Vice Squad
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
More Cruel and Unusual Punishments For Drug Offenders

I have argued again and again that there should be no criminal penalties for mere possession of personal use quantities of drugs, though I don't oppose on principle criminal penalties for trafficking or sale. (In most circumstances I would oppose such penalties on cost-benefit grounds, but I do not generally view them as prima facie unjust.) But even accepting the validity of criminal penalties for certain drug transactions, the penalties cannot be very severe: even a year in prison for one relatively small drug buy or sale is close to unjust from my perspective. Perhaps you are willing to punish drug transactors more severely than I am. How severe are you willing to get? Two recent stories of insanely severe penalties for drug offenders have surfaced. The first is actually an old story, though updated at Drug WarRant: a fellow, a youthful trouble maker, it seems, matured to the point where he was married with a son, and had not been arrested for 14 years. He bought a pound of pot, and received a life sentence -- he has served about 15 years so far. The second comes out of Thailand, though the result is similar: a 19-year old Briton who presumably tried to smuggle 3,400 ecstasy tablets into Thailand last year has been rewarded with a life sentence. And the sentence really is a reward, a bonus for his guilty plea: had he not pleaded guilty, he could have faced execution.

Adam Smith, on a smuggler: "a person, who, though no doubt highly blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been, in every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."

And more Smith: "An injudicious tax [or prohibition!] offers a great temptation to smuggling. But the penalties of smuggling must rise in proportion to the temptation. The law, contrary to all the ordinary principles of justice, first creates the temptation, and then punishes those who yield to it; and it commonly enhances the punishment too in proportion to the very circumstance which ought certainly to alleviate it, the temptation to commit the crime."

We could use a little of that Scottish enlightenment today.

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