America’s glorious War on Drugs is viewed with increasing skepticism. Because people keep proposing different variations of it, we never stop talking about it. But we keep talking about it in the same way. Public debate almost always dwells on the superficial aspects, rarely touching upon those closest to the heart.
The argument that addiction to, or abuse of, certain substances is of greater concern to “society” than it is to us as individuals is the basis of every form of prohibition. It claims that we belong to others more than we do to ourselves. But to prohibit certain substances because people might abuse them is a violation of human dignity. If our lives are “society’s” more than they are our own, then we are something less than entirely human.
I’ve never used illegal drugs. Even though I was a teenager during the seventies, when supposedly “everybody did it.” Was that because drugs were against the law? I don’t think so.
I didn’t hang around with people who had access to anything stronger than marijuana. And I had plenty of opportunity to see how that affected them. It made them stupid, and it made them stink. I didn’t want to be stupid, and I didn’t want to stink.
As an adult, I became addicted to an entirely legal substance: alcohol. Would I have used it if it had been illegal? As illegality wasn’t what deterred me from smoking weed, it probably would have had little to do with keeping me from drinking. I liked the taste of booze, and it made me feel powerful and utterly brilliant. It was fetishized (by the “society” to which I supposedly belong) as a rite of passage to all things grown-up and glamorous, and those were exactly the things I wanted to be.
Had I been a flapper in the speakeasy days, I’d have been swilling gin and dancing the Charleston right along with the rest of them.
Perhaps sensing the utilitarian coldness of the “society owns us” line, many prohibitionists appeal to our Inner Five-Year-Old. They simply care about us — more than we may care about ourselves. But why does their concern for us take precedence over our own? It comes around, no less than the other argument, to claiming that somebody else is more important than we are.
Their concern purportedly trumps ours. But I’ve known many alcoholics and other addicts who are valiantly battling their addiction. And not one of us got clean or sober because anybody else wanted us to. Any recovery program will tell you that is never enough. If we live and recover instead of giving up and dying, it can only be because we value ourselves enough to believe that our lives are worthwhile.
No one else can make you value yourself. Nor is it likely to add to your estimation of yourself to be told that somebody else’s interest in you is more important than your own. None of the people who have overcome an addiction to illegal drugs did so because of such an appeal. That wouldn’t appeal to anybody. Which is probably why — since it is the argument so often used — so many people are hooked on illegal drugs.
The drive to illegalize booze got traction during the industrial revolution. The saloon became the place to be counted, herded, and manipulated into voting as the powerful desired. Might this not have been because people had already begun to feel more like sheep than like human beings? Could not the desire to intoxicate oneself into oblivion have something to do with the abuse of alcohol (and drugs) in the first place?
How, then, will playing upon the sense that somebody else owns us — that we are not people in our own right in any meaningful sense — make us want to drink or use drugs any less?
Within every individual is that spark of humanity that gives us our identity. That recognition of our own worth. It goes beyond the mere survival instinct found in animals, driving each of us not only to exist, but to live. To strive for wisdom and achievement. To be free not simply from some trap (the highest aspiration of an animal), but to pursue a higher purpose.
I got sober — and stay sober — because I want to live the fullest life possible. The more “society” permits the liberty for human beings to reach their potential, the less attractive an escape into intoxication will be. Then prohibition schemes of every sort will be as dead as the flappers and bootleggers of our past.