Another chapter from my book 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know, published in 2003.
For more on me, check out: The Memory Hole.
In the early 1920s, Dr. Linder was convicted of selling one morphine tablet and three cocaine tablets to a patient who was addicted to narcotics. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, declaring that providing an addicted patient with a fairly small amount of drugs is an acceptable medical practice “when designed temporarily to alleviate an addict’s pains.” (Linder v. United States.)
In 1962, the Court heard the case of a man who had been sent to the clink under a California state law that made being an addict a criminal offense. Once again, the verdict was tossed out, with the Supremes saying that punishing an addict for being an addict is cruel and unusual and, thus, unconstitutional. (Robinson v. California.)
Six years later, the Supreme Court reaffirmed these principles in Powell v. Texas. A man who was arrested for being drunk in public said that, because he was an alcoholic, he couldn’t help it. He invoked the Robinson decision as precedent. The Court upheld his conviction because it had been based on an action (being wasted in public), not on the general condition of his addiction to booze. Justice White supported this decision, yet for different reasons than the others. In his concurring opinion, he expanded Robinson:
If it cannot be a crime to have an irresistible compulsion to use narcotics … I do not see how it can constitutionally be a crime to yield to such a compulsion. Punishing an addict for using drugs convicts for addiction under a different name. Distinguishing between the two crimes is like forbidding criminal conviction for being sick with flu or epilepsy, but permitting punishment for running a fever or having a convulsion. Unless Robinson is to be abandoned, the use of narcotics by an addict must be beyond the reach of the criminal law. Similarly, the chronic alcoholic with an irresistible urge to consume alcohol should not be punishable for drinking or for being drunk.
Commenting on these cases, Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, an outspoken critic of drug prohibition, has recently written:
What difference is there between alcohol and any other dangerous and sometimes addictive drug? The primary difference is that one is legal while the others are not. And the U.S. Supreme Court has said as much on at least two occasions, finding both in 1925 and 1962 that to punish a person for the disease of drug addiction violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. If that is true, why do we continue to prosecute addicted people for taking these drugs, when it would be unconstitutional to prosecute them for their addiction?
Judge Gray gets right to the heart of the matter: “In effect, this ‘forgotten precedent’ says that one can only be constitutionally punishable for one’s conduct, such as assaults, burglary, and driving under the influence, and not simply for what one puts into one’s own body.”
If only the Supreme Court and the rest of the justice/law-enforcement complex would apply these decisions, we’d be living in a saner society.
References: Gray, Judge James P. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs. Temple University Press, 2001. • Linder v. United States, 925. No. 183. U.S. Supreme Court 268 U.S. 5 (1925). • Robinson v. California. SCT.1193, 370 U.S. 660, 82 S. Ct. 1417, 8 L. Ed. 2d 758 (1962). • Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968) (USSC).