Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (4)

History Lessons

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.


6 thoughts on “Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (4)

  1. Hello Bhante,
    I came across this article about Portugal’s experience.
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html which by all accounts seems fairly successful.

    Apparently, Portugal became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in 2001. (Didn’t know that before!)

    I wonder why Sweden’s figure is about half of her neighbours’…curious.

    • Hi Andrea,

      Yes, Portugal often gets a good rap, as in this article and this article, although there are dissenting voices.

      Sweden is touted as the success story of a country with a hardline, US-influenced drugs policy. It was specially chosen as the basis of a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which gives plenty of stats, and reaches the positive conclusion:

      Following a short period of liberalization in the second half of the 1960s, Sweden has pursued restrictive drug control strategies that address both drug supply and drug demand. In parallel, Sweden has invested heavily in addressing the drug problem. Drug-related expenditures were equivalent to 0.5 per cent of GDP, the second highest proportion among all EU countries. This investment has paid off. The number of drug users in Sweden today seems to be smaller than it was before the advent of a concerted drug policy, starting in 1969 when the Government introduced a ten point programme against drugs. In 2006 6 per cent of the students age 15-16 had used drugs, down from 15 per cent in 1971.

      In comparison with other European countries, Sweden also fares well. Life-time prevalence and regular use of drugs is considerably lower in Sweden than in the rest of Europe. This applies to the general population as well as to young people, a group that is considered to be most vulnerable to drug abuse. While average levels of life-time prevalence of drug use among 15-16 years in Europe amounted to 22 per cent on average, the corresponding rate in Sweden was 8 per cent in 2003, before falling to 6 per cent in 2006. Moreover, bucking the trends at the European level, drug use in Sweden has declined in recent years. Sweden is also among the European countries with low levels of injecting drug-use-related HIV/AIDS infections. On the supply side, drug prices in Sweden are among the highest in Europe and therefore, drug tourism targeting Sweden is largely unknown.

      However, this study has been subject to severe criticism on methodological and other grounds. The low drug use in Sweden can be attributed to historical and cultural factors; for example there is evidence of a correlation between strong social welfare and low drug use. Also, despite the apparently rosy statistics on drug use, the hard fact is that the number of deaths per 100 000 in 2006 was well over double that of the Netherlands. This shows once again the difference between focusing on the use of drugs rather than the harm that comes from them.

      Criticism has also focused on the alleged bias of the UNODC, which receives substantial donations from countries advocating hardline plicies, including the US and Sweden. The head on UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, has regularly asserted that if drugs were legalized, an ‘epidemic of addiction‘ would inevitably follow, which as we have seen is not supported by the evidence. Costa’s statements seem to me to be based on strong personal opinions curiously unleavened by evidence, such as his recent claim that the banks were saved in the global financial crisis by drug money.

    • Thank you, Bhante, for your reply and corresponding links. I imagine that statistics can be coloured by many things that are both measurable and other things that are less measurable. I wonder what part cultural attitudes have with regard to involvement with narcotics. I’m English, but I spent my early childhood in Sweden and have lived here in the Netherlands for the last 8 years. When I was at school in the UK as a teenager I felt a lot of pressure to drink in order to be a part of a peer group. I hated it, and I always wonder what element of people drink and take drugs in order to belong. I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people in the UK to drink and take drugs in order to conform. Maybe other countries are the same too, but I’ve watched my partner’s son grow up here in the Netherlands, and I haven’t seen that same pressure on him. If he wants to go out and have a coca cola and not get pissed that’s ok. Maybe he picked better friends than me?!

      As for the Swedes. Interesting links. Maybe alcohol is more their drug of choice?! Even though it’s incredibly expensive by UK standards…and you used to have to take a ticket and queue up at the off license, sometimes for hours at the weekend!

  2. Concerning your point of “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.”

    I vaguely remember reading the history (non-fictional) book on “Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800” by Lawrence Stone at university. It struck me that opium used to be a wide-spread means to wean and subdue infants – and this in a middle-class setting. It might or not have been part of the infamous child-mortality but it just shows that escapism, convenience and morality have long since fought an uneasy truce …

    Personally, I tend to think to that most of those drug-related issues are not matters handled rationally, but based on some ingrained puritan streak in people – maybe not so much due to spiritual limitations rather than envy for other people’s enjoyments?

    I guess I should note here that I am far from being a regular drug – alcohol – user at all; I am probably far below average on the use of either (lifetime view, that is). But I am a (European) liberal and as such open to leave people to spend their past-times whatever way they want to, as long as they don’t infringe on other people’s past-times 😉

  3. I would add this element to your characterization of drug use during the 1960s in America. The growth of the hippie movement was closely tied to the anti-war movement. Drug use became connected to an anti-war sentiment in the minds of the established power circles. Given that just a decade earlier, then-President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the growing “military industrial complex” and how it controlled government decision making, it is plausible to see a connection with a desire to eradicate drug use because recreational drug use lead to a pacifist society. An economy dependent on the military industrial complex cannot afford to have a pacifist society.

    • Well, pot, ecstacy, and acid, maybe, but many drugs fuel violence – PCPs, speed, alcohol… Another conspiracy theory says just the opposite, that the government uses drugs to weaken and corrupt idealistic youth so that they’re not too much trouble… I had an anarchist/animal rights activist friend who argued this point of view; it became a movement, called Straight Edge.

      But I think the primary motivation for taking drugs is what it appears to be: desire.

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