Could a more compassionate legal system lead to sustainable societies?

Drug addicts should be cared for, not condemned, says Matt Mellen, who believes adopting more considerate attitudes will pave the way for a sustainable future

One hundred years ago women couldn’t vote in England. Two hundred years ago you could keep a slave. It’s clear that society evolves as attitudes change, but until this is recognised in law it’s just opinion.

It may well be that 100 years from now our great-grandchildren will look back at our time with a similar shudder – a time when drug addicts are punished, not treated.

Frederick Douglas, a former slave abolitionist leader, said: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” When we consider the devastation wreaked by the black market drug trade, the suffering of swelling prison populations and the subsequent price paid by taxpayers, we see that the costs of prohibition and punishment are great indeed.

Prohibition has always been divisive, but currently it is under intense international scrutiny and change is in the air. The US has led the global war on drugs and now has more prisoners than any other country. Approximately one percent of its population – almost 2.5 million people – is behind bars. The most serious charge against 51 percent of these inmates is a drug offence. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent for homicide.

For an increasing number of Americans, this is no longer acceptable. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Texas, governor Rick Perry said: “After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward decriminalisation and keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade.”

These previously heretical opinions are now being reflected in changing laws. Colorado and Washington have led the charge and now the people of Alaska and Oregon may approve a tax-and-regulate system later this year.

In the UK, an e-petition led by Green MP Caroline Lucas urging the government to review the Misuse of Drugs Act collected more than 100,000 signatures. Backed by Sir Richard Branson, Sting, Dame Joan Bakewell and former president of the Royal College of Physicians Sir Ian Gilmore, the petition’s most visible supporter, Russell Brand, pointed out that “almost 2,000 young people die in the UK each year from taking illegal drugs of uncertain potency that they can only get hold of on the illegal market.”

“Compassion emerges not as an indulgence for the charitable, but as a courageous path to solving intractable social problems”

As Brand has pointed out repeatedly in his unique and compelling way, updating drug laws is in many ways about extending compassion to addicts. Many drug dependants were abused as children or have suffered terribly and, as Brand puts it, use drugs “to anaesthetise the pain of living.” In offering compassion and understanding, and by treating addiction as a health issue, not a legal one, we can help addicts heal and bypass the vast amount of criminal activity based on them either trying to get their hit, or gangs striving to deliver it.

Compassion is the emotion we feel in response to the suffering of others, which motivates a desire to help. It emerges not just as an indulgence for the charitable but as a courageous path to solving intractable social problems. Either way, according to the Dalai Lama, it’s worth doing: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Compassion requires us to identify with people beyond ourselves, be they slaves, members of the opposite sex, or drug addicts. But it goes further still, to rivers, to forests and to nature itself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The love that you withhold is the pain that you carry.” We withhold love from nature and carry the pain of a dying biosphere. Addressing ecological collapse is not just something that happens “out there” in an abstract “environment” but is an internal process of personal development; an opportunity available to all of us.

Many people already feel like nature is a part of themselves and, identifying with her, feel compassion. Now they are demanding that legal systems catch up. The lawyer Polly Higgins leads a campaign for the United Nations to recognise ‘ecocide’ as a crime, while Ecuador and Bolivia have laws recognising the rights of nature, and in Europe campaigners are launching a European Citizens Initiative to include the rights of nature in the European constitution.

The challenges of drug addiction and ecological collapse may seem to be of different realms but progress towards one may support the other; an extension of our compassion brings the change.

The author Charles Eisenstein recently suggested that decriminalising drugs “may offer us a gateway away from machine values” of domination and control, towards the “organic values” of symbiosis – a hallmark of “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” In this world we might not systematically punish people who have slipped into addiction, just as we would not wipe out species and ecosystems just to keep digits spinning in a catastrophically floored global economy. But to get there we need to shorten the distance between our hearts and the long arm of the law.