Punishment is not prevention

Punishment is becoming less prevalent in all areas of society, especially against young people. Why does someone insist on keeping it for drug use?

This article is about the political debate in Norway about decriminalizing all drug use, proposed by the government, which will be voted over in parliament nest spring.

Virtually everyone agrees that we should stop punishing drug addicts. In the debate on the decriminalization of drug use, the future of the country’s youth is the central source of disagreement. Both parties in the debate are concerned about young people, but for very different reasons.

Abstinence organizations and the police want the police to retain their coercive measures, especially towards young people. Otherwise, there will be more young people trying illegal drugs, and thus more drug addicts, they believe. It is not difficult to understand this concern, but when the enormous investment in punishment in recent decades has not led to less drug use, it is time to rethink our strategy.

Young people are sensible

We who work for the breakthrough of the historic drug reform, which will lead to decriminalization, have another concern for young people as a central driving force: We are concerned about the consequences of punishment and stigma. We are concerned that the exclusion that young people who use drugs experience from early childhood is exacerbated by criminalization.

Today’s youth use less alcohol and cigarettes than their parents did at the same age, without us having to scare them with punishment. Trust and good information work much better.

Especially for marginalized and vulnerable young people, punishment and stigma can have a devastating effect on self-esteem and future possibilities. This is well documented in research and the drug reform committee’s report. Punishment can lead to exclusion from several professions and educations, and stigma can lead to social exclusion from family and friends. Also, many refuse to contact help in emergencies, for fear of punishment.

“Prevention” vs. prevention

The government-elected committee also shows that there is no evidence that the penal regime has a preventive effect. The word prevention often gets repeated in the debate. “We need to focus more on prevention,” say actors on both sides. When opponents of the reform say they still want the police to search the homes, mobile phones and bodies of young people suspected of using illegal drugs, they justify it with “prevention”.

Prevention also gets presented as something one should instead focus on, rather than decriminalize use and possession. But it makes little sense to talk about prevention and decriminalization as if they were contradictions and that we have to choose either or. It is time to examine the concept of prevention in more detail.

According to the UN and WHO, prevention is “to create a healthy and safe upbringing for children. The main goal is to help people, especially young people, to avoid or delay the use of drugs, or to help those who have already started, to prevent the development of substance abuse disorders.” They state several measures that can contribute to this, such as kindergarten coverage, school and family programs and mental health improvement. Punishment and control of young people, on the other hand, are not considered proper prevention measures by the UN and WHO.

It’s about trust

When the police encounter young people who use illegal drugs, they detect the drug use, they do not prevent it. Young people are often put on urine test contracts that lack documented effects, and which we know from research that very many experiences as degrading and an invasion of privacy.

It’s unreasonable to think that the police are an effective prevention actor since drug users try to avoid contact with them, precisely because of the threat of punishment. Decriminalization will ensure increased trust between vulnerable young people and the authorities: An essential prerequisite for helping.

If privacy-infringing measures such as searching of homes, mobile phone and bodies are proportionate, justifiable and effective, they should be used more, beyond just drug crime. Such measures could, for example, be used against young people who are suspected of using alcohol and tobacco, who have suicidal thoughts or are alleged to develop eating disorders.

Many lives could have been saved in this way, if only it had worked. However, no one envisions such a future. So why should we use such measures against young people who use illegal drugs?

Punishment damages

It’s time to talk more about the dark side of punishment. Punishing young people for the use of illegal drugs has become so normalized that most people have, for a long time, accepted it as the most natural reaction from society.

At the same time, we have stopped punishing children and young people for most things. Parents no longer beat disobedient children. The bully of the class is no longer subjected to re-sit or the cane, and even young people who commit violent crimes are met by measures such as conflict counseling rather than imprisonment.

The Drug Reform Committee refers to thorough research, which shows that punishment has an anti-social effect. Those from lower social classes and ethnic minorities are most often punished, even though those from higher classes use significantly more drugs. In this way, punishment recreates class divisions.

Addiction is not accidental

It is far from random who develops drug addiction. Several genetic factors increase the probability, but environmental factors are triggering causes. Risk factors include neglect, abuse, bullying, loneliness, learning disabilities, and growing up in poor and marginalized communities.

Precisely the young people who are exposed to these risk factors are also most vulnerable to stigma and control measures. Well-adjusted young people will usually do well, regardless of whether their use of illegal drugs is punished. On the other hand, punishment makes it more difficult to offer help to those who need it most.

In the Norwegian NGO “Forandringsfabrikken’s” report, 58 young people struggling with intoxication were interviewed. It is stated that: “[When] the services reward and punish behavior, the young people experience that they are punished for having pain inside them.”

Adolescents who start early with illegal drugs often have a complex trauma history, and the last thing they need in their lives is more fear.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of the Oslo street magazine =Oslo, by Mikkel Ihle Tande, leader of the Norwegian youth organization Safer Youth.

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