By William Irwin Thompson
”We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
Wars on Drugs, Drugs on War
March 29, 2009
It is a truism that generals are always fighting the present war with the tactics of the last one, so to be fair to politicians we should probably also say that politicians are always seeking to govern the present with the failed ideas of the past. They always seem to be about twenty years behind the times they live in.
But it is now two generations and not just one since politicians decided to fight the problem of addiction by criminalizing it and declaring a War on Drugs. Forty years later, we have a violent war in Ciudad Juarez spilling over into El Paso and Tucson, still smoking wars in Colombia and Peru, and now a renewed war in Afghanistan. With a mind to the failed strategies of the past, some conservatives have proposed spraying the poppy fields of Afghanistan in the way we sprayed the jungles of Viet Nam with Agent Orange. The latter strategy produced widespread birth defects among the Vietnamese, and health problems for our own soldiers. But we soldier on, spraying in Peru, hoping to cut off the funding for Shining Path guerillas, and proposing to spray the poppy fields of Afghanistan, hoping to cut off funding for the Taliban and the international Islamic insurgents of Al Qaeda.
The criminalization of addiction does accomplish one thing: it serves as a form of Congressional subsidy in support of the high street price of drugs. It also serves to stimulate funding for our police forces, turning, for example, the Los Angeles Police force into an army of occupation in the guerilla zones of the gangs in the LA basin.
The gangs in LA support themselves through the sale of drugs, just as the guerillas in Colombia and Peru do, not to mention the warlords in Somalia and Afghanistan. In all these pre-industrial societies, there are no jobs for young men without education or skilled training. Since a gang member in LA can make several orders of magnitude more money as a dealer than as a busboy in a fancy restaurant, watching how the upper third lives, it is a small wonder that few young men prefer to work as busboys and go to night school to get ahead in the American Dream.
England rose to the pinnacle of world power in the Victorian era by serving as a national drug dealer to China. Since China refused to trade tea and silk for cheap factory-made British junk, but demanded payment in gold, Britain could not support its addiction to tea with a such a gold-drain, so it grew poppies in its colony India and shipped them to China. The Opium Wars was the result, and the long-lasting Chinese hatred of the foreigner. Modern China wanted Hong Kong back because it had been the infamous capital of the opium trade. And here one should stop to remember that it was not just polite society drinking tea in porcelain cups that was the driving force for the addiction to tea; it was the long 12 hour work day of the miners and factory workers that needed their cheap black tea to keep awake while serving the machines. In the previous century, both England and the United States gained power through economies of addiction, but there the drugs were not opium, but sugar and rum, and the sustaining force was not the Royal Navy, but the army of slaves working on the plantations.
At his internet Town Hall meeting yesterday, President Obama chuckled at the absurd suggestion that medical marijuana should be legalized. He is not about to risk his presidency by being hipper than thou, especially since he took enough heat for admitting in his book that: “I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” (Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995), p. 93.) So it is clear we will be injecting the middle class hypocrisy of the War on Drugs for another generation.
A disclaimer: I don’t like recreational drugs. I have smoked perhaps only four times in my life, and I have never taken acid or ecstasy, mushrooms or ayahuasca. I am very square and straight, and prefer orthodox yogic meditation to any psychedelic substances. I quit smoking cigarettes on December 24, 1964 in Dublin, and I found that staying off tobacco was one of the most difficult accomplishments in my life—even counting working forty hours a week in college while majoring in three subjects at the same time.
The United States is an addictive society. Rush Limbaugh, the mouth in residence for the Republican Party, is or was addicted to Oxycodone. Normal doctors are now drug pushers for the pharmaceutical corporations. Doctors are given free winter trips for medical conferences in Maui where specialists report on the wonders of their new products and give them free samples for their patients. One neurologist, after I suffered from nerve damage from open-heart surgery gave me Neurontin, without telling me it was a nasty psychotropic drug. My physician in the hospital in Santa Fe gave me Lorazepam without telling me, or warning me that it also was a psychotropic drug. I got off the Neurontin instantly, and refused the Lorazepam, just as I had refused Percodan after open-heart surgery. In our society, our doctors create middle class addicts, just as our high school counselors create young victims by pushing drugs and ordering Ritalin for children who dare to question their authority or their amateur diagnosis of ADD. Adolescents whose frontal cortex is in a process of critical development are given strong anti-depressants. Science now has absolutely no idea of the effects of adult anti-depressants on adolescents. And it should give us pause to realize that in several of the school-shootings, the teenagers were on anti-depressants.
Wars on drugs give money to cops and dealers. Demonizing grass with the Rockefeller laws was the attack of one class on another in defense of their own preferred White culture of addiction.
It is time to think otherwise and give the money to medical research on addiction. All addictive substances should be under uniform control. The government should put the high-priced dealers out of business to buy grass, leaves, and poppies directly from local farmers in support of local communities in Northern California, Maui, Kentucky, British Columbia, and Afghanistan. (And here one should pause to remember that the small family farms in Kentucky my friend Wendell Berry celebrates in his fine novels were made possible by the cash crop of tobacco.) Since the United States is addicted to oil, it is perhaps appropriate that all our opiate derivatives like Codeine are now artificially synthesized from petroleum, so, perhaps, buying Afghan poppies would be more organic and less harmful to the environment and more effective in earning American respect than killing Afghan citizens and spraying their fields. The American addict, Republican or Democrat, should register and go to his local pharmacy to get his fix or small stash, but should be required to have a prescription from a doctor in a local clinic that would be supported by the government’s purchase and sale of legal and inspected organic grass, leaves, and poppies. The big pharmaceutical companies should be invited into Afghanistan to give futures contracts to local farmers and the local communes of elders in support of their economy. Flying over their fields and spraying them all with toxic chemicals as a way to eliminate addiction is insane.
We tried prohibition, and it didn’t work. But we taxed hard spirits heavily to produce government income. So now we should recycle the funds to create NIH centers of research on neuroscience and addiction, and as well create local clinics where addicts are supervised and are not forced into crime to feed their habit.
If you look at all the teenagers smoking on the streets, you realize how little a government can change behavior through the criminalization of addiction. Even without legislation, the doctors themselves have already muscled their way into the drug trade and have become pill pushers, much in the same hypocritical way the Victorian British did in the era of the Opium Wars. But while we wait for human nature to change, we need to know more about the science of neuro-receptors and how throughout human evolution different cultures have bonded with different substances and plants. Medicalizing the drug problem won’t eliminate evil—indeed many doctors themselves became secret addicts—but criminalizing it just doesn’t work. It is an interdiction that actually stimulates its growth, and all the violence attendant to it. How much longer do we have to wait till we wise up? Clearly, it won’t be on Obama’s watch.
Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson writes regularly for Wild River Review