Voodoo Pharmacology

With "Saying Yes," Jacob Sullum has penned a reasonable, easily readable and well-researched response to decades of knee-jerk anti-drug sentiment
It is a sort of obligatory obeisance before the malign power of controlled substances, those pills, powders, potions and puffables that, as one-time Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes, neatly summed up, "destroy the body, enslave the soul, and take away people's freedom to think and choose for themselves." No matter how ardent the reformer, all too often, when he stands up to call for an end to the drug war, his oration begins with some variation of "I don't condone drug use, but..."

Well, Jacob Sullum has had enough of that, thank you. With "Saying Yes," Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine, syndicated columnist, and author of "For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health," has penned a reasonable, easily readable, and well-researched response to decades of knee-jerk anti-drug sentiment -- which, in a memorable phrase, he refers to as "voodoo pharmacology." Instead, Sullum suggests, the public and the legalization movement would both be better served with a nuanced, realistic, and -- d.a.r.e. we say it? -- temperate response to drug use.

Voodoo pharmacology is that strange blend of hysteria, myth, and agenda-driven public pronouncements by self-interested parties that, unfortunately, passes for a reasoned discussion of the effects of different controlled substances these days. Voodoo pharmacology knows that alcohol is not a drug, that taking Prozac to feel better is a medical decision but taking Ecstasy to feel better is a crime, and that the first toke or the first pill is the first step on an inevitable path to chemically-induced hell. You know voodoo pharmacology. Your tax dollars support great gobs of it spewing forth from your television in those ridiculous, demented ads emanating from the Bush White House, where the drug czar plots his campaign against rape-inducing, ambition-draining, gun accident-causing marijuana.

But, as Sullum shows in several entertaining chapters, voodoo pharmacology -- the basis of our current prohibitionist drug policies -- has little to do with the reality of drug use patterns and more to do with enduring cultural fears encapsulated above by the paranoid Mr. Forbes. In passage after passage that will be uplifting to those drug users who never lost their jobs, their families, their health or their minds because they smoke pot today or snorted coke in the '80s or tripped on acid in the '60s or rolled on Ecstasy in the '90s, Sullum explores not only the unharmful but sometimes downright positive effects of drug use for many drug users.

And he finds that just as the wino drunk in the gutter does not represent most alcohol drinkers, neither does the thieving junky represent all heroin users, the twitching tweaker all amphetamine users, nor Cheech and Chong all pot smokers. Quite the opposite. "The silent majority of users," he writes, are "decent, respectable people who, despite their politically incorrect choice of intoxicants, earn a living and meet their responsibilities."

Sullum shouldn't have to tell us that. But in the face of decades of relentless demonization of drugs and drug users, it bears repeating. And repeating. And repeating. This is why campaigns to improve the image of drug users, like Mikki Norris's Pot Pride (//www.cannabisconsumers.org) are necessary. It is pathetic that such a thing is necessary, but it is, and Sullum helps explain why.

Demonstrating an adroit touch with historical sources, Sullum shows how the evils ascribed to a particular drug at a particular time float without concrete reference to attach themselves to another drug at another time. "The cells of the brain may become poisoned. The will power may be weakened, and it may be an effort to do the routine duties of life... The memory may also be impaired... The mind of the habitual user is apt to lose its capacity for study or successful effort." John Walters describing the effects of marijuana in 2003? No, Albert Blaisdell, an earlier incarnation of the prohibitionist beast, describing the effects of tobacco cigarettes in 1904.

He also desconstructs the myths of addiction and the black propaganda about maniacal drug users that have filled the works of prohibitionists since Old Testament time. Sullum's passages on the dreaded speed freak are especially entertaining. Amphetamine use, once the province of truckers, students cramming for exams and overweight housewives, was transformed in the late 1960s into the domain of the tweaker. And in the 1990s, Sullum notes, "the speed freak returned to the public stage, angrier, meaner, crazier and better armed," as well as carrying culturally laden stereotypes about toothless hicks and trailer trash. Sullum looks at the oft-cited case of Eric Starr Smith, who in 1994 cut off his 14-year-old son's head and tossed it on an Arizona highway. Smith was allegedly on a speed bender, but he was also loaded on alcohol and had a history of bar fights, domestic violence, molestation allegation and protection orders. "Whatever else it is," Sullum writes, "the Smith case is not the story of a peaceful, law-abiding man turned into a monster by methamphetamine."

There has to be a better way than voodoo pharmacology, and Sullum has one. It will appear radical only in a society conditioned to yield its moral agency to the state, because what Sullum counsels is plain old personal responsibility and a government that respects its citizens enough to allow them to make their own choices. Moderation, or temperance, before the term was hijacked by the prohibitionists, is what Sullum advises, for both drug users and those with a hankering to restrain them. Most people use drugs responsibly, Sullum notes, and they should be left alone.

Doubtless many who read or hear about Sullum's book will assume, because he chose to focus on responsible users, that he is uninformed or insensitive to the harm caused to themselves or others by people with real drug problems. But that's not the case, and it's not Sullum's fault if they feel that way; it's an inevitable reaction from a society conditioned by a century of anti-drug demagoguery by governments and zealots reluctant to admit responsible drug use even exists, much less constitutes the norm, a conditioning Sullum hopes his book will help defuse. Sullum is a libertarian, and hence believes that people who engage in potentially risky behaviors bear responsibility for any harms they suffer as a result, and that those drug users who commit crimes against persons or property should be punished for those crimes, not for their drug use, and certainly not excused from responsibility because of it. It all seems so reasonable.

And it is. Sullum fittingly cites the great philosopher Frank Zappa, who once noted that, "A drug is neither moral nor immoral -- it's a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats its consumption as a license to act like an asshole." Now, if only drug users can somehow convince the government to not treat our consumption of some drug as a license to act like an asshole toward us.

Phil Smith is the editor of DRCnet's Week Online.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018