In the minefields of national public policy discourse, no area is as full of ordinance as our war on drugs. Gentle reader, we are about to go where not even fools are willing to rush in. Put on your pith helmet, your jodhpurs, and your best safari suit. Round up your best mahouts because we are about to round up not just one elephant in the room, but a whole rouge herd of rampaging pachyderms. On the way, we will set up a meat packing plant to process all the sacred cows that will need to be slaughtered. Are we ready?
Our policy on drugs is an abject failure. It fails because basic operational framework is broken. As a matter of fact, the operational framework came fresh out of the box mangled and unworkable. You can not have a war on drugs. Drugs do not occupy a central nation state. Drugs do not have an army, navy or air force. Drugs do not have a central operations network. They are chemical compounds and they are produced by human beings in very defuse settings.
The whole notion of a military style commitment of resources is blather, boilerplate, and seriously unhelpful. It is a deception and a misallocation of resources. It plays to our facile assumption that brute force can provide solutions to complex problems. It is an ideology that over-promises and under-delivers.
Brute force fails for a very simple reason: drugs are fun. Drugs give pleasure of one kind or another, and people are willing to use drugs to attain that pleasure. Whether it is the mellow buzz of Marijuana, or the altered state of LSD, or the manic rush of speed, or blissed-out state achieved by Ecstasy or the socially acceptable relaxation of alcohol, people will rewire their brains via various chemicals. They will do this because it brings pleasure and/or bliss. People do drugs because, initially, drugs are fun.
That is part of the rub, that is why for many, there is an instantaneous revulsion about drugs. We are still the scions of our Puritan predecessors. For a significant cohort of our population fun, pleasure of any kind, is suspect. More that it is sin, and considered evil. Thus the hardline opposition to drugs and to any reform of our policy of drugs is less about a war on drugs and more about a war on pleasure. Welcome to prohibition 2.0. Once again Marx is proved wrong, or at least backwards. What was farce in the 1920’s has come back as tragedy in 2010.
You can see the process begin in the 1950’s. Ironically, the initial disturbers of enforced calm were working for the government. More ironically, it was the National Security apparatus of the government that were the perpetrators. It was out of the Ike’s military-industrial complex that the serpent of LSD was able to enter our Levittown gardens.
But it took the seismic shift of the 1960’s to put the new drug culture into hyperdrive. In the 1950’s, the only people finding the new bliss were a few beat poets and other oddballs. By the mid 60’s, people were following Dr. Timothy Leary and tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. The flower children of the 1960’s seemed to be on a mission to discover every kind of chemical substance that twisted the collective underwear of their parents. LSD got top billing, but it was the simple herb of Marijuana that was doing the heavy lifting. All sense of proportion among Nixon’s “silent majority” was lost in the haze of Cannabis Sativa fumes.
To this day, it is still that simple weed that is the major bane of existence of law enforcement officers from San Diego, California to Portland, Maine and from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida. The criminal justice system is being smothered under bales of Marijuana. Our laws are stuck in days of “reefer madness” with no likely relief anytime soon. This is because the humble weed got mixed up with some very bad company.
In the 1970’s, that company was known as Cocaine. This ancient gift of the Inca was raised up a notch by German science in the roaring 20’s. It was the rocket fuel that powered the disco era. Along with horrid polyester leisure suits, and platform shoes, cocaine became identified with the wretched excess of the era of “Saturday Night Fever.” The blow-back from the defenders of the status quo was furious.
But it was Cocaine 2.0, and its nemesis Nancy Reagan, that sent drug policy right off the cliff. High end and pricey powdered cocaine went downscale in rush, and became the baine of inner cities known as crack. Sold in cheap rock form, crack cocaine had none of the cache of its up-scale powdered brother. It had the other issue that it was almost instantly addictive. As a drug of choice, it had all the hallmarks of ready-made social panic. In almost no time, the common wisdom and its spearmen in the media echo chamber were talking about the “crack epidemic.”
As crack ripped through the working class communities of color in the decaying inner cities, it also ripped through the imaginations of the white suburban middle class. The political, legal and social firestorm and the damage caused by that firestorm were several factors of ten more than the actual damage caused by crack cocaine itself.
In short, the entire nation took leave of its senses and entered the topsy-turvy land of “zero tolerance.” It was a massive counter-reaction to the excesses of the 1970’s and the 1960’s. Everywhere people looked, they saw the scourge of drug abuse rear its ugly head. Even the military was not immune. Blitzed out Naval aviators were crashing into ships driven by stoned helmsmen. The public, and their elected representatives, did not pass go, they did not collect any logic or reasoning; they went straight to jail.
The panicked public essentially demanded a huge expansion of the police state that had been in place since the 1960’s. Police powers were expanded, civil rights were shredded, and people of color were sent to prison in unprecedented numbers. A few brave, and ignored, souls started warning the general public of a prison-industrial complex that was growing right next to the military-industrial complex. But thanks to a well developed and constantly fed sense of fear, middle America was more than willing to lock up drug offenders and throw away the key.
Middle America grasped the facile idea of “getting tough on drugs” the way a drowning individual grasp even the thinnest of reeds in an effort to save their lives. Worse, the more knock-on effects of making recreation drugs got, the more the general public is willing to double-down on even more authoritarian solutions.
Average people were willing to abandon the most fundamental of constitutional rights to the vague and unfulfilled promise that the erosion of those rights would somehow stem the tidal wave of drugs washing across the land. They handed over the 4th amendment to the state with barely a whimper. They abandoned the notion of proportionality and mercy to indulge in the worst kind of hanging-judge mentality. In the panic over drugs, we as a nation now have the highest per capita incarceration in the world. Of course, it is people of color and the economically disadvantaged that bear the brunt of this calamity.
What do we gain for all this destruction? What did we gain from surrendering our 4th Amendment rights, and from stuffing the prisons past the bursting point with non-violent drug offenders? Nothing. That is correct gentle reader: not a blessed thing, squat, bupkis.
Drugs continue to flood into our nation unrestrained. The value of drugs coming from Mexico dwarfs the resources of the Mexican government to oppose them by a factor of ten. Further south, Columbia is a failed state, a violent, ungovernable mess, because of our taste for cocaine. In our own country, drug money is slowly but surely corrupting not only local law enforcement but Federal agencies.
Wade through the happy talk and the word fog and on the other side the ugly reality is painfully clear. The DEA and the FBI are rotting from the inside out. Customs and Border Patrol are drowning in a sea of Pot, Black Tar Heroin and Cocaine. Deep in the heartland, especially in the rust belt, meth labs are not only big industry; they are the only industry in many places. If you want to be totally disabused of any happy thoughts about the U.S. getting a handle on marijuana, go up U.S. route 101 to Eureka, California. In the shade of the redwoods, in one of our most beautiful national parks, forest rangers have lost control of the deep woods to criminal gangs growing the best weed in the lower 48. With the lumber yards gone, Humboldt County, California’s only real economy is based on growing that product.
If there is a war on drugs, our nation is in about the same position that Hitler was in, sitting in his bunker in 1945. So why are we there with Eva Braun and the rest of the bitter-enders? Why are we still in a war we can’t win? Simple, we do not have the political will to change course.
The war on drugs has gone so badly because it is just another part of the internecine and twilight struggle of the baby boomers. It is another part of our endless, and ultimately pointless, culture war.
Drugs and drug culture have become a way for the defenders of the status quo to bash Progressivism. There is no logic here, just the hatred of one tribe for another. For many right-wingers they will fight drug policy reform because liberals and progressives advocate reform; and for no other reason. For some on the right all that matters is sticking a thumb in the eye of the hated left-wing. The irony of a reactionary inveighing against degenerate, drugged out and permissive liberals whist anesthetized by excessive amounts of alcohol is a subject better developed by wittier scribblers than your faithful correspondent. Besides ,it is irony so common it has become hackneyed.
Political commentators talk about third rails in U.S. Politics. Social security is supposed to be one. It is a poor analogy. Actually our politics has entered a very special place. We are stuck in the rain, soaking wet, in a very large transformer station, connected to power plant, right after an earthquake. Multiple live wires dangle about, each one of them with enough electricity to cook us instantly. And for some reason we have decided to have a no-holds-barred wrestling match there. This is the twilight struggle of the baby boomers.
Is any mystery why our drug policy is stuck, like a fly frozen in amber? We can’t move for fear of running into one of those live wires. At least our leaders are frozen like dear in the headlights. Our president of the moment, Barack Obama, is singularly unable and unwilling to rethink drug policy. Can you really blame him? As a person of color and as a Democrat, Barack Obama is singularly ill suited to task at hand. Any move, even the slightest deviation, and Obama would be buried in opprobrium well past the top of his head. It would go better for him if he just stepped out in front of a speeding freight train; at least that would be a quick death.
It matters not a whit to the forces of reaction that our drug policy is slowly undermining our national security. It matters not one bit that our legal system is collapsing under the weight of Draconian drug laws. It does not matter that the drug laws of our nation have become an unsupportable Procrustean Bed on which countless lives are being sacrificed. No common sense will be tolerated. The only acceptable “solutions” are more of the same. More facile, unthinking, get tough schemes. More authoritarian, police state, control. More imprisonment, more punishment, harsher punishment, more of what we are doing now. Mercy is for wimps. Crush those no good, hippie, druggies underfoot. Crush all those dark skin hop-heads underfoot. Lock them all up and throw away the key.
Is there a way out of this, is there a way forward? Yes, there is, but it requires a radical rethink. It requires that we abandon not only the tactics of the war on drugs, and not only the strategy, but we abandon every accepted, and acceptable mainstream notion about how drug policy is supposed to work. It requires a completely new ideology. The solution is radical, as it gets to the very roots of the issue. The solution is also radical, as in a “Bar the door Katie because the natives are the warpath.” That solution will be outlined in part two. Until that time, talk amongst yourselves and come up with your own ideas.