Coloradans have been discussing drug policy, from taxing and regulating marijuana to criminal sentencing reform, for the better part of the last decade. I’ve participated in many of these discussions and one question keeps coming up, “Have you used drugs?” I think this question arises not because I appear to be under the influence of drugs, but because of how drug policy is perceived. Interestingly, questions like this rarely arise in other policy areas, where we often assume personal experience does not equal policy expertise.
There are two answers to this question, and assuming the questioner isn’t a law enforcement officer, one shouldn’t hesitate to answer, right?
The first answer being, “Yes, I have.” The first answer implies one has knowingly broken the law (state-level recreational and medical marijuana exceptions excluded, because they have fallen on deaf federal ears). This both hurts—or helps in some circles—one’s credibility as a lawbreaker and gives the impression his or her position is held because of personal interest. The second answer being, “No, I have not.” The second answer implies one does not have personal experience and is therefore less informed.
Isn’t this curious though? What if we applied this standard to other things?
If one supported same sex civil unions, would it be appropriate to ask that person if he or she has had intimate contact with members of the same sex, or about his or her relationship history? If one opposed further restrictions on firearms, would it be appropriate to ask that person if he or she has experienced violence from firearms?
These questions all have the same “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” quality. For drug policy, civil unions and firearms, personal experience does not make someone an expert on the constitutional rights of Coloradans in the area of contention. This same logic applies to other policy issues too.
We all have issues we care about. It is admittedly tempting to use questions about personal experience to bolster our own perspective—or put down opposing perspectives. And it is true familiarity often breeds acceptance, not contempt. But focusing on the personal characteristics of individuals rather than the ideas and principles at hand leaves us all worse off.
By the way my answer to the question is yes. In fact, I’m using drugs as I write this piece, and you might be too. I have caffeine surging through my veins. I had such a hard time sleeping last night that while I’m no Lance Armstrong, I wonder whether or not I could have written this piece at all without drugs.
Harris Kenny of Denver is a policy analyst. An earlier version of this post appeared on The Denver Post’s Idea Log as a part of the Colorado Voices s