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Drugs, what are they good for? (Other than intolerance)

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Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is killing drug users and mostly poor street-level distributors. His policies have resulted in a death toll “surging to nearly 3,000”. These acts of savagery are precursors to tyranny. Depressingly, many in the Philippines and in Australia see Duterte’s approach as necessary in the ‘fight against drugs’. This is regardless of the fact that where drugs have been decriminalised and regulated crime and drug abuse have reduced.

Portugal’s total decriminalisation of low-level possession of drugs led to extensive harm minimisation and has dramatically reduced the rate of HIV infection, youth drug use and general criminality. According to the Portuguese Institute on Drugs & Drug Addiction: “Portugal remains among the countries with the lowest prevalence of use for most of the substances“.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen in his commencement address to graduates of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila was scathing in his attack of Duterte, stressing the danger of reducing democracy to a series of populisms. Human justice is not about pitchfork responses to otherness. We have seen recently that even in more liberal societies such as the United States, Australia and Europe the appeal of populist falsities on Muslims, refugees, indigenous people, drug users and LGBTIQ people.

In authoritarian regimes critical journalists, LGBTIQ people, anti-state artists, and drug users are commonly fired, imprisoned or extra-judiciously killed.

Associate Justice Leonen emphasised the danger of the “folk view of the fundamentals of the political philosophy of liberal democracy”. For him the reductionist vision of “casting of ballots as the core representation of liberal democracy” diminishes democracy and liberalism to a “political drama between personalities who are powerful and have the resources to engage in electoral contest”.

It takes courage to pursue drug law reform in Australia and most politicians are locked into non-evidence based populisms.

The narrative of being ‘tough on crime’ suits people who fear divergence, yet, according to the Victorian Ambo Project report by Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in 2014: “Alcohol was the reason for the majority of drug-related ambulance attendances, with 12,482 attendances in 2013/14 compared to … 1,237 for crystal methamphetamine (ice)”.

The lack of tolerance of things outside the ‘mainstream’, by the ‘silent’ (not too silent anymore), and defined by social conservatives and health-centric professionals leads to a type of new social fascism. As P. J. O’Rourke, a “classic liberal”, pointed out at his recent public talk Have we all gone nuts? for the Centre of Independent Studies in Melbourne: “I don’t know why conservatives keep fighting social issues, they’ve lost the war, gay people are getting married and marijuana is legal in many states”.

Those who generate fear of drugs are expressing an innate desire to control. Hitler hated smoking and tried to stamp the habit out by raising taxes, banning it in public places and called for a ban on smoking in vehicles. He even invented the term ‘passive smoking’ and financed expensive anti-smoking campaigns.

The reality is that many of those who have used alcohol and drugs have created great art, dynamic businesses and generated excellent ideas. Not all the time of course. Abuse of any kind can be boring self-indulgence, or very dangerous. People die from drug abuse, (mainly of alcohol), they also die from car crashes and falling off ladders; shark attacks and drowning; in wars and all forms of violence.

Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, hash, cocaine, opium and speed have played vital roles in social, cultural, scientific, political and artistic innovations. Ancient cultures, Greeks, Indians, Assyrians, American Indians and Australian Aborigines consumed drugs for religious rituals, creativity and deep reflection.

Homer writes of Odysseus’ fall under the spell of the lotus-eaters, or Lotophagi, who used the lotus, Nymphaea Caerulea, as a euphoric relaxant. Thomas Edison, the American inventor regularly consumed a cocaine-laced elixir, he hardly slept spending much time inventing stuff; Shakespeare’s pipe had deposits of cocaine and marijuana; Alexander the Great introduced opium to Persia from the Middle East. LSD was a watershed for Steve Jobs the man behind Apple Corp. who said that taking LSD was “a profound experience…. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could”.

Some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time were drug users like the innovator, John Coltrane. Greek Blues or Rebetica are songs about heroin and hashish. The Beatles wrote their best work after 1967 on LSD and marijuana> Charles Dickens had an opium habit and Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, was a big cocaine user.

Jet fighter pilots have since WWII battled their biggest killer, fatigue, through high quality army issue “amphetamines…that has kept military aviators fierce-eyed and alert from the Battle of Britain to night strikes over Afghanistan.”

The war on drugs rhetoric is about intolerance.

Anti-opium laws in the early 20th century were about attacking the Chinese, not moral or health issues of opium smoking. Jews, Roma, homosexuals and others not fitting the racist Aryan vision of Nazi Germany were commonly associated with moral depravity and drugs.

Human justice is not about pitchfork responses to otherness.

In Washington DC in the mid- ’90s I found it easier to access quality marijuana (which of course I never inhaled), from wealthy Georgetown University students, than on the streets. Getting busted for smoking baking soda-cut crack cocaine, which some poor African American men could only access, resulted in hundreds of times harsher sentences than those meted out white professionals busted for cocaine.

We know what Trump’s thinks of Mexicans; “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. Views by Trump, Duterte, Putin and Pauline Hanson are becoming mainstream at the expense of liberal-democracy.

It takes courage to pursue drug law reform in Australia and most politicians are locked into non-evidence based populisms. We need decriminalisation, regulation, harm minimisation and legal access to good and clean drugs.

Just like many of my drinking friend, I no longer expect to die from moonshine poisoning as many did during alcohol prohibition in the US, be arrested for having a whiskey, shot for buying or selling alcohol. Those who want a toke or a line should not fear mental anguish, imprisonment or death.

[box]Main image: Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte on the election trail. Source: Manila. EPA/Francis R. Malasig for The Conversation.[/box]

3 responses to “Drugs, what are they good for? (Other than intolerance)

  1. Decriminalisation sucks as it still bears the stigma that consuming marijuana or opiates or MDMA or cocaine is somehow worse than consuming legal alcohol and tobacco.

    What we want is RE-LEGALISATION !!!!

  2. As a drug law reformist for many decades I agree wholeheartedly with your article. One quibble: where would Shakespeare have sourced his cocaine? Walter Raleigh had only just introduced tobacco to England during Shakespeare’s day, and I don’t think coca leaves were being exported for a couple of centuries past that.

  3. Crime could be abolished in one simple fell swoop. Just remove all relevant legislation. There you go. No problem at all. OK. That’s a bit extreme, but in many ways that sums up the “war on drugs” and softer drugs in particular. Better for politicians to amplify the “harm” that drugs do and ignore alcohol-related violence, health issues and violent crime. After all, the liquor lobby is pretty damn powerful, whereas drug users tend not to form themselves into a united group to take their message to governments.

    On the matter of the evil Duterte; I said from day 1 that the problem for now is that he will still tend to take out the “easy” targets – the sad users on the street. Like any politician, he will loudly extol his own virtue and outrageously overstate the effect his “tough” action is having. Eventually, this will morph into him arranging for anyone he just doesn’t like to be “removed” (notably, political opponents) and his current “populism” will evolve into despotism. History is littered with examples of the power-crazed who targeted a particular group and set about systematically eliminating them, but then surreptitiously drew ever more blurred boundaries around that target group to serve political rather than social ends.

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