In December, 2015 America’s new drug czar, Michael Botticelli, gave a revealing interview with 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley. The interview included this exchange:
Scott Pelley: Are you saying that the way we have waged the war on drugs for more than 40 years has been all wrong?
Michael Botticelli: It has been all wrong. Blunt force didn’t knock out the drug epidemic. 21 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And half of all federal inmates are in for drug crimes. We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. Not only do I think it’s really inhumane, but it’s ineffective and it cost us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this.
This is a game changer in the war on drugs, a move from viewing drug addition as a crime to be punished to viewing it as an illness to be treated.
Moreover, it does not take a lot of imagination to envision a broader application of Botticelli’s analysis providing a rather incisive critique to the predominant Christian conception of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT). On that traditional view, God resurrects the reprobate to an eternity of punitive torture.
The standard objections to ECT are well known: the punishment is disproportionate to the crime; it’s wrong to torture people. But Botticelli offers the elements of another objection. If human beings are addicted to sin in a way that parallels a junkie’s addiction to drugs, then just as it is wrong to punish the addict so it is wrong to punish the sinner.
Of course, one could reason in the other direction as well. In other words, one could conclude that it is right to inflict punitive punishment on the person addicted to sin. From that it follows that it is likewise right to punish the addict addicted to drugs.
However, Botticelli offers reasons for his paradigm shift above and beyond the undeniable fact that the war on drugs has been a colossal failure:
Michael Botticelli: We’ve learned addiction is a brain disease. This is not a moral failing. This is not about bad people who are choosing to continue to use drugs because they lack willpower. You know, we don’t expect people with cancer just to stop having cancer.
Scott Pelley: Aren’t they doing it to themselves? Isn’t a heroin addict making that choice?
Michael Botticelli: Of course not. You know, the hallmark of addiction is that it changes your brain chemistry. It actually affects that part of your brain that’s responsible for judgment.
Once again, if Botticelli is right, and if that which is true of drug addiction specifically is true of sin addiction generally, then it is as wrong to subject the sin addict to punitive punishment as surely as it is wrong to subject the drug addict to punitive punishment.
In that case, we can turn to the next question: is Botticelli right?