Quick Fixes: Confronting the

by Morris Sullivan - photos by Joe Solari

The koala, that cute and cuddly little teddy-bear, only eats one kind of food. No matter how many other tasty goodies it’s offered, it will starve unless it gets eucalyptus leaves to eat.

By the way, eucalyptus leaves get koalas stoned. They spend their entire lives getting high.

Man, like the koala, is an intoxication-seeking animal. From coca leaves to betel nuts and from Mary Jane to the Martini, many cultures use intoxicants as a part of their social or religious ceremonies. The human drive to seek altered states of consciousness probably served a useful purpose in our evolution. Another human characteristic is the use of tools—man can expand his reach, make himself stronger, smarter, and faster, through technology. We have used our technology to expand our ability to wage war—another human trait that served our evolution. When war consisted of throwing rocks and spears in order to capture enemy women, it diversified and strengthened the human gene pool. Unfortunately, the evolution of killing-technology eventually outstripped our capacity to survive our own weaponry—we have created a world in which we live in danger of self-extermination.

For primitive man, intoxication added to celebrations of tribal unity and helped him achieve states of religious ecstasy; the act of getting intoxicated required weeks of preparation. Sadly—just as the evolution of warfare technology has created weapons that now threaten humankind’s existence—the development of more, stronger, and quicker-to-obtain intoxicants now threatens to weaken the fabric of human society.

This is not a new problem. However, a sudden surge of heroin-related deaths among teenagers—white, middle-class teenagers, that is—combined with the release of figures indicating record numbers of teenage marijuana users, has provoked the media and community leaders to raise a call to arms, urging an expansion of the “war on drugs.”

Observing all the political and media hoopla, it occurred to me that no one had bothered to ask young people why they use drugs. Having been a teenager once, I am pretty sure “just don’t say yes” (or whatever anti-drug marketing plan the politicians come up with next) might buy a vote or two but will have little effect on the demand for drugs. To think that sloganeering is an effective way to stop people from using drugs is as naive as thinking that if you can get people to stop saying “nigger,” racism will evaporate.

I decided to go to the source and question some white, middle-class seventeen- year-olds, hoping their answers might at least since shed some light on the size of “the problem” and inspire new ways of thinking about it. The answers I got from Bobby, a high-school student who uses marijuana and other drugs almost daily; and Daniel, a seventeen-year-old high-school graduate and ex-junkie, were at once predictable and alarming—predictable because, as I suspected, the mundane “solutions” to the problem offered by enforcement and prevention had little if any deterrent effect and alarming not only because of the extent that drugs were part of their lives, but because their attitudes towards drugs—and life—reveal that the source of the problem lies far beyond the ability of most of our leaders to even comprehend.

“Marijuana is almost like a religion to me.”

Bobby smokes marijuana almost daily, uses “roofies” frequently, drinks large quantities of beer occasionally, has dropped acid several times, , and uses ecstasy or cocaine “when it’s around.” He has never smoked crack, and, except for the small amounts often mixed into ecstasy, hasn’t used heroin, either.

“When you have pot, you’re ready to conquer the world. When you don’t have pot, you’re ready to conquer the world, but you need to get some pot first.” Daniel started using drugs at age twelve. He went to an upscale private school and was considered “different”—an outcast—by his peers. “All teenagers drink, especially jocks, but I was using drugs alone. Drugs was part of what I was. After Cobain died, alternative music became the new top forty, and the trendy kids—the ones who’d been making fun of me and calling me a loser—started coming up to me and telling me about all the drugs they’d done over the weekend. I’d tell them to fuck off.”

When I asked Bobby and Daniel why they used drugs, they answered, “boredom.” Daniel told me, “Even the Brady Bunch movie is good if you’re stoned. Otherwise it just gives you a headache.” When kids get bored, they do strange things. When my father was seventeen, he and his friends got drunk, stole watermelons, and tipped over people’s outhouses. My peers got drunk, smoked pot, and drove around all night. Now kids get drunk, smoke pot, do ecstasy, and dance all night in the woods.

Here’s a question for the politicians to puzzle over: How, with more things to do for entertainment than ever in the history of the world available almost instantly—video games, shooting galleries where kids can blast each other with lasers, under-eighteen nightclubs, theatres, theme parks, the Internet, and fifty-some-odd channels of cable—is it possible that kids can be bored?

Could it be that the main difference between my father’s and subsequent generations is that there are no outhouses to tip over?

The answer, of course, is far more complex. Just as we demand a quick and easy solution to the drug problem, we demand silver-bullet solutions to all our personal problems—stress, anxiety, lack of discipline in school, etc. Whenever possible, we medicate. Bobby told me, “I was put on Ritalin in the first grade, switched to Desiprimine in the seventh and switched to marijuana in the ninth, so I guess I’ve been using drugs ever since I started school.”

Ritalin, prozac, and marijuana can provide easy solutions to make us feel better about being fucked up. Listening to Prozac documented the beginning of an American love-affair with anti-depressants that continues to grow. Add our dependency on Ritalin to deal with problems that, only a few decades ago, would have resulted in trips to the principal’s office or threats of military school, and we have a society that is alarmingly drug-dependent. As the kids see it, if it’s okay to use prescription drugs to feel better and if it’s socially acceptable for Dad to discuss his Zoloft dosage over a few beers with his boss, then what could be wrong with smoking a blunt?

“It is almost imbecilic to send someone to jail for simple possession.”

Despite testimony on the medicinal value of marijuana and passionate assertions such as the one above by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the hearing held on March 6 this year by House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime—a meeting to develop a response to the rise of marijuana use in America, which included a discussion of U.S. Representative Barney Frank’s medicinal marijuana bill—seemed tailored to add to the election-year frenzy of legislators intent on exploiting the “drug problem” as a campaign issue. Interestingly, a comparison of marijuana to tobacco prompted a North Carolina legislator, Howard Coble, to proclaim that he was opposed to “making tobacco analogous to drugs.”

In terms of the number of people who try it that become addicted, nicotine is the most addictive drug known. It’s legal. Alcohol has the most severe withdrawal symptoms of any drug—withdrawal from alcohol can kill you. It’s legal. Nicotine has no medical uses at all; alcohol has relatively few. According to legalization advocates, marijuana may have over a hundred, including treatment for glaucoma and pain- and nausea-relief for chemotherapy patients. While marijuana can be addictive, no physical dependency and no withdrawal symptoms are associated with it. There has never been a documented overdose from marijuana; in fact, potatoes are more toxic. Perhaps the question, “should marijuana be legal?” ought to be reconsidered. The big question is, “why is marijuana illegal?” The answer probably has a lot more to do with politics and fear than with real danger.

One of the reasons marijuana is so scary to politicians is because it is safe; users don’t have to fear dependency or overdose, it’s hard to create an effective scare-campaign against it.

While alcohol and tobacco have enjoyed social acceptability for centuries, marijuana has been associated with social and political groups that operated on the fringes of society since the years following World War II—with jazz musicians, the “beats,” and finally the antiwar movement. To many people, marijuana is the drug of subversion, of “trashy” people, of people who don’t display “American family values .”

As a political “issue,” drug abuse is almost perfect. It’s an emotional one, especially for parents; few people will deny its importance; even fewer politicians are willing to say publicly that enforcing drug laws is wasteful and ineffective; and almost anyone can come up with a new “plan” that makes at least as much sense as the old “plan.”

The problem with the plans is that they all rely on faulty premises: Demand will shrink if there are enough scare programs, like DARE. Supply will dry up if enforcement gets enough manpower.

“Coke is easier to get in prison than it ever was on the streets.”

A court-ordered attendee at recovery-group meetings I ran had spent five years in Federal prison for selling cocaine. He had been using his own merchandise, and he decided to use prison as an opportunity to stop. “It was hard, though,” he told me. “You could buy it from guards. At night, the smell of rock smoke would drive me up a wall.”

Steve also used to attend the meetings, although it was apparent that he’d never had a problem with drugs or alcohol. One evening after the session, I asked him why he came, and he explained that he was ordered by a Federal court to attend; he was a convicted drug-smuggler. Steve’s story was pretty shocking. He had been, as he put it, a “logistics man,” who never saw the stuff. His job was to coordinate with warehouses up and down I-95 to receive truckloads of illicit drugs. The drugs would come in by ship to a port in a southern state. The DEA and customs had been paid to look the other way. The state Highway Patrol would escort the trucks en masse to the Interstate. The smugglers were finally caught in a sting operation—the law-enforcement agencies were never investigated.

Despite the best efforts of Republicans to convince us otherwise, Clinton’s administration has been tougher on drugs over the past four years than any administration in history, racking up a record number of arrests for marijuana and passing death-penalty laws for non-violent drug crimes. The costs of enforcing the ban on marijuana is exorbitant—over a quarter-million people have been arrested in each of the last two years for marijuana-related crimes, and hundreds of thousands serve jail-time at a cost of $200 per day. America has spent over $45 billion on the “drug war” since 1989, with no decrease in drug abuse. We have the highest per-capita prison population in the world, about seventy percent of which is due to drug-related offenses. Yet, use of marijuana and other drugs continues to rise. If we can’t keep drugs out of jail and drug-money out of the pockets of law-officers, how can we keep it off the streets?

“We had the DARE program in the fifth grade and it was the only class I ever made straight A’s in. I also smoked pot for the first time in the fifth grade.”

The DARE program—Reefer Madness for the 1990’s—mixes reliable information about dangerous drugs with bullshit. At least one fifth-grader was told that marijuana is illegal because it is addictive and alcohol is legal because it isn’t. Young people rebel - lying to them only justifies that rebellion. Since the hysterical claims of genetic damage from LSD in the sixties, many Americans have mistrusted official proclamations regarding the dangers of recreational drugs.

The “just say no/just don’t do it” approach to drug-abuse prevention assumes that peer-pressure pushes kids into the drug culture, but none of the guys I talked to (including non-users) ever felt “pressured” to try drugs. Rather, they were all anxious to begin. “When you first get weed,” said Bobby, “you think, ‘Wow! I have some!’ Then you start thinking about how fat or skinny it is. Now, you just roll it up.”

“Drugs are bad, just like television.”

For many people in the ‘sixties, drug use was a social statement, a way to reject the “system” and usher in the Age of Aquarius. Eventually, using drugs became entertainment—like drinking to excess, but “better,” and without the hangover. The quest for better (and, for the moment, legal) highs led entrepreneurial chemists to create “designer drugs” and more potent versions of the old standards (like cocaine and heroin) and encouraged kids to experiment with new “clinical” drugs, like quaaludes. As a result, we have new versions of drugs that formerly were not addictive; new, recreational uses for powerful clinical drugs; and new forms of drugs (like crack) that are infinitely more dangerous than the originals.

Some of these new drugs are also very cheap. With a little help from the CIA, massive amounts of cocaine have become available to low-income users in inner-city areas. Drug-addiction feeds on hopelessness; an entire American social-class receives daily doses of consumerist fantasy from television, movies, and popular music, and has virtually no ability to attain the material wealth their society seems to demand they attain. To some, their only hope is to either deal drugs or escape into the high.

When drugs were mainly a social problem of the lower classes, the problem went almost unnoticed except for the crime it caused that effected the upper-classes. The children whose faces are spread over the front page of the daily newspaper beneath a banner headline proclaiming “Dead from Drugs,” however, are not minority children who suffer from economic hopelessness.

Their despair is of another variety—they are hopelessly unchallenged. They have been trained, almost from birth, to believe that life should be easy and fun, and that when it’s not, someone else is to blame, or their medication should be adjusted. These are not all “spoiled rich kids,” but they have learned from their Ritalin, their video-games, and often their parents and school administrators that they are not expected to have to work at success—it should be effortless. We have systematically created a culture of people unprepared to cope with the obstacles of everyday life.

This is the perhaps the biggest danger of “safe” drugs, like marijuana—once the high is gone, the problem is still there, whether the problem is boredom or bad grades. Even though it does not cause physical dependency, marijuana can be addictive, as addictive as drinking, gambling, or chatting on the Internet. It can siphon money away from better purposes, like the kids’ shoes or the power bill, and it can distract the user from his real problems.

There may be no permanent, total solution to the drug problem. One approach that would be far better than the one we’ve been taking would be to treat it as a health problem, not a legal one, especially where marijuana is concerned. To continue to imprison people for doing an activity that’s virtually harmless is futile and wasteful. Surely, the millions that the country would save could be put to better use.

Legalization, which would include the licensing, regulation, and taxation of marijuana, is a bad idea. More likely than not, most of the money raised by the taxation would simply end up supporting the bureaucracy that handles regulation and licensing, and our government would end up in the drug business, just as it is now in the alcohol and tobacco business. Considering the conflicts we’ve seen between the health agencies and the bureaucracies supported by the alcohol and tobacco industries, this would make no sense.

Decriminalization of marijuana, on the other hand, could free up those billions of dollars worth of man-hours now spent on related crimes without building a new bureaucracy to consume the savings.

Most arguments against decriminalization of marijuana are based on the only similar actual example we have available, that of the ending of prohibition, when, ostensibly, alcohol use skyrocketed. However, the statistics are questionable; it is far easier to measure the use of a legal substance than an illegal one, so it is hard to determine conclusively how much consumption actually increased.

Just across the county line from Abilene, Texas, where I spent some of my youth, there is a mountain of beer-cans behind a package-store. The mountain is there because Abilene is dry, and people drive across the line to get a six-pack. Some of them stay there to drink it. Arguments against decriminalization based on the examples of European countries and states where marijuana has been decriminalized are probably skewed both by the relative ease of measuring the consumption of a legal substance and by the fact that people will travel to a place where the substance is legal just to get high.

“If you have something important to do, you don’t need drugs.”

Most people who use drugs to excess will stop (or stop overdoing them, anyway) once they have a reason to. The exceptions are people who would almost certainly have major problems because of some behavior—drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, or any number of other things, anyway.

As Daniel put it, “Most of the trendy kids will quit when they move on to college or get jobs.” Coming face to face with his own mortality gave him the incentive to quit. “In 1995, a friend of mine overdosed. I wanted to stop, but didn’t—until another friend locked me in my room and knocked some sense into me. Coming off it was the most disgusting feeling—my joints hurt, I felt sick, and I realized that I’d been willing to do anything to get high, like stealing from my parents. I couldn’t think straight for weeks.

“I’ve gotten more neurotic since I quit. I was in a “fuck-it” state of mind then, and now I worry about my future a lot. I didn’t do that when I was on heroin—but I guess I didn’t have a future then, did I?”