Against the “War on Drugs” (c. 1986)
Like most people who became adults in the 1960’s, I’ve literally “grown up with drugs.” My father was an alcoholic, smoker, and amphetamine addict. So was my uncle. Being raised in the secular, scientific tradition, I was early led to believe that any physical or emotional problem could be solved by ingesting the proper chemical “medicine.” . Being highly-intelligent, 1 soon came to believe that I knew better than others what was best for me. And if I didn’t know, I claimed the right to find out: by reading, questioning, and experimenting with whatever substances were available. I don’t think I ever believed that anyone else had the right to tell me what I could or could not experiment with. And growing up in “lawless Montana,” my respect for .government and its desire to control our personal lives was entirely non-existent.
Thus, I obtained some marijuana from an intelligent colleague in the Philosophy Department at UCLA at my first opportunity. Later, I obtained some mescaline and LSD from another student in the same department. I should say that there was no commercial aspect to these transactions. I merely reimbursed them their cost. And they positively advocated the use of these substances to me. They genuinely believed that I would benefit from using them! Even professors at this time (1969) freely circulated articles from learned journals on the use of psychedelics (mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD), and significant academic research was being devoted to these substances. It no more seemed immoral or illegal to use them than it would be immoral or illegal to read a book or participate in an academic research project.
To be sure, the free access to these substances was already restricted, and one could, technically, be arrested for distributing or using them, but this was rarely if ever known to happen, and to express worry on this account was to risk being labeled “paranoid.”
And so, for several years thereafter, I used marijuana and hashish quite regularly, and psychedelics some 50 times. The most unpleasant experience I ever had was learning afterwards that some close friends of mine had been killed in an auto accident while I was “tripping” on LSD. Because of the psychic, mystical nature of these experiences, one could readily imagine that one was connected to or responsible for catastrophic events happening some distance away, and apparently unconnected to one’s immediate reality. I felt a certain amount of guilt on account of the deaths of my friends, even though I was in no way involved with it. That was the last time I used LSD.
Cannabis (marijuana and hashish), on the other hand, seemed to be something like the mythical Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, like many other intellectuals of his time, was himself a strong advocate of the serious, structured use of psychedelics. Hermann Hesse used them extensively, and it was no accident that his books became required reading for the “hippy intelligentsia” of the 1960’s, their predecessors, and successors. The use of hallucinogens is as ancient as civilization, itself, and cannabis (a very mild halucinogen and stimulant of the imagination) is found in warm climates in every part of the world; Indeed, Islam encourages the use of cannabis while absolutely prohibiting the use of alcohol. That, it seems to me, is an accurate evaluation of the merits and dangers of the two substances.
By using cannabis, I was intentionally declaring my solidarity with the Third World, and darker-skinned peoples of the tropics. The white male imperialistic opposition to cannabis (as found in the Reagan Administration, or Nixon’s “Operation Intercept” 15 years ago) seemed to be consistent with our policy in Vietnam or Central America, and thus my use of cannabis v/as a political act as well as a social and intellectual one.
It was this political aspect which convinced many of us that we were doing the right thing. Marijuana, and the collective smoking of it, produced a social camaraderie and solidarity which was new and very satisfying to those of us raised within the confines of an over-intellectualized Protestant individualism. Marijuana in the work-place became a way to better coordinate our efforts by establishing our identity as a crew or team. And most of us discovered that we were actually able to learn quicker, improve our reflexes and physical dexterity, and otherwise upgrade our physical performance and emotional satisfaction through the use of these substances.
To be sure, the scientific evidence for this is ambiguous. Sometimes, it is only that subjectively our performance has improved. And some studies seem to indicate that perpetual use of cannabis over a decade or more may result in brain damage or other harmful effects to the nervous system. I suppose that such consequences are proportionate to the quantity of cannabis in the blood-stream, one’s diet, and other variables —much as alcohol use can be benign in some cases and deadly in others.
I never smoked more than, say, 2 or 3 very small joints a day, but I’ve known people who might have smoked several grams of hashish or 20 large joints a day. Obviously, such quantities could not be described as “beneficial,” and the very act of smoking any organic substance has harmful consequences to the respiratory system, and poses the threat of cancer. Cannabis can also be taken orally, and with purely pleasurable and much less harmful consequences. It is one effect of criminalization that the oral use of cannabis has practically disappeared in this country, since smoking provides the largest dosage in the shortest time of a scarce and expensive substance. (In a free market, cannabis would be no more expensive than lettuce or cabbage, and thus capable of being refined and processed at a very low cost to the consumer).
My experience, then, is that psychedelics should be used carefully and with the greatest respect and most intelligent supervision, while cannabis is the “beer” of the drug-world, widely-used by working-class people, gourmets, intellectuals, and especially artists and other creative people. But it should be used with care and moderation. In both cases, the criminalization of these substances has literally destroyed the social fabric. Millions of lives have been ruined by arrest, punishment, and forced conversion to criminal and underworld values and lifestyles. This, it must be emphasized, is the direct consequence of police-state tactics on the part of governments, and usually for specifically political reasons.
Cocaine, like heroin or other narcotics, may constitute a different kind of problem. The people who use it are, or quickly become, self-destructive. They need to be protected from themselves — not by arrest and prosecution, but by treatment, sympathy, and a structured conversion to healthy values and lifestyles. Here, again, the “war on drugs” promises to be entirely counter-productive, and to make the problem worse instead of better.
It is very strange to me, as a 6th or 7th generation American, that anyone in this country should support a police-state as the solution to any kind of problem! Whatever happened to the ideas of free choice and moral autonomy? Since when has punishment, repression, trade restrictions, invasion of privacy, and other typical old-world, totalitarian methods been acceptable to Americans? Have we all become Puritans, Racists, Czarists, or what? Since when did I give up my God-given rights to gather, harvest, cultivate, or prepare one of God’s sacred creations? I can see passing laws against amphetamines or Valium, but against poppies, bushes, and trees? Isn’t this more than a little bit ridiculous?
The real issue here, it seems to me, is an ethical, moral, and philosophical one. Since when have governments become our masters rather than our servants? Since when have governments received a mandate to harm people, rather than to benefit them? It is particularly ironic that Ronald Reagan, who reached the Presidency on a program which he described as pro-freedom, pro-individual responsibility, pro-^free trade, and even “libertarian” should be the architect of what can only be described as the most fascistic, totalitarian, statist administration in the history of the United States. Taking up where the Roosevelt’s left off, he has re-instituted the gunboat diplomacy of Theodore and the corporate fascism of the New Deal. In fact, he is the first President since Franklin Roosevelt to dare to continue in this direction of elitist authoritarianism. which is so unpopular with the American people. But it is a testimony to the power of the media and propaganda techniques that he is still a popular President and obtained something like a 90% majority of the House for his “war on drugs” legislation. Unfortunately, it will be the American people who will suffer and have to pay for the policies brought forth by these self-serving lies and propaganda.
The philosophical issue arises when one considers why it is so hard for government leaders to respect the moral autonomy of the people? Why do some people feel that they have to dictate and control the lives of others? And most of all, why do some people feel they have to punish and blame others for our common problems?
The first thing one learns in psychotherapy (or religion) is that those who most loudly proclaim their own innocence and virtue, blaming and “correcting” others, are most likely to have the worst problems within themselves. Why does one feel a need to be President, a prison warden, a prosecuting attorney, or a judge? This is the question which we, as Americans, must insist be answered before these people gain power over our lives!
Government, to an American, “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.” Who, among enlightened, healthy, responsible people has given his consent to this “war on drugs,” aid to the Contras, or any of a hundred other abominations which the Reagan administration has promulgated? How can they get away with this? Who is being fooled by the illusory merits of more punishment and repression? No one that you or (would like to know, I’m fairly sure.
The roots of this problem are deep, and apparently still obscure. Why, then, is there no effort to uncover them? Why are the recommendations of enlightened, responsible people being disregarded? These are the kinds of questions which need to be answered. Whether or not drugs are harmful or beneficial is largely irrelevant to these broader questions, and of much less permanent significance.
Paul Stephens Great Falls, Montana