Fighting the War on Drugs

Against the Current, No. 30, January/February 1991

Janice Haaken and Larry Bowlden

IN THE FILM Drugstore Cowboy, William Burroughs proclaims that drugs are now being demonized in a systematic, international campaign to justify the creation of a police state. Perhaps apocalyptic, this position has a ring of truth. Many agree with President Bush that “drugs” are the most important problem facing the country today. In the name of the war on drugs they’re willing to sacrifice personal liberties and support increased spending for law enforcement and prisons.(1)

The war on drugs does appear to be replacing the war on communism as the most important ideological justification for a conservative agenda, domestic as well as international. It is fairly obvious why Bush and company would want to push the drug war But what explains their success? In this article we explore the reasons that anti-drug sentiment has moved from a marginal national concern to a central ideological construct. We argue that the war on drugs is so powerful because it responds to real concerns such as addiction and crime, but at the same time mobilizes much broader anxieties that cannot be directly expressed or confronted.

Any left analysis of the drug war must address both the reality-basis of the drug problem and its ideological elaboration. To minimize or deny the destructive implications of heavy drug use is to make one’s voice utterly irrelevant, particularly in those communities ravaged by a thriving drug trade On the other hand, both the incidence of use and the addictive powers of illicit drugs have been vastly overstated.

Although accurate estimates of prevalence are difficult to obtain, and all studies problematic, available research indicates that overall illegal drug use began to decline in the late 1970s,(2) while cocaine use peaked in the mid-1980s.(3) The “crack epidemic” of the late 1980s has also been sensationalized. This “poor man’s cocaine” is highly addictive in that it produces an intense, orgasm-like high or rush within minutes, followed by a euphoria lasting ten to twenty minutes Yet the number of actual users, even among poor, urban youth, is small.

The Office of Substance Abuse Prevention condudes, based on its 1988 study, that .9% of white males and 1.0% of white females between the ages of 12-17 have tried crack at least once. Among African-American youth, 3.6% of males and 1.5% of females in this age group were reported to have ever used the drug. A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1986, found that 4% of high school seniors overall had used crack at least once over the previous year. The highest use was reported in large urban communities (5.9%) and in the Northeast (6.0%) and the West (75%).(4) Use among young adults (18-25) is slightly highei, but consistent in showing relatively slight differences between racial groups. Although crack is widely believed to create “instant addiction,” the majority of crack users are occasional users, avoid compulsive use, and do not experience medical complications.

The Anti-Drug Campaign

Three developments have fueled the current campaign against drugs. First, the economic and social devastation of poor and minority communities over the past decade is real. These communities consume drugs, proportionately, no more than others. But poor urban communities are more vulnerable to the problems associated with individual drug addiction. Most important, these are the communities directly damaged by the effects of the drug trade. Second, shifts in the economy and labor defeats have cut off both working-class and middle-class possibilities for upward mobility or maintaining the real value of wages. This erosion of the promise of continued prosperity requires a revision of the ideology of consumption (e.&, “more is better”) which dominated American society in the postwar era. The drug war supports this revision, providing a displaced, concrete focus for concerns about self-indulgence and loss of control Third, the large-scale entry of women into paid labor, along with profound gaps in childcare, beforeand-after school care and education, have increased anxieties over the welfare of children. The “pro-family” agenda of the drug war converges with and derives much of its ideological force from the rights crusade to restore the traditional family.

Like the anti-abortion movement, the anti-drug campaign mobilizes deep anxieties about the moral and social basis of late capitalism. It provides a political ye-hide for expressing moral outrage against degrading forces in society, while targeting some of the most oppressed and marginal groups as the objects of this rage. Drug addicts—largely conceived to be people of color and poor—are the “contaminating’ influences in an otherwise decent and orderly world.

Although we are critical of the war on drugs, we do not argue that concerns about drugs are merely an ideologically-driven attack on poor people, as important as this understanding is to an analysis of the anti-drug campaign. We think it is crucial to distinguish anti-drug campaigns that emerge from oppressed people and their communities from those anti-drug proclamations issued by governmental agencies and “experts” who have a more conservative social agenda. Even when the analyses or proposals being put forth by organizations from oppressed communities are not progressive or substantive in addressing the complexity of drug-related concerns, it is vital to listen to and learn from those who are on the frontline, more ravaged by the destructive effects of living in this society.

An Historical Perspective

Historically, anti-drug sentiment has risen more in response to social crises than to the actual increases in overall consumption of psychoactive substances. By the late 19th century,cocaine, opium, and a synthetic opium marketed by Bayer under the trade name Heroin, were widely prescribed by physicians, particularly to middle-and upper-class women. But the drug scare that led to the federal Harrison Act of 1914, which criminalized cocaine possession, was fuelled by the social upheaval and economic anxieties of that tumultuous period.

Throughout the 20th century different drugs have been demonized as the “major threat” to society, typically when they become associated with a “drug culture.” The flourishing of the “ethical” drug trade (meaning distribution was controlled by physicians) in the 1950s, particularly the widespread use of tranquilizers amon American housewives, did generate some media attention,(5) but nothing compared to the virulent response to marijuana in the 1960s. Marijuana use was villainized as it became associated with the “group solidarity” and rebellion of middle-class youth.

The racist overtones of the contemporary anti-drug campaign have their precursors in the blatant racism of earlier crusades. While cocaine was promoted by physicians, including Sigmund Freud, in the late 19th century as the new miracle cure for emotional and physical ailments and as a boost to human productivity,(6) by the early 20th century, cocaine use had become associated with “alien” subcultures.(7) During the early decades of this century—a period of intensified radicalism, economic instability and migration from the rural South—the movement to establish a list of illegal drugs took on racist overtones. In 1910, testimony before a committee of the House of Representatives exemplifies this mixture of racist and anti-drug sentiments:

“The colored people seem to have a weakness for it (cocaine). It is aveiy seductive drug, and it produces extreme exhilaration… and temporaly insanity. They would just as leave rape a woman as anything else and a great many of the southern rape cases have been traced to cocaine.(8)

In the anti-drug legislation of the 1920s and ’30s, marijuana use was demonized as “an intoxicant of blacks and wetbacks—groups that were targeted as corrupting white society by weakening middle-class morality.(9) The current focus on crack as the new drug menace clearly targets young, poor African-Americans, reinforcing longstanding associations between African-Americans and “drug-crazed” violence.

The implementation of sfrmnent anti-drug legislation has also followed periods of increased immigration where economic insecurity is expressed through intensified anti-foreigner sentiments. The legislation against opium use in Canada during the 1920s, for example, was an expression of bigotry toward Chinese immigrants.(10)

The current consensus about drugs collapses all use into the category of “addiction.” Rather than presenting arguments about when and if the use of drugs is harmful or immoral, the campaign categorically asserts the irrationality and immorality of all drug use. While antidrug sentiments have always existed, especially among conservatives and in law enforcement agencies, this consensus is new. For example, the 1972 Shafer Commission appointed by President Nixon identified five categories of drug use: experimental, recreational, circumstantial, intensive, and compulsive. It concluded that “drug use has become an emotional term that connotes societal disapproval and elicits a sense of uneasiness and disquiet … The overwhelming majority of users of psychoactive drugs of all kinds are experimental, recreational, and circumstantial and present little problem to either themselves or others.”(11)

The point here is not to defend the adequacy of the commission’s typology but rather to 5uestion the contemporary meanings given to “use,” abuse,” and “addiction.” It does seem far more reasonable to classify a continuum of effects of the various drugs and their addictive potential than to collapse all use into addiction viewed as destructive to both user and society.(12)

A Two-Sided Campaign

The anti-drug campaign has a law enforcement and a liberal “therapeutic” wing, each carrying differing but converging understandings. The liberal-therapeutic approach is less punitive and does attempt some analysis of the motivations behind drug use. But it is also profoundly limited. The tension between law enforcement and therapeutic approaches has a class character, the former targeting the working class and the poor, the latter dominating treatment and educational programs aimed at the middle class.

Poor and minority drug offenders are more apt to experience the punitive arm of the state. For these groups available drug treatment is, both qualitatively and quantitatively, profoundly inadequate. Drug rehabilitation centers for the working class and poor are also more apt to be coercively behavioral and confrontational, whereas treatment centers for the affluent stress self-exploration and supportive care to reduce the shame and stigma associated with addiction.

In the ghettoes, where the drug war is being carried out, real wages for poor African-American men dropped 50% during the 1970s. The response of the Reagan and Bush administrations has been to increase law enforcement and prison space. The 1990 drug war budget of $95 billion allots 15 billion for prisons—a 100% increase—and $876 million for military support.

While the increased enforcement of drug laws targets “all users of illegal drugs,” itis patently evident that enforcement efforts have targeted minority communities. Under new federal statutes, defendants convicted of selling five grams or more of crack cocaine (worth about $125), receive a minimum mandatory prison term of five years. It takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine, or $50,000 worth of the “yuppie drug,” to earn an equivalent sentence.(13)

Even though studies conducted separately by the FBI and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1988 showed that African-Americans make up only 12% of the nation’s drug users, they are overwhelmingly targeted by the drug war. Approximately one-third of AMcan-American men from poor areas are arrested on drug charges by the age of thirty. The drug war contributes to the fact that nearly one in four African-American males between the ages of 20-29 is currently either in prison, on probation or parole, or waiting trial.(14)

In the law enforcement approach, all illegal drug use is deviant, so that failing to “pass” a urine test is tantamount to addiction and mandates punishment The liberal-therapeutic approach rejects the moral distinction between legal and illegal substances and focuses on the actual effects and differential uses of legal and illegal drugs. While rejecting the repressive moral categories of the law-and-order approach, the therapeutic model typically explains drug use as a form of self-medication. Implicit here is the notion that drugs are not bad because they are immoral but rather because they are used to compensate for individual deficiencies.(15) The drug user seeks out psychoactive substances to both reduce anxiety and passively experience pleasure, becoming increasingly dependent on the substance.

In the liberal-therapeutic model, drug use is a kind of socially transmitted disease, more likely to be con- traded by individuals genetically, emotionally, or socially vulnerable to it While individuals are differentially vulnerable to drug addiction, the myriad reasons for drug use are typically reduced in this model.

Over the past decade, an enormous army of drug and alcohol treatment counselors have established themselves as the therapeutic gurus of our “addictive society” They have advanced a new psychology of addiction, stressing its origins in the “dysfunctional family.” This psychology combines basically sound psychological principles (e.g., the importance of love, open communication, and discipline in developing a healthy family life) with the spiritual ideas embodied in the Twelve Step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The majority of treatment programs for drug abuse now stress the importance of a spiritual awakening in the recovery process. This is described in the Twelve Step philosophy as “turning my life and will over to a Higher Power, as I understand Him.” Historically, AA organized self-help recovery groups to provide emotional and spiritual support to alcoholics whose lives had become unmanageable, that is, for those who had “hit bottom.” To protect themselves from the stigmatizing effects of being labelled alcoholic, AA founders redefined alcoholism as a disease, for which sufferers can seek recovery, rather than as a “moral weakness.”

Much of the Twelve Step or “recovery” literature offers useful guidance in living. But the overall message of the literature stresses “abstinence” as a morally advanced way of life and encourages people not toward a critical awareness of how the world promotes dysfunctionality but toward their own “disease process.”

Drugs at Work

Of the various compulsions catalogued and described in the addiction literature, addiction to drugs, or chemical dependence, has mobilized the greatest concern and the most aggressive programs in workplaces and the schools. By 1988, 52% of Fortune 500 corporations required drug testing—a doubling in just two years.16 Employee Assistance Programs and inpatient drug treatment programs flourished throughout the 1980s, emerging as the “humane” alternative to the Reagan administration’s “zero tolerance” approach. (Reagan’s call for a moral commitment to a “drug-free workplace” implicitly displaced responsibility for declining productivity from management to workers.)

The anti-drug campaign obscures the adaptive uses of drugs in the workplace. As non-work hours are reduced and pressures to increase output intensified, drug use has taken a more productivist orientation for both the middle and working classes, shifting from “downers” and “mind-expanders” to “performance enhancers.” As Bruce Sterling points out, “the cozy, dreamy days of marijuana and LSD are history; what people want now is crack, amphetamine and anabolic steroids—headlong speed and muscle by order.”(17)

This trend is illustrated in what has been heralded as the most recent drug epidemic—”ice,” or crystal methemphatlme Much like other amphetamines and cocaine, the appeal of ice is attributed to its capacity to create a feeling of extraordinary endurance and productivity transcending natural limitations. One user, a working mother from an upwardly mobile, Filipino family, noted:

“A lot of people who do ice are in high-demanding jobs. In society today, so much is expected of you. Ice makes you feel more productive, makes you do things you want to accomplish. That’s why people do ice. It’s the American way.”(18)

While there has been some media attention to increased drug use in the middle class and stable working class, e.g. the use of steroids in competitive sports and amphetamines among truckers, the primary targets have been the poor and marginally employed. These groups are stereotyped as more prone to escapist pleasure-seeking. In the postwar era, there has been a contradiction, particularly within the middle class, between the work ethic and the hedonistic values of commodity culture—a contradiction that creates ambivalence toward psychoactive substances.19 For instance, alcohol is permissible to the extent that it facilitates business transactions or is a means of unwinding after a hard day’s work. But when pleasure is the primary expressed aim of drug use, or when it interferes with competitive striving, it is more apt to mobilize a repressive response.

Anti-addiction programs prosper because they mobilize real anxieties about economic and social conditions. In the declining economy of the past decade, there is a new sense of vigilance about the dire consequences of moral lapses or deviant experimentation among the middle class and “stable” working class. In contrast to the 1960s and 70s, where humanistic psychologists encouraged self-exploration and “risk-taking,” the economically comrtitive world today doesn’t seem to permitor “forgive such moral lapses. The traditional anxieties of the middle class, positioned precariously between the securely wealthy and those who produce goods and services through alienating work, are mobilized in the war on drugs. Indulgence and risk-taking can now mean permanent exclusion from a narrowing window of economic opportunity.

“Hysteria” and Commodity Culture

The war on drugs draws on the same kind of hysterical defenses that generally characterize the politics of the right As Abbie Hoffman pointed out, urine tests are to the anti-drug campaign at the loyalty oath was to the Red Menace: a seemingly simple test of good citizenship, and a way to separate out the good and bad elements of society. (Requiring people to offer up their body fluids to establish their political purity does indeed seem more in keeping with the health and lifestyle preoccupations of the 1980s.)

The notion of hysteria can usefully characterize the anti-drug craze, if we’re clear about the meaning of the term. Hysteria is a condition where emotion is used as a defense against thinking. Hysterical conditions are characterized by primitive or global representations of the world. Emotional urgency compromises one’s capacity to take in complex information and to develop differentiated means of making sense of the world. Hys terical conditions, like other neurotic conditions, have a contradictory character They permit a preoccupation with disturbing internal or external realities while simultaneously distorting or repressing some painful aspect of that same experience.

Mass hysteria permits a collective means of expressing distress and rage while warding off a thoughtful analysis of social realities. The sense of emotional urgency contributes to a collectively felt necessity for seizing immediate solutions in managing the threat as well as for continuous vigilance. Those who question the rationality of such moral pleas, or suggest a redirection of public concern, are demonized as well for weakening public resolve.

Barbara Ehrenreich20 has argued that drug hysteria, like other episodes of moral crisis in American history, reflects a displaced concern with the seductively enslaving tendencies of capitalist society and consumer culture. Just as middle-class women’s participation in the temperance movement of the early 20th century expressed an underlying concern with their vulnerability to male abusiveness within the family, the current antidrug crusade expresses a deeper set of anxieties that cannot be openly articulated.

Middle-class women’s crusade against “demon rum,” and the brutality of drunken immigrant working-class men, permitted them to challenge men’s power over wives while attributing abuse to a cause external to the family and to their class. To challenge their own husbands would be to bring too much into question; the campaign against alcohol provided a more politically legitimate outlet Current anti-drug frenzy similarly provides a focus for anxieties about commodity culture while, simultaneously warding off serious analysis.

The powerful attraction of commodity culture, Ehrenreich argues, lies in its promise of gratification, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. The evocative power of anti-drug propaganda derives from the displaced rage toward consumer culture, “to which we are all so eagerly addicted.” Addiction to illegal drugs represents a kind of pact with the devil. In exchange for pure pleasure, one pays the price of eternal bondage, moral degradation, and loss of self Like drugs, the offers of eternal fulfillment sold perpetually in the marketplace have an ephemeral and hypnotic quality.

Unlike many drugs, however, commodity culture doesn’t deliver on its ecstatic promise. Mobilizing fantasy and desire without really granting the promised high, consumer culture frustrates and disappoints its addicts. The creation of a suitable conduit for these disturbing feelings, one which deflects critical scrutiny, is essential to the expansion of commodity culture, at both the production and consumption ends.

But anxieties associated with commodity culture are not historically static, nor are possibilities for consumption equally realized in a capitalist society. In a prospering economy, the anxieties about addiction resonate with the emptiness of commodified visions of human happiness, as Ehrenreich argues. But in a declining economy, anti-addiction propaganda mobilizes a more complex set of fears.

In an expanding economy, hyper-consumerism based in debt may be frustrating but not dangerous. Howevei, once economic opportunities close down and confidence about future earnings wanes, the impulse to consume has to be even more vigilantly resisted—debt threatens ruin. But pleasure and freedom continue to be associated with the world of commodities, therefore diminishing consumption requires relinquishing the desire for pleasure itself The anti-drug campaign draws its impetus from this conflict.

One way of managing the conflict between desire and the necessity to defend against it is to externalize the threat—to protect conflicted impulses onto groups that are perceived as childlike and threatening. Although consumption of alcohol and other drugs has histoiicalI been greater among the middle and upper classes, the ideological targets of the anti-drug cam1,aign have typically been people of color as users and foreign” drugs as substances. In the racist stereotypes of white culture, African-Americans are perceived as having greater “emotional freedom” and “heightened sexuality,” qualities for which they are both envied and despised—just as illicit drug users are both envied and despised for their regressive “indulgence.” As the Other, African-American addicts become a protective vehicle for white Americans. Disgust toward their “habits” contains this element of a projected wish—for a lost sensuality—that is desired but has to be denied.

“Foreign” and illegal—drugs (opiates, cocaine, marijuana) have an exotic appeal missing from the prepackaged and legal offerings of an industrial, impersonal society (alcohol and pharmaceutical). Foreign drugs association with ancient, mysterious cultures evoke more seductively the fantasy of returning to a sensual, infantile world. These foreign pleasures have to be degraded and suppressed to contain their perceived threat The campaign to “protect the borders” against the “foreign” drug traffickers serves both to externalize the drug problem and to preserve “intrapsychic borders” against the repressed longings that foreign drugs and people of color come to represent.

Targeting Youth

Analyses of the “drug epidemic” among youth are often framed in terms of the breakdown of the traditional family. Anxieties about the corrupting influence of what is assumed to be a generalized affluence in the post-war period, and the relaxation of sexual morality and gender roles, are common themes for explaining drug use amon the middle class. In the case of working-class and minority youth, discussions tend to focus on claims about the degradation and absolute pathology of family and community life.

As women’s entry into the workforce has become an irreversible trend, and as the new generation’s intellectual capacity to compete in a global economy comes into question, the right has been able to mobilize real parental concerns about the inadequacies of family life and the future prospects of youth inan uncertain world. These concerns are displaced onto a moral crusade within the schools to “just say no” to drugs. In defend ing the mandated drug education curriculum, from kindergarten through grade twelve, drug czar William Bennett blamed “Satan” and “modernism” for the epidemic of drug abuse among youth. But in fact the campaign is not so much about drugs themselves as it is about rebellion gainst parental authority.

In Addicted,’ Joel Engel locates the beginning of the “drug epidemic” in the early 1960s when professors in the “hallowed halls of Harvard” began to lead the youth of America astray. His book is based on stories about young people “lost to drugs” who saw themselves as rebels. One young man, for example, tells of ripping off his parents’ “expensive stuff… just to get back at them,” of seeking an alternative to the “normies,” the “plastic people” that filled his world. Engel makes no separation between the self-destructive behavior associated with some drug use and the emerging critical awareness of young people who come to recognize parents’ hypocrisy or the emptiness of success defined by affluence.

Rather than demonizing drugs, more sophisticated analyses of youth addiction pay attention to the impoverishing effects of consumer culture, but back away from any direct challenge to social institutions. They connect drug use to seductive, hypnotic effects of television and advertising.23 They also link addictive behavior to the de-skilling of children’s toys—a trend toward pre-scripted play materials and mindless television programming that delivers instant visual stimulation devoid of imaginative possibilities.24

However, this social critique is usually buried in a series of prescriptive measures—parental involvement in TV viewing and toy selection and educational reforms aimed to “build self-esteem” and “active coping skills” in youth. This approach minimizes the determinative power of culture and points away from political solutions. Responsibility for intervention generally falls to parents—typically mothers—who are expected to preserve and nurture healthy capacities of youth in the face of the impoverishing effects of a de-humanizing society and a culture organized around instant gratification and escapist fantasy.

Minority and Poor Youth

While much of the psychological self-help literature on addiction addresses the anxieties of middle-class Americans, the ravaging effects of the drug war are peripheral to them. Concern about “gang wars” dominates the media, suggesting a suitably distant target for moral outrage. The drug war, and its effects on youth, is a different reality inpoor and minority communities, many of which have become mini-police states.

The drug trade consists of a complex and class stratified set of relations that parallel the “legitimate” market economy, exploiting Andean peasants, at the producer end, and a hierarchy of street hustlers, at the distribution end. Within African-American, Latino and Asian communities, longstanding economic and cultural impoverishment has been exacerbated by further degradation of services and economic opportunity over the past decade The restructuring of the economy toward foreign trade and investment, away from local production offering employment for minorities, provided the conditions for Black gangs to enter international trade.25

The economic pathology of late capitalism is more encompassing and spiritually invasive than the ravaging, effects of chronic unemployment alone. It extends into the dazzling world of high-priced consumer goods promising potency and instant gratification. This dream of riches, so dominantly idealized in the culture yet in reality, the exclusive province of the wealthy, does become realizable for some through the economic rewards only possible through the drug trade. For most dealers, however, the drug trade only supplements income from low-wage jobs in the straight economy.

The moral outrage expressed by the Reagan and Bush administrations toward these drug entrepreneurs is, of course, absurdly hypocritical as well as quite Understandable. To seriously address the social and economic basis of the drug trade, either at the “supply” or the “demand” ends, would be to call into question the basic principles of capitalism. The punitive stance toward gangs, and the increased police surveillance of minority youth generally, is the other side of the social pathology associated with the drug trade the destructiveness of capitalist society is projected onto oppressed groups who then must be attacked and punished.

Mike Davis argues that progressives and community activists must respond to the desperate demands for more vigilant law enforcement in traumatized inner-city communities while recognizing therepressiveness, inequality, and futility of all law-and-order-campaigns. While opposing “the politics of a state of emergency,” Davis points out that we cannot “forget the emergency.” We cannot minimize the real basis for the palpable urgency in inner-city communities nor can we “write off” whole groups of young people whose lives seem so hopelessly claimed by the drug trade.

Inner-city organizers Anthony Thigpen and Michael Zinzun point out that the gangs can recruit and flourish because the Black power movement of the 1960s—a movement offering hope and a political means Of expressing oufrae and rebellion—was destroyed. It is difficult to envision anything short of a resurgent grassroots movement that would counter the ravaging effects of the drug trade.

Drugs and the Left

Two dominant positions on drugs condition left analyses of the anti-drug campaign. One position argues that drug use is symptomatic of the social, economic, and. cultural impoverishment of capitalist society. While rejecting the ideological content of the anti-drug campaign, this position opposes drug use generally for its destructive consequences and escapist tendencies. The othei, more marginal, left position argues that the repressive campaign against drug use is part of a generalized pattern of repression in American society supported by arbitrary distinctions between “upstanding” Americans and social deviants” Abbie Hoffman has been the most outspoken for this position.

In Steal This Urine Test, Hoffman argues that anti-drug hysteria vastly overstates the destructive power of drugs, failing to distinguish between experimental drug use and addiction. He attempts to provide a more differentiated, complex understanding of the positive value, as well as the potential dangers, of psychoactive agents.

Arguing that the dangers of psychoactive agents are not inherent in drugs but the result of suppression of knowledge, Hoffman attempts to reclaim the liberatory potential of self-discovery through drug expeiimentation. Although he makes a good case against the myths of the anti-drug campaign, in arguing for the liberatory importance of much of the drug culture, Hoffman minimizes its destructive and self-destructive aspects. While correctly suggesting that drugs are not the “cause of irrationality in American society, Hoffman falls to admit that they do become a vehicle for much self-destructive acting out against an irrational social order He relies on medically-derived typologies which separate the “sane user from those who are vulnerable to addiction and require drug treatment.

True, only a small percentage of drug users become compulsively involved in and impoverished by chemical dependency. But the argument that drugs are “good” for some and “bad” for a small group of others (those prone to addiction), minimizes the contradictory impulses which can underlie the same behavior: drug use can be both an expression of destructive tendencies and a means of pleasurable self-discovery. This argument also obscures the myriad social factors that make some people (and groups) more vulnerable to addiction.

Against the tendency to “project” the propensity to abuse drugs onto the poor, as both symptom and justification of their poverty, Hoffman points out that drug use among the upper classes is just as pervasive as, but more concealed than, drug use among the lower class. While drug use and addiction do transcend class and race boundaries, Hoffman’s argument understates class differences in the impact of drug use. Poor social and health conditions account for some of these effects. The capacity of the affluent to support an illegal habit without resort to criminal activity is also key.

Toward A Left Analysis

Apart from Hoffman’s impassioned defense of drug use, generally left responses to the anti-drug campaign have been quite timid and piecemeal. Leftists realize, of course, that desperate times always bring greater reliance on drugs, and there is real concern about the big-brother aspects of drug-testing programs and the ways in which drug hysteria has legitimated increased surveillance and imprisonment of minorities and the poor. But one would expect a more radical, comprehensive critique of the war on drugs and analysis of current drug problems than has yet appeared.

In addition to real confusion over what tactics would be most effective in responding to the anti-drug campaign, there also seems to be lingering guilt on the part of many leftists–a kind of social and emotional legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. Marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs were then widely used and seen by many as not only emblematic of positive rebellion against capitalism and the state, but as windows to a greater awareness of reality.

From the beginning, government sources had lied about the effects and dangers of marijuana and psychoactive drugs, and in laying bare those lies and distortions, there often seemed to be an open endorsement of drug use. At the same time, there was a tradition of “folk” knowledge about the relative dangers of certain psychoactive drugs that stressed the distinction between antisocial and emancipatory uses of drugs. The underground campaign focused particularly on the destructive effects of speed. For example, in the L.A. Free Press, Allen Ginsberg cautioned that “speed is antisocial, paranoid making, it’s a drag, bad for your body, bad for your mind, generally speaking, in the long run uncreative, and it’s a plague in the whole dope industry.”26

The use of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, on the other hand, was hailed as healthily subversive. There is little doubt that there followed a period of too little scrutiny of drug use and too little attempt to discriminate between various drugs and their addictive potential. This legacy, the havoc of gang drug wars, and the horrors of “crack babies” have contributed to a reluctance to vigorously critique the anti-drug campaign.

Quite apart from the reality of the current drug problems and what we might call the sixties over-endorsement of drugs, a strain of puritanism also inhibits left responses. Anyone who looks intentionally and carefully at the systematic oppression of people around the world, who is willing to acknowledge the needless starvation and economic enslavement that continues, who dares to project the probable consequences of pollution and overproduction should capitalism continue its present course, is bound to have avery “serious” view of reality. To be joyous in the midst of such suffering can seem callous, and irresponsible given the urgent tasks of the left and its relative marginality within the United States—like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

While not surprising, suspicion of joyfulness is certainly a mistake. Fear of pleasure, especially of intense pleasure, can easily lead to a kind of characterological conservatism—-an unwillingness to experiment both intellectually and experientially.

The political implications of illegal drug use are complex and contradictory, and the ambivalence within the left toward drugs is understandable. Certainly, to engage in the sustained effort required in building a social movement involves a capacity for managing tension, for tolerating frustration, and developing analytical abilities which necessitate containing regressive impulses. It is possible to overstate the liberatory value of drug use, just as it is possible to overstate the politically progressive implications of sexual liberation.

The left does offer a vision of society based on more direct gratification of human desire—more direct than those offered through commodity culture—but it is also a highly moral vision, one which requires active, critical capacities. Drug addicts don’t make good revolutionaries because they are too dominated by the immediate, urgently felt need to be able to engage in the socially and intellectually organized activity required in building a social movement,

But it is important not to accept the phobic anxiety about regressive pleasure-seeking that dominates the anti-drug campaign. There is much that is anti-libidinal in life and often ordinary means of achieving pleasure are tenuous and limited for large numbers of people, including young people. The desire for intense pleasure is a positive human tendency and must always be affirmed as such, even though it can be expressed self-destructively and in ways that must be challenged. The right of happiness is still part of what is most progressive in the American tradition, even though the pleasures offered up in a capitalist society are often quite empty and not equally available to all.

Even in a good socialist society, the capacity of the society to provide pleasure through ordinary, daily activity would be limited to some extent. While gratification of human desire would be grounded and expressed differently–and hopefully in a richer and fuller way–there is something of an existential aspect to the tension between human desire and the limitations of life. Experimenting with mental life, like experimentation with social life, is part of our human historical heritage and always has the potential for expressing a multitude of tendencies–some progressively grounded in collective life and meaningful ritual and some regressively based in social isolation, self-destruction and despair.

Left analyses of the anti-drug movement must address the repressiveness of the anti-drug crusade and the hollowness and hypocrisy of right-wing political solutions to the drug problem. As addiction has come to occupy a larger and larger terrain in American popular consciousness, we can also raise questions about the pervasiveness of unfulfilled longings and suggest ways of redirecting this search for pleasure and solace.

Addictions emerge when ordinary reality fails to provide means of stimulating fantasy and providing socially oranized pleasure and comfort. When community life is impoverished, when jobs are meaningless or repressive of human capacities, or when work demands require superhuman capacities for endurance, dependency on chemical means of dealing with reality is more to develop. By broadening the current debate on drugs and drug abuse, and working politically for alternatives to the law-and-order response to the drug problem, we can raise awareness of the links between capitalism and vulnerability to drug abuse. We must also create a movement that is more interesting and engaging than turning on and tuning out, while recognizing that all is not lost if occasionally some do.


  1. The Orepninn, January 31,1990, 1.
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  2. See Ends Goode, Drugs in American Society, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1989.
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  3. For discussion of the cocaine trade in the 1980s, see The Nation, October 2,1989,341-347.
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  4. Kevin Zeese, vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, DC, dainis that the household research reported here is quite reliable, even though it does not include institutionalized or street persons. Zeese claims that crack use among these groups would raise these statistics very little, by 1-2%.
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  5. Charles Goshen, Drinks, Drugs, and Do-Ccoders, The Free Press, New York, 1973,108-118.
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  6. E.M. Thornton, Freud and Cocaine, Blond & Briggs Limited, London, 1983.
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  7. James Inciardi, The War On Drugs, Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, CA, 1986.
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  8. Cited in The War On Drugs, 72.
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  9. See The War On Drugs, Drugs lnAmerican Society and Abbie Hoffman, Stail This Urine Test, Penguin Books, New York, 1987.
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  10. See Drugs in American Society, 28.
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  11. Cited in Stail This Urine Test, 59.
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  12. The present hysteria reaches the level of absurdity when we find the ancient and time-honored use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies equated with the use of crack or crank, as if they, too, must be hopeless addicts, constituting a threat to society.
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  13. The Oregonian, May 3, 1990, A2.
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  14. The New York Times, June 23, 1990,15; also see The New York Times, June 8, 1990, B11.
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  15. There has been arecent trend toward focusing on biological vulnerability to addiction that leads some to correct for neurochemical imbalances throuh self-medication. See The New York Times, June 26, 1990, 05. For discussion of this position, see Richard Seymour and David Smith, Guide to Psychoactive Drugs, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1987.
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  16. Drugs In American Society, 2B4.
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  17. The Oregonian, September 8, 1989, E9.
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  18. The Roiling Stone, February 8, 1990, 110.
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  19. For discussion, see Harrison Trice & Paul Roman, Spirits and Demons at Work Alcohol and Other Drugs on the Job, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1972,44-57.
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  20. Barbara Ehrenreich, “Drug Frenzy: Why the War on Drugs Misses the Real Target,” Utne Reader, March/April 1989,76-81.
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  21. See Drugs in American Society, 96-98.
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  22. Joel Engel, Addicted, Tom Doherty Associates Books, New York 1989, ix. Also see Robert DuPont Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs: A Guide for the Family, American Psychiatric Press, Washington, D.C., 1984.
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  23. See Harvey Milkman & Stanley Sundetwirth, Craving for Ecstasy: TheConsciousness andChemistry of Escape, Lexington Books, Lexington,’ MA, 1987, ch. 4.
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  24. See Craving for Ecstasy; also K. D. Rossel, Addictive Video Games, Psychology Todsy, May1983, 87; and Harrison Ti-ice and Paul Roman, Spirits and Demons … ,Cornell University, Ithaca, 1973.
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  25. See Mike Davis, Los Angeles: Civil Liberties Between the Hammer and the Rock, New Left Review, no. 170, July-August 1988.
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  26. Cited in The Roiling Stone, February 8, 1990, 114.
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January-February 1991, ATC 30