We who live in democratic societies are fortunate to have many opportunities to ask questions and otherwise probe the rationale and effectiveness of public policies, no matter how firmly embedded or long standing. If such reviews give a sense that the approaches evaluated are sound, we usually feel more confident about the programs based on such policies. If, on the other hand, the evidence uncovered raises alarms, well, that can be even more beneficial.
Let’s have a brief look at a few facts about the drug war, doing so from a REAL wellness perspective. Two of the four foundation REAL dimensions very much in play around this issue are reason and liberty.
Edward Hopper, Drug Store, 1927 The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A Little History
Over 40 years ago, President Richard M. Nixon declared the start of the War on Drugs. One trillion dollars and 45 million arrests later, the war goes on. To borrow a common phrase from presidential debates in America, ask yourself: Is this country better off now than 40 years ago insofar as drug use and misuse problems are concerned? Also consider how enthusiastic you are about seeing the nation invest another trillion dollars during the next forty years on this war and making another 45 million arrests?
Consider another question: If there never were a war on drugs, would the ill effects of the drug situation be worse, or better?
My Impressions about the Drug War
Denis Diderot (in Pensees Philosophiques, 1746) advised that skepticism is the first step toward truth.
Full disclosure here: Call me Diderotesque if you like (and I hope someone does – it sounds like a compliment), but I confess to being skeptical about the drug war. I would be against it even if it were shown to be effective, which it never has been and in my view clearly is not. The drug war seems to be a totalitarian-like approach that produces crime and criminals, fills jails, prisons and cemeteries and destroys the hopes of the underclass. It is totally at odds with personal freedoms. It’s paternalistic and oppressive. Its unintended consequences are destructive almost beyond belief and, perhaps worst of all, it has not eliminated the many drug problems, as per the goals of Nixon’s war.
In other essays, I have described the benefits of multiple little pleasures throughout the day called wellness orgasms. These are simply positive thoughts, feelings and experiences that take countless forms but in the aggregate have profoundly positive effects on our health and quality of life. I call these wellness orgasms WOs. If there were an antonym for the phrase WO or wellness orgasm, it would be WID. WID stands for worseness impotent dysfunction. The drug war has unleashed a maelstrom of WIDs upon America, Mexico and countless nations around the world.
I have already confessed that I don’t think much of the War on Drugs. I don’t. In fact, I urge a total and unconditional surrender.
(By the way, much less was spent in the U.S. in Nixon’s time than is lavished on keeping the War on Drugs going now. (The initial drug-fighting budget weighed in at just $100 million.) The costs have risen steeply over the years and decades. Only a few billion were spent annually in the early years. Now annual spending is $15 billion and increasing exponentially. In another 40 years, the total might more closely approximate today’s national debt.)
So, do you have faith in this war and think it should continue? Or are you, too, more than a little skeptical? If so, good! Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin. At least that’s what Thomas Henry Huxley believed (Essays on Controversial Questions, 1889). I think Thomas Henry was on to something.
A Bit More on the Nature of the Drug Problem
What Christopher Hitchens said about religion (i.e., religion poisons everything) applies as well to American drug policy.
When discussing drugs and our nation’s war on them, I include not just efforts to prevent the production and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other universally illegal chemicals but prescription drugs, as well. Many otherwise legal medications have been made illegal (e.g., Oxycodone). This happens when elected officials and/or regulatory agencies (e.g., the Drug Enforcement Administration) suspect overuse or unapproved distributions of addictive or otherwise harmful medications.)
More than 15,000 Americans die annually from overdoses of prescription painkillers. Opioid painkillers are a $9 billion annual business. (Source: Centers for Disease Control, as cited by Thomas Caton, Devlin Barrett and Timothy W. Martin, Prescription for Addiction, Wall Street Journal, October 6 – 7, pp. C1 – 2.) They are highly addictive, and cause long-term brain modifications, not for the better. With some drugs, certain areas of the brain are effectively rewired to the point that users crave more of the chemicals that create this effect. Unfortunately, more of the same damages brain segments that control cravings and, most devastatingly, the chances to experience little pleasures or WOs. This happens because the drugs damage the brain’s pleasure centers. With regular use, the brain will need more and more just to feel normal. Those who risk everything to obtain and use criminalized substances are no longer able to experience WOs – it’s all they can do to avoid ghastly withdrawal symptoms. And, by the way, if you fall into the innocent bystander category, don’t get in their way. Avoid being either an obstacle blocking or a pathway toward (e.g., someone with pluck-able resources) their frantic quest for relief.
More deaths are attributed to overdoes of prescription medications than from heroin, cocaine and all other illegal drugs combined. Opioid abuse is a key element in the fact that drug overdoses count as the single largest cause of accidental death in America. The latter surpassed traffic accidents in 2009. (See Paul Christopher, Addicted to Painkillers, Unready for Help, New York Times, October 1, 2012.)
A Do More Or Less WO-Based Prescription
People have always made bad choices. Besides death and taxes, nothing is as
certain as human stupidity. I employ this term in the spirit of Australian polymath Grant Donovan who has stated,Let’s always remember that the population of the world is individually brilliant but collectively stupid beyond belief. While capable of reason, art, science and so much that is wonderful and inspirational and good, people are also reliably stupid, as well. Always have been and no changes are expected. This is true for the species and all of us as individuals. Some of us work hard at minimizing our capacity for stupidity; others seem to practice getting better at it while acting accordingly. Those who created the War on Drugs seem masters of the latter tendency.
No drugs of any kind should be illegal to use. Produce? Yes – control production but not usage. Production could be managed by regulatory agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration. Free if controlled distribution to addicts and others who want to ruin themselves should be the policy. By giving the stuff away, there will be no underground markets, illicit enterprises that have spawned the treacherous, violent and catastrophic enterprises that currently grow, cultivate, smuggle, deal, defend and spread deadly turfs around the world.
Opioid and other addicts are a diverse lot. It’s not just the young underclass – users are found in the middle and oldest-age groups, the affluent, veterans and otherwise law-abiding citizens suffering from intractable pain who feel dependent on prescription painkillers and other drugs owing to physical and mental dysfunctions.
Few people who abuse drugs have made conscious decisions to become addicts – those who end up as such are acting less on the basis of some imaginary free will and more on the drivers of heredity, chemistry, experience and like factors still not fully understood. Viktor Frankl observed, No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
For these reasons, I favor ending it all – and having government distribution under defined conditions for anyone and everyone who wants to ruin his or her life. We don’t create laws designed to prevent the manufacture or use of tobacco or alcohol by adults or fat and sugar-laden junk food for anyone with the money to buy it; we would be better off without laws or wars against either recreational or medicinal drugs. In my opinion.
Just like alcohol and tobacco, drugs give WOs to some people, most of whom get more than little pleasures from their usage. Recreational drugs can ruin health, destroy lives and cause early deaths. This is unfortunate and there’s nothing good about it. But, this happens as much and we think, more when there’s a war against these products. During peacetime, at least the collateral damage is modest compared with what we’ve seen during 40 years of drug warfare. (We saw the same kind of outcomes from an earlier drug war in this country – Prohibition).
The drug war and laws that criminalize the production, sale and use of any substance is also a war on liberty. We cannot have freedoms exclusively for those behaviors that are judged good for people. Otherwise, we’ll be consumed with never-ending battles – we’ll have to mobilize against junk food, lack of exercise, dysfunctional behavior in relationships and so on ad sickening infinitum.
I realize that it will be complicated beyond the pale and politically near impossible in our lifetimes to transition to a society drug war-free, tolerant, accepting of human failures and tragedies and relatively rational. It will take wisdom as well as time to create conditions including educational levels wherein no drugs are criminalized and any adult who wants a fix can get one – without fear of arrest or the hazards from the underworld of outlaws.
All this will require wise women and men planning cooperatively to minimize ill consequences. I have no use for the controlled medications or illegal drugs noted in this essay, but there are many things I don’t favor but don’t want to banish, including the freedom to make stupid decisions. There is, after all, a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man, if Aristotle (384-322 BCE) is to be believed.