The War on Drugs: a personal essay and a slideshow

The War on Drugs: a personal essay and a slideshow

To a large extent, this diary was inspired by a recent visit to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.  I am sure most visitors are gratified at the largely positive and almost worshipful treatment of their hero, the man who proclaimed “morning in America” and “compassionate conservatism.”  I have to admit I had the opposite reaction, in that the visit forced to me to remember and confront how much I truly loathed Reagan and much of what he came to be associated with. I didn’t think much of him as an actor, disliked him as governor, and found him fundamentally dishonest and actively harmful as president.  Although technically started by Nixon, one of the many movements Ronald and Nancy Reagan are given credit for promoting is what has come to be called the war on drugs.

While no doubt the problem is with me, I have never been able to summon up the kind of virulent contempt and passionate hatred for people who use, sometimes become addicted to, and even sell drugs for a profit.  This is despite the fact that I have been repeatedly told by my parents, teachers, countless TV shows,  movies, and even some popular music (e.g. Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done“) that unperscribed drugs were BAD, the people who used them WEAK, and those who sold them downright EVIL.  Speaking as an alcoholic who has used drugs in the past, as well as known other people who used them, I suspect I have a natural sympathy for the weak, a trait I do not tend to identify with being naturally joined to being either bad or evil.  On the contrary, I tend to see them as easily victimized by ruthless, powerful, and often rich people (three traits that are more often than not held up for admiration in America).  On a more personal level, the isolation, anxiety, shame, and pain of living in the modern world seemed to practically cry out in anguish for some sort of chemical response, although suicide was always a possible (and not wholly unattractive) option.  For me it was mostly alcohol (which I would still call my drug of choice, although I am currently not drinking one day at a time), but I certainly experimented with others, mostly depressants.

There has always been a fundamental hypocrisy in the approach to drugs in the United States.  As has been extensively documented, marijuana was largely criminalized as a way of keeping “those people”–mostly darker skinned–controlled and in line. If you were rich, doctors would gladly perscribe you whatever you wanted, and if you were white and had the proper (that is, conservative) outlook, you could happily abuse while heaping another sort of abuse on those who lacked your “connections.”  If caught, you rarely lost much by it and tended to be quickly forgiven (celebrity also plays a role here) as, for example, Rush Limbaugh was.  If it ended badly (e.g. Elvis), you became an object for sympathy and prayer, emotions and actions rarely extended towards those not in the proper sociocultural group.

Drugs profits were also easily justified by “higher” causes, such as fighting communisim (e.g. those tens of thousands of people murdered in central America) or radical Islam (e.g. once the Taliban were defeated and the Americans came in, opium production skyrocketed–somebody is getting rich–and I suspect it isn’t just people with Middle Eastern complexions).  The cocaine sold to finance the contras, for example, certainly ended up in the hands of inner city youth who–if they didn’t kill each other fighting over market share–could conveniently be used to supply the burgeoning prison industry, with the added “benefit” (in many states) of permenantly losing their “right” to vote.  It seems no accident that our current leader, both expands private for-profit prisons and cracks (note the pun) down on pot on the same day.

This slideshow is very much in line with some of my others on serious subjects, such as Slave to the (Algo)Rhythm, They Moved the Moon, and Guilt, but it reverses the pattern of some of my other extended audio-visual meditations on topics in that–unlike, say “Bitter Salt“–it goes from the geneneral and historical to the private and more personal. The first two songs–virtually unheard in the US (I think you can figure out why)–more or less embrace the idea of taking drugs. Spacemen 3‘s “Come Down Easy” (from their classic album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To–surely one of the greatest album titles ever) is set against America’s dirty war in Central America and the generally unpunished or pardoned perpetrators, which in and of itself–if one truly tried to discover what was going on (almost no one did, and those few were either silenced or hounded to their graves).   This followed by Black Grape‘s hilarious parody of the Reagan’s drug war from their Stupid, Stupid Stupid album, “Get Higher.” Generally, the laughter keeps the tears at bay. Finally, Barenaked Ladies‘ “The War on Drugs” from their Everything to Everyone album explores the reasons why and the costs of taking drugs, both on the individual and those around them in a way that is both emotionally moving and–especially in the sudden, anticlimactic end–quietly devastating, musically replicating how society treats such “disposable” people.

I hope you find it worth your while.