Moralizing has no place in drug policy?

September 7, 2020
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This piece, entitled “Britain has to overhaul its attitude to drug use – moralising isn’t the solution,” popped up in my email and more than once in my twitter feed.

Various versions of this argument are very common in drug policy circles, and I’d suggest (again) that it’s the wrong direction to try to take the discussion.

First, you might think it strange if you came to a friend with a problem and their approach was to remove your values and moral beliefs from the equation. It might be necessary to reveal hidden values/moral, examine them, explore the tensions between them, challenge them, and possibly replace them with different values. But, to eliminate them from decisions of great consequence? That’s a bad strategy. (Unless you really believe, like Sam Harris, that science can answer all moral questions.)

Second, the author equates moralizing with vilification, snobbishness, looking down upon others, racism, an absence of sympathy, the targeting of oppressed groups, scolding, shaming, stigma, criminalization, prudishness, and finger-wagging.

Third, I’d suggest that the author is engaged in their own version of moralizing–rejecting one set of values and calling for another. Calls for drug policy reform are invariably moral arguments, even when they reject morality as an element of policy formulation.

I’d suggest that the best response to the misapplication of morals, or the application of the wrong morals is not to eliminate morals from decision-making. The better way would be to examine and clarify the values/morals involved. It may be that we believe current policies overemphasize sanctity and authority, and undervalue care and fairness. (Moral Foundations Theory is only one way to examine this. Obviously, it’s not the only way.)

So, I’m suggesting that the problem isn’t moralizing in drug policy, it’s that we need to interrogate our value/moral hierarchy.

Further, I believe that pretending some approaches are value-free makes that task more difficult.

Finally, as I’ve said many times in this blog, there is no such thing as a problem-free drug policy, there are always going to be trade-offs. This means that any honest examination of our options means choosing which problems we’re unwilling to live with, and which problems we’re willing to tolerate.

Even then, our ability to will these choices into reality is limited–we have influence but not control.

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