David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 7/20/01
Another chapter has opened in the long Robert Downey drugs and the law saga. Forbidden by California's Proposition 36 from sending the actor and repeat drug law violator to jail again, a judge sentenced Downey instead to one year in a residential treatment center with drug testing.
This time, anyway. The sentence was "not a gift," the judge admonished him, it was going to be "hard work." And should Downey fail the treatment program, the judge warned, the next time he would get four years in a state prison.
Four years? For having an addiction, a medical problem? The idea of incarcerating a human being for four years for personal drug use is obscene. One wonders whether Downey's judge was a neutral and thoughtful arbiter of justice, or a spoiled tyrant upset that the voters had tied his hands this time, and who decided to take it out on Downey by threatening to destroy him if he disobeyed again.
But it really isn't the judge's business. If Robert Downey -- and perhaps more importantly, the many thousands of nonviolent offenders with fewer financial resources who are dragged into California's courts each year -- use drugs in private, it is their private business and no one else's, or at least not the government's, even if they do harm to themselves. Should an addiction lead to behavior that is legitimately considered criminal (e.g. theft, dangerous driving, child neglect, etc.), that is another issue, and other existing laws already deal with that. But drug use in and of itself is not a criminal act, but the decision of free individuals, unwise in some cases but ultimately their own.
Friends or family members of the addicted, even coworkers or colleagues, can legitimately voice their opinions and urge their troubled friends to seek help, and providing help to those seeking it is laudable. But it is entirely another matter for the state, through force or threat of it, to coerce an addict, much less a non-addicted user who happens to get caught, to submit to state-approved treatment programs and destroy them through incarceration if they disobey or fail. That is morally unjustifiable, a violation of basic human rights and freedom.
I'm glad that a new law kept Robert Downey out of prison this time, even more so that some 20,000 less wealthy people each year will receive the same benefit. But I was also glad to see protesters from the Libertarian Party holding signs reading "end the drug war" and other such slogans in the background during newscasts following Downey's court date. As Prop. 36 supporters point out, the new law is a "first step" toward treating addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal one. But it is equally important to remember that it is only a first step, the situation is still unacceptable and much remains to be done.
Much to be done, to reach the only morally acceptable goal: ending prohibition.