November 28, 2005 -
© 2005 by John Varley; all rights reserved
And the war drags on. There is no end in sight; no end is even envisioned. It is a war that was destined to fail from the very first shot fired; failure was built in to the initial strategy, and the tactics have guaranteed it is not only unwinnable, but that every battle will be lost, and every step we take will further erode our national moral fiber. Its victims number in the multiple millions now, and the cost ... well, it’s hard to get reliable figures, or to know what costs might legitimately attributed to the war, but it’s certainly in the trillions of dollars. The war has been raging now for well over seventy years, though in the last three decades it has expanded exponentially, to the point ...
Wait. I just realized you might be thinking I’m writing about the war in Iraq. No, that’s a minor skirmish, a schoolyard fistfight, compared to the war I’m talking about. The War on Drugs.
After studying and fretting about it for years, I have come to the conclusion that we are fighting this endless, losing, and totally pointless war because ... God told us to. I can see no other reason. It seems that God came down to Earth and announced his Eleventh Commandment, the one he forgot to give to Moses. He did this sometime early in the 20th Century, and we’ve been doing His will ever since. This is the 11th Commandment:
(The codicil was added by God and the state legislatures in 1933 when they repealed the 18th Amendment, after a 13-year Great Experiment that turned out so badly. It turned common citizens into criminals and transformed neighborhood gangs of toughs into national institutions that bought and sold politicians like coffee beans. Enough! God cried. Just all the other drugs ... There is no other reason I can see that we are all, around the world, so opposed to people getting stoned, except that God must have decreed it. I’ll return to that idea later ...)
Back to cost. I’m not talking about just the 20 to 30 billion dollars the Federal Government spends every year in direct costs; that is, Customs, the DEA, spraying toxic herbicides on Mexican and Peruvian fields, helicopters, military advisors, and hardware like that. I’m not talking just about the hundreds of thousands of state, county, and city cops in various “vice” squads, the local expenditures which are a lot larger than the Federal. No, I mean the total cost, which is of course debatable. I don’t have the time or inclination to really research this, so I googled “Cost of the war on drugs” and got some figures. They might be wildly inflated, but consider this: even if you cut these numbers in half, they are staggering. Here’s a table that estimates direct and indirect costs just for ’89 through ’94, and gives figures for Reagan’s and Bush I’s terms:
Cost during the Reagan Administration: .9 trillion dollars - $900,000,000,000.00.
During Bush the Elder’s 4 years: .7 trillion - $700,000,000,000.00.
You can bet that during the Clinton years we spent or lost well over a trillion and a half dollars to drugs. I’d bet $75 billion that during Bush the Incompetent’s reign we’ve already reached the trillion dollar mark.
Now look at this:
But surely it’s worth it, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve made some progress in 70+ years, right? Well, I’m not going to bore you with a lot more numbers, but I haven’t been able to find a single optimistic datum. Not one. Drugs are more plentiful than they have ever been. More people are taking them than ever have before. They are evolving, like viruses; some of the most popular drugs today didn’t even exist when we started the war. They are more available, easier to find, and cheaper than they’re ever been. (Except for marijuana, but the stuff on the street these days is 100 times more powerful than the shit we smoked in the ‘60s, when it was almost free but you needed a spliff the size of a Havana cigar to get wasted.) People are using drugs who never would have dreamed of shooting up skag. I understand the Bible Belt is staggering from the effects of home-cooked meth. Kids are starting up in grade school.
One more figure. From 20 to 25% of the two million people in American jails (more than any other country in the world) are there for drug crimes.
I’m far too weary to get into a detailed itemization of the social ills the war has caused. There are billions and billions to be made, and people will kill for that kind of money. They will also bribe, and our courts and police forces have been corrupted by the taint of all that easy money.
And this time, my fellow Americans, it’s not just America that has gone bugfuck on the subject. Singapore is about to execute a drug kingpin. Thailand puts people in jail for a long, long time. In fact, with a few exceptions here and there, the whole planet is determined to win this “war,” using the weapons of laws and the enforcement of them, and prisons for the users and distributors.
“War” on drugs, war on an inanimate thing that a majority of people on the planet want. (You don’t think so? I’m including alcohol in my definition of mind-altering drugs, because it is, and it is more harmful than all the others drugs put together, and the only one we tolerate.) We can’t even keep our definitions current, but we keep trying. Every few years something new pops up, and we make it illegal to make, possess, use, or ingest. A while back there was a story that if you licked the sweaty skin of a certain kind of toad, you’d get high. College kids were doing it.
Our reaction? Did we laugh? Did we cry? No, we considered outlawing toads. Way back when, Donovan told us that “Electrical banana is gonna be the very next phase.” We peeled and cooked and smoked banana skins ... and we didn’t get high. And a good thing, too, or you’d pay $10 for a banana today, illegally. We would have leveled the plantations of Honduras.
Okay, there’s one more thing the war on drugs have been doing to us for a long, long time, and it’s costing us money, too, and it’s not on that chart above. It has been depriving us of our civil liberties. That’s what inspired this rant.
Back in the ‘60s, we first began using what they called a “no-knock” search warrant. It’s hard to remember it now, but the Fourth Amendment used to mean that, unless the police were pursuing a fleeing felon, or they had probable cause to believe someone was in danger at a place where they were executing a search warrant ... they had to knock! They had to ask to be let in. They had to stand there, hat in hand, and knock and knock and knock ... and if nobody answered, they had to go away and either wait for someone to return, or sit outside and watch the place. But in drug raids, people were flushing their stashes down the toilet. Horrors! The Republic was in danger. So we took the first step in eviscerating the Constitution, a process that has now been nearly completed by the administration of Bush the Drooler. The atrocities of the Patriot Act, as you know, were necessary to fight the “War on Terror.” It’s always a war on something, isn’t it? What if we’d fought the “War on Poverty” with the zeal we have fought drugs and terror? What if we’d served no-knock warrants on city governments and state and federal legislatures, busted down the door, put the fuckers up against the wall at gunpoint when they cut funds for education and school lunches? ... Nah, we’d probably have fucked it up, just like our other social wars.
But it goes back farther than the ‘60s. Did you know that, until the early years of the 20th Century, as recently as the ‘20s and ‘30s, prescriptions were more of a reminder than a legal requirement? Doctors would write down what they wanted druggists to give to their patients. Once you were taking a drug, you’d just go back and ask for more. Or you could self-diagnose, just walk into a pharmacy and buy pretty much what you wanted, including opiates.
The requirement for a prescription was, as so many infringements of our rights, instituted with the best of intentions. Charlatans were selling shit that didn’t work, or might kill you. So the Food and Drug Administration took over the drug business, and has had a stranglehold on it ever since, and as always, soon they were a wholly-owned subsidiary of the drug industry. The “legitimate” drug industry. Now you have to go see a doctor every 90 days to get your drugs, because that’s the maximum the law allows them to write for. That means about $100 added to the already sky-high cost of medication. Just so the doctor can authorize you to buy stuff you both know you need.
There is a whole rant just in how the FDA refuses to approve drugs that are known to be safe as aspirin for on-the-shelf sales. They have absolutely no incentive to make drugs easier to get, or cheaper, and plenty of reasons to keep them behind the counter to enrich their buddies who run the drugs companies.
But useful drugs go in the other direction, too, sometimes. From the shelf to the back room. And last week it happened to us.
Decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) keep Lee from getting debilitating sinus headaches. No need to describe the sinus headache, just believe me that she’s in bed two to three days.
Guess what? Sudafed is a “precursor” chemical for the manufacture of methamphetamine (sold on the streets as crystal, crystal meth, glass, shardz, ice, P or Tina; also sold as less-pure crystalline powder called crank or speed, or in rock formation termed dope, raw or tweak), a Schedule II drug. You can cook harmless Sudafed with some other easily available chemicals and make a drug that gets you high.
So our great protectors acted. The third-to-last time we went shopping for Sudafed (actually the cheaper store brand, half the price of brand name), it was on sale, half the normal price. We decided to get 4 boxes of it. WRONG! The check-out computer would only allow us to buy 3. We took the three, grumbling.
The next-to-last time we went drug shopping, we saw that “Sudafed” had been reformulated. There were still some boxes with real pseudo- in them, but most now contained something that was supposed to work just as well. It now contains Phenylephrine HCl. A “pseudo”-Sudafed, or Ersatz-afed. Lee decided to give it a try. (I tried to stop her, reasoning that you don’t change something that works, but would she listen?)
Soon enough she got another sinus headache and tried the Ersatz-afed. Not only did it not help, it seemed to make her sicker. She sent me out to the drugstore at 9:30 PM to get some of the hard stuff. And would you believe it? Between that next-to-last time and this time, all the hard stuff had disappeared from the shelves. In its place were little cards that said “Take this card to the pharmacy window to purchase Sudafed.” Only it was too late. The pharmacy was closed. It was closed at Von’s, Rite-Aid, and Albertson’s, too. You can now buy Sudafed only between the hours of 8 AM and 9 PM, even at 24-hour stores.
Could be worse. Oregon, which has a history of being ahead of the curve on a lot of worthwhile social issues, is ahead on a bad one this time. In Oregon, you can’t get pseudoephedrine without a doctor’s prescription. So add $100 to the cost of what is—and no one argues this point—a completely harmless cold and cough and congestion medication. More than double the cost. And why? ... so nobody can cook it into meth and get high.
And here is the question, the very basic question at the bottom of the war on drugs, that no one has ever even made an attempt to answer for me. If you know the answer, I want to hear from you. I mean it, I’m dead serious, tell me, because I don’t understand. The question is ...
Why do you care what I put into my body? Why do you give a flying fuck if I’m stoned out of my mind? How am I harming you?
I’ll anticipate your objections.
Because if I’m stoned, I might cause a car crash. Ah ... you misunderstood my question. I didn’t ask what’s wrong with getting high and doing this or that. What we should do if someone gets high and kills someone with his car is what we do to drunk drivers (though not nearly often enough): Take away his license and put him in jail.. Not for drinking, not for getting high, but for criminal irresponsibility. What we tend to do, instead, is blame the liquor, or the drug, or even the bartender or liquor store. You are responsible for what you do while drunk or stoned. No one else.
Because if I’m an airline pilot, I might crash my airplane. Same question, only this time the airline is responsible for ensuring the sobriety of their employees. I have absolutely no problem with employers requiring drug testing ... even if the job is not safety-related. If Wal-Mart doesn’t want drug users working for them, that’s their decision. Same with alcoholics or smokers.
Because I might go nuts and do something violent. Ummm ... well ... I hate to break it to you, but which drug do you think causes the most violent craziness in our society? More than all the angel dust and meth ever consumed by everyone since those drugs were invented? Right! Got it in one! Alcohol. And what do we do when someone gets drunk and shoots somebody? We put him in jail.
Because I’m destroying my brain/heart/liver/kidneys/lungs/stomach. Again, why is this your problem? It’s between me and my body. And alcohol and nicotine, our two legal addictive drugs, do more physical damage than all other drugs combined.
Because you will become addicted. I got news for you: I already am. I am addicted to two drugs: Nicotine and Xanax. The nicotine I’d like to shake. The Xanax ... here’s yet another question for you. What, precisely, is wrong with addiction? It’s a problem for society only if the addict can’t get his fix. Then he turns to crime and enriches criminals to get it, with the sad result we see today. A drug-ridden society that refuses to accept that it’s drug-ridden. Addiction only becomes a problem for the addict when he’s trying to quit. (Yes, smoking is a problem for me, but it’s my problem, not yours or society’s) I said I’m addicted to Xanax, but I’m just taking their word for it. It says on the label that it’s habit-forming. I’ve been taking a small dose of it every night for years, because it helps me get to sleep. I have no idea how hard it might be to stop ... and I don’t care, because I don’t plan to stop. It has no harmful side effects that I know of, and it works. What more can I ask? But somehow, because I’m addicted to it, I should feel guilty. Well, fuck off, nanny, I don’t feel an ounce of guilt.
So you have one last objection to drug use.
It will make you ... well ... LAZY! Aha! We’ve finally come to the crux of the situation. Virtually everyone hates a lazy person. And somebody who is high on heroin often has no problems, no desires, no urge to do anything at all but sit there and groove on the rush. This can also be true of marijuana. But guess what? It is also not true of some people. I don’t think any studies have been done (they’re afraid of what they might find out), but I know for a fact that a lot of people function just fine after smoking a joint. And some go-getters need heroin just to come off the natural high they live on all the time. Fact! Wall Street brokers, ad execs, Hollywood producers, and of course, musicians. All of these have been known to pursue their careers aggressively with massive doses of horse.
But say it isn’t so. Say all “recreational” drugs make you into a wall-eyed zombie. Which would you prefer: A hophead sitting on his couch, high as a kite on H whose quality has been assured by the FDA, or that same hophead breaking into your house to steal everything you own so he can get five cents on the dollar to make his $200/day nut to buy street crap of dubious provenance, stuff that might kill him?
Bottom line: we are so deeply offended by the idea of someone laying idly around, and enjoying it, that we have sacrificed uncountable billions of dollars and who knows how many hundreds of thousands of lives in a war we can’t win.
So, I hear you say ... you can rant, but do you have a solution?
As it happens, I do. It is very simple to state, and not very much more complicated to implement.
Legalize drugs. Legalize all drugs, including the ones you can only get by prescription.
Yikes! Not even that wild-eyed radical lefty, William F Buckley, advocates going that far, though he has long been in favor of decriminalization. What about ... lost productivity? What about the cost? What about degraded health, and the deaths drug use will cause?
What about the children!?!?! What sort of message will be we sending the children? Why, they’ll be popping pills right and left, they’ll be able to easily get all this bad stuff, they ...
Hello? Anybody home? Again, if anybody can point out to me how that situation will differ in any way, save only for the lack of hypocrisy, lower cost, quality assurance, and the elimination of an entire criminal class, from the situation we have right now, I want to hear it. PLEASE! Explain it to me!
People who want to get high ... will get high! If there is one ironclad fact in the calculus of intoxication and addiction, it is that. If they can’t get one thing, they’ll find another. They will lick toads, they will cook banana peels. They will huff airplane glue (which you used to be able to buy over-the-counter) or spray paint (which they’ve tried to regulate, with no luck as far as I know) or kerosene or gasoline or acetone or any number of poisonous chemicals. They will breathe nitrous oxide. They will squeeze the ethyl and methyl alcohol out of Sterno and drink that, or distill their own from any vegetable you can name. They will drink cough syrup or cologne.
They will get high. The only question is, do we want to demonize them because of it? I say legalize them all, from aspirin to angel dust, from cocaine to Coca-Cola. And I most emphatically do include the drugs you now can obtain legally only by prescription. Your doctor and your pharmacist should be your advisors, not your nannies.
I’ve got a four-step program to save humanity from the scourge of the War on Drugs.
So I’ve just cut our direct spending by 97%. Will this solve the drug problem?
No. People will die from drugs, but a lot fewer if they know what they’re taking. Kids will use drugs, but a lot fewer than use them today. People will still drive drunk and stoned, just as they do today. But we will stop locking people up for the use of drugs.
I’m betting it would be a better, saner world. Do I expect to see it happen?
Not in my lifetime.