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November 30, 2006

Denial and the War on Drugs

Even as the Bush Administration was desperately pushing to depose Saddam Hussein in the wake of 9/11, many Americans and Europeans were warning that a war of aggression in the Middle East on shaky grounds held great potential for disaster. Now that the Iraq war has lasted longer than American participation in World War Two and it’s painfully clear that there was no exit strategy and even less prospect for credible ‘success,’ it might behoove the nation to recall that the Iraq war has an evil twin in the war on drugs.

The great anomaly represented by the drug war is that it too, is a folly based on wishful thinking, has now lasted ten times as long as Iraq, is just as bereft of credible success, and has had an even more corrosive effect on our nation’s institutions; yet there is no popular move to repudiate it or even rein it in. Quite the contrary, it seems as secure as ever: a cherished policy supported by all branches of the federal government and opposed only by a politically inept and disorganized ‘movement’ which can’t seem to get out of its own way.  Indeed, the drug policy reform movement seems to be taken taken seriously only by the drug czar and ONDCP where the ‘P’ stands far less for policy than for propaganda. Both groups are focused on each other and the public seems barely to notice.

Early in my eleven year affiliation with the movement I had the same trouble as many others in understanding its perennial lack of success: it (we) held the intellectual high ground and could produce all sorts of logical arguments on behalf of needle exchange, medical marijuana, injection rooms, shorter sentences, etc. American drug policy was obviously wasteful, destructive, and hypocritical; yet it seemed to thrive on a steady diet of lies, bloated police budgets and failure. Overseas, it was associated with CIA skullduggery in which many early  ‘successes’ had morphed into failures: Viet Nam, Central America, Afghanistan, the Andean nations, various Caribbean republics, and Mexico.

The seemingly endless war in Colombia is an example;  we instigated the serial destruction of two rival cocaine cartels only to have their lucrative business fall into the hands of a left wing guerrilla movement that has been at war with the central government as long as most people can remember. Plan Colombia may have been pushed off the front pages by Iraq, but it’s as big a loser as ever.

It wasn’t until about five years ago, when I was encouraged to come out of retirement to screen applicants hoping to use cannabis (‘marijuana’) medically under the terms of California’s 1996 law, that I began to understand just how diabolical the war against it really is. In a nutshell, pot turns out to be a valuable psychotropic agent that owes its phenomenal market success to the discovery of its inhaled form by hippies and baby boomers just about forty years ago. Nixon’s war on drugs, launched in 1969, has actually acted as fertilizer for all illegal drug markets, but most of all for pot, which quickly became more popular than all other drugs except alcohol and tobacco, a position it has maintained throughout the entire drug war. In fact, understanding the key role played by pot in the lives of its adult chronic users provides a good understanding of the quite different roles played by other ‘drugs of abuse’ (all are tried as possible self-medications, but psychedelics cannot play that role chronically) as well as a clear idea of how profoundly federal drug ‘policy experts’ and police have misunderstand what they are about; mostly because of the erroneous assumptions made on behalf of the policy they are vainly trying to enforce.

The corollary is that a drug war which was started as alleged Public Health has become a major threat to the Mental Health of the nation.  The policy is no longer about ‘control’ of the criminal markets which owe their very existence to the policy, but about justifying the grossly unfair arrest and imprisonment of some drug users. We are far more likely to rebuild Iraq in the face of the present insurgency than we are to ever ‘win’ the war on drugs. Both policies are sapping us economically, intellectually and spiritually; yet we are miles from any serious possibility that our malevolent drug policy will be repudiated, or even significantly softened,  in the near future

The blame for this sorry state of affairs does not lie just with the obvious wing-nuts in the DEA and ONDCP; it is shared by most of the American polity from academia, the professions, and the media, down to the man in the street. I don't claim to understand the phenomenon completely, but would submit that understanding the reason behind our nearly universal acceptance of a grievously flawed policy is particularly urgent; if for no other reason than the denial required to do so is not unique to the drug war; it's widespread and affects the welfare of both our planet and our species in many different ways.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at November 30, 2006 02:41 AM