Drugs, And the War on People Who Do Them
I just finished watching the second season of the cable television series, The Wire, and it’s got me thinking about drugs and our society.
The Wire, by David Simon and Ed Burns, one of the best shows ever made for television or the big screen, doesn’t talk politics above the level of local corruption. It tells the story of cops and robbers on the front lines of the drug wars and other urban crime. It’s a drama and not focused on policy. It depicts the drug customers as a bunch of losers, treated with contempt by both the cops and the robbers, which has an outline of sadness because they are just sympathetic little people, in contrast to the criminals who feed off them and the army of drug warriors, who very much feed off of the drug gangs.
In fairness, drug consumers return the favor and have some contempt for the squares, the vast majority of people on the planet who don’t do the drug lifestyle. You don’t see this in The Wire, but you can catch a literary version of the addicts’ rap in the movie Trainspotting by Danny Boyle (1996) about hard-core white druggies in Edinburgh. In the opening monologue, the movie gives us a junkie’s philosophy of life, something to the effect that he is free from the cares of ordinary, status conscious squares who have to spend the greater part of their waking hours in boring jobs.
This film was the only Danny Boyle movie (he did Slumdog Millionaire, among others) that I didn’t like. First off, the monologue struck me as bogus. There’s only one William S. Burroughs. Most junkies are just losers. They choose their marginal lifestyle, not because it’s philosophically satisfying but because they simply like it, maybe from laziness, maybe from fear. And it’s all made possible by a quirk of genetics that predisposes them to opiate addiction or cocaine addiction — much like a similar quirk that makes drinking dangerous for some people.
My attitude toward drug use and drug users follows from circumstance and culture. I graduated from high school in 1963 in the urban Northeast. While I was more of a drinker than a druggie as a kid, and onward through high school, and college, and most of my newspaper years, I know many people who did varying amounts of every drug you’ve ever heard of, and very few of them became lifelong addicts. I’m convinced of one thing that I rarely hear of in the more formal debates on the subject: A person’s drug preferences are very, very particular, and the view projected in The Main With the Golden Arm is largely a lie. People take to certain substances, legal and illegal, because those chemicals fit their biology, and people adopt all kinds of cultural trappings for their own tastes and inclinations.
I’m not a libertarian, much less an anarchist, and I think society has every right to restrict some behavior for the greater good. But this restraint of others does not apply to drugs. If it did, federal agents should first hunt down and eliminate all tobacco executives. If society thinks it’s good policy to prohibit drugs, they ought to look first at the legitimate drug industry is doing by the mass tranquilizing — fighting depression — of people with substances whose effects scientists cannot yet explain, or even measure in a convincing way.
And of course, you can also compare the damage to society by the relatively pacific junkies with drunks, who turn violent in an instant, and deadly behind the wheel of an automobile. If junkies are a blight on society, it’s because the war on drugs forces them to deal with violent criminals and pay exhorbitant prices. If junkies burglarize homes and pick pockets, it’s to pay the high cost of their drugs.
I see the junkies in my neighborhood because we have two methadone clinics nearby. Our society supports a huge treatment industry, whose clients maintain their loser lifestyles with the help of this bureaucratic apparatus and a legal drug. The junkies get their daily dose and then hang out and trade other stuff. On occasion, one of the junkies gets something really good and goes on a nod on the sidewalk, bent over so that his head scrapes the sidewalk, off in another world. Stuff falls from his pockets, slips from his grasp. It’s not an attractive sight, but is he hurting anyone?
Drugs didn’t create thieving and prostitution. Both existing long before opium and cocaine and both will continue until human beings die out. But drug laws promote both forms of petty crime, and they generate the conditions for very serious crime gangs and corruption. Are we better off for having raised Colombian and Mexican drug gangs — any more than we were for enriching our home-grown gangs in the 20s in the so-called noble experiment to prohibit drinking? I’ve also read many times, that both the Taliban and government in Afghanistan tolerates and even participates in the drug traffic. That’s not such a great idea, is it?
I know I am ignoring years of academic debate about whether tough drugs laws or liberal drugs laws hurt a society, but in truth, I don’t want to argue the statistics of drug use from Sweden. From what I read, every argument gives rise to a counter argument, each of the sides waving it’s own set of data. Spare me.
To me, the moral high ground for outlawing drugs is on an equally shaky philosophical foundation as Danny Boyle’s junkies. Fundamentally, I think there are some people everywhere who will never be productive members of society, who will live nihilistic lives on the margins. I think it would be far smarter of us to accept this fact, and feed them, and let them alone. They are wasting their lives and we’re not going to change them, and unless we think it’s a good idea to line them up and shoot them, we might as well give them a bit of money. That money will cycle through their hands so fast that no one will ever know it was gone. Just let them be.