So let’s say we scrap the drug war. What then?

Yesterday, I discussed an age and culture that dealt with dope with hardly any government interference; controls on drug abuse were primarily social, cultural.

The drug war, however, supplanted all of that.

Albert Jay Nock, the great American individualist, was concerned with one basic thing: That the government kept growing while other institutions in society kept shrinking. “If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs,” he wrote, “we can discern one fundamental fact, namely: a great redistribution of power between the society and the State,” which he both saw and lamented as “an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease of social power.”

Discussing this power switch, Nock mainly focused on how the state, in removing money from the people via taxes, limits their wherewithal to deal with circumstances in society without turning to government. But it goes beyond money. Certain cultural institutions serve when they are needed and whither when they are deemed unnecessary.

As a general rule, what the states does, the society quits doing. This is true for the poor (compare today’s welfare to the boisterous pre-New Deal and Great Society charity industry), the elderly (think Social Security, which, pre-New Deal, somehow the elderly got along without thanks to family-care structures), and even drugs users (which were, before prohibition, mainly dealt with by physicians, church and family).

But who needs the myriad private institutions, social conventions and cultural mores that previously dealt with problems when the governments is ready, willing and (optimists blush) able to take care of business.

For drugs, it has, to date, taken care of business by jailing those who enjoy or feel a compulsion to use narcotics; jailed those who grow, distribute and sell those narcotics; along with seizing their property and steadily whittling away the Bill of Rights.

It hasn’t worked.

As pointed out yesterday, the price of drugs continues to fall, even though the amount seized continues to climb – which can only mean that use continues despite the best efforts of law enforcement (best efforts that are damaging possibly irreparably our Constitution).

If we’re honest enough with ourselves to admit it, we’d quickly confess the futility of the government’s drug war, scrap it, and move on.

But to what?

The purpose yesterday of reciting how drugs were dealt with in the past was to see how they might be dealt with now and in the future. Cultural controls, were in the past, vital factors of controls on drug abuse. In fact, in any scheme, they are almost all that matters. If you want to control drugs and the culture in which you live doesn’t, then you can forget about it: You’re in the minority and don’t matter.

While our society, presently steeped in state-prohibitionist solutions to nearly everything (alcohol, guns, prostitution, drugs, even ill-feelings if you count hate-crime laws), “plays down the importance of many social mores, sanctions, and rituals that enhance our capacity to control the use of intoxicants,” Harvard psychiatrist Norman E. Zinberg points out that they are key to actually keeping the lid on abuse.

With prohibition serving as a crutch, many of the preexisting social controls were abandoned or withered away – like rarely-used muscles. To get them back, the first step should be to ditch prohibition, maybe not all at once, but eventually. Likely, there will be an upsurge in drug use – nothing catastrophic, as the Bill Bennetts would argue, especially if prohibition were dismantled gradually. But we have to be realistic and admit that no societal controls will root overnight. They need time to develop, as

  1. people model responsible drug use before those who are thinking of using drugs, thus teaching from the outset responsible use, and

  2. people seeing the negative consequences of irresponsible use.

Drug control is thus, all about learning – proper use v. improper use.

Historian David Musto, studying the early 20th century “cocaine epidemic,” noticed the decline in use that happened in the mid 1900s. He saw it as a generational learning pattern. David T. Courtwright summarizes Musto’s findings: “A new drug generates enthusiasm. Use rises. Then problems – overdose, compulsion, paranoia – begin to appear among significant minority of users. Would-be recruits think twice. Use declines.” A whole generation learns a lesson.

The trick is passing down that lesson.

With our prohibitionist, just-say-no solution, we’ve effectively ruled out any real lesson-learning. It’s simply an either-or question. Don’t use drugs; you’ll be fine. Use ’em and you’re in deep doodoo. Given that peoples from every moment in history have used some sort of drug, a one-sized-fits all rule, no exceptions, is irrational, ahistorical, and just begging to be broken.

A better approach would be to allow the drugs legal status and simply do as parents are supposed to do – train up a child in the way that he should go. This is what Europe has done with alcohol, and it works. Will all parents do it? No, but neither are those parents doing it now. Beyond that, a large part of that parental abdication is simply the result of societal controls being ceded to the state almost a century ago.

Slowly but surely, we need to get them back.

I would prefer, as with use of mild psychoactives, the emphasis be on avoiding intoxication entirely. Alcohol, kava, coca and even cannabis can all be used in nonintoxicating ways. But I’m a tolerant guy. If folks want to be intoxicated, I’m not going to try and stop them. Society shouldn’t in any legal way; the most it should do is mandate, as it currently does with alcohol, that people not walk or drive blotto in public.

And ask yourself this: If people aren’t stoned in public and are keeping more extreme forms of drug abuse to themselves and in the privacy of their homes, what’s the problem?

As a Christian who genuinely believes that God judges nations collectively for wrongdoing, I more fear his reprisals for a government that abuses power, tyrannically oppresses its citizens and conducts mass disinformation campaigns about drugs than his collective judgments for the private abuses of a very small slice of society.

No society has ever existed in which some psychoactive substances were not used. They’ve been around as long as the earth. Governments, on the other hand, are transient, shifting, ineffectual. As such, people have figured out ways of controlling the excesses of drug use by simple conventions, rituals, and intergenerational teaching. As these controls have worked in the past, they can again in the future. But only if their main impediment, that which daily undermines them – our useless war on drugs – is scrapped.

Yesterday: After the drug war, part 1


Related columns:

Bushwacking young boozers

One toke over the line, sweet Jesus?

Blaming drugs or people?


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