Hell No, I Won't Go

End the War on Drugs

September 19, 1989

At last the government has achieved something it hasn't managed since the height of '50s anti-Communist hysteria—enlisted public sentiment in a popular war. The president's invocation of an America united in a holy war against drugs is no piece of empty rhetoric; the bounds of mainstream debate on this issue are implicit in the response of the Democratic so-called opposition, which attacked Bush's program as not tough or expensive enough. (As Senator Biden—fresh from his defense of the flag; the guy is really on a roll—put it, "What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam.") To be sure, there is controversy over the drug warriors' methods. Civil libertarians object to drug testing and dubious police practices; many commentators express doubts about the wisdom of going after millions of casual drug users; and some hardy souls still argue that drugs should be decriminalized and redefined as a medical and social problem. But where are the voices questioning the basic assumptions of the drug war: that drugs are our most urgent national problem; that a drug-free society is a valid social goal; that drug use is by definition abuse? If there's a war on, are drugs the real enemy? Or is mobilizing the nation's energies on behalf of a war against drugs far more dangerous than the drugs themselves?

By now some of you are wondering if I've been away—perhaps on an extended LSD trip—and missed the havoc crack has wrought in inner-city neighborhoods. One of the drug warriors' more effective weapons is the argument that any crank who won't sign on to the antidrug crusade must be indifferent to, if not actively in favor of, the decimation of black and Latino communities by rampant addiction, AIDS, crack babies, the recruitment of kids into the drug trade, and control of the streets by violent gangsters. To many people, especially people of color, making war on drugs means not taking it any more, defending their lives and their children against social rot. It's a seductive idea: focusing one's rage on a vivid, immediate symptom of a complex social crisis makes an awful situation seem more manageable. Yet in reality the drug war has nothing to do with making communities livable or creating a decent future for black kids. On the contrary, prohibition is directly responsible for the power of crack dealers to terrorize whole neighborhoods. And every cent spent on the cops, investigators, bureaucrats, courts, jails, weapons, and tests required to feed the drug-war machine is a cent not spent on reversing the social policies that have destroyed the cities, nourished racism, and laid the groundwork for crack culture.

While they're happy to use the desperate conditions of the poor as a club to intimidate potential opposition, the drug warriors have another agenda altogether. Forget those obscene pictures of Bush kissing addicted babies (and read his budget director's lips: money for the drug war is to come not from the military budget but from the other domestic programs). Take it from William Bennett, who, whatever his political faults, is honest about what he's up to: "We identify the chief and seminal wrong here as drug use . . . There are lots of other things that are wrong, such as money laundering and crime and violence in the inner city, but drug use itself is wrong. And that means the strategy is aimed at reducing drug use." Aimed, that is, not at solving social problems but at curbing personal freedom.

Of course, it's not all drugs Bennett has in mind, but illegal drugs. And as even some drug warriors will admit, whether a drug is legal or not has little to do with rational considerations such as how addictive it may be, or how harmful to health, or how implicated in crime. Bill Bennett drinks without apology while denouncing marijuana and crack with equal passion; heroin is denied to terminal cancer patients while methadone, which is at least as addictive, is given away at government-sponsored clinics. What illegal drugs do have in common is that in one way or another they threaten social control. Either (like heroin and crack) they're associated with all the social disorder and scary otherness of the so-called underclass, or (like marijuana and the psychedelics) they become emblems of social dissidence, "escape from"—i.e. unorthodox views of—reality, and loss of productivity and discipline. Equally important, illicit drugs offer pleasure—and perhaps even worse, feelings of freedom and power—for the taking; the more intense the euphoria, the more iniquitous the drug. Easily available chemical highs are the moral equivalent of welfare—they undercut the official culture's control of who gets rewarded for what. And they invite subversive comparisons to the meager ration of pleasure, freedom, and power available in people's daily lives.

Illegal drugs, furthermore, are offenses to authority by definition. Users are likely to define themselves as rebels—or become users in the first place as a means of rebelling—and band together in an outlaw culture. The drugs are then blamed for the rebellion, the social alienation that gave rise to it, and the crime and corruption that actually stem from prohibition and its inevitable concomitant, an immensely profitable illegal industry.

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