The road to hell was paved with victimology
Michael Shellenberger, 14th August 2021,
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked with a group of friends and colleagues to advocate drug decriminalization, harm reduction, and criminal justice reform. I helped progressive Congressperson Maxine Waters organize civil rights leaders to advocate for needle exchange so that heroin users wouldn’t get HIV-AIDS. I fought for the treatment of drug addiction as a public health problem not a criminal justice one. And we demanded that housing be given to the homeless without regard for their own struggles with drugs.
Our intentions were good. We thought it was irrational to criminalize the distribution of clean needles to drug users when doing so had proven to save lives. We were upset about mass incarceration, particularly of African Americans and Latinos, for nonviolent drug offenses. And we believed that the approach European nations like the Netherlands and Portugal had taken to decriminalize drugs, and expand drug treatment, was the right one.
But it’s obvious now that we were wrong. Over the last 20 years the U.S. liberalized drug laws. During that time, deaths from illicit drugs rose from 17,000 to 93,000. Two and a half times more people die from illicit drug use than from car accidents; five times more die from drugs than homicide. Many of those people are homeless and die alone in the hotel rooms and apartment units given away as part of the harm reduction-based “Housing First” approach to homelessness. Others are children found dead by their parents on the floors of their rooms.
What about mass incarceration? It’s true that nearly half of the people in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug offenses. But there are eight times more people in state prisons than federal prisons, and just 14 percent of people in state prisons are there for nonviolent drug offenses and just 4 percent for nonviolent possession. Half of state prisoners are there for murder, rape, robbery and other violent offenses.
While it’s true that both Netherlands and Portugal reduced criminal penalties, both nations still ban drug dealing, arrest drug users, and sentence dealers and users to prison or rehabilitation. “If somebody in Portugal started injecting heroin in public,” I asked the head of drug policy in that country, “what would happen to them?” He said, without hesitation, “They would be arrested.”
And being arrested is sometimes what addicts need. “I am a big fan of mandated stuff,” said Victoria Westbrook. “I don't recommend it as a way to get your life together, but getting indicted by the Feds worked for me. I wouldn't have done this without them.” Today Victoria is working for the San Francisco city government to integrate ex-convicts back into society.
But people in progressive cities are today shouted down for even suggesting a role for law enforcement. “Anytime a person says, ‘Maybe the police and the health care system could work together?’ or, ‘Maybe we could try some probation or low-level arrests,’ there’s an enormous outcry,” said Stanford addiction specialist Keith Humphreys. “‘No! That’s the war on drugs! The police have no role in this! Let’s open up some more services and people will come in and use them voluntarily!’”
Why is that? Why, in the midst of the worst drug death crisis in world history, and the examples of Portugal and Netherlands, are progressives still opposed to shutting down the street fentanyl markets in places like San Francisco that are killing people?
And the core motivation of the people I worked with was ideological. Many people, including many progressives, were libertarian, and fundamentally believed the government did not have a right to tell able-bodied adults what drugs they could and could not use. But many more, myself included, were upset by mass incarceration, and the ways in which incarceration destroys families, disproportionately African American and Latino ones.
Our views were too simplistic and wrong. Many things undermine families and communities, of all colors, well before anyone is incarcerated, including drugs and the crime and violence associated with them. And, violent communities attract the drug trade more than the drug trade makes communities violent, both scholars and journalists find.
The problem is that, in the process of valuing care so much, progressives abandon other important values, argue Haidt and other researchers in a field called Moral Foundations Theory. While progressives (“liberal” and “very liberal” people) hold the values of Caring, Fairness, and Liberty, they tend to reject the values of Sanctity, Authority, and Loyalty as wrong. Because these values are so deeply held, often subconsciously, Moral Foundations Theory explains well why so many progressives and conservatives today view each other as not merely uninformed but immoral.
At the Sites the city isn’t providing drug treatment; it’s providing easy access to drugs. That includes cash in the form of welfare payments with which to purchase drugs, and the equipment with which to inject them. As such, progressives cities like San Francisco are directly financing the drug death crisis.
Is this Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is when a parent deliberately makes their child sick so they can feel important? In San Fransicko, I consider this possibility, and ultimately conclude that while the progressive approach to drug addiction and homelessness can be fairly described as pathological altruism, it would be unfair to call it sadistic. Many of the drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless are, in fact, sick, and most progressives have good intentions.
But it is not unfair to point out that the city’s approach of playing the Rescuer is resulting in worsening addiction and rising drug deaths. Nor is it unfair to point out that we limit people’s potential for freedom by labeling them Victims and “centering” their trauma, rather than viewing victimization as an opportunity for heroism. Nor is it unfair to point out, as I have attempted to do by describing the history, that San Francisco’s political, business, and cultural leaders should all know better by now.
Progressives justify their discourse and agenda in the name of preventing dehumanization, but the effect has been the opposite. In defending the humanity of addicts, progressives ended up defending the inhumane conditions of street addiction….
For complete article
For further Reading
Social Determinants and Substance Use
OPEN LETTER on Decriminalization of Drugs 2020