Disseminating information about drugs

As I read DrugSense Weekly, 2001‐05‐04, practically the first thing I came across was a response some poor drug policy reformer had encountered upon trying to use a well‐known factlet of toxicology in the debate:

What Robison discovered was that marijuana doesn’t kill rats. Booze kills them. Tobacco kills them. Marijuana doesn’t kill them.

The angry man did not dispute the scientific finding, but he contended that if we tell kids such a thing, they will view it as an endorsement of doing drugs, take it and run with it to the nearest street‐corner dealer.

This is a line of reasoning highly familiar to anyone trying to tell that the policy on drugs, like any other governmental action, needs to be justified on rational grounds. It is surprisingly common for ordinary people, who usually take a strong stand against arbitrary governmental involvement in our lives, to argue for the most bizarre things if they’re perceived as helpful in the war against drugs. The above comment is particularly worrisome, since it accurately reflects the lengths into which people are willing to go to combat the King Narcotic—to me it is utterly amazing that of all people, an American man can be lead to voice support for censorship to tackle a social problem!

But what’s the problem, you ask; looking at the above quote, the thought seems rational enough, and certainly quite popular. After all, we cannot have children running to the local dealer every time they catch wind of a new, flimsy excuse to get high. Drugs are Bad, no?

See, that’s just it. Saying that people routinely use potentially lethal substances while drug use should be curbed because it kills, is not coherent. Saying drugs are somehow different, even Evil, when the greatest harm of them all, death, more likely stems from using what the society has to offer instead, just flies in the face of common sense. The finding that cannabis does not kill, which the angry man wisely does not dispute, effectively tells us that in a very essential sense, a particular currently illegal drug is not as bad as the legal ones. It really doesn’t get much simpler than that, yet somehow the man manages not to hear. How?

No sane, rational person would go on to generalize the above statement to all drugs, all people, all cultures or all circumstances that can arise in the course of an individual’s life. But that there is more to the question than the above finding, or that there are exceptions to the rule, certainly does not mean that facts speaking for drug policy reevaluation should be silenced. On the contrary: if we find an issue more complex than we thought, the right way would be to put as many facts out in the open as possible and to proceed from there. Instead we get requests for forced silence and censorship.

You can begin to understand the frustration of drug legalization proponents, such as myself, when people upon catching a piece of sound scientific fact suddenly turn all their logic circuits off, go into berserk mode and start spewing propaganda. This is painful because abolitionists, by and large, believe in working things out in a rational and civilized manner. They believe in giving the due attention to both individual rights and collective good. So when one learns that society at large does not want to engage in an intelligent discussion about drugs, and rather makes one into the enemy, it begins to seem that democracy does not work like it’s supposed to. It seems unfair for the society to refuse public debate about the number one issue to cause people to be locked away.

Much of this gap in communication from a grave misunderstanding of the nature of information, advocacy and public debate. Once a controversial topic like drug use has reached a certain legitimacy and notoriety, mass dynamics tend to turn level‐headed policy into a political crusade, and an uncomfortable activity into an omnipresent menace. In other words, things get blown out of proportion. And once this has happened, ostracism towards anyone who dares think for himself then becomes the easy way out: when a clear majority agrees on the enemy, the one who begs to differ naturally sets himself up for a hanging party. You don’t have to think so much to enjoy a good hanging of someone that is not you. On the other hand, making laws and going about public policy requires a lot of thought, interaction, compromises and rarely has the thrill of really getting something done. Not the way seeing someone hang has, anyway.

Seeking that thrill naturally leads to an agenda filled with empty rhetoric and religious overtones. Polite discussion, respect for others, et cetera, that sort of thing never seems to gets anything done. Especially with those seditious legalizers around. And something really needs to be done, since drugs are everywhere. Corrupting the youth. Those who cannot really think straight, young, impressionable things that they are. How could they tell the truth from the lies? The best they can do is just repeat what they’ve heard, and we all know where that is coming from. Vested interests and all… So better keep it straight and simple, not to create any more confusion. Why study, or debate, or give in to the so called facts, or God forbid, consider the alternatives, when you’re already in the possession of the True Knowledge? Better to just keep the data under wraps and go about business as usual.

It is highly gratifying to be on a crusade, especially when sufficiently many respectable people tell you that you’re on the right side.

This is the kind of middle age sensibility that dominates today’s drug policy, and fuels sheepishness like the quote in the beginning. It is arrogance borne of majority rule. It is also the kind of arrogance for which I see no excuse. Not when you’re deciding about other people’s fate, effectively choosing someone to hang. Certainly not when you haven’t gone through the debate, made your point, prevailed and so assured that whatever you’re suggesting isn’t rotten to the core. Getting the facts straight necessitates open, public discussion, continuously challenging the basic assumptions, and, most of all, lots of detailed knowledge widely disseminated to everybody willing to take part in the process. Censorship only leads to unsustainable policy, disrespect for the ensuing decisions, and a slow corrosion of civil liberty when the normal checks and balances of democracy do not get to operate.

If we think about how drug legislation has come to be, how it is now enforced and how/if its effectiveness and necessity are being monitored, we can see that something has gone terribly wrong. Large numbers of people should not be hauled into prison simply for having fun. But that’s precisely what is being done now, and the quote tells us why: well‐intentioned, frightened people eagerly participate in witchhunts. A witch you’ll always catch, and it’s real easy to see if the bitch floats.