« A Species in Trouble; the Quest for "Control" | Main | Annals of Enforced Ignorance: 2 »

April 15, 2011

Annals of Enforced Ignorance: 1

A question asked frequently by activists opposed to the drug war is why both the federal government and the general public have ignored the most obvious lesson to be learned from our 14 year adventure with alcohol prohibition: that using the criminal justice system to punish commerce in a desired commodity simply creates a lucrative criminal market, corrupts law enforcement, and breeds violent crime. Beyond that the two policy failures are rarely compared because drug prohibition (euphemistically referred to as a policy of "control") is still being actively pursued; thus from a political point of view, analyzing its failures would be tantamount to performing an autopsy on a living patient. In other words, both national populations and their governments seem loathe to acknowledge failures in progress. The most convincing recent example of that phenomenon was the mutual reluctance of Germany and Japan to accept defeat in 1945; its most dire consequence was prolongation of the agony of both nations. First it was necessary that Berlin be occupied by the Russians, following which Hitler's suicide in the bunker finally allowed the Germans to accept an outcome that had become inevitable following their defeat at Stalingrad in the East and the British/American successes after D-Day in the West.

The next requirement was to force Japan, always an unlikely ally of the Nazis, to also surrender. That was accomplished by use of an unprecedented weapon to destroy two Japanese cities, a decision that, while perhaps best under the circumstances extant in 1945, has critically affected the course of subsequent history and the outcome of which still remains unknown.

To return to what was intended as the theme of this essay: the idea that both governments and the nations they rule are loathe to acknowledge obviously losing wars while still in progress: there have been several recent US examples: although Korea remains a standoff, our most costly defeat in a "shooting" war to date was in Viet Nam. However the longest- and perhaps the most costly- has been our largely metaphorical "war on drugs;" which amazingly, also enjoys UN approval and has been waged all over the world since the Sixties; even by our political enemies.

A major reason for that global acceptance is that the drug war is politically correct; thus its very necessity is rarely questioned by the media and its most obvious failures: the carnage on America's southern border and the growing political instability in Mexico, for example may be reported by the media, but are rarely analyzed in depth in either nation.

Parenthetically, all UN treaty signatories have also bought into drug war failure; they are also predictably unwilling to give up an excuse for spying on their own people.

Here in the US, there is also great denial implicit in the way our historical failures are remembered: Nearly a century later, “Prohibition” might conjure up a variety of quaint mental images for three hundred million living Americans, but most would be hard put to recall there was a unique Repeal Amendment in 1933, let alone that it had been necessary to cancel a similarly unique Amendment passed in 1919 on the promise it would be the permanent solution of all society's alcohol problems.

Apart from the difficulties listed above, today's drug war is so complex and shrouded in ignorance as to seriously hamper attempts at intelligent comparison with alcohol prohibition. For one thing, the 18th Amendment only targeted booze. For another, it only prohibited commerce in booze; consumption was never made a crime. In that context, the very idea of a positive drug test would have been outrageous in the free wheeling Twenties; probably even more so in the impoverished Thirties when Hollywood movies often portrayed enviably rich patrons of night clubs as hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, and "glamorous." Compare those images to modern portrayals of grimy crack houses, meth-cooking trailer trash, or vacuous Cheech and Chong “stoners.”

The drug war targets a wide variety of chemical agents that have little in common other than their designation by the Attorney General as (illegal) “drugs of abuse.” At the same time, we are asked to accept pharmaceutical "uppers" prescribed by pediatricians and psychiatrists as “therapy” for hyperactive third graders and “go pills” dispensed by Air Force flight surgeons to bomber crews as essential to our various war efforts (probably less now that Predator drones attacking Afghanistan are controlled from an Air Force Base near Las Vegas).

In other words, context plays a critical role in how the same behaviors are defined- and how those engaged in them are dealt with.

History also matters. The Prohibition and Drug War eras are thought of very differently by the various generations that grew up under their influence. Prohibition is rarely remembered for giving birth to the modern Mafia. It helped school them in the value of modern business methods while also financing their acquisition of the tools a disciplined ethnic gang would need to compete successfully with both rivals and local police: telephones, trucks automobiles and machine guns. When prohibition ended abruptly in 1933, the criminal organizations it supported were able to segue easily into illegal drugs, labor racketeering, gambling, prostitution, and loan sharking. Their most brilliant organizers, often vicious murderers in real life, became folk heroes while still alive, and later served as models for the fictional heroes of the Godfather series.

But perhaps the biggest reason society has not learned from Prohibition's failure has been how consumers of prohibited contraband were portrayed under the two policies. “Two fisted drinkers” who can “handle their liquor” are still macho heroes on college campuses, but pathetic “druggies” and “junkies” are scorned for their “addictions” In contemporary culture, our drug policy gets a big assist from both Medicine and the Law because both agree that ”addiction:” is a treatable “disease” of celebrities and sports heroes able to afford rehab, but a "crime" requiring prison time when encountered in the poor denizens of rural trailer parks and urban ghettos.

Both medical and criminal "addiction" are now readily diagnosed by mere possession, either "internally" (in urine) or in one's baggage; all that's required is a small quantity of a designated “drug of abuse. As is obvious from current media reports, the disposition of such cases varies greatly, depending on the wealth and social status of the offender/patient.

More on this later.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 15, 2011 05:22 PM