HARD Summer: autonomy within a prohibitive legal system

I want to elaborate on an earlier post of mine, that received some backlash on Reddit. I said “it is [not] an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths.” I stated that I don’t believe drug users are entirely to blame for the occasionally-lethal consequences of their willful intoxication; a point I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and something that, at first glance, seems wholly incorrect or contrary to many principles espoused on this site. Not so. Illegal drugs (and to an extent, legalized drugs, and to a small extent, anything illegal) face a special status in the realm of human action.

Imagine if I, an undergrad who studies law and philosophy, took on a business venture. I haven’t studied finance or business. Not only have I avoided all theory, but I have no real-world knowledge about the stock market or fluctuating national trends. If I go out on a limb, and buy shares in a company doomed to fail, at that precise moment I exercise my will, make a poor judgment and the inevitable consequences fall on my own shoulders. The responsibility is on me, the same as it would if I were highly educated on the subject and took a promising gamble. Why? Clearly, because I could have easily educated myself – the information, and the means to obtain it, is out there.

Drugs, such as methamphetamine, are different. Legal authorities have specifically prevented me from obtaining information, which would have been collected and condensed naturally, that is requisite for forming a knowledgeable, and thereby autonomous, judgment. In the same way that a child cannot be blamed for removing a firearm from its safe and mistakenly pulling the trigger, I cannot be entirely blamed for making decisions the consequences for which I had an incomplete understanding. It’s part of the reason the crime of homicide is nowhere in law so general: it is divided into murder, manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary, and so on, based on degrees of competence. Now, in the case of a hard drug, I did go of my own accord into the black market to purchase the substance. To some degree, no matter what, I was aware of the risks attached to it. Regardless, the government has, through its force, removed sources of information which would be central to my evaluative performance: scientists cannot perform tests because of enforced ethical standards or threatened jail time for proximity to a drug; there is a lack in direct testimony from acquaintances because the ability to acquire the drug has been drastically altered (in some circumstances, removed; in others, just made more seedy); in addition, police officers often do not know how to handle someone on certain drugs (even when they are required to), they know only how to make the arrest: occasionally life-threatening situations are stalled medical care. State paternalism actually has an infantilizing effect, which shifts some of the responsibility from my hands into those of my helicopter caregiver.

This disruption of responsibility does not imply the government now has the right to make my decisions for me: making decisions for me is what led to the disruption, not any innate immaturity on my part or the part of any user. Disruption cannot justify itself. Instead of knowing why methamphetamine is dangerous for so and so reasons, what I really know and understand, is that the market I can purchase it in is dangerous. Genuine knowledge, wisdom about a substance and its chemical make-up, is less commonplace than wisdom about the dangers of obtaining it: knowledge for which its existence is utterly contingent on an extensive state apparatus.

So, authorities that pass laws criminalizing drug use directly make the market more dangerous (by creating cartels, etc.), and indirectly prevent consumers from discovering information appropriate to making an informed (and thereby blameworthy) decision. The weight of many acute drug overdoses rests on the heads of lawmakers, and in every future drug experimentation the government plays an inhibitory role in the autonomy of the experimenter.

Politically-minded people who don’t want the government (or other people) making decisions for them – whether that’s conservatives hoping to direct their income how they see fit, or liberals fighting for marriage equality – usually employ the argument that people can be responsible for themselves. What I think is obvious, is that when government attempts to prohibit any substance, they impact the ability to even potentially be responsible when making decisions about the substance, by coercively limiting the information that would naturally develop.

HARD Summer and legal belligerence

3 die after attending HARD Summer rave near Fontana (http://lat.ms/2aKrN6q)

I just attended this concert, and lived. There was around 150,000 people. HARD Summer is an annual festival for electronic dance music, ordinarily thrown in the Los Angeles fairgrounds but moved to Fontana this year. Three twenty-year olds died during the two day event, presumably from drug overdoses; another two died last year, and eight have died from drug-related causes within LA county since 2006.

The intuition is simple: drugs are so popular at concerts is because it is one of the very few public places to actually engage in use without fearing legal consequences; few people get arrested while hidden in a crowd. Recreational effects are secondary, because recreational considerations account for all gatherings. It’s also a great way to make new friends, and factors as part of the culture, etc. The criminalization of drugs means that they are taken covertly instead of publicly, and thus much more dangerously and ignorantly. So, concert-goers, to satisfy their adventurousness and recreational fixation, must purchase their drugs in the streets and sneak them through security, instead of buying them safely inside from some reputable dealer. And there are cops on the premises, and not medical practioners and drug safety experts. (Cops that are especially incompetent with public health, as this article suggests.) 

And so young adults die at these events, and their parents blame the management, the county, the city – for “failing to protect” the rave’s attendees from pushers distributing drugs. A lawsuit was filed last month, citing negligence and wrongful death, in the case of woman who consumed “what she believed to be pure ecstasy,” after she died of multiple drug intoxication. The promoter’s owner, Live Nation, the city, the County Fair Association, down to the security, Staff Pro, face the suit. There could possibly be a measure of protective failure. The management doesn’t make promises or guarantee welfare to the individual attendees, but the police, also known as public safety officers, were not able to effectively use CPR, according to a witness in the parking lot. In California, law enforcement is required, under Police Officers Standards and Training, to be accredited to perform CPR. Yet, even if legal responsibility was on the officer, moral responsibility rests on no one.

The risk-taking behavior was entirely in the hands of the attendees. Health as a consequent of personal risk-taking is inherently a personal responsibility. When consuming drugs – which are infinitely more dangerous because of criminalization – the consumer also incurs a perceived risk (based on subjective probability), proportionate to several external factors. One of these factors is the hospitality and security of the local environment. If it could be shown that assurance of protection had been made on behalf of nearby staff or officers, resulting in a reasonable estimation of security, a moral duty would be invested. No such guarantee existed though. On a side note, the staffers even provided free water, which is actually rare at these events, and vital for safe drug use. (But not as an antecedent necessarily resulting in safety, nor even enough to lower the perceived risk substantially such that otherwise drugs would not be consumed.) 

The parents of the deceased twenty-year olds are planning to sue whoever could legally be held accountable, but I think it’s easy to see the difficulty in assigning meaningful blame. I know, also, that many people, more reasonable than the parents but not wholly impartial, want to blame the consumers themselves. I don’t think it is an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths, simply for trying to squeeze more pleasure out of a state-suppressed existence. There exists responsibility, but the blame is incalculable and worthless to investigate. Who can rightfully be held accountable? The event organizers, for trying to suppress drugs but inevitably failing at whole prohibition? The pushers, in their harsh realism, living dangerously to supply wealthy and risky (but competent) young adults with their demands? The drug “kingpins”, for functioning productively in an open market with high demand, with full consent of all involved parties? The basement scientists, for discovering new chemical arrangements – agents that can be used medicinally as well as recreationally; agents that are inherently neutral to their alteration, route or variety of consumption? The Earth, and Nature itself, for creating the ingredients? I believe the chain of thought concludes with a puritanical condemnation of human nature. Human nature as something to be escaped, battled with religion or values; at the very least it must be vehemently detested by society. This is the conclusion of those who would want to sue others for their children’s use of drugs. 

There are those too, that want to simply change the United State’s drug culture: our alcoholism, our designer drug scene. This not through laws necessarily. It’s worth pointing out, however, that whenever someone expresses the desire to change a cultural aspect, he or she can only be saying, in veiled language, that their ideology should replace the current ideology. There is no society, there are only individuals in that society; talking about battling “society” can only mean pushing on a new ideology to others. Society’s temperament and exclusive nature can be chalked up solely to psychological states in the brains of its members. When recognized as a useful fiction to describe coordinated groups of people, instead of an emergent quality, cultural attitudes can be critized. Otherwise, writing polemics about society, and not individuals in the social sphere, makes clear an authoritarian intent: group all these people together and inflict my rules; empower me with merciless authority; subjugate dissenters to anonymity.

(For a brief aside, this is one of the idealistic problems of progressive movements: their unceasing condemnation of an unreal entity. The great majority of people blame their problems on society. There’s a classic idiom, occasionally attributed to Neitzsche, that “God is in the details”; used to stress the significance of detail, it can also be used rather literally to describe man’s desperate search for God. In early history, the Western world thought its God lived in the clouds above, e.g., the tower of Babel. After the invention of the telescope, the world moved its God back to outer space. Now, with our advanced technology, we can see billions of light-years into space – with ourselves at the radius of the observable universe, of 45 billion light-years – and still cannot find God. So, the theological theories have changed (now God is “all around us,” or “in another dimension,” and he breaks the laws of physics and logic). The way that people brood on their social problems is similar. Without the ability to accurately pinpoint an antagonist, the invincible figure of Society is summoned to scapegoat problems that may not have any material instances. Thus, “institutional” is really a synonym for “individual.”) 

It is detestable to enforce, legally or idealisticaly, a new ideology upon others. But the true moral repugnancy of this entire situation, rather than resting on event administrators, rests on those that would sue others – and thus attempt to prevent another 149,997 people from having a good time next year – for a grand payout because they cannot cope with their children’s choices, after they themselves raised them.