Quakers and drug decriminalisation

Quakers aren’t liberals. Even “liberal liberal” Quakers aren’t liberals.

The paradox of “be perfect as God is perfect” is that if I am perfect I will have one perfect human response: true freedom is following that idiosyncratic path. Other choices would be a falling away. I don’t know what the right path is for others- it is certainly not following mine- yet we believe in community discernment, testing the concerns of individuals.

We are not a political party, and we don’t have policy positions on that much. We are pacifist, and Friends work out the meaning of structural violence and of peace in every action, in every relationship, but we have not created from that a Mishnah of rules for each specific instance. We took a corporate view on slavery, the death penalty, and gambling: but what else? Should we have a corporate view on prostitution? Prostitution degrades people, and sex trafficking is modern slavery. I know Friends with strong, well argued positions.

I know illegal drugs harm people. I want that harm reduced. My moral argument is a jumble of virtue ethics, argument from consequences, and rules-based morality- such as, no gambling. I have once taken cannabis and have known people who took it regularly. Cornwall Area Meeting wants drug use decriminalised- actually the crimes are possession, and possession with intent to supply, rather than use per se. Quakers say, In view of the harm done by the use of alcohol, tobacco and other habit-forming drugs, consider whether you should limit your use of them or refrain from using them altogether. I know that getting extremely drunk has given me access to rage I was suppressing, thereby helping free me from my oppressions, though drunkenness is normally a temporary escape inhibiting a better solution.

Do we agree with Edmund Burke that a person must be regulated by their own principles, or by external force and law? Can the existence of the law showing society’s disapproval dampen demand? My googling found one Australian study showing not: I take that at face value, without the tools to assess the strength of evidence.This article says US Prohibition ultimately failed because at least half the adult population wanted to carry on drinking, policing of the Volstead Act was riddled with contradictions, biases and corruption, and the lack of a specific ban on consumption hopelessly muddied the legal waters.

I tend to feel users are victims rather than perpetrators of crime, but that they should not be excused crimes they commit while intoxicated or in order to get money to buy drugs: treatment can be an option for the authorities or the user. What of possession with intent to supply- how big a drinks cabinet are you permitted? What of public intoxication? Do traffickers remain criminal, or do we want licensed cannabis bars? A friend said decriminalisation is complex: it was one term of her postgraduate study.

Cornwall AM puts these questions.

1. The majority of problematic drug users have experienced abuse or trauma as children and are therefore vulnerable. Which is right – punishment or compassionate health and social support for them?

2. In countries where decriminalisation has been implemented the prevalence of drug use has not increased. Criminalising drug users, whether they are ‘recreational’ or ‘problematic’, stigmatises, socially and economically excludes them – it causes them harm. What then is the purpose of criminalising the possession of drugs for personal use?

3. If a young person from your family got caught experimenting with drugs would you want them to have a criminal record which would spoil their life chances?

I find them ridiculous. There is health and social support for addicts in Britain now: punishment does not exclude that. They ask what is the purpose of criminalising, but not what would be the value of decriminalising: they clearly are arguing for decriminalising, but not in a useful way. What of a city trader with a cocaine habit- is that person “vulnerable”? Should we retain criminal penalties, but only prosecute after an enquiry into a person’s childhood?

I resent the last question. I am not like the US Republican congressman, resolutely against gay rights until his own nephew comes out. My empathy is wider than that. And if my nephew, whom I love, broke the law, it might be better that he face the consequences of his actions. I certainly would not want him treated differently from others.

I favour decriminalisation. I don’t feel this is a religious leading, just one of my liberal opinions. I don’t know how we in our AM could test a concern from another AM if we do not have a person in the meeting who shares that concern- are we moved in ministry, or just sharing our points of view?

CS Lewis argued rehabilitation was a totalitarian justification for punishment. It fails to treat the offender as an adult capable of choices. It may mean unlimited punishment, until the offender is judged rehabilitated. For him, retribution, balancing the gravity of the offence with the gravity of the punishment, was the only justification for sanctions against an individual. We may be taking unclear steps towards a pacifist view of criminal law and enforcement- society should compel an offender only as far as necessary for their own good, and seek reconciliation, rather than respond violently to violence.

Doesn’t a concern involve action rather than mere opinion? What action should we be taking?

Last week, I had a parcel of four books, one for each local meeting, with essays on assisted dying to inform our understanding.

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