Do you remember the War on Drugs?
It was Richard Nixon who thought up the idea back in 1971 and while Nixon was, contrary to the impression you might have received from the typical Hollywood portrayal of the man, one of the better American presidents, this was not one of his better ideas. The idea was that the American federal government would commit a tremendous amount of resources and effort into stomping out the international drug trade. They would treat the drug cartels as if they were a hostile country that had attacked the United States. Other Western countries were expected to support the “leader of the free world” in this effort and, to varying degrees, they did. Fifty years have gone by and the drug trade is still alive and kicking, even despite the constraints on international travel over the last year and a half. The War on Drugs, in other words has been a total failure.
This ought not to surprise us. When governments declare “war” on anything other than another country, whether it be drugs, crime, terrorism, hate, or the bat flu virus, the “enemy” is never defeated and the war goes on forever. This is because such “wars” are largely excuses by governments to expand their powers, escape constitutional limitations that irk them, and spend a lot of money and, therefore, governments have no motivation to win.
The War on Drugs was a particularly inexcusable failure in that it came only a few decades after the spectacular failure of Prohibition and repeated all of its mistakes. In both cases, by forbidding a particular trade, government merely made it more profitable because those willing to take the risk of selling were able to charge much more, and more dangerous for the general public, because those undertaking such a venture were heavily armed, organized crime syndicates for whom competition for the illegal trade and its high profit margins resembled war in the literal sense of the word.
There was one significant difference between the War on Drugs and Prohibition, however, one that ensured that the former, even though the commodities involved were less popular, would be an even greater failure.
Prohibition was the culmination of a movement that had been building for about a century which had a clear, if misguided, vision. The Temperance movement was one of the by-products of the nineteenth century North American revivalism that had grown out of the eighteenth century Methodist movement. Ironically, considering that its name refers to the Christian virtue that means “moderation” or “self-control”, it took the moral stance that all consumption of alcoholic beverages is sinful, a further irony considering that this is the moral position that is traditional to Islam, not the one that is traditional to both Christianity and Judaism, which latter is much more consistent with the literal meaning of the name of the movement. This is, perhaps, only what is to be expected from a movement led primarily by individuals who gloried in their lack of theological education. The Temperance movement had the support not only of religious zealots who took this stance, but of manufacturers who thought, not without reason although there are equally strong counterarguments, that it would make for a more industrious workforce, and of the feminist movement, then in its first wave, the women’s suffragettes. Here in the Dominion of Canada, the shorter-lived experiment in Prohibition was directly tied to giving women the vote, as Stephen Leacock amusingly discussed in essays on both of those historical blunders. However, whatever might be said against Prohibition and the movement behind it, they were unambiguous and clear. They were against the consumption of alcoholic beverages and so, when they got their way, a law was passed – a constitutional amendment in the case of the United States – forbidding all alcoholic beverages and only alcoholic beverages.
The War on Drugs was pretty much the opposite of this. It did not begin with a grassroots movement that built up momentum over a century – it started out by executive proclamation from the highest office in the United States of America. It was not a clear and unambiguous moral project. Confusion and complications arise the moment one attempts to identify the enemy in this “war”.
What is a drug?
Is there a difference between the kind of drugs sold by a drugstore (pharmacy) and those sold by a drug dealer?
The best answer to the first question is to say that a drug is any substance that is non-essential (thus excluding food, water, and air) that is deliberately consumed in one way or another for its effect on bodily and/or mental functions.
Using that answer as our account of the meaning of the word drug, the answer to the second question must be no. There can be distinctions made between the two categories of drugs but there is no essential differences. One distinction is between medicinal and recreational use. Those who use drugs medicinally do so for a therapeutic purpose such as the alleviation of pain, the treatment of an injury, or the curing of a disease. Those who use drugs recreationally do so for the experience they produce, usually a kind of euphoria called a “high”. This distinction correlates with that between pharmaceutical drugs and illegal narcotics but the correlation is not exact nor is the distinction absolute. Many people use prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceutical medicine for recreational purposes and narcotics often have medicinal functions (opioids and cocaine are pain killers, for example). Ultimately, the distinction between pharmaceutical drugs and narcotics is that the former are legal, even if their use is sometimes limited by government (some can only be purchased with a physician’s prescription), and the latter are not.
The obviously artificial nature of this distinction is a large part of the case that many make for the legalization of narcotics. This is not the only case that can be made from this, however. Someone who thinks that the goal of the War on Drugs – the elimination of the drug trade, the bondage of addiction, and the ruin of lives that goes along with these – to be a good one, even if he may think the “War” itself to be ill-advised, doomed to failure, the cause of more evils than it prevents, and an excuse for government aggrandizement – could argue that efforts to keep people, especially children, from falling prey to the lure of drugs, are contradicted by the presence of the legal pharmaceutical industry, that advertises its products on billboards, radio, television, and the internet, which advertising conveys, in essence, the same message as illegal drug pushers, i.e., use our product and your suffering will cease and you will find happiness.
Related to the above point about the contradictory mixed-messages being sent by the legal pharmaceutical industry and those fighting the War on (illegal) Drugs, is the fact that the fifty years since Nixon declared the latter have also seen a massive rise in the number of young children being prescribed dangerous mind-altering stimulants such as methylphenidate and amphetamine. Oddly, these have been prescribed for diagnoses of hyperactivity, which is characterized by the inability to stay still and focus due to excess energy, something one would think ought to be the last thing in the world to be treated by stimulants (amphetamine is the drug that is sold on the street as “speed”). Some have posited a link between the rise in medicating children in this way and the new phenomenon of school shootings which popped up in the same period, just as others have noted a similar correlation between mind-altering medication and mass shootings in general. Whatever the truth may be with regards to such allegations – Politifact maintains that the first is false, which is a strong if not infallible indicator that it is in fact mostly true - it can certainly be said that this new propensity for prescribing stimulants to children, which looks suspiciously like the result of the takeover of public education by radical feminists who bullied the medical profession into treating the condition of being a normal young boy as pathological, sends a message that contradicts that of those waging the War on Drugs.
Given the massive contradictions we have just seen between the legal and tolerated advertisement campaigns of the huge pharmaceutical industry and the recent fad of prescribing stimulants to children on the one hand and the War on the Drugs on the other, it can hardly be surprising that the latter turned out to be something less than a success.
When the War on Drugs began, the main drugs that were regarded as problematic were substances that occur naturally in the coca plant and certain kinds of hemp and poppies. Experimental synthetic drugs were gaining popularity however – the 1960s saw the LSD craze – and this indication that the use and abuse of recreational drugs was becoming a bigger problem as were turning to newer, more dangerous substances, was likely what inspired the Nixon administration to launch the war to begin with. Surely, however, the radical shift in the cultural climate towards the major drugs of fifty years ago has to be chalked up as a major loss in that war.
Today, the use of marijuana, the most widely used of the drugs obtainable from hemp, is depicted as normal, non-problematic, and even commendatory on television and the movies. The drug itself is now generally depicted in popular culture as being harmless and benign. The most dangerous of its known harmful effects are seldom if ever discussed. Increasingly, popular culture has been trying to normalize cocaine use as well.
This shift in cultural attitude wrought by the entertainment media has begun to manifest itself politically. Here in Canada, the Liberal government kept Captain Airhead’s election promise of 2015 and legalized marijuana. There have been some indications, that they are considering doing the same for harder drugs such as cocaine. There are growing movements for similar legalization south of the border.
Meanwhile, the increase in the use of more dangerous synthetic drugs has had all sorts of ill social effects. The synthetic opioid fentanyl, for example, while technically a legal painkiller if prescribed, has led, through its recreational misuse, to an alarming increase in deaths by opioid overdose. This is due to such factors as the small amount needed to produce a lethal overdose and its being mixed with other drugs, especially heroin. The opioid crisis in Canada began early in 2016. This was shortly after the premiership of Captain Airhead began. Draw your own conclusions about that.
Another disturbing trend has to do with methamphetamine. Methamphetamine, like its cousin amphetamine mentioned above, is a synthetic substance derived from the naturally occurring Chinese medicine ephedrine. Ephedrine used to be marketed as a weight-loss supplement and can still be found, in small doses, in some decongestants although a synthetic form is more commonly used. Fifty years ago, the biggest problem with methamphetamine was its abuse in pill form, especially by long distance truck drivers who used it for its fatigue combating properties. In recent decades, however, the crystalized version of the drug, which is used in much the same way as crack cocaine, has been increasingly replacing the latter as the hard drug of choice, especially among younger recreational drug users. There are a number of explanations for this, among them that crystal meth produces a longer lasting high than crack – hours as opposed to minutes, and that it can be homemade from the synthetic ephedrine in over-the-counter decongestants. The reason this switch is of concern to the general public is because of the effects crystal meth produces in its users. It has the tendency to induce paranoia. Consequently, as younger drug users have turned to crystal meth as their drug of preference, we have seen the rise of the brand new phenomenon of people walking down the street, minding their own business, and being verbally and physically assaulted, in some cases murdered, by complete strangers for no reason outside of the assailant’s drug-addled mind. Isn’t progress grand?
When we consider how much worse the drug situation is today than at the beginning of the War on Drugs – and much more could be said about it than the highlights given above – the behaviour of our governments over the last year or so appears that much more irresponsible.
For one thing, the insane, totalitarian, lockdowns they imposed, starting early last year, in order to slow the spread of the bat flu virus, have caused substance abuse, addiction and overdoses to skyrocket. This was a completely predictable consequence of the loneliness and cabin fever generated by this prolonged, artificial, social isolation as well as the loss of jobs, businesses and savings. The authorities acknowledge that overdoses and other drug-related problems have gotten much worse over the last year and a half, but they place the blame on the virus rather than on the wrongness of their actions in response to the virus.
Then there is the way in which our governments have been sending the biggest contradictory message to that of the War on Drugs to date this year. Much effort was devoted in the War on Drugs in trying to keep children from getting involved with drugs in the first place by persuading them to resist pressure from their peers, i.e., other children trying to talk them into taking drugs (the message applied to other situations in which children pressure other children into doing something wrong as well, of course). This year, however, we have seen a top down effort, led by governments, but also involving media companies – news, entertainment and social – aimed at pressuring all of us into taking the latest products of the pharmaceutical industry, and then pressuring everyone else (our peers) into doing so as well. How, exactly, do we expect to have any credibility in the future, when we tell kids to resist the pressure to try marijuana, heroin, crack, ecstasy, crystal meth or the like, when we are now telling them that they, and everybody else, needs to shut up with their objections and reasonable questions and take an experimental new form of vaccine, despite the ill-effects, both those that are already known and the long-term ones that we might not know about yet, that provides an inferior immunity to that which contracting the virus provides, against a virus which the vast majority of people survive and which poses only the most minimal of risks to the young and healthy?
Up until now, Western governments have been fighting Nixon’s War on Drugs with LBJ’s tactics. Had they truly been committed to defeating this industry they would have gone after the pharmaceutical industry and all the legal dope pushers in the medical profession. Now it would appear that they have raised the white flag and surrendered altogether.