Restorative justice, and reducing the harm of drugs

While the following article from C4SS mainly deals with US arguments over legalisation, the topic discussion is well worth having — England and Wales have one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in the EU, over 17 times higher than the rate of Portugal, which decriminalised all personal drug possession in 2001. [pdf]

In Brantford, Ontario, the police recently escalated their drug sweeps, ostensibly in response to a record number of overdoses in the community from drugs laced with fentanyl. Mayor Kevin Davis, who is on record as supporting a proposal for a supervised injection site, showed his cognitive disconnect by also speaking glowingly of the raids. But anarchists understand all too well the iron law of prohibition; the more intense the enforcement, the dirtier the drugs get.

Drug prohibition is one of the greatest threats to liberty in modern times. A central theme of libertarian thought is the belief in personal, bodily autonomy and drug law enforcement is a brutal violation of our most intimate and personal freedoms. Traditionally, the war on drugs is thought to refer merely to the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of illicit (“recreational”) drugs. But drug prohibition in the general sense includes prescription laws, pharmaceutical regulation, and the resulting licensing cartels. In the broadest sense, drug prohibition encompasses any state-enforced barrier to voluntarily arranged access to drugs, all inconsistent with the right to personal sovereignty. 

As we’ve seen with the quasi-legalization of cannabis, even mainstream attitudes about prohibition are becoming increasingly liberalized as the collateral damage begins to reach the white middle class. Drug warriors cut their losses and all over North America the status of pot is changing from illegal to “illegal with exceptions,” first for government decreed “medicinal use” to recreational. Most have attempted to restrict it to a state franchise, but the black market continues to grow and thrive. The loosening of restrictions on weed was damage control. So are “harm reduction” initiatives. These programs, which include addiction treatment, free access to Narcan and Naloxone to reverse overdoses and poisonings, needle exchanges and disposal bins, as well as medically supervised injection sites (“safe consumption sites”), have been conventionally justified on the grounds of public health and a shift in priorities from jailing drug users to treating addiction as a health issue. The conservative backlash, predictably, consists of accusing harm reduction advocates of “coddling addicts” and enabling self-destructive behavioral patterns. I suggest that, as anarchists, we support such initiatives even if they are state-financed and administered, not primarily on public health grounds or compassion, but as a simple act of restorative justice. 

What I propose is pretty straight forward. Market anarchists should support these “harm reduction” programs. Although the benefits are clear, should anarchists support what appears to be a net increase in statism and, as T. J. Scholl argues in “Drugs Users Do Not Require State Supervision,” a more subtle intrusion on personal freedom? 

I base this on the libertarian principle of restitution. The users of illicit drugs have the right to defend their property and person from the unjust use of force by the state as it enforces drug laws. In most cases, such direct self-defense is futile and imprudent. But the principles of justice also require that a perpetrator fully restore his victim and make her whole to whatever extent possible. How can the state do this in the midst of an ongoing injustice? And how can such reparations be made in a way that doesn’t further victimize taxpayers? 

In Anarchy, State and Utopia Robert Nozick offered anarchists his ultraminimal state as restitution for coercively imposing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In contrast, what I have in mind doesn’t require the continued existence of the state, we’d all be better off if, in the right ideological climate, it collapsed tomorrow. But right now, the chances of such a thing happening are both fat and slim. Meanwhile, harm reduction programs (HRP) function as a kind of secondary regulation of the drug war, an effort to alleviate some of its worst effects, such as overdoses, poisonings, the dangers posed by discarded drug paraphernalia, and addiction to name a few. Moreover, to the extent that access to these programs is voluntary, they get used only if the drug consumer values them. Take supervised injection sites (SIS), for instance. The primary value of such sites is not that users can consume drugs free of health risks (they do lower such risks for obvious reasons), but that an SIS essentially provides immunity and sanctuary (very limited and conditional) from drug law enforcement efforts. The state aims to reinforce the drug war by introducing ad hoc measures to clean up or contain the devastation it causes, but why should we not support this insofar as it actually weakens the case for prohibition and minimally eases the suffering of its victims?

Anarchists can anticipate the ambivalence of the general public towards the use of tax funds to finance and administer HRPs. They point to the need for drug users to assume responsibility for their own lives and decisions while conceding the drug war is wrong. But if one is morally opposed to drug prohibition while fully aware that it’s an ongoing injustice with no end in sight, I cannot imagine why anyone would oppose compensation in a form that would be subjectively valued by its greatest victims. Indeed, I think anyone who would actively oppose HRPs in principle should be considered an accessory in this injustice. 

If the day ever comes when drug prohibition collapses under the weight of its own hubris and stupidity, the consumers of illicit drugs and society will be square with the house. Until or unless that day comes, harm reduction initiatives are not a matter of paternalism, enabling, or coddling, but a matter of justice.  

~ Tim Hopkins


This article was first published at the Center For a Stateless Society under a Creative Commons license.

Pic: West Midlands Police (ho ho #ACAB)