First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Looking the Other Way
During the Superbowl there were some interesting public service spots in which actors portraying "casual" drug users proudly named some of the results of America's love affair with psychoactive chemicals.
And the list is indeed a horrible one. Murders, besieged governments, corrupted justice systems, children orphaned, babies' minds and bodies permanently damaged, and a flow of money that seduces thousands of young people into the drug trade instead of honest work.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman stood up at our church meeting and spoke of how she grieved for her native country, Colombia, where she still has many family members and for which she still feels much love. The land of her happy childhood memories is now a war zone in which no one is safe and freedom was one of the first casualties.
She expressed her gratitude that at least she and her immediate family lived with the safety and freedom of America, her adopted country.
I could not help but think of the irony that it is our "safe" and "free" country that is driving most of the worst suffering in her native land. Not because of the policies of our government, but because of the insatiable hunger of too many Americans for drugs.
When America sneezes, the world gets sick.
Of course, I knew at once that there were many people in America who would immediately reply, both to that lady in church and to the ads that ran during the Superbowl, "Since people insist on using drugs, we ought to decriminalize them so that the price drops and it is no longer handled by drug lords."
We have the example of Prohibition back in the 1920s. The temperance crusaders, after decades of struggle, finally got a constitutional amendment that forbade the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all but the very weakest alcoholic beverages.
The goal was to cut down on the terrible price our hard-drinking population paid for its booze.
Alcohol was implicated in the oppressive amount of domestic violence that was wrecking American homes and lives. Alcoholism shattered lives, made workingmen unproductive, and dragged many of them into the gutter.
It seemed almost a quixotic crusade, tilting at windmills. Drinking was woven into the fabric of our society. Saloons were where men met after work. It was impossible to think of any happy or momentous or sad event at which alcohol did not form part of the celebration or comfort those who mourned.
Could we really end all that, all at once?
The obvious answer is, no. Too many Americans refused to obey the law, and instead frequented speakeasies and laid in supplies of liquor from rum runners and moonshiners. No one who wanted alcohol seemed to have the slightest trouble in getting it, and so much money flowed into the hands of crime lords that they easily corrupted the already morally-fragile police forces of most major cities.
After only a decade or so, Prohibition was repealed. (Ironically, teetotal Utah was the state whose approval of the repeal amendment put it over the magic two-thirds.) Liquor flowed legally again ... just in time to play a major role in millions of traffic deaths as cars became our primary means of getting home from the saloon.
Prohibition -- a complete failure. And therefore proof that we ought to stop trying to prohibit drugs.
There are several reasons why that is a completely stupid argument.
1. Unlike alcohol, recreational drugs are not and never have been woven into the fabric of the lives of most Americans.
2. Even though Prohibition was repealed, America did not go back to the status quo ante. Some states and many counties remained dry or kept serious restrictions on alcohol, and patterns of social drinking changed.
3. In recent years, the rise in the drinking age and serious efforts to enforce it have indeed cut back on teenage drinking, proving that well-designed and strictly enforced prohibitions can improve things, when we agree as a people to make them work.
4. Most important, alcohol continued to be a highly addictive drug that wrecked lives, killed innocent bystanders on highways and in homes, and worsened domestic violence.
Remember that cocaine, heroin, morphine, opium, and amphetamines all used to be perfectly legal. They were banned, not because the government hated how "fun" they were, but because they killed people and wrecked lives and shattered families.
The easier it was to get these drugs and the more socially acceptable it was to use them, the more damage they did.
It was the outcry of the people whose lives were ruined by these drugs that led to their becoming illegal in the first place. That's why there's no longer cocaine in your Coca-Cola; Coke and the other cola-makers have to rely on much less addictive drugs, like caffeine and image advertising, to keep you buying their products.
Decriminalizing drugs would not save any lives. In even greater numbers, people would take cocaine or heroin or speed and then spend the rest of their drastically-shorter lives living only from dose to dose. They would still ignore their responsibilities to family and society and become self-destructive parasites.
Parents would still see the children for whom they had so much hope get sucked into the downward spiral of drugs and lose their futures.
Crack babies would still be born, just as babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome, because addicts cannot put the needs of even their own children ahead of their hunger for the drug.
The contractor who put our remodeling money up his nose a decade ago wouldn't have behaved any more responsibly -- he simply would have paid our stolen money to the local ABCD store instead of the neighborhood drug dealer.
The core reason why people live together in societies is because it gives us a better chance to find a mate, have children, and have some assurance that our children will have children and so on. All else being equal, the societies that do the best job of fulfilling that promise are the ones that tend to survive and spread.
Far from decriminalizing drugs, we need to do a far more effective job of desocializing them.
And that begins with us. It's time to stop winking at drugs. If you have "recreational" drugs in your life, get rid of them. Stop tolerating it among your friends. Let them know you are disgusted by their habit.
Stop laughing at comedians who joke about drug use. It isn't funny.
Stop socializing with people you suspect of using drugs. They aren't your friends.
When you know someone is using drugs, report them and testify against them in court. It's their life -- and the lives of your children -- that you're saving by standing up.
If a university does not have strict enforcement of drug laws in its dorms, don't send your child there, period -- and let the college know why.
If adults behave this way, children will get the message.
And it will work. After all, within the past twenty years we have, as a nation, cut back enormously on smoking, which involves the most addictive drug of all. The combination of restrictive laws and social stigma has worked to save lives -- even of people who resented us the whole time we were saving them.
If we Americans can cut back on our drug use by openly being "square" and denouncing those who use drugs, showing no tolerance whatsoever, not only will we save lives in Colombia, we'll save lives in America, too.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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