Sunday, August 26, 2007

If It's Physical, Can We Punish?

The biggest concerns of most folks so far looking at the cognitive science research has seemed to be the possibility that "free will" and its place in our legal and punishment systems might be undermined. Not sure that will be the case for all offenders, but it does seem that it could increasingly be a good defense for people faced with drug penalties.

New research from the University of Melbourne has shed new light on why long term drug users find it hard to say no, despite dire consequences to their health.

A study into the frontal cortex, the key region of the brain involved in decision making, has shown that drug users have to place much greater demand on the brain to control impulses.
“In this study we found the frontal cortex, an area that is essential for exercising control over thoughts and behaviours, was working inefficiently.”

“These findings may help explain why it takes addicted individuals enormous effort to exercise control over their drug-taking behaviour in the face of adverse consequences, and why they are vulnerable to relapse back into uncontrolled, compulsive patterns of use.”
The researchers discovered two important differences between the opiate-using group and a group who have never used heroin.

Firstly, the opiate-using group needed to activate more of their brain by placing greater physiological demand on it to avoid making an error on a test of self control.

At the same time, brain cells in the frontal region were revealed to be less healthy than the non opiate-using group.

Then comes the potential defense:

“What people don’t tend to understand about long term drug users is that this is not a matter of choice. They have a reduced level of biological resources and find it hard to stop.”

Dr Dan Lubman, an addiction psychiatrist and a senior investigator on the project, says this new evidence is likely to lead to the development of innovative strategies for the treatment of addiction.

“These findings tell us that we need to provide a combination of pharmaceutical and psychological treatments that will help bolster the efficiency of the frontal cortex and hence the individual’s ability to stop their urge to use drugs.” Dr Lubman said.

“To improve treatments for long term drug users we need to understand at what stage these brain deficits occur. The next question we need to ask is are these latest research findings a consequence of addiction or do they explain people’s vulnerability to problematic drug use?” he said.

So many of the stories we tell ourselves to justify our punishment rather than medical treatment of drug offenders have to do with the offenders' "them"-ness, how they're morally inferior to those of us who can control ourselves (while we take our alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and anti-depressants because, well, you know, sometimes you just need to let the pressure off) and therefore deserving of the worse we can do. And if they don't get the message the first time, by God, then let's up the dosage (wait, does that mean our drug sanctions are our own form of drug use we're addicted to? No, silly, because we're perfectly capable of recognizing when what we're doing is counterproductive, as we've shown since the War on (Some) Drugs was declared by Nixon.). Research that is able to define and detail those whose drug use is the result of true mental harm will make those tales hard to maintain. I'm betting it won't take that long for good defense attorneys to start carrying around their own copy of this article and arguing for TECHNOCORRECTIONS for their clients, especially for those shown by ongoing research to be more genetically disposed toward abuse than others. You attorney types, could you make the case that it's malfeasance if they don't?

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