Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rationality, Drug Use and Laws

Which is the best flavor? Is orange rationally better than lemon? How about banana? Is it rationally better to live in a split level house, a rancher or a multi-story home?

These sound like silly, trivial questions, but they illustrate something important. Human valuations are not rational. We cannot say that someone's preference for jeans over dress pants is rational or irrational. And, for the same reason, those who use drugs are not behaving irrationally. They value what they receive from drug use more than they fear the consequences. We may disagree with their valuation, but, whatever we argue, the fact remains that, by their own valuations, drug use is a rational choice for them. And more than that, they value drug use highly enough that they are willing to suffer quite a few hardships to continue using.

Now, this does not say that drug use should be accepted without question. We can clearly make arguments about their decisions. We point out that they are not taking into account all the long term costs and so are not viewing things properly. We can say they are being short sighted in so highly valuing immediate gratification. We can argue that the costs to society are so high that their valuations don't matter. We can argue that their valuation itself shows that they are not competent to make decisions. But there is one thing we cannot do, and that is to argue that they are irrational.

Why does this matter? It matters because it shows that laws against drug use are of very limited utility. Many drugs are relatively innocuous, having minor long term consequences, if any1. However for drugs such as heroin, with addiction and other consequences, the fact that people would value drug use more than  those consequences suggests that they are not likely to be deterred by most legal prohibitions. Prohibition may stop casual users2, and probably does, but for those who are willing to use drugs when they are illegal, the level of punishment is likely not a great deterrent, at least until it reaches relatively severe levels. If one is willing to endure withdrawal, as well as risking hepatitis, AIDS and other dangers, then changing the penalty from 12 months in jail to 18 months is unlikely yo have any impact.

This is important to understand, as, to some degree, it makes a lot of legal debate irrelevant. No one is seriously arguing for felony charges for drug users, much less the death penalty, and short of that, the punishment doesn't matter that much. A day in jail or 2 years makes no difference to the committed drug user, and either is equally effective at deterring casual users. So, looked at this way, the question of how severe penalties should be for users is a waste of time.


1. We can argue whether science supports any long term consequences for marijuana, sedatives, and so on. The point being that their long term effects are perceived as, at worst, not worse than alcohol. (Of course, considering the relatively dreadful consequences of long term alcohol abuse, that is not saying a lot.) Even if we accept the most negative studies, the problem is that many users do not, and so see certain drugs as safe. That perception is more important than reality when assessing their decisions, as they will act based only upon their own beliefs.

2. Obviously, not all casual users are deterred by the threat of punishment, but that is usually because they do not believe they will actually be punished. Most teens think they will not get caught, or, if caught, will be sentenced to therapy rather than jail. My point therefore does not apply. There is presently no believable threat of punishment. If these teens really thought they faced punishment, it would not matter if it were a week in jail or a year, they would stop using to avoid that punishment, as I argued. Actually, this may be a subject for another post.



Obviously, I am for legalization, but so long as we imprison drug users, I would argue that a shorter time in jail makes sense. As I said above, the length of the imprisonment really doesn't matter. A short sentence provides enough deterrence to discourage casual users while leaving space free for non-drug criminals without building more jails, and a longer sentence is unlikely to discourage those who continue using drugs despite the threat of punishment.

I am sure others will argue for greater severity, but I just don't see the advantage. Casual users are no more discouraged by 12 months than 1 month, any jail time keeps them from using drugs. And die hard addicts are not going to care if it is a year or two or five. They will continue no matter what.

Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2008/05/29.

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