The deli at one end of my block in Manhattan sells Budweiser, Guinness, and 23 other brands of beer. It also offers three varieties of cigars and 30 brands of cigarettes. Adults legally can buy these mind-altering items.
A pharmacy fills the other corner. I recently asked its druggist how many psychoactive substances she sells. She handed me product information leaflets for 27 pharmaceuticals. Xanax helps people “feeling keyed up or on edge.” Wellbutrin eases “feelings of guilt or worthlessness.” Ritalin wrestles hyperactivity despite the difficulty, she says, that kids suffer getting off of it. This pharmacy even carries morphine, a potent opiate sedative. With a doctor’s blessing, these items could be legally yours.
And yet, geographically bracketed by Molson and morphine, any resident of my apartment building who merely possessed a marijuana cigarette would be a criminal subject to arrest.
This is absurd. Ethan Nadelman of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation calls this government discrimination among substances “the War on Some Drugs.”
Nadelman last week addressed “Altered States of Consciousness,” a New School University conference on alternatives to today’s disastrous drug policy. Participating scholars and analysts recognized that, since antiquity, humans have used fluids, herbs, and powders to expand their minds, for everything from sacrament to amusement.
“Some people use drugs for serious reasons,” says Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor. “People see marijuana as an enhancer of creativity, as an enhancer of sexual activity and even eating. It’s not just for fun.” And yet as Viagra sales boom, cops bust those who use marijuana or ecstasy as aphrodisiacs.
Beloved and distinguished artists have used drugs to boost expressiveness. Among many things, jazz legend Louis Armstrong is remembered for smoking marijuana almost daily throughout his influential career. Marijuana and LSD filled the Beatles’s skies with diamonds. Several huge hits they produced while so inspired appear on their album, “1,” currently Earth’s top-selling title.
Many cannot handle their drugs, of course. Addiction killed guitar virtuoso Jerry Garcia and be-bop innovator Charlie Parker, among others.
Nonetheless, other potentially lethal activities remain perfectly legal. NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Sr. last month fatally plowed into a concrete wall at 180 MPH, widowing his wife and aggrieving his four children and millions of racing fans. The lawbreakers in this tragedy, however, were those who saw the crash on TV while stoned.
Three other NASCAR drivers died competing last year. Non-professional athletes have expired, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control, parachuting killed 38 Americans in 1998, while diving into pools caused 57 deaths. That year, 142 bicyclists died in non-traffic-related mishaps. Pleasure boating accidents took 729 lives in 1999. How dare government permit such carnage?
Though less dramatic, there were 19,515 non-traffic, alcohol-related, fatalities in 1998, even as Alcoholics Anonymous treated roughly 2 million problem drinkers. Meanwhile, the brewing industry alone legally sold $60 billion worth of beer that year. Tobacco-related diseases lawfully kill some 430,000 Americans annually.
What about illegal drugs? Opiate abuse killed 3,141 in 1998, CDC reports. Psychostimulants ended 166 lives while hallucinogens caused three deaths.
Mortality aside, America legally encourages other addictive activities. Thirty-seven state governments operate lotteries while Gamblers’ Anonymous helps 25,000 Americans beat compulsive betting. Overeaters Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous assist people who cannot stop dining and spending. Why no War on Wendy’s? Why no debt czar to cut up maxed-out credit cards?
“The reasons people use drugs are as varied as there are individuals,” says the Lindesmith Center’s Deborah Small. “Some do it for self-medication. Some for enlightenment and others because they want to have fun.” A new, Davis, California-based group called the Alchemind Society advocates “cognitive liberty” and argues that “the government should not be in the business of policing thoughts, by authorizing acceptable states of mind and outlawing others.” Naturally, this individual freedom must be tempered with personal responsibility. Drugged drivers, for instance, deserve prosecution.
Americans toast social drinkers while warning alcohol abusers to “ease up on the sauce.” Alcoholics get treatment while drunk drivers receive stiff fines or jail time.
America needs a similarly nuanced drug policy. People who harm or endanger others while high should be prosecuted. Addicts need therapy. Abusers should be steered toward moderation. And conscientious recreational users should pursue happiness. The alternative is to continue a War on Drugs that has torched $146 billion since 1990 while rolling and smoking the Bill of Rights.
America needs a wholesale attitude adjustment on this matter. Light a cigar, pop a Prozac and think about it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Andrew Sullivan makes similar points in his excellent piece “Dude, Where’s My Drug Policy?”