The War on Drugs Is Actually a War on the Human Condition

The War on Drugs Is Actually a War on the Human Condition

Like many kids of my awkward generation, which lies in the forlorn space between the groovy nihilism of Gen X and the hustling blingism of the millennials, I was raised on Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug program in the 1980s. I was taught that all drugs (except alcohol and nicotine) were pure evil brought straight out of hell by sociopathic monsters in human form who thought nothing of handing out free crack and LSD to preschoolers from the back of their windowless vans. Drug users were addicts one and all, and addicts were damned souls, lost and devoid of humanity, willing to commit any atrocity in pursuit of their next fix of marijuana or heroin. A single puff off a joint or a single bump of cocaine was a suicidal leap into this zombielike purgatory, and no one but the most foolish or insane would take such a unretractable leap into the abyss.

I came of age in the 1990s, though, that era of strung-out Seattle grunge singers and heroin-chic model-waifs, when Nancy’s stern exhortations became an ironic punchline. I was smoking and drinking and getting high by the time I was 13 years old; and for the next 30 years, I worked my way through most of the smorgasboard of street drugs available in North America. I hung out with psychedelic philosophers and their acolytes and read about Aldous Huxley and the doors of perception and Wade Davis in Haiti, hunting down the concoction used to turn people into literal, not metaphorical, zombies.

Along the way, I discovered why the so-called “War on Drugs” was utterly doomed to failure. It wasn’t just the staggering corruption and incompetence displayed at every level of the entire system that was built to fight this imaginary war, from the politicians and policymakers who use it as an excuse to perpetuate institutional racism on empoverished minority communities to the local cops who use it to arm themselves with military-grade weapons. 

No, the fatal flaw that lies at the heart of the War on Drugs is it’s not a war on drugs at all; it’s a war on the human condition.

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“Every species of mammal,” the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once wrote, “has found some way to drug, inebriate or anaesthetise itself, even if it’s just banging its head against a rock.” I have no idea if this is actually true of every mammal, but it certainly applies to every human I’ve ever met.

Aside from the occasional pot brownie to help me sleep, I’m pretty much done with the liquor and drugs these days. This is not because I fought my way out of the Gehenna of addiction through sheer will and perseverance, because — aside from cigarettes — I’ve never been addicted to any of the drugs I’ve done.

In fact, as the late comedian Bill Hicks used to crow: I had a great time on drugs. I have been arrested precisely zero times; I have committed precisely zero crimes to fund my drug habit (aside from, y’know, buying them); I have never lost a job over drugs, never ended any relationships, never done anything particularly degrading for drugs, other than making awkward conversation about video games with my dealers as I waited for them to sell me drugs.

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So why, if I wasn’t addicted to drugs, did I do them for so long? Simple: because they were fun, and because they helped me cope with crippling depression, stress and pain that I couldn’t manage without help. 

I’ve spent my entire adult life writing about hard subjects, like climate collapse and social injustice, and spending time in a lot of hard places, like the slums of Nairobi or the homeless camps of Las Vegas. A lifetime of this has left me haunted — and drugs were a way to push those ghosts aside when nothing else would. Psychedelics, in particular, have been fantastically useful for me, both as a way of examining myself and my own mind and of extending my philosophical proprioception, my understanding of my place as an indistinguishable part of the universe rather than something apart from and observing it. I loved doing drugs.

This is where I’m supposed to be apologetic and ashamed and repentant, right? But why on Earth would I be any of those things? There is absolutely nothing wrong with hedonism, and there’s also nothing wrong with finding external tools to deal with the flawed neurological architecture that evolution has left us with. 

Consciousness is both a gift and a curse — it gives us reason and the knowledge of the self, but for many of us, these powerful tools don’t have an off switch. We are left acutely aware of our own failings, of the inevitability of death, of the casual injustice that often seems to be the true currency of modern life and the utter pointlessness of most of the labor we engage in, just to pay our bills. A lot of us suffer from the moment we’re born into a society that despises the color of our skin or the way we’re wired to love and lust. Many of us are wounded in childhood by abuse or neglect or casual cruelty and spend the rest of our lives trying to heal.

These are the deep, dark, dissonant notes that play in the background of every moment of our waking lives, like the score to a horror film; how can you blame anyone for finding whatever tricks they can conjure to drown them out, if only for a few hours at a time?

Of course, we all know this, deep down. That’s why so many of us face the morning with a cup of coffee and a Prozac or an Adderall or two when we really need to focus and crunch at work, or Zoloft, or Ambien at bedtime, or Xanax as needed. We take these drugs with our heads held high, as though there’s some fundamental categorical difference between the pills our doctor gives us and the powders we get on the street.

But the effects are the same; the only difference between the Adderall you get from your shrink and the crank you buy from a biker in the toilet of a dive bar is the purity. The active chemicals are nearly identical, and the effects are identical. (Trust me; I speak from experience.)

So if it’s not the actual drugs we think are bad, then what is it? Why do we feel bad for the guy who hurts his back and gets an Oxycodone prescription, only to despise him when his scrip runs out and he switches to smoking heroin instead? Why do we approve of someone taking Adderall to make it through pre-med mid-terms, but sneer at someone doing a line of meth to make it through the swing shift at their second job loading boxes at the Amazon warehouse? Why do we smile in bemused tolerance at the gaggle of secretaries or shoe salesmen putting away half the bar between them on a Friday night, but still, in so many places, frown on the teacher who comes home after a long day doing a difficult job for shit pay and wants to take a few hits from the bong?

Because street drugs are more dangerous than prescription drugs, cut with dangerous additives, and easier to overdose on because you don’t know how strong they are? Is it because they tend to be manufactured and sold by murderous cartels? If so, these are very easy problems to solve: legalize drugs, all drugs, and subject them to the same stringent safety standards and regulations we established for alcohol after Prohibition and that cannabis farmers and sellers face in the states where weed is legal. Create honest drug awareness programs for both youth and adults, to help people understand the actual dangers of drug use and the real dangers of addiction, instead of banging them over the head with false and hysterical propaganda.

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That’s if safety is your actual concern. But it’s hard to believe the War on (Some But Not All) Drugs is really about public safety, when pharmaceutical manufacturers fund the lobbies who fight legalization and the cops routinely claim to “smell marijuana” when pulling people over for the crime of driving while black while rich, white “cannapreneurs” end up on the covers of business magazines. 

What this idiotic half-century of tilting at windmills really comes down to is what most shitty things in America have always come down to: greed, power, racism, the lingering stench of hypocritical Puritanism and the nagging fear that someone, somewhere, is having more fun than you are.

Eventually, it seems likely the United States will come to its senses; after all, cannabis is legal in 18 states and decriminalized in 13 more, and all of them have conspicuously failed to collapse into reefer madness and perdition. Several cities and states, including Oregon, are cautiously beginning to decriminalize and even legalize psilocybin mushrooms, which have shown great promise for dealing with depression and addiction in clinical studies for decades

But nothing will really change until Americans recognize that drugs and drug use — recreational and otherwise — have always been a fundamental part of the human condition, and they’re simply one of the ways we have learned to compensate for the less pleasant side effects of being conscious beings in an indifferent world. Life is a short and hard and treacherous road to walk down, and we get only one shot at it; should we really begrudge anybody, anything, that makes it a little less painful and a little more fun?

Joshua Ellis is a writer, musician, coder and futurist. He lives in North London with his fiancee and a very surly cat named Mr. Fukkles. You can read more about his writing here.

Joshua Ellis is a writer, musician, coder and futurist. He lives in North London with his fiancee and a very surly cat named Mr. Fukkles. You can read more about his writing here.

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