Substance abuse has less to do with the substance than it has to do with the lives we live. But what has the War on Drugs done to us, and what will follow it?
You’ve probably heard about those addiction studies with caged lab rats, in which the rats compulsively press the heroin dispensing lever again and again, even to the point of choosing it over food and starving themselves to death. These studies seemed to imply some pretty disheartening things about human nature. Our basic biology is not to be trusted; the seeking of pleasure leads to disaster; one must therefore overcome biological desires through reason, education, and the inculcation of morals; those whose willpower or morals are weak must be controlled and corrected.
The rat addiction studies also seem to validate the main features of the War on Drugs. First is interdiction: prevent the rats from getting a taste of drugs to begin with. Second is “education” – conditioning the rats into not pressing the lever in the first place. Third is punishment: make the consequences of taking drugs so scary and unpleasant that the rats will overcome their desire to press the lever. You see, some rats just have a stronger moral fiber than others. For those with a strong moral fiber, education suffices. The weak ones need to be deterred with punishments.
All of these features of the drug war are forms of control, and therefore sit comfortably within the broader narrative of technological civilization: the domination of nature, the rising above the primitive state, conquering animal desire with the mind and the base impulses with morality, and so forth. That is, perhaps, why Bruce Alexander’s devastating challenge to the caged rat experiments was ignored and suppressed for so many years. It wasn’t only the drug war that his studies called into question, but also deeper paradigms about human nature and our relationship to the world.
Alexander found that when you take rats out of tiny separate cages and put them in a spacious “rat park” with ample exercise, food, and social interaction, they no longer choose drugs; indeed, already-addicted rats will wean themselves off drugs after they are transferred from cages to the rat park.
The implication is that drug addiction is not a moral failing or physiological malfunction, but an adaptive response to circumstances. It would be the height of cruelty to put rats in cages and then, when they start using drugs, to punish them for it. That would be like suppressing the symptoms of a disease while maintaining the necessary conditions for the disease itself. Alexander’s studies, if not a contributing factor in the drug war’s slow unraveling, are certainly aligned with it in metaphor.
Are we like rats in cages? Are we putting human beings into intolerable conditions and then punishing them for their efforts to alleviate the anguish? If so, then the War on Drugs is based on false premises and can never succeed. And if we are like caged rats, then what is the nature of these cages, and what would a society look like that were a “rat park” for human beings?
Here are some ways to put a human being in a cage:
- Remove as far as possible all opportunities for meaningful self-expression and service. Instead, coerce people into dead-end labor just to pay the bills and service the debts. Seduce others into living off such labor of others.
- Cut people off from nature and from place. At most let nature be a spectacle or venue for recreation, but remove any real intimacy with the land. Source food and medicine from thousands of miles away.
- Move life – especially children’s lives – indoors. Let as many sounds as possible be manufactured sounds, and as many sights be virtual sights.
- Destroy community bonds by casting people into a society of strangers, in which you don’t rely on and needn’t even know by name the people living around you.
- Create constant survival anxiety by making survival depend on money, and then making money artificially scarce. Administer a money system in which there is always more debt than there is money.
- Divide the world up into property, and confine people to spaces that they own or pay to occupy.
- Replace the infinite variety of the natural and artisanal world, where every object is unique, with the sameness of commodity goods.
- Reduce the intimate realm of social interaction to the nuclear family and put that family in a box. Destroy the tribe, the village, the clan, and the extended family as a functioning social unit.
- Make children stay indoors in age-segregated classrooms in a competitive environment where they are conditioned to perform tasks that they don’t really care about or want to do, for the sake of external rewards.
- Destroy the local stories and relationships that build identity, and replace them with celebrity news, sports team identification, brand identification, and world views imposed by authority.
- Delegitimize or illegalize folk knowledge of how to heal and care for one another, and replace it with the paradigm of the “patient” dependent on medical authorities for health.
It is no wonder that people in our society compulsively press the lever, be it the drug lever or the consumerism lever or the pornography lever or the gambling lever or the overeating lever. We respond with a million palliatives to circumstances in which real human needs for intimacy, connection, community, beauty, fulfillment, and meaning go mostly unmet. Granted, these cages depend in large part on our own individual acquiescence, but this doesn’t mean that a single moment of illumination or a lifetime of effort can liberate us fully. The habits of confinement are deeply programmed. Nor can we escape by destroying our jailers: unlike in the rat experiments, and contrary to conspiracy theories, our elites are just as much prisoner as the rest of us. Empty and addictive compensations for their unmet needs seduce them into doing their part to maintain the status quo.
The cages suffer no easy escape. Confinement is not incidental to modern society, but woven deeply into its systems, its ideologies, and our own selves. At bottom are the deep narratives of separation, domination, and control. And now, as we approach a great turning, a shift in consciousness, we sense that these narratives are unraveling, even as their outward expressions – the surveillance state, the walls and the fences, the ecological devastation – reach unprecedented extremes. Yet their ideological core is beginning to hollow out; their foundation is cracking. I think that the lifting (still by no means assured) of the War on Drugs is an early signal that these superstructures are beginning to crack too.
A cynic might say that the end of the drug war would signal no such thing: that drugs make life in a cage more tolerable and absorb energy that might otherwise go toward social change. The opiate of the masses, in other words, is opiates! The cynic dismisses cannabis legalization in particular as a small, barely significant countereddy in an onrushing tide of imperialism and ecocide, an innocuous victory that does nothing to slow the onward march of capitalism.
This view is mistaken. Generally speaking, drugs do not make us into more effective cage-dwellers: better workers and consumers. The most notable exception is caffeine – significantly, virtually unregulated – which helps people wake up to a schedule they don’t want to live and focus on tasks they don’t care about. (I’m not saying that’s all caffeine does, and in no way do I want to demean sacred plants like tea and coffee, which are among the only herbal infusions or decoctions still taken in modern society.) Another partial exception is alcohol, which as a stress reliever indeed makes life in our society more bearable. Certain other drugs – stimulants and opiates – also may serve these functions, but are ultimately so debilitating that the guardians of capitalism recognize them as a threat.
Yet other drugs, such as cannabis and the psychedelics, can directly induce nonconformity, weaken consumer values, and make the prescribed normal life seem less tolerable, not more. Consider for example the kind of behavior associated with marijuana smoking. The stoner is not on time for work. He sits around in the grass playing his guitar. He is not competitive. This is not to say that pot smokers don’t contribute to society; some of the wealthiest Information Age entrepreneurs are reputedly smokers. In general though, the reputation of cannabis and the psychedelics to be disruptive of the established order is not without foundation.
The halting but substantial steps in several states and countries toward cannabis legalization is significant for several reasons beyond the well-known benefits regarding crime, imprisonment, medicine, and industrial hemp. First, it implies a release of the mentality of control: interdiction, punishment, and psychological conditioning. Second, as I just discussed, the object of control – cannabis – is corrosive to the cages we have lived in. Third, it is part of a deep shift in consciousness away from separation and toward compassion.
The mentality of control is predicated on the question of whom or what is to be controlled. Drug War thinking blamed the individual drug user for making poor moral choices, a view grounded in the theory that social psychologists call dispositionism – that human beings make free-willed choices based on a stable character and preferences. While dispositionism acknowledges the influence of environment, it says essentially that people make good choices because they are good people, bad choices because they are bad people. Deterrence, education, and interdiction spring naturally from that philosophy, as does our criminal justice system at large. Judgment and paternalism, inherent in the whole concept of “corrections,” are built into it, because it says, “If I were in your situation, I would have done differently than you.” In other words, it is an assertion of separation: I am different from (and if you are a drug addict, better than) you.
Note as well that the same belief motivates the War on Terror and, well, the war on pretty much anything. But there is a competing philosophy called situationism that says that people make choices from the totality of their situation, internal and external. In other words, if I were in your situation, including your entire life history, I would do as you do. It is a statement of nonseparation, of compassion. It understands, as Bruce Alexander shows us, that self-destructive or antisocial behavior is a response to circumstances and not a dispositional weakness or moral failing. Situationism motivates healing rather than war, because it seeks to understand and redress the circumstances that give rise to terrorism, drug addiction, germs, weeds, greed, evil, or any other symptom we go to war against. Instead of punishing drug use, it asks, From what circumstances does it spring? Instead of eradicating weeds with pesticides, it asks, What conditions of soil or agronomy are causing them to grow? Instead of applying extreme antiseptic hygiene and broad-spectrum antibiotics, it asks, What “climate of the body” has made it a salubrious environment for germs? That is not to say we never should use antibiotics or lock up a violent criminal who is harming others. But we cannot then say, “Problem solved! Evil has been conquered.”
Here we see how drug legalization is consistent with the reversal of a millennia-long paradigm I call the War on Evil. As old as civilization itself, it was originally associated with the conquest of chaos and the taming of the wild. Through history, it came to incinerate whole populations and nearly the planet itself. Now, perhaps, we are entering a gentler era. It is fitting that something from nature, a plant, should be a hinge for such a turning.
The growing movement to end the drug war might reflect a paradigm shift away from judgment, blame, war, and control towards compassion and healing. Cannabis is a natural starting point, because its widespread use makes the caricature of the morally weak abuser insupportable. “If I were in the totality of your circumstances, I would smoke too – in fact I have!”
Marijuana has long been vilified as a “gateway drug,” the argument being that even if it isn’t so dangerous itself, it ushers a person into the culture and habits of drug use. That canard is easily debunked, but perhaps marijuana is a gateway of another sort – a gateway to broader drug decriminalization, and beyond that, toward a compassionate and humble justice system not based on punishment. More broadly still, it may offer us a gateway away from machine values toward organic values, a symbiotic world, an ecological world, and not an arena of separate and competing others against whom one must protect oneself, conquer, and control. Perhaps the conservatives were right. Perhaps drug legalization would mean the end of society as we have known it.