A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing The Scream Johann Hari briefly writes about human practices of using drugs dating back well over 2000 years ago. He uses a story about Greek rituals at the Temple at Eleusis to show how common and widespread drug use was, and how it occupied a central and almost sacred role in human life for ancient Greek civilizations. Hari writes about the downfall of the ritual use and near celebration of drugs which occurred at the temple. A downfall that doesn’t appear to have been brought about by negative consequences of drug use, but a downfall that was a deliberate power grab.

 

“The early Christians wanted there to be one rout to ecstasy, and one rout only – through prayer to their God,”  Hari writes. “The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief. If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own.”

 

Hari writes that drugs alter states of consciousness and can give people a new sense of wonder, of awe, and of being something more than themselves. These senses, he argues, were what the Christian Church wanted to offer people through their religious experiences. Church and drugs were competing for the same mental faculties and experiences, and the Church wanted to limit outside exposure to sources that gave people a supernatural feeling.

 

I like to think about the world in terms of the systems and structures that shape the possibilities of our lives. Institutions matter, and they can inform what we find to be immoral, just, and common (or uncommon) parts of human nature. Hari’s research suggest that human desires to change their states of consciousness with chemicals are not in fact the immoral and uncommon problematic desires that we have portrayed them. Institutions, such as religions, have shaped the ways we think about and understand drugs and chemical intoxication. There are probably some true elements of public safety and health in our drug prohibition today, but much of our policy stems from and still maintains a system of authority, power, fear, and xenophobia. Drug use can be widespread and accepted, even if it is problematic – just look at alcohol use in the United States and across the globe. It can also be prohibited and marginalized, it just depends on the institutional systems and structures we chose to attach to drug use. We can develop ways to use drugs responsibly and safely, or we can force drug use into illicit and shady corners of society, where a guarantee of safety and protection is a laughable idea.
The Why Behind the Drug War

The Drug War’s Goals

A book I haven’t read, that has been on a reading list of mine for a while, is Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. While I haven’t read the book, I am familiar with Sinek’s ideas and have listened to him in several podcasts and TED talks. At the root of the book is the idea that great leaders think deeply about the why behind their actions. They understand their motivations, understand their goals, and understand how the things they do contribute to a larger picture of the world. When we start with why, we ask ourselves about purpose, about our fit for what we do, and we consider our end goals and how we can best approach the outcomes we want.

 

The global drug war, which the United States leads and forces upon smaller countries, doesn’t really have a why at its heart. In researching his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari traveled across the globe to discover and write about the impacts of the drug war on the lives of drug users in the United States, communities controlled by drug cartels in Mexico, and public policy officials from Vancouver, Canada to Portugal. Everywhere he traveled he saw lives destroyed and people left with nothing, not just due to their own drug use, but also due to the policy responses and financial drives of the governments and people confronting each other in our global drug war.

 

In the face of all the violence and destruction of the drug war, Hari asks, what is the rational for the drug war? What is the why behind the global prohibition on drugs and the global persecution of drug users and suppliers? He writes, “The United Nations says the war’s rational is to build a drug free world—we can do it! U.S. government officials agree, stressing that there is no such thing as recreational drug use. So this isn’t a war to stop addiction, like that in my family, or teenage drug use. It is a war to stop drug use among all humans, everywhere. All these prohibited chemicals need to be rounded up and removed from the earth. That is what we are fighting for.”

 

I think Hari would argue that this why is under-developed, impracticable, and unreasonable. He details animals like mongoose and elephants that do intentionally use chemicals at times to alter their states of consciousness. Humans, he explains, are not alone in using drugs, and there are some common times when animals and humans will turn to drug use. The elimination of all chemicals, Hari believes, is not a real goal that we should be working toward as a global community.

 

For some reason humans have decided that all drugs besides alcohol should be strictly prohibited. We seem to accept that alcohol can be fun, stress relieving, and enjoyable, despite the fact that it can also be addictive, harmful to health, and deadly if used inappropriately. Other drugs that might be recreational, are not given the same leniency as alcohol, and our efforts to stop anyone from ever using other drugs has created a deadly war, with rival gangs competing for product and territory, and drug users pushed out of society and shunned from basic healthcare and normal functioning human connections.

 

Hari believes that we will fail in our efforts to eradicate all drugs from the planet because the why behind the goal is so weak. The rational is built on the fear and egos of those who don’t use drugs and think of themselves as being superior to those who do. The drug war doesn’t fully consider the reality of humans, society, and animal nature to respond to hardship by altering states of consciousness. The why misses the point, so the how will never be successful.
Police and Violence

The Connection Between Police and Violence

A few weeks back the United States saw huge protests against police violence and use of force by law enforcement officers. That violence and use of force falls disproportionately on minority populations who have been evicted and incarcerated at rates beyond what one would expect given the demographic breakdown of the United States population. Amidst protests of police brutality, in several dramatic and high profile instances, what the United States saw was extreme police aggression toward protesters, bystanders, and media reporters that seemed to confirm the idea that police use of force was out of control and in need of reform.

 

Following the protests, there were questions about whether police presence at protests actually incited more violence than it prevented. People asked if police needed to show up in riot gear at Black Lives Matter protests, and what would happen to the police and during protests if police forces had not shown up with riot gear.  Many argued that the police themselves sparked the violence that they responded to with force – in effect, the argument suggests that police showing up prepared for violence furthered the violence.

 

The idea that police enforcement lead to an increase in violence is one that I came across about a year ago while reading Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream. In the book, Hari argues that greater drug enforcement and more police action against drug users and dealers leads to more crime, not less. He writes, “Professor John Miron of Harvard University has studied the murder statistics and found that statistical analysis shows consistently that higher [police] enforcement [against drug dealers] is associated with higher homicide, even controlling for other factors. This effect is confirmed in many other studies.”

 

Arresting drug dealers and gang members doesn’t reduce the demand for drugs in a given region. Arresting low level drug dealers and gangsters doesn’t lead to much other than an arrest record for the individual, making it hard for them to find legitimate work, leaving drug dealing as one of the few lucrative opportunities available. Arresting a high level drug dealer or gangster creates instability. If you remove a leader in the drug trade, then a power vacuum exists. Competing gang members will vie for the top spot, and might also have to face off against rival gangs to defend their turf. Arrests and enforcement end up creating instability and more violence than they solve. This is part of why homicides increase after a gang member is arrested.

 

Similar to police forces that respond to protests with riot gear, and contribute to the likelihood of people actually rioting, police who arrest gang members and drug dealers actually create more violence and murder, not less. At a time when we are questioning the role and effectiveness of our police services, we should think about whether their actions achieve their intended goals, or whether their actions create a cycle that leads to more police enforcement. If responding in force creates situations for violence violence, then our police should not respond forcefully before it is necessary. If enforcing drug laws creates more violence, then we should ask whether we should be doing something else with our law enforcement.

 

Our police can be what we need them to be and what we ask them to be. The last few decades, what we have asked them to be is a quasi-militant force. The focus was not saving all lives, but on showing force and dominance. It is fair to ask if this is the goal we really want for the police, or if we want them to actually contribute to more safety and less violence for all lives in our communities.
Violence and the Drug War

Violence as a Reason to End the Drug War

My last post was about violence related to drugs. When we make drugs illegal, we open the door for a black market. The best way to control a black market is through force and violence. A direct result of drug prohibition is violence related to black markets. We saw this in the United States with alcohol prohibition and in the 1970’s as the drug war in the United States escalated.

 

In Chasing the Scream Johann Hari writes, “By the mid 1980’s, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and right-wing icon Milton Friedman calculated that it [drug prohibition] caused an additional ten thousand murders a year in the United States. That’s the equivalent of more than three 9/11’s ever single year. Professor Miron [Jeffrey Miron, Harvard University] argues this is an underestimate. Take the drug trade away from criminals, he calculates, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by between 25 and 75 percent.”

 

What Hari is doing in this quote is turning around the justification for a drug war and using it as a justification for ending the drug war. The typical argument that someone would make would be along the lines that drugs cause crime, so drugs should be illegal. Hari instead writes that drug prohibition causes crime, so drugs should be legalized.

 

The first option is instinctual and popular. Hari’s opinion is counter-intuitive, and would be a tough political sell. Nevertheless, I think Hari is correct.

 

I think it would be terrible to have huge numbers of people using recreational drugs during all their free time. I worry about the economic losses our country would face as people chose to do more drugs, harming their brains and bodies. These considerations make me fearful of finding legal ways to provide safe drugs to people.

 

However, that perspective doesn’t consider the costs that are in our current status quo. The current drug prohibition creates criminals and black market drug dealers. It gives gangs a profit source, and leads to young people choosing gangs over legal ways to make money, and in the process, still destroys the lives of huge numbers of people. Perhaps a legal system would reduce our deaths, and maybe even if drug use picks up, the overall number of people dying and losing opportunity to meaningfully contribute in this world would decrease. We wouldn’t have as much gang violence, wouldn’t arrest so many young black men, wouldn’t have so many people die from using unsafe drugs. Hari argues this trade-off will pay off, and I think he might be right.
Gang Violence and Drug Prohibition

Gang Violence and Drug Prohibition

Imagine the following: A recreational drug has been in use for quite a while and has enjoyed relatively widespread use. A lot of people use the drug in social or private settings, with some people developing an addiction and some people using the drug inappropriately and causing property damage or loss of life to other people directly as a result of their drug use. Government agencies respond by making consumption, possession, and sale of the drug illegal. An underground market of suppliers, buyers, and places to enjoy the drug pop-up, along with gangs to enforce rules and norms that are hidden from formal legal structures or the police. Gangs compete for territory and distribution, and a few top gangsters make tons of money, while street level thugs are shot up.

 

That scenario played out with alcohol prohibition in the Untied States, and we could easily apply the same perspective to the widespread war on drugs which launched in full force in the 1970’s and is still with us today. Forcing alcohol underground created gangs, just as making everything from weed to crack illegal today has produced gangs. As Johann Hari wrote in his book Chasing the Scream, “Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has shown that the murder rate has dramatically increased twice in U.S. history – and both times were during periods when prohibition was dramatically stepped up. The first is from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol was criminalized. The second is from 1970 to 1990, when the prohibition of drugs was dramatically escalated.” 

 

Gang violence is related to black markets, to social structures that are disconnected from the rule of law and acceptable law enforcement. We look back at the time of prohibition and the gangs that appeared at that time in a somewhat nostalgic manner. We almost think highly of the mafia crime syndicates that were murdering people in the streets to control illegal alcohol distribution chains. But it is unlikely that their violence and viciousness was really much different than what we see in gangs today. What is likely very different, however, is the color of the skin that we associate with gangsters of the 1920’s compared to the gangsters of today.

 

Youth gang violence is a huge problem, and it is deeply connected with the war on drugs. Hari writes, “The National Youth Gang Center has discovered that youth gangs like the the Souls of Mischief are responsible for between 23 and 45 percent of all drug sales in the United States.” The violence we see is directly related to the gang’s control of illegal drug markets, markets that our policies and our war on drugs create.

 

I would agree with anyone who said they didn’t want widespread use of drugs in society and didn’t want people simply using drugs rather than contributing to society in constructive ways, but is the gang violence, our nation’s high overdose rate from unsafe drugs, and the social out-casting of anyone who makes a mistake and uses drugs really worth the prohibition we force on the country? Do we want to accept the high levels of incarceration for minority inner-city youth which creates a positive feedback loop of more violence, less opportunity, and more illegal drug activity? Perhaps giving people a safe space to use drugs sold openly and legally, in legitimate markets that take away from the black market has fewer costs to society than our prohibition efforts which create more gang violence and death. This was a trade-off our nation made with alcohol when it ended prohibition, but is it a trade-off we are willing to make with a vast suite of drugs today? For Johann Hari it is, and his book gives us plenty of reason to believe that it is a trade-off that might be beneficial for all of us.
Drug Related Violence

Drug Related Violence

In his book Chasing The Scream, Johann Hari writes about common misconceptions related to drug violence in the United States. Misconceptions influence drug policy, shape the way people think about drug crimes and drug users, and prevent us from taking real action to help reduce the conflicts and negative externalities related to the American war on drugs.

 

Hari writes, “When we hear about drug-related violence, we picture somebody getting high and killing people. We think the violence is the product of the drugs. But in fact, it turns out this is only a tiny sliver of the violence. The vast majority is … to establish, protect, and defend drug territory in an illegal market, and to build a name for being consistently terrifying so nobody tries to take your property or turf.”

 

What Hari suggests throughout the book is that many of the negative things we relate to drug use is more associated with prohibition against drugs. Making drugs illegal and trying to stamp out any drug use in an all-out war creates negative externalities that justify violence and prohibition. The war on drugs creates a positive feedback loop, making drug use and drug trafficking more dangerous, building support for harsher treatment and destruction of drug users and sellers.

 

When we make something illegal, we create a black market. On the black market, as I wrote about from Brookings Scholar John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History, suppliers don’t have to meet safety and quality standards that would exist in a regulated legal market. This is where the dangers of drug use arise and where drug related violence comes into the picture. Many of the people using drugs directly are non-violent, and don’t want to cause harm to others when using drugs. They harm others when they need to obtain drugs illegally, on a costly and dangerous black market. The sellers create relationships and build territory, and use their own force to control their territory, since relying on police protection and legal backing to defend property and product is not an option in a black market.

 

I don’t know what the world would look like without a war on drugs and with a legal market for obtaining drugs. I don’t know what new externaliteis would arise and how we would face them. But I do think that Hari is correct and that we should acknowledge that much of the drug related violence and crime, and much of the safety concerns related to drug use, stem from the very prohibition and war that we approve of to stamp out drug use. The current approach seems incapable of eradicating drugs, but it does seem to spur substantial drug related violence and safety issues.
Fears and Symbols

Fears and Symbols

“Its a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari writes this to explain the ways in which American culture has responded to drug use and addiction. We have demonized drugs and cast out drug addicts as moral failures. Our mindset is that the eradication of drugs and the expulsion of addictions will solve many of our countries ailments. If only there were not dangerous tempting chemicals to hook our brains, and if only people were more strong to resist the temptations to use use drugs, we could all be happy, productive, and united again.

 

In reality, drug use and societal ailments are more complicated than this paradise lost narrative. Hari’s quote continues, “It is a logic that keeps recurring throughout human history, from the Crusades to the witch-hunts to the present day. It’s hard to sit with a complex problem, such as the human urge to get intoxicated, and accept that it will always be with us, and will always cause some problems (as well as some pleasures). It is much more appealing to be told a different message – that it can be ended. That all these problems can be over, if only we listen, and follow.”

 

I think it is really interesting that we have such a tendency to turn our fears into symbols. We take the things we are afraid of, the things that disgust us, and create symbols to represent that evilness and reprehensible aspect of the world. The symbol could be a president you dislike, a foreign religion or character, chemical substances, or personality traits (laziness, close-mindedness, selfishness). This gives us a heuristic for addressing the thing we don’t like. It creates a less complicated version of the thing we fear, and allows us to draw a moral line in the sand, separating us (the good ones) from them (the bad ones associated with the evil symbol).

 

As Hari’s quote reveals, these symbols, and our efforts to destroy these symbols, can be problematic themselves. The Crusades were costly wars waged on outsiders, witch-hunts wrap up innocent people and threaten lives, and political polarization fueled by the hate of one political party or candidate only increases the gulf between us and our fellow citizens and human beings. Fears and symbols might be useful for galvanizing action, but they can have a wide range of negative externalities, and they can be misunderstood and over-generalized. Additionally, our fears and symbols can be captured by actors and institutions which seek to further their own ends, deliberately harming others in pursuit of their own agendas.

 

I don’t think Hari would tell us to abandon all of our symbols for our fears. He might agree with me that it is likely impossible to do so. The alternative seems to be to recognize when you are using such symbols and to understand how you are reacting to them. Are you allowing a symbol to stand for something you will avoid in your own life, or are you allowing a symbol to stand as a marker of your own righteousness? If you are using fears and symbols for self-control and discipline, you might be ok, but if you are using them simply to judge others and to justify avoiding or out-casting them in an effort to signal your virtue to others, you may be more of a problem than you realize. When these symbols and our efforts to destroy them start to harm others, we have a problem and need to redirect our energy to find real solutions to the real problems that underlie the fears and symbols in our lives.
A Condescending Impulse

A Condescending Impulse

In my last few posts I have written about Johann Hari’s research into Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and what Hari learned about Anslinger and the start of the nation’s war on drugs. Anslinger held deeply racist views which he channeled into propaganda and drug policy in the Untied States. Hari was appalled by what he read, the common newspaper headlines about Anslinger’s raids from the time, and the quotes from the Commissioner himself. Writing about his research, Hari states,

 

“At times, as I read through Harry’s ever-stranger arguments, I wondered: How could a man like this have persuaded so many people? But the answers were lying there, waiting for me, in the piles of letters he received from members of he public, from senators and from presidents. They wanted to be persuaded. They wanted easy answers to complex fears. It’s tempting to feel superior – to condescend to these people – but I suspect this impulse is there in all of us. The public wanted to be told that these deep, complex problems – race, inequality, geopolitics – came down  to a few powders and pills, and if these powders and pills could be wiped from the world, these problems would disappear.” (Underlined text emphasis added by blog author)

 

We live in a complex world and we all lead busy lives that demand a lot of mental energy and attention just to keep the lights on. We hopefully figure out how to be successful and productive in our own lives, but we only ever get a single perspective on the world, our own. We want to believe that we are good people and that success in our society is entirely within the control of the individual (especially if we have become successful ourselves). When we face great uncertainty and complexity which doesn’t seem to line up with experiences of our lives or the heuristics we have developed for how we live, we seek simple answers that confirm what we want to believe. That is what Hari’s quote shows.

 

Anslinger was building a coalition of like-minded individuals with racial prejudices who wanted to be proven right. They feared drugs, and found drug users and addicts to be easy and defenseless targets. Drugs became a simple answer to the complex problems of why some people became dregs on society while others became wealthy successes.

 

Hari’s quote points out that we should recognize this, but not demonize people for it. We should acknowledge that this instinct is within all of us, and we should not fall into this condescending impulse and turn around a vilify those who are vilifying others. We must approach even our enemies and those among us who are wrong and hold dangerous beliefs with empathy. We must understand that the faults we find in them are faults that we too may have. The only way to connect and make real changes is to recognize and acknowledge these fears, and work to demonstrate how these simple answers to complex problems cannot possibly encompass all that is wrong in our societies so that we can move forward with better ideas and policies in the future.
Punishment Versus Compassion

Punishment Versus Compassion

An idea that Johann Hari explores in his book Chasing The Scream is that people with drug addiction need family and community support to get through their addiction, not punishment and castigation. Throughout the book Hari asks why people develop addictions, what do people do when they successfully get past an addiction, and what structures and systems work against recovery?

 

Early in the book Hari references a conversation he had with pastor and civil rights activist Eugene Callender about singer Billie Holliday. Hari writes, “Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, are human beings, just like you and me. Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well.”

 

Hari argues that community is the cure for drug addiction. He sees drug addiction as a consequence of trauma, pain, depression, adverse experiences, and a loss of a sense of togetherness. When people are isolated and don’t truly feel as though they are part of a larger community where they belong and where their lives and actions matter, then people can’t take personal responsibility, they can’t work for more, and they often turn to drugs to blunt the pain and fill the empty voids. What this means, is that addiction is a consequence of everyone’s selfish actions, it is not just a moral failing of the individual. Consequently, we all have a role to play in the recovery of those in our communities dealing with addiction.

 

What Reverend Callender noticed, as highlighted in the quote above, is that people dealing with substance addictions need support and guidance to get through their struggles. People turn to drugs in times of pain when they feel something lacking in their lives. Taking more away from them, limiting their ability to interact with a community, and pushing more challenges at them only worsens the underlying psychological stress and trauma that drove them to addiction in the first place. Punishment is harmful, whereas compassion and forgiveness is what gives people a second chance and encourages them to improve their lives. If we don’t treat people facing addiction with dignity and respect, can we ever expect them to treat themselves with the dignity and respect needed to overcome addiction?
A Racist Start to the Drug War

A Racist Start to the Drug War

My last post was about Harry Anslinger’s racist views and how they influenced public policy. I wanted to focus on what we could learn from his mistakes, and how we could think about our own policy positions given the terrors we have seen in the past from biased policy positions, confirmation bias, and believing things are true simply because we want them to be true.

 

Today’s post is more specifically just an examination of race and drug policy, looking all the way back to the start of the war on drugs. During a time when protests against racial violence in policing is front and center, I think it is helpful to consider how race was specifically used in drug wars to hurt racial minorities, especially black men and women. Black lives matter, but our nation has not always believed that, and we cannot separate the disparities in racial sentencing, death rates, and wealth from the policies of our nation’s past.

 

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johan Hari writes about his shock at finding that the drug war, in its early days, was not so much about mitigating drug addiction or preventing new addiction in teenagers, as it is today, but about controlling racial minorities. He cites overtly racist headlines in newspapers and talks about Anslinger’s efforts to target minority populations, while letting white drug users off the hook and helping them find treatment to wean off drugs. A central character in the book is Billie Holiday, a black musician targeted by Anslinger for her drug use. Her story provides a window into the racialized tactics used to enforce drug laws, and create a nationwide story about the danger of black people using drugs.

 

Hari writes, “Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s – locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believed that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees again.”  The failure of black Americans to become successful was blamed on drugs, and ultimately on a genetic and/or cultural inferiority that justified their low social positions and justified a drug war waged against them. White American’s didn’t want to believe that they could be held responsible for the strife of African Americans, so they invented new excuses for racist policies.

 

As we look around the country today, we should keep these kinds of policies and views in mind. It was not that long ago that we were so openly racist in the development of policies that are still impacting the world today. We can no longer justify racial disparities by saying that there is some type of problem with minorities that justifies the disparities in our policies and outcomes. We need to demonstrate that black lives matter and advance policies that correct the wrongs of our past.