Hell No, I Won't Go

End the War on Drugs

From this perspective, it makes perfect sense to lump marijuana with crack—while different in every other respect, both are outlaw, countercultural drugs. From this perspective, mounting a jihad against otherwise law-abiding citizens whose recreational drug of choice happens to be illegal is not a hugely expensive, futile, punitive diversion from addressing the real problems of our urban wasteland; it goes straight to the point. After all, hard-core addicts presumably can't help themselves, while causal users are choosing to ignore two decades of pervasive antidrug moralizing. The point is that the cultural changes of the '60s and '70s eroded traditional forms of authority, loosening governmental and corporate control over people's lives. And the drug war is about getting it back.

One means of achieving this is legitimizing repressive police and military tactics. Drugs, say the warriors, are such an overriding national emergency that civil liberties must give way; of course, laws and policies aimed at curbing dealers' and users' constitutional rights will then be available for use in other "emergency" situations. Another evolving strategy is to bypass the criminal justice system altogether (thereby avoiding some of those irritating constitutional obstacles as well as the public's reluctance to put middle-class pot-smokers in jail) in favor of civil sanctions like large fines and the withholding of government benefits and such "privileges" as drivers' licenses.

But so far, the centerpiece of the cultural counterrevolution is the snowballing campaign for a "drug-free workplace"—a euphemism for "drug-free workforce," since urine testing also picks up for off-duty indulgence. The purpose of this '80s version of the loyalty oath is less to deter drug use than to make people undergo a humiliating ritual of subordination: "When I say pee, you pee." The idea is to reinforce the principle that one must forfeit one's dignity and privacy to earn a living, and bring back the good old days when employers had the unquestioned right to demand that their workers' appearance and behavior, on or off the job, meet management's standards. After all, before the '60s, employers were free to reject you not only because you were the wrong race, sex, or age, but because of your marital status, your sex life, your political opinions, or anything else they didn't like; there were none of these pesky discrimination or wrongful firing suits.

photo: James Hamilton

The argument that drug use hurts productivity only supports my point: if it's okay to forbid workers to get stoned on their days off because it might affect their health, efficiency, or "motivation," why not forbid them to stay out late, eat fatty foods, fall in love, or have children? As for jobs that affect the public safety, if tests are needed, they should be performance tests—an air controller or railroad worker whose skills are impaired by fatigue is as dangerous as one who's drugged. Better yet, anyone truly concerned about safety should support the demands of workers in these jobs for shorter hours and less stressful working conditions.

In the great tradition of demagogic saber-rattling, Bush's appeal seeks to distract from the fissures of race, class, and sex and unite us against a common enemy: the demon drug. The truth is, however, that this terrifying demon is a myth. Drug addiction and its associated miseries are not caused by evil, irresistible substances. People get hooked on drugs because they crave relief from intolerable frustration; because they're starved for pleasure and power. Addiction is a social and psychological, not a chemical, disease.

Every generation has its arch-demon drug: alcohol, reefer madness, heroin, and now crack. Recently The New York Times ran a front-page story reporting that drug experts have revised their earlier belief that crack is a uniquely, irresistibly addictive drug; crack addiction, they assert, has more to do with social conditions than with the drug's chemistry. Two cheers for the experts; surely it shouldn't have taken them so long to ask why crack is irresistible to the black poor but not to the white middle class. Perhaps they will take the next step and recognize that so long as crack is the only thriving industry in the inner city—and integral to its emotional economy as well—there's only one way to win a war on drugs. That's to adopt the method the Chinese used to solve their opium problem: line every dealer and user up against the wall and shoot. And try not to notice the color of the bodies.

If the logic of the drug war for blacks and Latinos leads to a literal police state, for the rest of us it means silence and conformity. In recent years, much of the drug warriors' ideological firepower has been aimed at the '60s. Members of my generation who took any part in the passions and pleasures of those times—that is, most of us now between, say, 35 and 50—are under enormous pressure to agree that we made a terrible mistake (and even that won't help if you aspire to be a Supreme Court justice). Which makes me feel irresistibly compelled to reiterate at every opportunity that I have taken illegal drugs, am not ashamed of it, and still smoke the occasional joint (an offense for which Bush and Bennett want to fine me $10,000, lift my driver's license, and throw me in boot camp). I believe that taking drugs is not intrinsically immoral or destructive, that the state has no right to prevent me from exploring different states of consciousness, and that drug prohibition causes many of the evils it purports to cure.

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