job is to do what higher ranking officials tell them to do. They don’t make the law, they just enforce it. Still, they should feel ashamed when their job requires them to trample on people’s liberty. My guess is that plenty do.  

By analogy, consider the police who had the unenviable task of enforcing alcohol prohibition knowing full well that in most cases alcohol consumption was harmless fun and, in any case, part of American freedom. They must have felt disgusted about what they were doing. If they didn’t, they should have. The same is true of those who got assigned to crack down on gay bars in New York City (see, for example, the Stonewall riots). Similar feelings should have been present in police who got stuck with the job of arresting people for buying or selling raw milk in the last decade, interracial sex and marriage in the 1960’s, or speaking out against World War I.   

The police’s feeling ashamed at what they do is not unique. Airmen who conducted Bill Clinton’s illegal war in Serbia might not have wanted to throw their career away, but knew or should have known that they were engaging in an illegal war (no declaration of war and no Congressional approval or funding). The same is true today for immigration and naturalization officials stuck with implementing Barack Obama’s blatantly illegal amnesty for illegal aliens. The assignment of morally distasteful tasks is true for many jobs, but it’s just more obvious when the distasteful task involves trampling on liberty.  

The drug prohibition crowd might try to defend what the police are doing by arguing that drugs are not something that free people should be allowed to use unless they get permission from a doctor, nurse-practitioner, or pharmacist. They might argue this because drugs are addictive, flow to children, or make people vicious. The same is true for alcohol and no adult thinker wants the U.S. to prohibit it again. More importantly, this defense involves a misunderstanding of liberty. There are less restrictive ways to prevent addicts from committing crimes or people selling drugs to children than a blanket ban on drugs and liberty always favors these less restrictive ways. By analogy, drunk driving can be prevented without criminalizing alcohol.

The drug prohibition crowd might argue that it is the police’s job to stop people from using drugs and, in the past, alcohol. I agree. I’m merely arguing that they should feel discomfort, if not shame, when doing so.  

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