Why I oppose the criminalisation of drug use in the name of protecting children

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs begins next week. It’s the most significant international drugs summit in twenty years, and as it has drawn nearer I have been thinking a lot about what it means to protect children from drugs. It seems to me that a question we have to grapple with, no matter where we live and what the circumstances, is whether the criminalisation of drug use and possession among adults is justifiable on the grounds of protecting children. I think it’s not. And what’s more, I think this is universally the case, because it’s logically incoherent and self-defeating to claim it does. It harms those we should protect.

To avoid any confusion or straw man attacks let me be perfectly clear: we have to protect children from drugs. Nothing in what follows suggests otherwise. My point is only about how this is done, not whether it should be. My objection to these laws is rooted firmly in the protection of children and I believe that this is the appropriate starting point for a debate on this topic.

The following seems to me to be necessarily true:

Children and young people who are most at risk of using drugs are more likely to in fact use drugs.

I do not believe there can be any reasonable disagreement with this. Obviously, those who are less at risk will not be more likely to use drugs.

Following on from this, is it not also the case that children who are most at risk of using drugs are those that we should be most concerned about? I suggest that this is a basic premise of policy and programming.

With that in mind, consider a further statement, also necessarily true:

Children who are most at risk of using drugs, and more likely to in fact use drugs, are most likely to still be using drugs when adults.

Again, I do not see any reasonable objection to this. Could a child less at risk of drug use and therefore less likely to use drugs be more likely to be still using drugs when an adult?

This brings us to our criminal laws against those above the age of criminal responsibility (let’s say ‘adults’) and the aim of protecting children. If the above statements are true, then so too is this:

The children we should be most concerned about are inevitably among those we eventually criminalise.

If the claim is that we need criminal laws around drug use to protect children then our criminal laws punish people who use drugs in the name of protecting future kids like them, who we punish in the name of protecting future kids like them, who we punish in the name of protecting future kids like them…and so on.

This is obviously absurd, and contradictory to the stated intent.

So let us accept for a moment that this is not what is meant by the rationale of protecting children through criminal laws relating to drug use. This is a large concession, though, because it really does seem as if this is a conclusion we cannot avoid reaching. But we often hear also about the protection of children who do not use drugs against adults who do. It is a lead position of some NGOs, in fact. This, however, leads us from the absurd to the uncomfortable.

The criminologist Nils Christie described drugs as a ‘good enemy’. ‘Perfect as an enemy’, in fact. Among his reasons was that a perfect enemy never dies. A corollary of this is the ‘ideal victim’. In this case it is an intangible notion of children. A generalisation, never really identified, and that never grows up. One that is to be perpetually protected against the behaviours of others, including, ultimately, those very real children we should be most worried about. Because if our criminal laws do not aim to protect those most at risk due to the absurd contradiction this leads to, then they are aimed at protecting those less at risk. And the natural conclusion from this is that those most at risk are accepted as collateral damage of the criminal laws employed, even if we delay the punishment until they cross over from one age group into another.

I think this leaves two avenues for those who defend the criminalisation of drugs for the protection of children. Either they can drop the claim that such laws protect children, or they can admit the uncomfortable sacrifice of some children for the protection of others that is inherent in the strategy. I do not see a third option.

I have two children. They are young still. When they get older I do not know what kinds of problems they may encounter. None, I hope. But I’m not so naïve. Things happen, and if we’re lucky they come and go. But one thing is for sure. If they use drugs, for whatever reason, and are subject to criminal penalties, that will not come and go. It will stick. I know also that when my children are 19, 20, 25, they will still be my children. And I do not want them punished and their life chances ruined in the name of protecting some idea of their former selves; in the name of protecting other kids, who, once they too pass into adulthood will themselves face the same penalties; or in the name of protecting children that are at little risk anyway.

But the reality is my kids are not likely to be those most at risk. If I do not want this for my children I cannot accept it for others’. And I do not want other kids eventually criminalised in the name of protecting some abstract idea of mine.

In other words, I object to this strategy even before its obvious ineffectiveness in terms of overall rates of drug use is discussed; even before I raise concerns about the damage done to families by the millions of criminal records handed down to adults as if they do not have wider consequences for children; before the children of those incarcerated are considered; and before the children affected by the criminalisation of the supply chain are taken into account, as they must finally be.

I know others hold strong views to the contrary, and they are genuinely held. I invite them to present their reasons too. With a major summit about to begin under the banner of the protection of youth, I see no better time.

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