The complexity of human trafficking legislation is a real impediment to making a quantifiable difference in reducing human trafficking activity “on the ground.” It may well be a cliche at this point to note that “the road to hell” is paved with good intentions, but when it comes to finding workable solutions to the problem, “good intentions” may not have the desired result. As a case in point, reason.com takes a close look at the intersection of the illegal drug problem with the human trafficking problem, and finds that conflating the provision of drugs to individuals offering sex for pay as an act of human trafficking may end up causing more harm to human trafficking victims than good. And, while no one believes that those promulgating such solutions are only trying to do good, the complexity of the problem of human trafficking – especially when it is combined with other social ills, illustrates just how difficult it can be to find ways to improve the situation.
Much of the U.S. government’s effort to “stop human trafficking” consists of defining a larger and larger subset of activity as trafficking, then cracking down on this ancillary activity. New legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) would expand this territory even further. Under Brown’s bill, “using drugs or illegal substances to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act” or in any kind of labor would be punishable under federal criminal laws related to human trafficking.
It’s certainly wrong (and should be criminal) to force drugs on someone in order to get them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise consent to, be that engaging in any sort of sex or performing any sort of work. That’s why doing so is already punishable under a range of criminal statutes.
But Brown’s bill (S. 2197) is vaguely worded enough to open up new possibilities, like charging anyone who sells drugs to a sex worker as a sex trafficker (or at least threatening them with this if they don’t cop to some lesser offense) and counting any informal trade of drugs for any sort of labor as a human trafficking offense.