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.
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.
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.
According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the ’60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse. It arouses deep longings that, if disappointed, may plunge people into despair (surely one aspect of the current demoralization of black youth is the peculiar agony of thwarted revolution). If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs; I can only argue that the costs of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question remains which ones are worth fighting.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005