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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, April 09, 2012

War on drugs has failed - Latin American leaders

The Guardian reports that Latin American political leaders are increasingly concluding that the war on drugs has proved counterproductive in its effects on human welfare, and that some leaders will be calling for alternatives to prohibition in a summit to take place in Cartagena, Colombia. One example is Otto Pérez Molina:
Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, who as former head of his country's military intelligence service experienced the power of drug cartels at close hand, is pushing his fellow Latin American leaders to use the summit to endorse a new regional security plan that would see an end to prohibition. In the Observer, Pérez Molina writes: "The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that global drug markets can be eradicated."

Pérez Molina concedes that moving beyond prohibition is problematic. "To suggest liberalisation – allowing consumption, production and trafficking of drugs without any restriction whatsoever – would be, in my opinion, profoundly irresponsible. Even more, it is an absurd proposition. If we accept regulations for alcoholic drinks and tobacco consumption and production, why should we allow drugs to be consumed and produced without any restrictions?"

He insists, however, that prohibition has failed and an alternative system must be found. "Our proposal as the Guatemalan government is to abandon any ideological consideration regarding drug policy (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach to drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that drug consumption and production should be legalised, but within certain limits and conditions."
Importantly, Barack Obama will be attending the Cartagena forum.

Unfortunately, decades of hysterical anti-drug propaganda now make it difficult for politicians to introduce any but the mildest reforms. Drugs have come to be a moral issue in many people's minds, and there is a popular view that it is the role of governments to enforce morality, rather than to protect and promote the ordinary welfare of their citizens (and relevant others). If we combine an acceptance of legal moralism with the view that using certain drugs is inherently wrong, we end up with bad policy that does more harm than good.

I'm pleased to see so many influential people coming to their senses on this - it was predictable decades ago that the war on drugs would do more harm than good - but the question is where the world's political leaders go from here. It won't be easy turning around the (largely) successful attempts, over many, many years, to demonise most recreational drugs. There's no real choice, though, but to start trying.


Timothy said...

I'm curious - What would you say to someone who thought that using drugs was a moral problem? How would you convince them that it wasn't, or that their entire concept of "moral problems" was a little off?

I guess I shouldn't say that I'm asking just out of curiosity; I'm sure I'm going to have this argument with someone at some point.

Tim Martin

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think it's the role of the state to enforce morality - which could take it into such areas as attempting to work out what acts offend God, what kinds of conduct will conduce to spiritual salvation, etc., etc. I think the role of the state is essentially to protect and promote our wellbeing in this life, and particularly in areas where we can't do so ourselves.

The state shouldn't claim to be expert on morality, but should rather let its citizens live by their different conceptions of morality, as long as they are prepared to compromise to the extent of not harming each other, cooperating to the extent needed for social coordination, and so on. It can try to get its citizens to be good citizens (cooperating with each other in various ways) but not good people in a more comprehensive sense (living their in accordance with the one true comprehensive code of morality, whatever it is at the end of the day).

Conversely, the state will sometimes need to produce fairly detailed regulations that get us all to act in the same way in some areas of our activity, even though acting in a different way might not be seen as morally bad. E.g. road rules, workplace safety standards, the corporations law, and so on.

So the law doesn't track a particular system of morality, although there will be some overlap between the law and just about every system of morality going, as with the law relating to murder.

This is basic liberal theory, of course, and it can stand alone as a political philosophy. But it's also pretty much inevitable once the state pulls out of picking and choosing religions, which tend to come complete with moral codes. The state can't say, once and for all, that the moral code of, say, Buddhism is the wrong one, but it doesn't try to enforce it. Buddhists can live by their more restrictive moral code, as long as they obey the law. Likewise for the moral codes of Catholics, Muslims, Kantians, and anyone else who might have a personal moral code that is stricter than the law needs to be to achieve the state's secular purposes.

Timothy said...

Well said! Thanks for that great response.

I suppose I was thinking that the state should do what's best for society because there *are no* objective moral rules. Instead you're saying that, even if there were, the state would still concern itself with doing what's best for society. I suppose that's a reasonable way to go about it.

I do wonder, however, if people who believe in an absolute morality would ever be okay with that kind of role for the state. We always hear about religious believers who try to get their moral codes enshrined in law. I wonder how many believers there are who *don't* care to do this?

The other angle to this is the way that believing in such and such religious morality *influences* one's ideas about what is and isn't good for society. Religious believers tend to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma - instead of saying "What god says is moral is moral, regardless of whether it's any good for us," they say "What god says is moral is moral, and also it's good for us." No doubt this makes their god more palatable, as his rules are meant to do us some good, but it also makes believers fabricate facts about how same-sex marriage/female empowerment/abortion/etc are ruining society.

It's an interesting empirical question - to what extent can one espouse a religious code of morality and tolerate the state having a secular agenda?