By Paij Chavez and KC Cushman
November 7, 2019
Two of our opinion writers, Paij Chavez and KC Cushman, have opposing perspectives on how much the government should regulate moral decisions — like drug abuse or sex work — in the name of protecting public health.
Cannabis sativa leaves | Chronicle archives
Chavez: We Should Fix Social Problems, Not Punish Victims
By Paij Chavez
“Legislation of morality” is common phrasing around criminal statutes against gambling, alcohol and drug use, pornography and certain sexual acts. Utah is a good example of a state that regularly dabbles in “morality legislation.” The vast majority of its elected officials are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and many support guidelines in church doctrine that disavow certain substances and behaviors. Utah’s state history has parallels with the early history of the United States — a group fleeing religious persecution from a large, powerful government took over a chunk of land and formed their own territory with a government that reflected their values. Despite resisting involvement from their previous oppressive government, both Utah and the United States would end up crafting legislation that solidified their personal religious values onto the general public.
However, the concept of morality legislation is not entirely specific to Utah. The religious background of lawmakers the country has a similar, localized impact on what a state’s version of “morality” is and how it’s upheld and enforced through law. Centuries later, some puritanical, conservative values remain embedded in many states, despite “separation of church and state” and increasingly changing attitudes toward religion. This leads to a hotbed for confusion and distrust. When it comes to criminalization, should anyone really have the authority to decide what is and is not moral behavior?
Thou Shalt Not
Some morality seems obvious. Most people agree that intentionally killing or harming someone is a crime. Taking or damaging property that does not belong to you should be considered a crime. “Thou shalt not kill’ and “thou shalt not steal” are well-known commandments in the Old Testament that just about everyone can agree with. Personally, I connect to the teachings of Buddhist ethics, which has an important emphasis on non-violence. If someone commits a violent crime, I believe there should be consequences — but also I don’t want consequences that seem violent for that same reason.
And what about non-violent behaviors that are less of an obvious threat to public safety? What role, if any, does the government have in legislating what a consenting adult does with their own body? In a country founded on individual freedom and liberty, morality legislation sure puts a lot more limitations on citizens — and these limitations that can be actively harmful.
Moral for Some, Dangerous for Others
Too often, legislation around specific behaviors has been defended with morality-infused language. The prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century was passed to protect the family. Instead of inspiring temperance, it increased bootlegging, and violent crime organizations exploded in many major cities.
Around the same time, a campaign to criminalize marijuana was fueled by racist tropes of white women being ‘corrupted’ by black jazz musicians and xenophobic fears of Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants moving north after the Mexican Revolution. Even using the word “marijuana,” (instead of cannabis or hemp) was an intentionally derogatory part of the political campaign.
Mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses, including marijuana, were put into place in 1956. Once cannabis use increased in the 1960s among the white upper-class population, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both commissioned research into the substance. The reports found no link between cannabis use and potential for violence or heavier drug use — yet it is still federally illegal and many U.S. citizens remain incarcerated for the sole charge of possession of cannabis. How moral. Clearly, the rationale behind morality legislation is that to keep someone “safe” from the harmful effects of drugs or alcohol, society must punish them if they are caught using it.
The same applies to prostitution and other forms of sex work. If the state protects citizens from harm, how is this accomplished by throwing people in a cell, charging them with a large fine and labeling them a criminal for sex work? There are better ways to address human trafficking or exploitation without punishing the victims.
Breaking Through Binary Morality
Sociopolitical issues are always talked about in binary ways — good or bad, legal or illegal. This is a result of the punitive model of justice that the United States employs. Instead of analyzing what circumstances lead to a crime being committed, the current system is much more open-and-shut. Mental health and socioeconomic status are usually not accounted for, and once someone is in the system, they must carry the additional stigma of being labeled a criminal.
Tobacco and nicotine use is a great example of how the government can evolve its stance on an issue, and make changes for the health of citizens without curtailing autonomy. Smoking used to be far more common in the U.S., but after years of research into the deceptive marketing and negative health effects of tobacco products, the government decided to step in and make some changes. Advertising completely changed, and consistent health communication campaigns are informing the public of possible and probable effects. By 2017 smoking was reported to be at an all-time low, and this was accomplished without the government banning cigarettes or arresting anyone for smoking in public.
The ability of the U.S. to support the physical, mental and emotional health of citizens and make communities safer is not contingent on the criminalization of vice. We can acknowledge the overlap of certain non-violent behaviors and public health concerns. Smoking around others is inappropriate and unfair. Operating a vehicle while intoxicated is dangerous and selfish. Pornography might depict a lack of consent and enforce damaging stereotypes. I am not against the regulation of products and services so much as I am against the criminalization and stigmatization of people for being human. The goal should not be to catch someone doing something wrong, but to understand and fix the social and environmental factors that contribute to the so-called immoral behavior.