Are the reasons why people take illegal drugs relevant to sentencing decisions?

The laws that prohibit possession of certain drugs are ostensibly justified because they protect people from the health risks that are associated with uncontrolled or heavy use. Some have argued that criminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is overly paternalistic (people should be free to make potentially risky choices as long as they don’t put others at risk) or even counterproductive (criminalizing drug use fuels a black market, many aspects of which present greater dangers to individual drug users and wider society). I find these arguments intuitively persuasive (although clear evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim that criminalization is in fact counterproductive).

So, if there is a justification for putting controls on personal drug use it seems that it ought to appeal solely to the physical and social harms that would result from a policy of drug liberalization. Such an approach is roughly reflected in the UK drug laws: the graded classification system, which determines the maximum penalty for possessing drugs in each class (A to C), considers only the harmfulness of the drug: punishment is linked to risk to health. Criminalization of drug use thus has nothing to do with a moral evaluation of this drug use.

However, a news story this month raises the question of whether moral considerations are sometimes playing a role in the sentencing of those convicted of possessing illegal drugs. The Mirror reported on the case of Joanne Bridgewater who, it was reported, was ‘let off’ punishment for amphetamine possession because she used the drugs to lose weight. Joanne Bridgewater admitted to possessing 7.6 grams of amphetamine (and a small quantity of cannabis) but was given a conditional discharge (as well as being ordered to pay £85 costs and a £15 victim surcharge). In the UK, amphetamine is a Class B drug, possession of which can attract a sentence of up to 5 years in prison, plus a fine (Although maximum penalties are severe, just over 20 per cent of offenders receive a custodial sentence (and even fewer actually go to prison)).

Since Magistrates Court records are not available, it is not possible to know whether the magistrates’ reasoning behind the conditional discharge has been reported in its entirety. However, it appears that the magistrates took it as a mitigating circumstance that Joanne Bridgewater took the drug because she was desperate to lose weight when dieting failed. Having put on weight due to prescription medications, she claimed to have taken amphetamine every day for about eight weeks, during which time she lost four stone.

If the magistrates presiding over this case did indeed take Bridgewater’s reasons for taking amphetamine into account in mitigation, it seems that their sentencing decision was based in part upon a moral judgment about the intentions underlying the offender’s drug use. However, it is far from clear why taking illegal drugs for weight loss should attract a less severe outcome than taking drugs for pleasure or simply to explore their effects. It might be that the magistrates perceived Bridgewater’s use as quasi-medical and so saw it in a kinder light, but this should not make a difference: either using these drugs in an uncontrolled way constitutes a health risk that justifies prohibition or it does not. Bridgewater’s daily use of amphetamine was made no less dangerous by her goal of weight loss than it would be by a goal of fun or new experience. She was at no lower risk of developing dependency. If the intuition is that people should be able to use drugs for medical or quasi-medical reasons without a prescription, then this speaks in favor of decriminalizing such possession. But this would then have to apply across the board: people’s reasons for taking drugs should be irrelevant to an assessment of the risks we think people should be allowed to choose to take in relation to their health.

If we are to penalize possession of small quantities of drugs, sentencing has to ignore the reasons why people possess these drugs. A drug is equally safe or unsafe whether used by partygoers, by Aldous Huxley, or by dieters. Moral judgment on the drug taker’s personal goals and values has no role to play in the sentencing of unlawful possession.

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3 Responses to Are the reasons why people take illegal drugs relevant to sentencing decisions?

  • Anke Snoek says:

    I totally agree with you! There are often some murky moral motivations behind judgments on substance use.

  • Matt says:

    If drugs are illegal because they are potentially dangerous, then why aren’t other potentially dangerous activities like dangerous sports illegal, let alone other dangerous drugs like alcohol. Unless that can be answered then that can’t be the reason at all.

  • Matt says:

    I’ll answer my own question for you.

    The particular culture in which we live at this particular time presents drugs as an easy, lazy pleasure, the opposite of which is the difficult, worthwhile pleasures of (for example) dangerous sports.

    Both do the same thing – manipulate the environment to produce pleasurable and addictive chemicals in the brain, but drugs go against our culture’s (wrong-headed) work ethic.

    So yes, both drugs sentencing AND drugs laws are motivated by moral intuitions – a fact very easy to demonstrate by simply looking at what is and isn’t banned.

    Finally, why is the work-ethic wrong-headed? Because the whole point of civilization from when we first banded together into agricultural settlements to produce surplus for the bad times, is to make life easier for ourselves, not to work harder in slavery to some socially constructed economic system.

    This has been forgotten.

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