Drugs And the American Nervous System
By A.D. Freudenheim

28 July 2002

Few things are as perniciously stupid as the American attitude towards recreational drugs. There, I said it, even though it probably makes me a target for surveillance (or worse) by the new-and-improved, Ashcroftian Justice Department, by Ashcroft's friend Asa Hutchinson, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and all sorts of others. If only it were untrue, boys!

I could start with the up-side to American policy: the amazing impact it must have on employment, not only in the United States but around the world. The government's strict views on the legality and acceptability of many recreational drugs means that more enforcement agents must be employed - more FBI, DEA, and Customs officers, to say nothing of local police officers and prison guards, as well as the military troops supported by the U.S. operating in other countries. There is the Military Industrial Complex, shifting its focus from the Cold War era of big tanks and bigger missiles, which must provide guns and other munitions for these agencies to use in fighting drug producers and importers, not to mention helicopters and tactical aircraft; that amounts to lots of jobs right there. And then there are the expenditures on cool new biotechnologies, such as the development of herbicides that can destroy coca plants in tropical Colombia, leaving the peasants there free to grow other, more acceptable crops. (This last item conveniently ignores the fact that most of our efforts at managing the natural world through such tools have backfired, as with the introduction of kudzu in Florida to help fight erosion, or attempts at controlling trout and pike fish populations in California's Lake Davis as the species battle it out against each other.[1])

I could also talk about the purported successes and failures of fifty years of anti-drug policy. The watchfulness of governmental and charitable agencies as the numbers of users appear to rise and fall and the constant polling of teenagers on their attitudes towards drugs, year by year, decade by decade. The evolution in tactics from "Just Say No" to "This is you brain on drugs…." and the debate about the efficacy of these and other sloganistic approaches. The "new" nooks-and-crannies of drug use that are "discovered" for all to see, as when The New York Times reported recently on the continuing use of marijuana by some large (if ill-defined) group of American Baby Boomers, struggling with whether (and how) to hide their weed use from their kids.[2]

What really bugs me, however, is the simple hypocrisy behind it: the absurdity of criminalizing behavior where the only victims are the individual users, and where we make artificial distinctions between legal-but-addictive drugs like alcohol and tobacco and illegal ones like marijuana and heroin. Some argue that drugs have a tremendous cost to society - that people steal in order to support drug habits, and are often violent as a result; yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy in a society where the acquisition and usage of some drugs is illegal, and where addictions force people to face limited choices for feeding their habits. At least if drugs were legal, our society could tax them and control them, the way we do with alcohol and tobacco, and perhaps change the nature of the stigma of usage from a legal black mark to a social one.

Another argument - the moralistic one - says that drugs are simply bad for you. That is logic with which it is difficult to argue (of course drugs are bad for you), but it is a weak argument since so many things are bad for people and put our lives at risk. Alcohol and tobacco come to mind, of course, especially in large quantities, but there are all sorts of other things we do that are bad for us, and everyone else, and yet are lovingly sanctioned by our society and our government. For example, driving inefficient automobiles pollutes the air we all breathe, but few are the regulations on us or the manufacturers; we are free to drive as much as we want, as long as we want, and for whatever reason or no reason at all. Flying, while fairly safe when compared to driving, has its own dangers; the typical person absorbs the radiation equivalent to a full-body x-ray on a flight from coast to coast in the U.S., and airplanes are very efficient vehicles for spreading pollution out across a wide area. When was the last time a government travel advisory warned you about radiation when flying?

Then there's our attitude towards guns, lovingly justified by a certain reading of the Constitution's Second Amendment. As the slogan goes, "guns don't kill people - people kill people," and it is damn true. Yet as a society we do not make a tremendous effort at making sure that people do not kill people using guns; we punish them afterwards, but we are lacking at the same kind of preventative medicine we try to apply to drugs. When was the last time - or even the first time - you saw an ad on TV preaching against gun violence with the same degree of intensity and conviction with which we are told about the dangers of marijuana?

If you are one of those people that believes people should be trusted to make their own choices, for good or ill, and trusted to understand the potential consequences of their actions, then to discriminate against certain drugs is absurd. Society can, should, and does impose restrictions of a kind on our behavior, such as by setting an "age of majority" when we are deemed old enough to make legal choices (like voting) that can have an impact on society. As quoted in Thomas Friedman's column in the Times today (apropos taxes, not drugs) President Bush himself said that he trusts people not the government, and yet his administration has hardly stepped back from the brink of bad drug policy to allow people to make their own choices about whether or not to use drugs.[3]

There have been small legal rebellions so far. A number of American states and cities have battled over legalizing marijuana for medical use; in some cases, voters have approved the resolutions, while the Federal government has not. Nevada is moving towards a ballot proposition that would ease state laws on possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, leaving more time for local officers to focus on bigger crimes, and offering the Feds an opportunity to test the limits of their police role within the state. And our closest ally, Britain, looks like it will test out a new policy of unofficially decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana: Scotland Yard would simply stop arresting discreet users. (The aforementioned Asa Hutchinson was not pleased by this belligerence, and was quoted in the Guardian as attacking the policy for confusing the question of whether marijuana is or is not illegal. "…That is not the objective we want to have," he said.)[4]

Let those rebellions persist, and succeed. For my money, this is the next big social battle to be waged in the United States. Certainly if Americans continue to have enough to be nervous about - say, the economy or threats of terrorism - then the odds are in favor of a revolution in our view of drugs. Just as Prohibition was overturned during a turbulent economic and political period in American history, so might legalizing recreational drugs be next.

[1] Try this Google search for more information.
[2] "Boomers' Little Secret Still Smokes Up the Closet,"
by John Leland, The New York Times, 14 July 2002.
[3] "In Oversight We Trust," by Thomas L. Friedman,
The New York Times, 28 July 2002.
[4] "US official attacks drug tactics," by Colin
Blackstock, Guardian, 19 June 2002; "Britain to Stop
Arresting Most Private Users of Marijuana," by
Warren Hoge, The New York Times, 11 July 2002.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.