The Drug Double-Standard

Matt Steinglass presents “everything you need to know about the absurdity of America’s war on drugs”:

When Trey Radel, a congressman from Florida, was charged with cocaine possession on Tuesday, he released a statement that began as follows:

I’m profoundly sorry to let down my family, particularly my wife and son, and the people of Southwest Florida. I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice. As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them.

This is a perfectly reasonable and entirely sympathetic statement from somebody with an addiction problem. The queer bit is that in making this plea for understanding, Mr Radel feels on solid ground ascribing his misbehavior to alcoholism, but isn’t willing to talk in the same way about his drug use. Alcoholism, apparently, does not carry the type of stigma that would prevent Americans from empathizing with or, potentially, re-electing Mr Radel. He expects that his readers will share his view of alcoholism as a disease.

In contrast, he terms his cocaine use “an extremely irresponsible choice.” Alcoholism is a disease; cocaine possession is a choice. Because, after all, something can’t be evil or criminal if it’s involuntary. How can it be a crime to have a disease? Right?

This is ridiculous. People who develop substance-abuse problems need treatment. Whether the substance they’re abusing is cocaine or alcohol carries no moral weight, and it shouldn’t carry any legal weight either. Trey Radel should not be able to excuse his cocaine use by pointing to his alcohol use; neither is any better or worse than the other. The same goes for Toronto’s Rob Ford: we, the public, should not have the synapse connections that make it possible for Mr Ford to say he may have used drugs while “in a drunken stupor” and expect that to serve as an excuse.

Barro’s related thoughts:

Radel says he is seeking “intensive in-patient treatment” for alcoholism. If he has a substance-abuse problem I wish him all the best in getting it treated. But I’d also note that politicians who get in trouble for drugs feel public pressure to seek rehab even if they never had an addiction.

Radel wouldn’t be allowed to say “I do coke because it is fun and I don’t have any problem requiring treatment” even if that’s an accurate description of his situation.