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illustration by Jessica Del Greco Drug Laws as Cultural Lobotomy
by John Dentinger

Since it is customary in articles about drugs to recount one's personal struggle with the demon, I will begin with apersonal anecdote.

My drug addiction began in Wisconsin in the late '60s. I didn't think it was serious at first. I just took a nosefull of the stuff with a high-school chum. Later I increased the dose. I was buying it every three weeks. I didn't know the nasal congestion I suffered was a withdrawal symptom, but I did know the stuff cleared it up. It wasn't until years later, when a doctor told me, that I realized I was addicted.

To Neo-Synephrine. An over-the-counter nasal decongestant which I took for hay fever. What I didn't know about the nose drops was that my friend was taking far more than he needed; and following his lead, so was I. What I needed to protect me from Neo-Synephrine addiction was not laws, but information.

Drug laws keep society from learning anything from the drug use that occurs; they foster lies to fill the silence; and this discredits valid warnings about the real dangers of drugs. This silence and disinformation, this never-ending cultural lobotomy, is the most subtle, the most ignored, and yet the greatest cost of the war on drugs.

Silence and Disinformation
My Neo-Synephrine experience coincides with recent findings cited by Arnold Trebach in The Great Drug War: that honest, credible drug education may increase drug use -- but decreases drug abuse. No one claims education would eliminate abuse, but some commonplace examples indicate why it would reduce it: because much abuse is due to ignorance. Many common legal products are allergenic or harmful to a hypersensitive few: allergists often cite sulfites and monosodium glutamate in food, as well as ingredients in Irish Spring soap and Tide laundry detergent. Caffeine is an elusive cause of insomnia, heart palpitations, and other alarming symptoms.

Now, a lot of the use of these products results in needless anxiety, time lost from work, and doctor bills. And how does our government respond to that waste? By requiring warning labels on these products?

No. Rather, it busies itself outlawing drugs, many of whose users are far better-informed of their effects than is the average user of the caffeiniferous Coca-Cola. By subjecting users to a black market, government makes them less informed about, and thus in greater danger from, what they are ingesting. Sometimes it even pollutes the drugs itself: spraying poisonous paraquat on marijuana, as it adulterated alcohol with poisonous methanol during Prohibition.

One need not be in battle fatigues to take pot-shots at the truth; one can be a sort of civil defense worker, like Janet Cooke was when she wrote her Pulitzer-winning fabrications about an "eight-year-old heroin addict." As Thomas Szasz noted, lies on the subject of drugs are so common that if Cooke had not also lied about her academic credentials, she probably would have gotten away with it. Another classic tale told as true came in 1968 from then-Governor Raymond Shafer of Pennsylvania: six college students had gone blind staring at the sun while on LSD. The governor later recanted when his source, another government official, admitted he'd made it up. I mention this old hoax because (a) we all remember its tenacity, and (b) it illustrates the self-fulfilling hysteria about"tbad trips," thereby guaranteeing that first-time LSD users would be more susceptible to them.

I can attest to this personally. In the summer of 1972, I did once what friends had done numerous times: I took LSD. I went into the experience with the wrong attitude, and had a very bad trip. The public hysteria did two monstrous things simultaneously: it made me fear that I had permanently damaged the only asset I had -- my mind -- and it made this unfounded fear something I could not confide to anyone. I finally went to the student health service, which referred me to a psychiatrist, whom I saw once. His answer to my problems: Valium, 10 mg., several times a day.

I had no idea what a high dose this authority had prescribed. One-tenth or one-twentieth of that would have provided a crutch. The prescribed dose, which I took, was an emotional strait-jacket. I needed the plain truth, and I got chemical repression. All of the harm here came not from drugs but from silence and lies. Much the same, I suggest, is true of our culture.

The Trials and Errors of Drug Laws
Society advances, in Karl Popper's phrase, by a process of "trial and the elimination of error." Hindering either of these two steps in the name of cost-cutting or risk-aversion does not hamper the commission of error, merely the elimination of error. It disconnects the ratchet of social progress.

For example, the backfiring of the attempt through regulation and tort law to produce a risk-free society is becoming increasingly clear. Had heavier-than-air flight been made even heavier with detailed regulation after the first plane crash, we would not have developed a means of long-distance transportation far safer than any alternative. Transportation would be costlier and riskier, but ten thousand back-page car crashes don't have the impact of one front-page plane crash. And a rat overdosed with cyclamate warrants a headline; extra human deaths from obesity do not. In innumerable areas of life, safety-at-any-price exacts a high price not only in dollars, but also in safety.

The same analysis applies to drugs. Illegal drug "experiments" go on constantly, but we can learn little of or from the good or bad experiences of drug users, since they may be arrested if they talk about them. Celebrities thus arrested may be able to escape prison if they agree to go on the lecture circuit and recant their heresy. In this, our sole advance over the Inquisition is that heretics do not need to be shown the instruments of torture: viz., prison and the press. In any case, the resultant testimony can hardly be considered reliable.

Drug companies have no incentive to invest in developing safer psychotherapeutic or "recreational" drugs, since these would simply be outlawed. The government's hostility to safe drugs was noted by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw in Life Extension: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "forbids the addition of anti-oxidant vitamins such as B-l to booze, although medical experts . . . agree [it] would significantly reduce alcohol-induced brain and liver damage." An even better solution, they note, "would be to develop new recreational drugs which provide the desired alcohol high without the damaging side effects. There is, in fact, such a drug. [It has already been tested, but it] is not FDA approved, and it is not likely to be approved in the foreseeable future."

Likewise, the prescription drug diphenylhydantoin "has been used successfully to allow smokers to quit without withdrawal symptoms," but of course, it is not FDA-approved for that purpose. "In fact," noted Pearson and Shaw, "since smoking is not a disease, the FDA may never approve any treatment, no matter how safe, specifically for the purpose of stopping smoking."

This show of concern for the health of even legal recreational drug users is no less that we could expect from those wonderful folks who let thousands of AIDS and other patients die while awaiting the nirvana of the perfectly effective drug, and the chimera of the perfectly safe one. These examples of costs imposed as savings, of danger and death imposed as safety, could be -- and still are -- multiplied ad infinitum.

The Blinding Success of Drug Laws
In particular, the law "protects" us from the effects, both maleficent and beneficent, of coca and cocaine, amphetamines, psychedelic drugs, and cannabis (a legal medicine until 1937). But as Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, both of Harvard Medical School, note in the Pacific Institute's anthology Dealing with Drugs, all of these have medicinal uses.

To take one example, as recently as 1985, psychotherapists from around the country offered the DEA testimony to the therapeutic efficacy of MDMA, a mild, then-legal psychedelic drug. (The term "psychedelic" may be misleading; MDMA -- unlike alcohol -- does not cause hallucinations, even in substantial overdoses.) The drug, they said, vastly increased the very bases of therapy: motivation, empathy, and depth and extent of communication. Dissolving the fear or embarrassment or inertia associated with new self-insight, the drug helped to break through the sticking points of therapy. Success stories abounded: a woman who was the victim of rape and torture and was still suicidal after six months of ordinary therapy was able to face the past and begin living a normal life again. The positive mental attitude it helped encourage seems to have aided another woman's remission from an otherwise fatal cancer. And so on. Disastrously, however, the drug was nicknamed "Ecstasy," a term so reeking of hedonistic heresy that no product could bear the name and not be outlawed, not even dog food or suppositories.

The medical case for marijuana is even clearer, to the point where even the government can't deny its efficacy in treating nausea, glaucoma, and other conditions.

Rick Morris, a truck driver in Tennessee, lost three-eighths of his body weight while on nauseating chemotherapy. Like many chemotherapy patients, until Morris began smoking marijuana, even the smell of food would cause him to vomit, his attorney said.

Attorney? Oh yes, Morris was convicted in 1988 of possession of marijuana.

Two million Americans suffer the progressive eye disease of glaucoma. An eighth of those have serious vision impairment already, and 7,500 people a year go blind from it. In 1972, Robert C. Randall, aged 24, was told he had glaucoma and could expect to be totally blind in three to five years. He found by chance that smoking marijuana completely restored his eyesight and arrested the progress of his ailment. When he grew these medicinal plants, it was he himself who was arrested. Naïvely, he called federal drug bureaucrats to get permission to use marijuana as medicine -- and found they already knew of its unique value in treating glaucoma, and never bothered to tell the public. After tremendous battles, he won the right to use marijuana (supplied from Uncle Sam's Mississippi pot farm), which the bureaucrats tried to make subject to Randall's conceding to keep quiet about it. He refused to accede to this, and they capitulated. But later the "liberal" Carter White House drug policy chief, Dr. Peter Bourne, threatened to cut off Randall's marijuana supply because he insisted on appearing in the press, telling people the truth about this medicine. In effect, the government repeatedly threatened to blind Randall if he didn't keep his mouth shut.

People are still going blind not because marijuana laws cut off the supply of the drug (tens of millions of people use it, after all), but because they cut off the supply of information. Glaucoma, cancer, and other patients have had to discover this information independently (and criminally). Or not discover it, and go blind or starve to death in retching agony, which all of them would have done if drug laws had been "successful." These millions of American remain, in effect, victims of a gigantic Tuskegee experiment (an experiment in which black males were intentionally denied medical treatment for syphilis for purposes of studying the disease).

The Procrustean Moral Calculus
Prohibitionists are starting to concede that their policy has costs. Morton Kondracke, writing in The New Republic, offers a typical interventionist analysis: he estimates the cost of the drug war at a paltry $30 billion -- a third of that for direct enforcement, two-thirds for the cost of crime generated by heroin addicts. But this sort of cost/benefit analysis fudges entries on both sides of the ledger, by techniques including these:

 (1) Ignoring the costs of the "Tuskegee experiment" above.

 (2) Aggregating costs imposed by people on themselves with costs imposed by people on others. Every life counts the same in this Procrustean moral calculus, the consenting and unconsenting alike. We can see the same shell game when gun control advocates slip suicides into the figures on "gun-related deaths."

Consider what the interventionist does when he cites "productivity loss" as a cost of drugs. If Joe Would-Be-Cokehead were not producing anything in the first place, then his self-destruction would have "zero cost." Thus Joe's very productivity is perversely used as an argument for curtailing his liberty. This approach would argue that if Charles Krauthammer could make more money as a doctor than a political writer, the law should force him to do so.

This leaves us with the one real social cost: accidents, primarily driving under the influence by a small, irresponsible minority of drinkers and other drug users. The idea that we should round up all drug users because of this sounds suspiciously like "There is no such thing as an innocent suspect." Surely this is better dealt with by diverting $10 billion a year worth of zealous narcotics officers into traffic patrols than by attempting preventive detention of all of society.

 (3) Ignoring damage to other constitutional rights. When the government can blind its critics lawfully, the First Amendment is a mockery. When the government confiscates putative drug profits (including money intended for attorney's fees) in a "civil" proceeding, due process is mocked, as is effective assistance of counsel. Increasingly obtrusive searches are rubber-stamped in the name of the drug war. Penalties for marijuana sales have often grossly exceeded commonly given penalties for murder. And the list goes on. War is the health of the state, and the drug war is no exception.

 (4) Ignoring psychic benefits. The feelings of would-be drug users are given no weight in this scheme, although they are willing to part with money to alter their feelings. This is like saying that one who survived an involuntary game of Russian Roulette had zero loss and one who survived psychotherapy had zero gain. In fact, the psychic benefits of some drugs may be far more than the mere physical pleasure of, say, cocaine.

One of the objections to drugs is that they "cause" some people to lose control over their lives. But in most such cases, I submit, drugs, legal or illegal, are simply the means by which a person carries out his early-life programming for self-destruction. The "cure" is not the removal of a few of many available means to that end, but the teaching of the victim how to change his own programming -- i.e., how to be an autonomous human being instead of a robot. Ironically, there is, as noted above, strong evidence that some illegal drugs would be good for precisely that psychotherapeutic purpose. For vast numbers of responsible would-be users, then, drug laws are not aiding but obstructing self-control.

 (5) Ignoring spinoffs. Only when drugs are legal can they give rise to spinoffs benefitting non-users. This is the biggest cost of all, meriting separate discussion.

The entire advance of civilization is a web of "spinoffs," intricately and unpredictably related. Cut off a strand of inquiry, narrow the range of allowable personal experiments, and the damage to the web grows exponentially with time -- and in ways we cannot predict. Thus Friedrich Hayek writes in The Constitution of Liberty, "We shall never get the benefits of freedom, never obtain those unforeseeable new developments for which it provides the opportunity, if it is not also granted where the uses made of it by some do not seem desirable. It is therefore no argument against individual freedom that it is frequently abused."

Let us look at a business analogous to the recreational drug trade: the entertainment industry. If any business could be hamstrung without impairing progress, surely it is this. Let's say, arguendo, that "freedom of entertainment" has been grossly abused -- that 99% of entertainment dollars have gone for mindless rubbish. But let's see what those dollars have financed.

Audiophiles financed the development of magnetic tape, later used in computers; diskettes and hard discs spun off that. The quarters plunked into early video games helped finance Silicon Valley. From the money consumers spent on laser discs there arose CD-Rom storage, which even New Age bookstores use for instant computer access to Books In Print. Couch potatoes in the '50s buying TVs to watch I Love Lucy helped make it possible for millions to have high-quality, inexpensive computer monitors today.

Thus entertainment spinoffs accelerated all advances based on computers. This includes artificial intelligence, whose applications include medical expert systems, aiding doctors with faster and more accurate diagnoses. It also includes the new science of chaos theory, which has been applied to the study of cardiac arrythmia, Parkinson's disease, and similar medical abnormalities.

The hardware and software developed to animate sequences in the Star Wars movies have been adapted for computer-aided design and medical imaging applications. It's a shame radiology departments don't have signs rubbing this in, but the first people whose lives were saved by this technology can thank George Lucas and his fans.

If science fiction has yielded medical spinoffs, it defies credibility that recreational drug research would fail to do likewise.

We can already point to the accidental discovery of marijuana's value fighting nausea and glaucoma. In fact, we can even name one of its non-medical spinoffs: many utilitarian products can be made from the marijuana plant, including an inexpensive, high-grade paper that is far more long-lasting than acid-treated wood pulp. Thus the specific form of cultural brain damage that occurs as many old books disintegrate is one of the continuing legacies of the drug war.

A free society's complex web of information and innovation is one with which we tamper at our peril.

Inventing Danger
The reason our culture has evolved the custom of freedom and the concept of individual rights is that in the long run, they work. And the reason they have developed so slowly is that any zealot, well-meaning but without understanding, can point to the short run.

Every single freedom we now take as self-evidently crucial arose in a struggle against those who attacked it as dangerous. Neophobes of Plato's day attacked writing -- as an enemy of memory. Luddites, Gordon Tullock tells us in The Organization of Inquiry, have been with us always: "inventions which simply eased the method of production of existing products were usually frowned upon [by governments]. The fear that labor-saving inventions will result in widespread unemployment [rather than more but different employment] is as old as history."

Here, in the realm of invention, is the paradigm of the mechanism and value of freedom. Very few people personally utilize the right to invent, and in the short run, some people are "harmed" by invention to the extent of having to change employment. Despite these two factors, we not only let people invent things -- we encourage them. We sort out the results in the most callous manner: if they hit the jackpot, we get to use the invention without having taken their risks. If their experiments fail, well, tough for them.

This is the model for the discovery, diffusion, and utilization of knowledge in a free society.

Of course drug use has risks and costs, but only those to bystanders should be curtailed by law. Anything more done to the "social organism" -- any laws and silence and lies -- is not an immune response, but a jolt of curare, a routing to oblivion of the cultural neurons bearing information on which drug use is beneficial and which harmful.

This cultural lobotomy is a cost we should insist be included in the accounting when next the drug warriors trot out their moral calculators.

John Dentinger, deceased, is featured on the Liberty Activists website.



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