by Brian O’Dea, author of HIGH: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler (Other Press 2009).
“The most important… revolutions all include as their only common feature the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our certainty….” —Stephen Jay Gould
President Obama recently announced that his administration would bring a halt to “preemption”, a practice that used federal regulations to override state laws on the environment, health, public safety and other issues. This includes the arcane drug laws that have seen the feds at odds with various states over the dispensing of medical marijuana and that have seen the DEA raid medical marijuana dispensaries in violation of state law and voters rights, which established these state laws in the first place. Even the Supreme Court won’t hear another challenge to California’s decade-old law permitting marijuana use for medical purposes, finally coming down on the side of the state. Now, more than ever, we have a true potential for change, a desperately needed change from treating the sickness haunting the weakest among us with the hammer of corrections.
For over twenty years I smoked, snorted, popped, and or drank every single day. I was continually on the lookout for another moment to inhabit; the one I was in was never the right one. This is called “uncomfortable in my own skin”. All of this behavior culminated in my “doing the fish” on a friend’s floor. A cocaine overdose finally nailed me to a moment, one which I barely got out of alive. That was the eve of my fortieth birthday, almost 21 years ago. Talk about mid-life crisis. Since that day, I have found another way to live. As Nietzsche said, “Of such evil and painful things is the great emancipation made”. For me that was certainly the case.
Such “emancipation” can never come on someone else’s terms. The pain I experienced had to become great enough for my life to change.
In so many ways drug use/abuse looks like a “right and wrong” issue, a moral issue, but it is not. It is about ease and dis-ease.
I never once met a person who didn’t do drugs because they were illegal. At this very moment someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather is doing drugs; legal, illegal, it does not matter. There is no boundary in our social strata that drug use/abuse has not breached. It is all pervasive. Human beings have been getting high this way since there have been human beings. We are foolish to think this behavior can be legislated away.
Alcohol prohibition was brought to us in the 20’s through moral outrage, “false morals”, and it ended not with a bang, but with a double scotch at the local saloon. No half measure there. We didn’t legalize its possession then force its consumers through the keyhole of illegal activity to get it. No, we legalized it top to bottom, regulating its distribution, taxing its sale. That’s almost happening with marijuana today, almost. It looks like it will cross all the way over pretty soon, too, bought and paid for by our economic need. Does that mean what was once a moral issue has become an economic one? Yes. Does that mean our morals have a price? Or does that mean it was not really a moral issue in the first place, and our financial distress simply pulled that beard from it?
“But surely not heroin or meth, or crack cocaine?” That’s how the conversation goes, right? “Not the hard drugs.” I wonder how they came to get the classification of “hard drugs”. Chances are its source is the same one that does not want you to know that 95% of those imprisoned for violent offenses committed those acts bolstered by the use of the second most ubiquitous drug on the planet; the drug that presents hockey, and football, and all those youthful sporting events on your TV; it’s the drug depicted in logos on t-shirts worn by our kids; it’s the drug whose corporate owners help sponsor A Partnership for a Drug Free America… You’re getting it now, aren’t you? Yes, alcohol. Alcohol is responsible for more domestic violence and road carnage than all other drugs combined. But corporate alcohol has bought and paid its way into cultural acceptability and respectability, and thinks, in its darkest soul, that it cannot possibly handle the competition from pot and crack cocaine.
As far as I can tell, all mind changing substances I have ever used are a false short-cut to enlightenment. Through years of conditioning brought about through advertising, I have been taught that one pill makes me larger and another makes me small, and those little blue pills… well, let’s not even go there at all.
Heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, government taxed and controlled alcohol, and the number one killer, tobacco are all horrible substances to get hooked on. The ultimate and actual cost is all too often life itself. And the costs along the way to that death are staggering. This is not a moral issue, not a right or wrong, and it is high time we stopped treating it as such. The hammer of the corrections industry has never worked for anyone but the financial stakeholders and politicians (who, themselves, are financial stakeholders). Those folks have spent a fortune in a successful program of convincing us of this illusion, but it is time to wake up now.
There remains a solution, so simple it’s practically alarming, a solution enacted by others, who, to date, have had greater courage than us. If we are as brave and free and courageous as we so readily profess, then it is time to stop what has never worked. We simply cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results.
For many of us, when we think of drug legalization, Holland comes to mind, and the accusations heaped in its general direction by lawmakers with an axe to grind, and a seat to hold onto, false accusations at that. But Holland has only taken half-measures, and half-measures avail us nothing. We need only look just beyond Holland’s border to Portugal, a country whose generosity and courage toward the weakest of its citizens should shame us into right action.
Leading up to 2001, Portugal was immersed in a health crisis of alarming proportions, a crisis due to drug addiction. Then drug possession was legalized. And now, here we are, eight years after “personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled…” (Time Magazine, April 26, 2009) And guess what. The flood gates did not open; the population has not turned into a bunch of Junkies, as some legislators would have us believe would happen here. We’ve got to start electing people to the senate, to congress, and to all levels of government all over the planet who have greater faith in us, the people who vote them in and out of office, my friends. We are in a deep hole, and we must stop digging immediately. It is time to interfere with privilege and power and subvert the dominant paradigm; time to insist from our elected that we expect action from them that produces real, honest results. It is time for a complete overhaul of our approach to the issue of drug use and abuse.
And now this sound emanating from Washington, from no less than Gil Kerlikowske, the new White House drug czar, “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.” Mr. Kerlikowske, there is only one way to show the least among us that their lives mean as much as any of our lives, and that is to legalize and regulate all drugs, and do it now. It is time, as our great President says, for CHANGE.
Brian O’Dea is the author of High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler (Other Press 2009). He is currently working as a film and television producer and lives with his family in Toronto.