"The Truth Always Feels Better"
-- Axiom of Living #2
Time to tell the truth
[A short disclaimer and digression on why I feel that I have some latitude to expound on this topic: Though I'm not a doctor or chemist, I have been told that I'm a smart cookie and I've seen first hand some of the best and worst things chemicals can do to people. Also, my experience as part of The Quick Fix gives me a rather advantaged perspective on the whole issue of addiction. I've also been inspired by many other great articles on this topic and have done a fair amount of experiential and scholarly research. My line of thought owes a lot to this article by another outlandish Josh (Joshua Wolf Shenk). All that being said, in the immortal words of Glen Danzig: I've got something to say.]
I've always been fascinated with drugs and drug culture. Since I was old enough to figure out how to start actively looking for information, I've lapped up opinions and ideas about drugs from all sides. So when I turn on the TV or look at the news and I see there's another cautionary tale or slick commercial coming from the partnership for a drug free america, I always read the article or watch the spot. That's how I came across this information about the latest round of anti-ecstasy ads that will be hitting TVs. This ad series just re-enforces my belief that the way our culture deals with its relationship to chemicals is seriously misaligned.
What's Wrong With This Picture?
Look, let's get down to brass tacks. Do we believe in freedom and personal sovereignty? I think we do, and that's good. So what does this mean? It means we're allowed to speak freely, to think freely, to own guns and drive cars and publish books (or websites) that are critical of government policy. However, it does not seem to mean that we have complete possession of our own chemistry. There are a whole set of laws governing what we're allowed to do to ourselves. From drugs use to doctor-assisted suicide, there seem to be people in the halls of government that presume to tell me what I can and can not do with my own physiology, and I for one am sick and tired of "the man" trampling my chemical liberty!
Ok now, let's take a step back from that fiery rhetoric. I should preface my argument by saying that drug abuse and addiction can be a problem both for individuals and the culture at large. Note however that I say, "can be". As in "not always". Let me explain. There's a standard spectrum of involvement with drugs that goes:
abstention > experimentation > use > abuse > addiction
This spectrum carries a normative/moral message, that as you move further to the right you get worse and worse. I disagree with this normative construction. First off, the terms are not possible to specifically define. Much like the medical definition of ADD, which is so broad there are perhaps two 5 year old who could excape a liberal application of the diagnostic criteria, these terms are fuzzy. One person's addiction is another's abuse is another's use. What about addiction to not doing things: is that addiction or abstinance? You get the point. Moreover, despite the negative connotations of the words, the actual behaviors associated with "abuse" and "addiction" are in and of themselves not evil or wrong. After all, we are all "addicted" to water and many of us "abuse" coffee on a daily basis, yet statistically we suffer little to no physical or mental health risks from these dependencies.
In real terms, a long-term maintenance heroin user suffers less physical health risk than a lifelong bar-fly, but guess which one will land their ass in the clink if the cops break down the door? In both instances a case can be made that some aspect of the user's emotional/mental/spiritual health is suffering, but this is a highly subjective concern, and not one to be solved by anti-drug legislation. At best you could say that each of these individuals might benefit from treatment. On the other hand, it's completely feasible that they're both happy as clams.
Even if a behavior engenders great physical risk, the government doesn't always see fit to outlaw it. Guns are legal, and statistically speaking owning one increases your chances of being shot. If you find that hyperbolic, we can stick with drugs. You need look no further than the carcinogenic legacy of cigarettes to see that health and physical safety are clearly not the main reasons the government has for curtailing our chemical liberty.
In fact, a historical analysis of almost all anti-drug legislation reveals a cultural bias as the initial reason. Cocaine legislation was prompted by shock stories of "cocaine-crazed negros" in the south. Opium legislation was meant to rein in Chineese immigrants. Marijuanna legislation was introduced so that the Law in Texas would have something to arrest Mexicans for. LSD was illegalized based on a few horror stories and a general discomfort with long-haired hippy freaks. In almost every case, the reining in of chemical liberty has been an (unsuccessful) attempt to inact some wider cultural change.
But what do I mean by chemical liberty? I mean that I am ultimately the sovereign of myself and my body chemistry, and to have some external agent (the law) proscribe what is good and not good to do within my own bodily borders feels very much like an infringement on my rights. I can respect a reasoned opinion on the matter, and I actively seek truthful and balanced information, but these laws are very heavy handed and wrongheaded.
Most people who don't want us using drugs fly a flag of saving our society or some such muck. They talk about how drugs destroy families and ruin lives. I respond that the prohibition of drugs causes more damage by several orders of magnitude than the poor little chemicals ever could on their own. Have we learned nothing from the lesson of the 1920s? Prohibition harms society by creating a criminal underworld, by limiting scientific inquiry, by creating a national state of schizophrenia. Prohibition ends lives by locking people away, by creating violent crime, by making treatment hard to reach for those in need. Prohibition destroys families by forcing issues into the closet, by creating the secrets that divide, by stifling opportunities for meaningful discussion and shared experience. If you're interested in life, in preventing death and improving the quality of people's experience, prohibition is literally your worst enemy.
But what about the horrors of addiction? Prohibitionists speak frequently about the this plague as justification for their stance. As someone who has studied this topic for a number of years, I cannot fathom how they believe the prohibition helps to reduce addiction. Addiction thrives on the unseen, the unmentioned, the unknown. To treat addiction society-wide, we must drag all of our collective skeletons out of the closet, not jam the door shut while whistling the star spangled banner.
I want my chemical liberty! If I'm permitted legally to alter my body chemistry with caffeine and alcohol and sugar-soaked saturated fats, why aren't I allowed to smoke a spliff if I'm so inclined? If I can legally be allowed (with doctor's consent) to alter my serotonin re-uptake rates with Prozac, why not undergo a psychiatric evaluation licensing me to recreationally experiment with MDMA or LSD?
As I said before, prohibition is a cultural maneuver. From the temperance movement to the racially motivated origins of marijuana prohibition, outlawing drugs has always been a means of oppressing one culture or another. Prohibition is a tool of the culture wars, a means for one group of people to control the way in which another lives out of sheer principle.
Though anti-drug advocates always couch their rhetoric in the language of doing good for society, any reasonable person who takes a step out of these culture wars can see that prohibition is a poor way to improve a society in any objective sense. Forcing things underground is the quickest way to multiply their dangers and to shit-can their benefits. So why are we hell-bent for leather on stamping out the "evil" of drugs? The only answers I can find is that drug culture is frightening and abhorrent to many Americans. This basically boils down to simple puritan tradition coupled with the basic (and irrational) human fear of the unknown.
Most people I know who are stridently opposed to drug use (my father, for instance) seem to ascribe almost super-natural or spiritual powers to the chemicals. They seem to believe that they are stronger than people, that they have a will of their own. This is clearly not correct. While there are many drugs that obviously have a greater ability to addict humans (e.g. crack cocaine, heroin), these substances are by no means "stronger" than people. There are many ex-crackheads and ex-junkies in this world.
Moreover, when a drug is underground - that is to say, illegal - there is little if any objective and reliable information on its effects and consequences. To stick with the example of crack, you'll find that statistically once people started figuring out from sources that they trust that crack can ruin your life, the numbers of people who tried it (and subsequently the number who ended up as addicts) decreased significantly. This trend is continuing and should be exploited/aided.
So education is a key element in developing a healthy relationship between culture and chemicals. However, DARE has been proven to be at best ineffective. This is because it does not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It has an agenda. It contains lies by omission, and humans tend not to believe something once they figure out it's not the truth. Television advertisements from an organization that has no little to no credibility with potential drug users (e.g. The Partnership for a Drug Free America) are not an effective means of transmitting the information either.
How should we do drug education then? I think drug education should be non-judgemental, similar to sex-ed. I think it should include accurate scholarly research. I think real stories from real people, representing a real spectrum of experiences, not just aberrational horror stories, are the most powerful and expedient means of getting the point across. The "point" being that there are a lot of things you can do with your chemical liberty and you should be informed before you do something, know the risks, reduce your liabilities, and know who and how to ask for help if you need it. The cost to implement this kind of drug-awareness campaign pales in comparison to the cost of treating thousands of late-stage addicts, to say nothing locking millions of people away. A pinch of real prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
So now we're getting into the part of this essay where I start constructing real-world solutions, where I stop making negative arguments against prohibition and start arguing constructively for my vision of a chemically liberated society. For the whole nine yards, you'll have to tune in for the next installment, coming soon.