Wednesday, May 10, 2006

U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy

On Tuesday, May 2, representing the Standing Committee on Substance Abuse of the American Bar Association, I met with staff of U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Addiction, Treatment and Recovery. Early that day I met with the staff of the Chairman of the Caucus, U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN). They have both admitted their problems of addiction. The Caucus had invited the ABA Standing Committee to brief Members of Congress on ABA policy last fall, and we were renewing our desire to collaborate with the caucus.

On May 5, I heard about Rep. Kennedy's car crash in the wee hours near the U.S. Capitol. Two key points:
(1) politician seems to driving under the influence. Bad. No one should drive under impaired by drugs or alcohol.
(2) politician seems have received special consideration -- no Breathalyzer, escort home, not jailed. VERY Bad. Did Rep. Kennedy seek special consideration, or was it simply offered to a VIP?

Driving while impaired by any circumstance should be strongly discouraged -- too tired, under the influence of cough and cold medicine, etc. We ought to routinely test for impairment in accidents.

Police have to stop giving special consideration to VIPs.

But police also should begin being more humane. Does the no-injury DUI driver always have to be taken into custody? No, usually not. Carry out the impairment test or the Breathalyzer test, but then take the driver home and give him or her a summons to court. Does the shame of jail help most people? Isn't the shame of having been pulled over, caught, and driven home by the police shame enough for most folks. Let the court weigh appropriate punishment after a further investigation of the record and the accused by the police and the prosecutors and the presentation of evidence at a hearing.
Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland made a definitive mockery of punishment first, trial second.

We must separate the misconduct of driving while impaired from the conduct of drug use and the condition of being addicted. Drug use, per se, does not warrant punishment. There is no legal principle or set of facts that justifies punishing people who use drugs. That is punishment is a personal feature of the justice system. You are punished for what you did, not for whether punishing you might deter someone else from doing an undesirable thing. Douglas Husak, professor of the philosophy of law at Rutgers University, in his outstanding book, Legalize This!, addresses these issues very powerfully.

The condition of being addicted is a medical condition. It is not shameful to be a diabetic or to have heart disease. It is not shameful to be addicted to drugs. It is not shameful, certainly, to have once been addicted. And it is not shameful to relapse.

The public is reacting in a variety of ways, reports the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. Generally his constituents, who like him, are forgiving, as they should be.

I wish the congressman well.

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