Saturday, April 4, 2015

Our Drug War: Ignoring Social Poverty and Exporting Paranoia

How our horrible drug war became everyone's nightmare: Johann Hari on Point of Inquiry.

Unusually, this is a podcast review, rather than a book review. But you never know where something interesting is going to come from. Johann Hari has written a book about the war on drugs- its origins and rationale, and was interviewed on the atheist podcast, Point of Inquiry. The story is remarkable and shocking.

Way back, when the Victorians such as Arthur Conan Doyle were doing cocaine and opium, no one thought to criminalize such drugs. If you wanted to kill yourself, go ahead. But temperance (vs alcohol) set the stage for the criminalization concept, (and its utter failure), in an extreme case of historical irony. As Hari portrays it, the end of prohibition led its leaders and bureaucratic apparatus to look for other ways to retain power and stay occupied. Presto.. the heightened criminalization of heroin and marijuana, which had begun in with the Harrison Narcotics act in 1914. Note that the most addictive drugs of all were left untouched and continue to kill millions of people yearly ... nicotine and alcohol.

There is no question that this is a class-based construction, and Hari cites intense racism as a motivating factor, as the "hard" drugs such as opium, heroin, and marijuana were thought to be favored by the lower classes. Billy Holiday is a big focus of story.

But the irony is that these addictions are not as deterministic as we have been led to believe. Rats as the model organism are brought in to show that while in the original experiments, they certainly preferred drug-laced water to plain water, these were run in bare cages where the rats were bored out of their minds, anxious, unhappy. If the same experiment is run in more normal conditions, in a physically and socially enriched environment, rats do not become addicted. They prefer a real, normal existence to one that is zonked out.

Hari also cites the experience of Switzerland, which has maintained a medical model of drug treatment (which we used to have, before it was taken over by the mania of the drug war). Addicts get their drugs prescribed, take them daily, and go about their lives. They also tend to quit on their own eventually, again preferring reality to a drugged life. It is a very low-stress solution to the problems of addiction. Much lower stress than the warfare that the US has used its leading post-war position to export around the world, severely damaging countries such as Colombia and Mexico in an effort to criminalize and stamp out what clearly can not be stamped out.

But the main issue is one of class and social support. When large swathes of the population are alienated, degraded, discarded, and dehumanized, drug addiction can naturally become a large-scale, scary problem. We would be tempted to treat it with zero tolerance, with mass incarceration, and a world-wide attempt to interdict the offending substances. Yet the problem lies not in the drugs, but in ourselves.

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