If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it.
So they say – but I don’t believe them. History is too complex and variable, and susceptible to too many readings. The choices we make now are different, and so they should be.
There’s no sense in trying to avoid repeating history, because that is simply not possible. Instead, we should study history in order to inform our understanding of where we come from and where we’re going.
Like any history, the story of drugs is complex and will depend on who is telling it. There’s a lot of information out there, and I won’t even attempt to make a coherent history. But I think it is essential to bear a few things in mind.
There is little evidence that drug use was widely prohibited before the modern era. In Buddhist history, for example, we find plenty of morality tales that illustrate the bad effects of intoxication, especially alcohol. A good example of this kind of story is the Samuddavanija Jātaka, which we featured here a few weeks ago. In addition, we find restrictions on alcohol consumption. I believe sales of alcohol are restricted on uposatha (poya, wan phra) days in Thailand and Sri Lanka – perhaps someone can supply us with some more information on this. I believe such restrictions have a historical basis, although again I am not sure of the details. In any case, I have certainly come across no evidence that drug use was ever prohibited in any Buddhist country before the modern era.
In modern Buddhist countries, we see a wide divergence, from Singapore which has a very strict anti-drugs policy and, at least according to the official figures, very little usage, to Thailand and Burma, which are global centers of drug production and trafficking, and in the case of Thailand, also of drug tourism.
The point I am making here is that current drug policy does not stem from history, but from 20th century developments in the drug trade and in attitudes towards drugs. It is a historical phenomenon, not a natural state of society, and like all historical phenomena it is contradictory, paradoxical, and we can draw from it what lessons we like.
The modern attitudes to opium and its derivatives, for example, are traceable to a San Francisco ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The reason cited was “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” Meanwhile, the medicinal opiate laudanum, which was popular among respectable white folks, remained legal. For many years, and probably to some degree today especially in Australia, the drug trade was linked in the popular imagination with Asian, especially Chinese, who were seen as depraved, immoral sensualists.
The reality was that opium, although historically used for medicine in China, was promoted on a wide scale by the English. They grew opium in India, and created a massive export program to China, with the result that some 2 million Chinese became regular users, prompting the infamous ‘Opium Wars’.
It was not the mere presence of the substance that caused the problem. Opium had been used for centuries, since it has genuine medicinal applications. It was not until there was a change in the culture and society, and in particular the intervention of an unethical commercial entity, the East India Trading Company, which actively promoted opium as a recreational drug, that the problems arose.
These problems were deeply interwoven with international politics, race, and profits. It is plausible to suppose that the English promoted opium for the purpose of weakening Chinese society; at the very least, there was less ethical concern for ‘them’ than for ‘us’. But since the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are never absolute, the problem comes back.
Chinese laborers came in their thousands to the US, where they helped build some of America’s greatest infrastructure, including the railways. Some Chinese brought with them their now-preferred drug of relaxation, opium. As long as they consumed it themselves, no-one cared. But when girls and men ‘of respectable family’ started to join in, laws were required to keep them away. Obviously a major concern here was not the drug itself – since laudanum is effectively identical – but the disturbing possibility of drug-affected ‘girls of respectable families’ having half-Chinese children.
Such racist concerns were also prominent in the criminalization of Cannabis. This was associated in the US with the Mexican workers, who, like the Chinese with opium, used it as their preferred chill-out drug after a hard day’s work building America on a minuscule wage. As with the chinese, the Mexicans were caught up in a wider commercial dispute, this time about whether hemp would become a major cash crop in the US. A lack of scientific evidence did not prevent the widespread use of shrill, ludicrous condemnations of cannabis, the ‘Killer Drug’. the raves of the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, are amusing today – but our current drug policies are the direct descendant of his way of thinking.
By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.
Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.
There is, of course, no link between cannabis and violence, unlike the case of alcohol and some other illegal drugs such as PCPs.
The period when drugs were coming under legislative control was also the period of the notorious prohibition era, which in the US lasted from 1919 to 1933. The moralistic effort to control alcoholism by making alcohol illegal was a drastic failure. There’s a wide range of contemporary comments and statistics available on this page. In addition to having little or no long-term effect on alcohol consumption, it promoted the formation of organized crime, and a widespread disrespect for the government.
The link between drugs and music is an important one, and moved into the mainstream in the 60s. That was the time when pro-drug messages, endorsed by progressive intellectuals like Timothy Leary, became an intrinsic and overt part of pop music. And along with it, the much more widespread adoption of drugs among young people, no longer defined by their race, but by the antipathy to straight society. Enter the hippys.
From the sixties, while illicit drugs were subject to an ever-stricter legislative environment, the international drug trade really took off. What had changed was the culture, which now presented a romanticized view of drugs as a source of creativity and an exotic, physical pleasure that the straight world was afraid of. This view of drugs is, of course, as distorted as the earlier straight view. Drugs may have helped some creative artists, but they sure destroyed a lot, too. The pleasures of drug use soon enough turn out to be limited, and ultimately boring. The increase in drug use was not because of a liberalization of policy, but because of broader cultural shifts, which flourished despite – and no doubt to some extent, because of – the broader social and legal opposition.
With changing social attitudes, there have been widespread calls for a revision in approaches to drug policy. These calls have spread from the radicals, so that now, for example, several national leaders and prominent intellectuals in South America have called for a complete rethink of our policies on drugs.
Many countries have moved towards a greater liberalization of drug laws, including Australia, the US, Portugal, and most famously, the Netherlands. The Dutch experience is often referred to as an example of what happens when drugs are legalized, although technically the policy is of tolerance rather than legalization. So what happens when you set up ‘coffee shops’ where people can use cannabis in a de facto legal setting? Here’s some data from Wikipedia:
In the Netherlands 9.5% of young adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level of Finland (8%), Latvia (9,7%) and Norway (9.6%) and less than in the UK (13.8%), Germany (11,9%), Czech Republic (19,3%), Denmark (13,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) and Italy (20,9%) but higher than in Bulgaria (4,4%), Sweden (4,8%), Poland (5,3%) or Greece (3,2%). The monthly prevalence of drugs other than cannabis among young people (15-24) was 4% in 2004, that was above the average (3%) of 15 compared countries in EU. However, seemingly few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.30%), well below the average (0.52%) of the same compared countries. The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is together with Poland, France, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic the lowest of the EU.
So the Dutch experience does not support the idea that making drugs available will inevitably lead to major increases of use. There are still issues, and the situation is under constant scrutiny. There are concerns over the increase in ‘skunk’, a super-strong form of cannabis. But, it should be noted, this arises because the Dutch government has not legalized the supply side of the trade, but prefers to turn a blind eye. If the production and supply of drugs were legalized, then it would be possible to control the strength of drugs to a much greater degree, as is done with alcohol.
To end this little survey, I would return to the caution I expressed at the start. We can’t draw any straightforward conclusions from history, because the present is different. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the driving force in making drugs widespread and problematic is not because of their mere availability, but because of other political, economic, and cultural forces. This means that the effect of legalizing drugs will be different in different times and places. Crucially, the determining factor will be the manner it is legalized, not the sheer fact of the legalization.
While the story of the Prohibition on alcohol cannot be straightforwardly extrapolated to the current global drugs situation, it does hold some lessons for us. The rise in organized crime is not merely parallel to the current dominance of the drug lords, but is a direct causal process: after alcohol was legalized, the crime lords turned to other drugs for their profits. More subtly, the prohibition undermined confidence in government, a theme that is essential to understanding the near-universal embrace of drugs by the counter-culture in the 60s.
If changing cultural circumstances are the critical factor in drug use, then there is some hope. Such circumstances are not fixed or arbitrary, but can be understood and to some extent influenced. By working with the forces of history, by seeing that drugs and intoxicants are part of us, part of the story of who we are and where we are going, we can move towards a society that does not repress drugs, but moves beyond them. And that is the story of Western Buddhism.