Increased personal liberty requires increased personal responsibility

One negative consequence of drug prohibition and the war on drugs is a reduced expectation of personal responsibility and accountability in connection with substance use. The realization that addiction is poorly addressed with criminal sanctions has led to some unfortunate distortions of natural logic.  The reasonable reduction in the severity of punishment for substance use often bleeds over into an unreasonable consideration of substance use or addiction problems as mitigation when dealing with crimes that directly victimize others. The result is a blurring of the line between those actions for which we must hold people responsible and those actions which can be understood as an addiction contingent behavior over which a person cannot exercise complete control. The reduction in the expectation of personal responsibility for real criminal actions has gone too far.

Addiction treatment often involves recognition of a drive or impulse over which a person cannot currently exercise adequate self control. Fighting addiction requires admitting you have a problem you cannot easily fix yourself because it impairs the very tools of self awareness, will power and decision making that you would instinctively draw on to address it. Unfortunately, recognition of this phenomenon by the judicial system frequently leads to the conflation of the addiction impulse with the criminal impulse. Defense attorneys, therapists and treatment counselors encourage this confusion because it helps their clients. All addicts crave something and most suffer because they give in to that craving and perpetuate the harms caused by the addiction. Mind altering substance use can have negative effects on one’s ability to exercise good judgment, regardless of whether the use is recreational or driven by an addiction. However, the vast majority of people who use mind altering substances, whether illegal or legal like alcohol, whether recreational or driven by addiction, do not commit real crimes (only the crime of use itself) even when their judgment is impaired. Most people recognize a clear line of criminality that involves harming others over which they never cross, no matter how drunk or impaired they may become. Sometimes when watching judges mitigate sentences for serious crimes based on the mere mention of substance use or addiction issues, I have wondered if they have never spent time around a real alcoholic who can repeatedly drink till they pass out without ever doing anything criminal. Such people harm themselves, but they never assault anyone. They never hit their girlfriend. They may act like an idiot, say some stupid things, but that is the end of it. That the criminal impulse some people posses may manifest more readily when they are under the influence is no reason to reduce the punishment for criminal conduct. If this made any sense it would be advisable for a person to indulge in some sort of substance when they were committing a crime in the expectation of a reduced sentence should they get caught.

Arizona statutes dictate a possibility of sentence mitigation in situations where substance use may have interfered with a defendant’s ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions. Certainly there are limited situations where this makes sense. Understandably, a drunk might have trouble recognizing that swimming naked in the town fountain is a criminal offense. We should give them a break. In contrast, where the offense is a crime that obviously and directly harms others we should not give anyone a break because we can expect them, like all people, to recognize and avoid clearly criminal conduct, regardless of how impaired they might be. We can and should expect this level of personal responsibility from everyone. Substance use doesn’t cause criminal conduct.  A person with a substance abuse problem should be held to an increased level of accountability and harsher sanctions when they commit real crimes.

Drunk driving is an example of evolving realities that proves the rule. It took time for our society to realize just how much harm is caused by driving while impaired. It causes so much direct harm to others in the form of accidents and the immediate threat of endangerment, that it is properly considered a “real crime”. However, that reality was not always appreciated. It has taken time and education for people to learn to internalize the offense of drunk driving as being on the other side of that line that they will not cross, no matter how drunk or impaired they might be. Obviously, we aren’t there with everyone, but there are many who will pass out or spend more than they can afford on taxis before they ever drive drunk. It is like someone who has spent years out in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere with no one else for many miles around. It may be obnoxious, but that cabin dweller really doesn’t hurt anyone if he goes out and fires his gun in the air when he is drunk. However, if he moves to the city, it may take some education and effort for him to internalize the criminality of firing that gun off randomly with a lot of people living close by.

JONATHAN APIRION, copyright © March, 2016. All rights reserved. No duplication permitted without written permission and proper attribution. (Just e-mail me at )