Thursday, January 8, 2009

Drugs/Drug Culture

In my head, I've been writing this post since at least May 2007. In that month, I wrote a post about "The Social Norms of Intellectual Dissidents". It's one of my favorite posts, but I spent the whole of it tip-toeing around the main issue in my mind. Since it's relevant here, I'll go ahead and quote the relevant parts in full:
I support decriminalization of marijuana, but I don't and cannot allow myself to smoke it (at all, ever) as while the law is unjust, the illegality of the act is something I feel should be officially overturned, rather than quietly disregarded.
It is here that I have my biggest break with drug culture in its aspirations, and I'm well aware that I may be creating an artificial distinction. My stance and my point seem far more valid in the 1960s US than they do in the present one, and perhaps that's because of the point I made later in that post:

This is the stand of the moderate intelligentsia, and it's saving grace is that their ideas are easier to legitimize than what happens at the fringe. It helps to defy stereotypes and bring people around, and it slowly changes attitudes, usually only slightly (at most a generation or two) ahead of the common perception.
My thinking in that post was that drug culture, from hippies to hipsters to the drug culture of punk rock and now to such phenomena as "urban" crack and rural meth use, was forcibly distinct from mainstream society. Rather than making drug use more common and everyday, drug culture instead served to alienate most people and made demonization of drug users easy. A "War on Drugs" in this country was possible and supported in a way that a "War on Booze" seems impossible today. Of course, this nation once had prohibition of alcohol, but that was overturned in a depression (haha) and after a decade of realizing that people would still consume alcohol legal or illegal. It was also ended under the realization that the social cost of outlawing alcohol, especially the rise of powerful gangs and criminal empires, outweighed the social goods of banning it.

There are many today who call for an end to prohibition on similar accounts - after all, isn't it the common knowledge of the collective American psyche that marijuana is really not a harmful thing at all? (Editor's note - that previous sentence is hyperbole and quite possibly untrue) But there are very interesting distinctions made here - I will advocate completely for the decriminilization, and maybe even for the outright legalization, or marijuana, but I will go to great lengths to say that I don't want this for myself, that I don't ever intend to partake of the drug, and that I think the illegality of the drug is wrong more than I think the drug is right. I do this because I don't want to be associated with the societal images of drug culture, and because I really have little fondness for being smeared with the same revolusion that has motivated US politics agaisnt the far left since the sixties.

The problem with living this fine distinction is that the culture of the US has moved faster than the intellectuals defending it. As of 2001, 77% of US teenagers surveyed admitted to having at the least tried marijuana. That's no minority sentiment - that's an overhelming majority of the population. Not an exclusive majority, and the figures for current use are just under half of the population, but that is still an awful lot of people. Enough to not constitute fringe groups or minorities, beyond the fact that they are teenagers. And that, soon enough, becomes a majority of the population - no one who was a teenager at the time of the survey is a teenager now. Given a generation or two, casual (and perhaps infrequent) drug use will be part of what is officially normal in American society. And it's worth adding to that - for the societal change to take effect, this will require drug users to live into thier forties and fifties, and probably even into old age. That can't be done without responsible, sane drug use, and it probably can't be done with the drugs that have high mortality rates. Our population will self-select what is minimally harmful, what one can use and still function in society, and what is and always will be a bad idea.

Ending prohibition of alcohol came with the realization that some societal woes are to be accepted, but that criminalizing an activity found to be generally accepted and practiced is the better way to go. This is no better exemplified than in the "If-by-whiskey" speech (hat tip NoraReed). Given another decade or so, I imagine that marijuana will become decriminalized more generally, if not legal, and that it will be accepted as both a medicine and a drug than can safely be used in moderation. And my guess is that, as this becomes more and more openly mainstream, drug culture itself will fade into the background, and people's immediate reactions to news about a drug will no longer be based on their disapproval of stereotypes about drug users. (Similarly, I also hope the same for people's reactions to Christianity no longer be based on fear of the religious right, but that's another post.)

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