University of Southern California

Behavioral Addictions and the Law

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Note by Brent S. Colasurdo
From Volume 84, Number 1 (November, 2010)

The doctrine of free will underlies much of the legal system in the United States. The criminal law, for instance, does not punish a person unless that individual made a choice to commit a wrongful act or otherwise had some sort of control over the wrongful behavior. This principle often arises in the context of individuals with diseases or disorders. Given that a person does not typically choose to be afflicted with a disease, and often cannot control the effects of the disease, the law cannot rightfully hold the person responsible for those effects. For instance, a criminal defendant who committed a wrongful act as a result of suffering from schizophrenia, a mental illness over which the defendant has no control, will likely be punished less severely than a non–mentally ill defendant, or not at all. Similarly, a civil defendant who crashed a car due to a sudden unforeseeable heart attack will likely not be liable for the resulting damage. Implicit in this concept is the idea that any person in the same circumstances would have done the same thing.

A legal system such as ours, built around the concept of free will, is contorted by the concept of addiction. Addicts, by definition, are unable to control their substance use. Implicit in this concept is the idea that any person who is given an addictive substance for a certain amount of time can become addicted to that substance. The law has wrestled with fitting the concept of drug addiction into the many doctrinal areas founded on the concept of free will.

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