Is it Time to End the War on Drugs?

Why controlling drug use seems impossible

Posted Jun 29, 2011

The perennial debate on whether to end the "war on drugs" seems to be heating up again. Prison over-crowding and the unprecedented violence in some parts of Mexico are two of the factors leading some to question whether it is time to try something other than harsh criminal punishments for illegal drug use.

And indeed, it would be difficult to argue that the war on drugs has been a success. I live in Oklahoma, the state with the highest incarceration rates for women. A high proportion of these-over 50% in some areas-are in prison for drug-related offenses. Now, many of these women have children. And those children, separated from their mothers for years at a time, are-guess what?-likely to use drugs. So they too are likely to end up in prison. This does not appear to be a very intelligent social policy.

This, among other examples, makes some level of legalization of drug use sound like the way to go. Perhaps it is. But then we run into the fact that, as David Courtwright has pointed out, throughout history probably the best predictor of addiction rates in any place is simply the availability of drugs. When drugs are more accessible more people use them, and more people begin to exhibit the patterns of use we call addiction.

It's sad, but the process of evolution is oriented more toward survival of the species than providing pleasure for individuals. Strong pleasures do occur but we are built so that they are relatively infrequent; these pleasures tend to be associated with vital processes such as reproduction. If human beings were constructed so that they tingled with maximum pleasure every moment of their existence, they would simply lie around and enjoy themselves, rather than grappling with the rigors of the environment and assuring the continuation of the species.

Clever animals that we are, we have nevertheless figured out a lot of ways to artificially stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain and thereby circumvent the natural stinginess of our pleasure systems. Lots of people find these techniques difficult to resist. Thus I would put my money of the possibility that if we make it less difficult and dangerous to get mind-altering drugs, many more people will use them, and we will have traded a criminal problem for a public health problem.

And in fact, it's worse than this, much worse. Here in the United States, we have created an entire culture based on stimulating ourselves through entertainment. Some cultures throughout history have valued honor, or piety, or moderation. We value enjoyment and personal pleasure. For this reason, neither a war on drugs nor legalization will work to keep drug use under control. We live in a society that, in its attempt to keep a high consumption economy humming, tells its citizens that pleasure and arousal are the most important goals in life. It cannot really come as a surprise, then, when many people are inexorably drawn to drug use.

To learn more about the culture of entertainment, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo provided on Flickr by Tomas de Aquino, from Wikipedia.