By Peter Chow
On the periphery of the drug addicted population is a vast penumbra of people who take illegal or unprescribed drugs on a regular basis while carrying on careers and relationships, paying rent and taxes, raising kids, feeding pets, attending hockey games and concerts.
I’m not about to out any of my friends who enjoy drugs, but I can tell you that they are people in perfectly respectable, high-status professions, positions of trust.
I’m not making an argument for drugs’ benefits (though there are such arguments to be made):
I’m not claiming they make one more creative or focused, or more insightful or present (though there are such arguments to be made, particularly with the renewed interest and research into psychedelics).
Drugs (and alcohol is a drug) have gutted the talents of people I admired, and destroyed the lives of people I loved.
This is neither a defence nor an apology; I’m not writing it to be a bad influence on impressionable youths, or in the hope that Others Might Learn from My Mistakes.
I’m writing it because I’m out of patience with the default pose, implicit in most public discourse on the subject of The Drug Problem, that we are earnest, concerned, healthy people discussing a vexing social issue afflicting sad screwed-up people over there somewhere — friends and relatives, perhaps, but not us of course.
Now that marijuana is legal, doing drugs is getting respectable: upscale parents are writing articles about the parenting benefits of marijuana; Ayelet Waldman wrote a whole book about how microdosing LSD is enhancing her life as a writer, wife, and mother; Elon Musk lights up a joint on a podcast watched by millions; the richest men in the world are microdosing Psilocybin and LSD.
Meanwhile, drug laws serve as an excuse to continue treating underclass people more or less like slaves.
They don’t do drugs any more frequently than rich upscale people; they just get frisked, arrested, and convicted more, and crash and burn with overdoses more often.
If my friends hadn’t been so privileged, they’d all have rap sheets the length of Jack Kerouac’s speed-fuelled scroll of On the Road.
I don’t want our privilege revoked, understand; I only wish to see it extended to all.
I wonder whether our complacency about living in this dystopia isn’t traceable back to our drug education.
In our sixth-grade drug education unit we were shown a sort of salesman’s sample case of fake drugs, a tantalizing rainbow array of pills with names like Pink Ladies, Black Beauties, and Yellowjackets — drugs of the ’60s, drugs I would never again encounter in life.
The adults who taught us about drugs were intelligent and well-intentioned (and probably smoked pot, come to think of it), but they had to follow a pretty dumb curriculum.
The problem with the Reefer Madness school of drug education — one puff of the devil weed and you’re on the slippery slope to becoming a junkie — is that when kids do eventually try marijuana and do not immediately start robbing liquor stores or giving blow jobs at the bus station to feed their habit, they figure their parents and teachers were all idiots or just full of shit.
The truth about drugs just doesn’t lend itself to easy legislation, or propaganda.
The 12-step truism that addiction is binary and absolute — that you either are or are not an addict, and if you are one you can only ever be in recovery, never ever cured, and that the only cure is abstinence — has proved to be a useful, even necessary narrative for some people trying to overcome their dependency on drugs and alcohol.
But, like a lot of other very adaptive beliefs, it’s a fiction.
Addiction is, like most things, a matter of degree, and, like everything else in life, unfair.
So, for some people, drugs and alcohol are a fun, mostly harmless indulgence or escape, while for others they are like cyanide for the soul.
But for most of us they’re something in between.
But for decade after decade society has kept implementing principles that insist on absolutes, on conversion and redemption — Just Say No, Zero Tolerance, Three Strikes You’re Out — policies that fail, and fail, and fail, and fail.
The notion that there is some imaginable policy or program that will stop people from doing drugs is as much a Puritan fantasy as the idea that we can — or should — stop teenagers from having sex.
Abstinence-Only is the Just Say No of sex ed.
Nowhere is the idea of free will more thoroughly exploded than in the realm of addiction.
At last, even conservatives are reluctantly overcoming their natural love of judgment and punishment and beginning to understand — on their usual timetable, about a half-century after the rest of us — that criminalizing drugs doesn’t work.
In recent years, the harm reduction model, based on the controversial theory that it’s better to drink less, rather than keep trying to quit ’til you die, is gaining acceptance,
Instagram spokesmodels for the “sober curious” movement are proving that you don’t need to get drunk to be insufferable.
Currently, there are nearly 500,000 posts on Instagram with the hashtag #soberissexy.
So much for that A for anonymous in AA.
This is not to propose that drugs like heroin and meth should be legal: murder and theft are illegal, and should be, even though laws have never put a stop to either.
Though it is worth noting that countries that treat drugs as a medical, rather than criminal, issue seem to have more success treating addiction, noticeably lower percentages of their population in prison and less collateral damage from the effects of addiction like crime, overdose deaths, HIV and Hepatitis C.
Assuming that’s what we want.
Would your life improve if you stopped drinking or doing drugs?
Yeah, sure: it would also improve if you rode your bike every day and practiced Vipassana meditation and volunteered to teach adult literacy.
But most people are not going to do any of these things, because most people are lazy, stubborn, selfish and indulgent.
If I were the only person like this, then the whole problem with everything would be me, but it turns out, on a cursory examination of human behaviour and history, that pretty much everyone is.
I’m not saying that drugs are a good thing; I’m not saying they’re a bad thing.
I’m just saying, they’re a Thing.
And I’m sick of the Puritan insistence on labeling everything Good or Bad, on cramming every complicated human reality, from drugs to adultery, into a simple-minded Sunday-school story of sin and redemption.
Drugs and drug use are not inherently evil.
Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.
A drug-free society is unattainable and totally unrealistic.
I do not believe that people are perfectible. People are a mess. I take what I think of as a realist’s view of human nature, rather than a moralist’s or politician’s.
Reality is just a bit much to take straight; it goes down easier with a mixer.
I guess it’s conceivable that we may someday be able to identify the biological diathesis toward addiction and genetically engineer drug dependency out of human beings.
In the meantime, drugs are a fact of the human condition, ineradicable by the agents of the drug squad or by the grace of God as you understand Him/Her to be.
And I don’t think the dysfunctional legal, penal, or medical systems can begin to have any kind of realistic relationship to drug use until we start thinking of drugs not as a something that’s happening to other people, but as something we’re all doing.