Media attention (here and here) to US AG Eric Holder’s recent comments on how the War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted black communities has me thinking about another obvious point that needs to be made. That point has roots as deep or perhaps even deeper than the racism that underlies our attitudes towards drugs, one that I have hinted at before. That is the (probably Calvinist–but certainly Christian) assumption that runs through all of our drug laws (I am including alcohol and prescription drugs) that any pleasure for its own sake is inherently evil.
Like the Catholic sale of indulgences, if something is inherently evil (and pleasurable things are wicked), it must come with some penalty attached to it. In contemporary times, this can be something that follows (or threatens to follow) naturally upon the pleasure such as a hangover or a sexually transmitted disease, or it can be put there deliberately by others, such as a DUI re-education program, or a jail sentence or even just a financial penalty, as with sin taxes and fines. Whatever it is, it has as its one immutable characteristic the idea of atonement to a greater moral authority (the State in the US replaces religion as that authority–this is the US’s great political innovation and I say this without irony). Moreover, we readily accept these penalties–indeed, we want them.
We do this, I think, to reassure others and ourselves that while we wish to partake in such pleasures from time to time that we do not define ourselves as such actions may suggest we do–that we reject outright hedonism and are in fact Good People as defined by Civil Society. This is why we punish the Drug Addict harshly. (Thomas Szasz has written extensively and with great eloquence about this scapegoating, so I will not delve further into it, except to point out as Szasz has, that the Greek word for “scapegoat” is pharmakoi–meaning “human medicine”. This is a human being as a pill for what ails us. A human being identified by society, then used to soak up societies’ ills, and finally cast out of society as a purgative. Our American society has engaged in so much of this purging of unwanted humans that we are now wallowing in the vomitus.)
Our ready acceptance of penalty for pleasure is a problem. It is a problem because now, as our society approaches an epiphany about the “dangers” of marijuana and the real results of the Drug War, we are almost guaranteed to fall right back into (and quite willingly accept) some other form of State coercive structure that, while not being incarceration per se, will be a kind of subservience to the idea that there is something inherently wrong with exogenously induced pleasures. As long as we continue to accept that idea we will only fall back into yet another structure like the one we already have. When you add to it the economic incentives to do just that, I see us facing an inescapable repeat of history. But one that is dressed up as “compassionate” and therefore all the more insidious.
What, then, is the Drug Problem that we are so concerned with? I frankly, do not see it. I see people who use drugs every single day without ill effects, without consequence to the social order and which does not merit any kind of punishment at all. While I recognize that there are some people who are, for one reason or another, incapable of stopping their destructive drug use (heroin addicts, etc), I do not see how even medicalizing these peoples’ behavior* against their will is structurally any different from jailing them.
I can already predict the chorus of criticisms: What do we do with these people? Won’t we have alleys full of HIV-carrying junkies? Dealers who will prey upon our unwitting children to hook them deliberately on drugs all out of a profit motive? What kind of society will that look like? I will answer those criticisms. What we will end up with is exactly what we already have, but without 500,000 of us locked up for no good reason. We will have a minority group that chooses to pursue the pleasures of drug use at any and all cost to their health and financial well-being. We cannot help those people, and we never have been able to help those people. At best, we can address public hygiene by offering them clean needles or clean drugs, but we cannot change those who do not wish to be changed. And we certainly cannot replace one monster with another monster and call it progress! There is nothing to do until someone asks for help. We cannot save our children by continuing to support the black-market prices these drugs bring, but we can stop supporting those prices. In short, there is no Drug Problem except for the one we create.
*And it is a behavior problem, not a drug problem, because there are plenty of people who are able to use the same drugs and then put them down as is called-for on a situation-by-situation basis and still others who engage in similarly self-destructive behavior that has nothing whatsoever to do with drugs.