“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken
Early this month, amid a furore over his country’s police killing thousands of drug dealers, Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte let it slip that when he was a mayor, to set an example to his city’s police, “I used to do it personally”.
Last week Queensland federal MP George Christensen posted this comment on his Facebook page: “A leader who personally sees off drug dealers? And the problem is?”
In a follow-up article for CNN, Christensen said that the deaths were not extra-judicial killings but lawful killing of suspects in self-defence, and that he wasn’t advocating “armed politicians shooting at drug traffickers in the street”.
“Duterte’s willingness to round the suspects up, to root out corruption, to seek appropriate penalties for drug crimes and to get the community involved in the effort to clean up the country is inspiring,” he said.
“It is clear that we need strength to tackle our drug problem here in the West. So instead of the colonial-style sneering at Duterte and the Philippines, perhaps we can learn from them.”
Though I don’t see any colonial-style sneering going on I agree we can learn from others’ experience of this global issue. But neither Duterte’s actions nor Christensen’s response even begin to help.
From the dawn of humanity people and some other animals knew that eating certain plants, if it doesn’t kill you, can make you feel good. When we invented smoking we tried it that way too.
Experimenting with stuff is part of growing up, and in this festive season most of us (Christensen too?) will alter our state of mind with a little alcohol or caffeine. Taking drugs goes to the heart of what it is to be human.
But prolonged use can create a momentum of its own, when more of a drug seems the only available option. When it’s banned, the only way of paying for the habit may be dealing or stealing.
Criminal syndicates are at the top of the illicit drug trade, but many, probably most, street dealers are small-scale operators working off a drug debt or seeking cash for the next hit. These are the people most affected by the Duterte “solution”.
Should we treat recreational drug use as a crime at all? Somehow we managed when it was legal everywhere, until around 100 years ago. Since 1930 the United States has led a global push for progressively stronger penalties. Now it’s illegal everywhere.
The US tried to ban alcohol from 1920, but too many people liked it enough to break the law. Prohibition boosted production of strong spirits because lower-alcohol drinks like beer and wine had to be stored and transported in greater quantities, making them harder to hide from the law.
The same has happened to other drugs. Before they were illegal, cannabis, opiates, cocaine and amphetamine were taken in diluted form – ostensibly as medication but for recreation too. Now packages have to be small to avoid detection, and the law of supply and demand dictates that they be more potent.
Speaking about her son’s methamphetamine troubles last year, Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie asked that addiction be treated as a health issue, not a crime. That fits with medical professionals’ assertions, backed by copious evidence, that effective treatment begins by making drug use safer.
Addiction is strongly exacerbated by social isolation and dislocation, which may be more important addictive factors than a drug’s chemical effect. That tells us that we should stop cutting addicts adrift from mainstream society and treat them in a supportive social environment.
Christensen’s remarks are disturbing for another reason. As an elected lawmaker he is duty-bound to observe and support the rule of law, everywhere. He must know that a head of state endorsing killing by police is an abuse of this fundamental democratic principle.
Taking drugs is a deeply complex, deeply human issue. H.L. Mencken warned that neat, plausible solutions to such problems are invariably wrong. Unfortunately they also win elections.
Disclosure: Except for a youthful puff or two on a joint I have never used illicit drugs, but I take caffeine daily and sometimes, in company with others, a little alcohol. Happy New Year.