Moral responsibility of person with drug abuse disorder

I recently read about a case in Massachusetts (see Boston Globe article) in which a woman has been arrested multiple times for theft related to drug abuse. Instead of being sent to jail for theft she had been placed on probation with the condition that she remain drug free on mandatory drug tests. She is claiming that since she has a medical disorder that makes her unable to refrain from using drugs by asserting her will, it is wrong to punish her for not being able to stay drug free. She has been in several drug treatment programs and has had several periods of sobriety, but has each time eventually relapsed into drug use and has turned to stealing to get the money to pay for drugs. She is currently in a suboxone treatment program.

This raises an interesting issue about moral responsibility. Is a person who is addicted to drugs and has been unable to resist drug use morally and legally responsible for doing such things as stealing when that is done to pay for the drugs the person cannot resist taking? Can a judge require staying drug free as a condition of not sentencing the person to prison for theft?

I think it is important to recognize that there are many underlying reasons why a person may end up with a dependence on drugs. It may at times have a genetic component. It frequently is related to adverse events in childhood including physical and emotional trauma and family instability. However, successful treatment requires the person with a drug abuse disorder to take responsibility for his or her own actions and get the help needed to break free of the disorder. Even those who are addicted to drugs make choices and have some control over those choices. If they did not no one would ever be able to escape such a disorder. For the protection of society, we need to hold people responsible for the things they do that have adverse effects on others. In this case the judge could have simply put the defendant in jail for stealing. The alternative of allowing probation with an incentive to seek and follow through with treatment is compassionate. It is not appropriate to say that the person with a drug abuse disorder is a helpless victim who should not be held responsible for anything she has done.

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Mark McQuain
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Mark McQuain

I wonder if there are some who believe that since drug abuse disorder may be genetic, that there is nothing that can be done short of genetic engineering (literally, the treatment needs to change “what I am” for any hope of recovery). It is a short hop to determinism – “I” am what my genes say I am and nothing more. (Therefore, no moral responsibility.)

It is curious that gender dysphoria has some arguing from the exact opposite position – that “I” am not what my genes say that I am but something else entirely.