Ever noticed that disagreements about drugs and drug policy often get personal and emotional? And have you noticed that they often come to an impasse, where each side understands the issue in very different ways?
Recently a friend of mine wrote an article about his dog, and what having a dog had taught him about conflict. No matter how cute dogs might be, Jason noticed that they have the capacity to divide people into warring internet tribes.
Ostensibly these doggie wars are about canine welfare. But really, they are about contending models of human virtue. The dog we own, and the way we treat it, are understood as components of our version of the good life. Just like the church we attend, the way in which we commute to work, and our attitude to anthropogenic global warming, our attitude to our animal companions is frequently a matter of passionate commitment, which always entails passionate disagreement.
Discussions about drugs and drug policy have a similar dynamic.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking – if we could just get people to understand the evidence about drugs and drug policy, they would come over to our side.
But our choice of ‘evidence’ depends on what we think of as a good life. For some people, the evidence from moral reasoning leads them to support prohibition. They aren’t wrong about what the evidence says, in their own terms.
In the same way but on different terms, criminology and the health sciences show that prohibition causes huge harms to human lives. This is a kind of evidence that supports an end to prohibition, but it’s not evidence that is inherently more right than moral reasoning, for example.
In citing what we see as ‘evidence’, we’re also arguing that governments and society should draw on the predictive power of scientific evidence to enable people to reduce harms and make good lives for themselves. Just like those on the ‘other side’, what we choose as evidence reflects a particular understanding of good life.
Pitting one form of evidence against another just reinforces differences.
To get beyond the impasse, we need to understand why people support prohibition, and then make ending prohibition make sense to them on their own terms. Sometimes this will happen through carefully constructed arguments. And sometimes it will happen by setting an example of how to live a good life beyond prohibition.
We need to understand and communicate what we understand as valid evidence. We also need engage at an emotional and personal level. That’s where we will change minds, and build a bigger us.