Cars & drugs, crime & punishment


BBC News reports on a crowdsourcing project in Missouri to publicise the case of Jeff Mizanskey. 21 years ago he was caught holding and distributing marihuana for a third time, and sent to prison for life. This drug has been legalised for medical use in some states and for recreational use in others, so his life sentence no longer appears proportionate to some people.

Every time it is suggested in church that we pray for those in need, it is a specific marihuana case that comes to my mind. Our friend is a single mother whose son was studying at university when this so-called soft drug rendered him clinically schizophrenic. It is tragic to see a young talented creative man sentenced by ‘choice’ to a life of inactivity, introversion and mental confusion. But it is criminal that a single mother who freely nurtured a boy to independence should become a 24×7 live-in carer without choice.

Drivers who accidentally kill are sentenced to months not years, which befits our society’s view on cars. Although by 2020 cars will have killed more people than all the wars of the 20th century, we all agree that this is acceptable and the convenience of driving is worth a few tens of millions of deaths. At least, I have not yet heard anyone say that road safety and car design have failed and we have to stop driving.

We try our best to weigh accidental death against incarceration, loss of full life against years of freedom, but no moral scales can help us measure justly, especially when we refuse to accept that it is ‘wrong’ in any way to simply drive, even though to drive is to participate in an activity that has killed 20,000,000 people. So far.

But drug dealing is different. Our society is fully aware of the damage that is done, and we feel as if the damage is a predictable consequence. And of course, drugs have no tangible product. After the high is over we’re left with addiction, and costs of managing crime and mental health issues, but no benefits.

Driving has many tangible outcomes. A few negatives (pollution, noise, death, obesity in children who no longer walk, and perpetual war in fuel source regions) but many positives (F1 racing, commuting alone, and the ability to work, worship, play, and live, all in different places, freeing us from the drudgery of building holistic communities.)

Clearly, in general, cars good – drugs bad. You buy a car, you tell your friends. You buy some drugs – you don’t tell your friends. Well maybe you do, but not your boss.

By the way the expression ‘drug dealer’ is as misleading as ‘hard working families’. It would be convenient if we could be divided simply into contributors and parasites in the economy, and it would be convenient if we could be divided simply into victims and predators in the drugs market. But drugs are always sold along chains so that, of a hundred users, only two or three know their original supplier’s name and face. So every user becomes a dealer.

So what should happen to Jeff? The way the law works, one is both tried and sentenced on the basis of society’s agreed statutes at the time of the crime. Even if we settle later on a revised view of the crime and its right punishment.

I think that’s a good principle though I am sad for Jeff, and I’m not opposed to random acts of mercy by the state. Strangely there are historically justified arguments for both legalisation and zero-tolerance. As for our future, I’d like a world with less cars and less drugs. We’re fiercely opposed to learning from history (e.g.prohibition) so that’s not going to happen. As long as this is more an electoral PR issue than a justice issue, instead we’ll have to see if the newspapers can make a story and a living out of manipulating public opinion and the political agenda. God bless the “news of the world”!

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