Unwinnable wars against human nature

The government declared war on booze in the 1920s; booze won; we declared war on poverty; poverty survived. Jimmy Carter called his energy policy the moral equivalent of war; good thing it wasn’t a real war, because we lost that one too. We fought drugs for decades; drug dealers adapted. No victory parade in is order. Let’s take the drug example.

Pedal Tavern in Milwaukee, WisconsinSome people abuse drugs or more broadly substances. Many people try them and then give up or use them in moderation. This is a part of human nature, which has not fundamentally changed since the Neolithic Age. All or nothing attempt to perfect humanity have failed because of that. It doesn’t mean we can or should do nothing, but massive progressive campaigns are worse than nothing and should be abandoned as a policy tool.

I think booze gives an example. First let’s get some facts clear. Alcohol abuse is a serious problem. It would be far better if everybody drank only in moderation, but they don't. We point to prohibition as a template of failure. It was not exactly as it is remembered or portrayed in the movies. There is a good recent book, The Last Call, which puts prohibition in historical and social context.

We misunderstand the history of alcohol prohibition and the Volstead Act. Prohibition was a progressive program. Many of the same people who supported women’s voting rights (there was a significant overlap of the temperance and the suffrage movements) and better working conditions also were proponents of prohibition. It made sense – in theory. Getting rid of a social evil like booze made sense, if you were trying to perfect society. And Prohibition was not a complete failure. Alcohol consumption dropped significantly during prohibition. What increased was crime and alcohol abuse and reduction in total consumption was not a good trade for more crime and abuse. In that respect, it was very much like the war on drugs.

But like the other moral equivalents of war, we picked the wrong targets and set our aspirations too high. We will never eliminate poverty and vice. Never. But we can mitigate them and channel them.

How do we do it?

First is to understand the proper target. We need to address BEHAVIORS not STATUS. What I mean is that we should simply apply laws. For example, a person who drives under the influence of drugs is a danger.This behavior should be illegal. A person who comes to work under the influence will not be effective; this should be a reason for his/her employer to sanction or fire him/her. But merely being a user, if you engage in otherwise lawful activities, should not be a crime. (This is the same logic, BTW, about why I oppose the idea of “hate crimes”. A crime is a crime, or not. It is a behavior.)

I have no doubt that drug abusers would more often engage in unlawful behaviors, just as boozers do. But you cannot extrapolate from the group to the individual. Drug use should be discouraged, as is heavy boozing and smoking. It should be regulated and taxed, but not prohibited.

One important factor is the capacity to change a possible abuser into a casual user or a non-user. Our current system does the opposite. We throw some poor dumb kid in jail for using drugs and he becomes a problem. Left alone, maybe with social pressure, many of these kids would outgrow their habit. I never used drugs, but I was a boozer as a young man. I just got sick of it and stopped, social pressure to drink declines as pressures (mostly work) to abstain increased. So I made the choice; others have done the same and many would with drugs if they were given the time and encouragement.

The biggest reason to accept drugs as a bad, but unavoidable, factor to be addressed by the behavior-based methods above - is the cost of the war on drugs. How many young people have we made into criminals because of drugs? And that is only the start. People are killed in the U.S. and place like Mexico every day because of drug prohibition. The bodies, many w/o heads or hands, are literally piling up on the border. We are handing power to horrible people. They are not making money from our “addiction to drugs;” they are profiting from our prohibition of drugs that drives up the prices so that pissants like the Zetas can be big men.

There are places in National Forests in the U.S. where you better not go. Drug farmers have set up operations and they put up deadly booby traps around their illicit crops. Those sorts of people make me angry and I want to hurt them and put them out of business. But the raids just move the problem.The best way to eliminate the problem is to change the paradigm. Make it legal and most of these guys are out of business. It now becomes a legitimate type of agriculture, and one where we evidently are on the cutting edge of plant science.

So let me sum up. I hate illegal drugs and I have no respect for abusers. But I understand that attempts to change human nature are futile. The best way to affect real improvements is to recognize reality and mitigate the bad effects through smart social and legal pressure. Go after the behavior manifest, not the status conferred.

The war on poverty made the poor more miserable. The energy wars created gas lines.Prohibition made guys like Al Capone famous and powerful. The drug war has cost us all a lot of money and cost some people their lives or health. All these things sounded like good ideas at the time. It is sort of like why people start using drugs.We need to recognize that some problems are perpetual and just say no final solutions.

We can win wars against other countries. We can succeed in “wars” against diseases; we eradicated smallpox,did a reasonably good job containing cancer and even AIDS (credit George W Bush, BTW.) Wars against inflation or unemployment may yield ephemeral success. But the war metaphor is overused (we can blame otherwise sensible William James.) Governments and politicians use the war because war is something states are empowered to carry out. They are not legitimately tasked with changing the social order of the societies they govern and “wars” against human nature are doomed to failure.

Anyway, the war on drugs has been decided. Drugs have won. Our task going forward is to figure out ways to mitigate the damage, to make them as "innocuous" as cigarettes and whiskey.

Posted by Christine & John at June 4, 2011 4:17 PM
Comment #324018

I’m not big on living in a country where I have to try and protect myself, family and friends from ‘zombies’ roaming around in a state of stupor. It’s taken all the years since prohibition to get some reasonable level of control over the consumption of alcohol.

Granted, nobody likes the scenario re the Kennedy clan where the senior’s get wealthy off illegal actions and use their wealth to create a political dynasty. But, that would seem a better deal than having access to cheap narcotics and depending on the individual to use it sensibly. Surely, you are referring only to marijuana and not real hard core drugs.

One might say that so long as the individual doesn’t hurt anybody they should be allowed to do as they please. Then, think of the cigarette and the associated cost. What is the responsibility of society in taking care of cancer patients, etc? Brings up all the questions surrounding ‘reasonable’ healthcare for the populace.
Recently, I read where an illegal immigrant, twice deported, ran over and killed an officer working a roadside stop. The person was high on something. Suffered some injuries himself and was hospitalized on ‘our’ dollar. Begs the question as to what is an acceptable number in people to be killed/maimed, and the cost in dollars, that the society will tolerate.

The UN reports that drug trafficking is 8% of world business. The DEA reports that $4-5B/yearly are repatriated to Columbia alone.

So, as far as the Corpocracy is concerned, the business is ‘too big to fail’. Couple that with the fact that US foreign aid is most always a tool of foreign policy, creating a lose-lose situation. I think it was a Wacovia border bank that recently was admonished by the Corpocracy for laundering drug money. Hospitals sucking up that Medicare/Medicaid offering drug treatment, applied music therapy,((
Who can benefit from music therapy?
Children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease and other aging related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain, including mothers in labor.}}

The cost for a mile of fence is approximately $3M with a $6.5B price tag to maintain over 20 years. The Corpocracy won’t complete the fence so Arizona is looking for $50M in donations and the use of prison labor to complete their section.
I won’t buy anything made in China unless I can’t find it anywhere else, which is rare. Why would people purchase leisure drugs coming from SA based on the border violence and mayhem? Dunno.

IMO, solutions are fencing, rock pile labor, stigmatize use through learning and religious centers, pass tough laws, take a hard line with countries supporting the drug trade, and similar. Recall that China vanquished the Opium trade even through the British Corpocracy was pushing it.

Otherwise - - -

Posted by: Roy Ellis at June 5, 2011 2:51 PM
Comment #324025

Excellent article. Why we are still floundering about on this issue is a mystery. Risk reduction strategies have proven far more effective than prohibition and criminal sanctions. Our own history with alcohol and cigarettes would seem to direct us to that approach. Prohibition was a failure. The net benefits of alcohol prohibition were far outweighed by the criminal and social problems that ensued. On the other hand, the risk reduction strategies employed against cigarettes and recently, alcohol, has proven effective. This has also been the case in countries that have decriminalized use and possession of other drugs such as the Netherlands. The Dutch didn’t experience an explosion of addiction or increased criminality when they decriminalized drugs. In fact, it was the opposite. Fewer junkies, less AIDs, less drug related crime and less spending required on criminal justice.

There is an interesting contrast between liberals and conservatives on the issues of guns and drugs. It seems to me that a middle ground is desirable on both issues. Ban the use and possession of proven dangerous drugs and guns, e.g., automatic assault weapons. For the majority of drugs and guns, enforce strict laws on the use of either.

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