Kicking the Big One

TIME ESSAY by Barbara Ehrenreich, FEBRUARY 28, 1994

AN EVIL GRIPS AMERICA, A LIFE-SAPPING,DRUG-RELATED habit. It beclouds reason and corrodes the spirit. It undermines authority and nourishes a low-minded culture of winks and smirks. It's the habit of drug prohibition, and it's quietly siphoning off the resources that might be better used for drug treatment or prevention. Numerous authorities have tried to warn the people, including most recently the Surgeon General, but she got brushed off like a piece of lint. After all, drug prohibition is right up there with heroin and nicotine among the habits that are hell to kick.

Admittedly, legalization wouldn't be problem-free either. Americans have a peculiarly voracious appetite for drugs, and probably no one should weigh in on the debate who hasn't seen a friend or loved one hollowed out by cocaine or selling used appliances on the street. But if drugs take a ghastly toll, drug prohibition has proved itself, year after year, to be an even more debilitating social toxin.

Consider the moral effects of marijuana prohibition. After booze and the cold medicine NyQuil, pot is probably America's No. 1 drug of choice - a transient, introspective high that can cure nausea or make the evening TV situation comedies look like devastating wit. An estimated 40 million Americans have tried it at some point, from Ivy League law professors to country-and-western singers. Yet in some states, possession of a few grams can result in years of prison.

What does it do to one's immortal soul to puff and wink and look away while about 100,000 other Americans remain locked up for doing the exact same thing? Marijuana prohibition establishes a minimum baseline level of cultural dishonesty that is impossible to rise above: the President "didn't inhale," heh heh. It's O.K to drink till you puke, but you mustn't ever smoke the vile weed, keh heh. One of the hardest things a parent in America can ever tell a bright and questioning teenager -- after all the relevant sermonizing, of course -- is, Well, just don't get caught.

But the prohibition of cocaine and heroin may be more corrosive still. Here's where organized crime comes in, the cartels and kingpins and gangs of Crips and Bloods. These are the principal beneficiaries of drug prohibition. Legitimate entrepreneurs must sigh and skake their heads in envy: if only the government would ban some substance like the cereal Wheat Chex, for example, so it could be marketed for thousands of dollars a box.

Yes, legal drugs, even if heavily taxed and extensively regulated, would no doubt be cheaper than illegal ones, which could mean more people sampling them out of curiosity. But this danger has to be weighed against the insidious marketing dynamic of iUegal drugs, whose wildly inflated prices compel the income user to become a pusher and recruiter of new users.

Drugs can kill, of course. But drug prohibition kills too. Washington, an estimated 80% of homicides are drug related meaning drug-prohibition related. It's gunshot wounds fill America's urban emergency rooms, not overdoses and bad trips. Then there's the perverse financial logic of prohibition. The billions spent a year in the U.S. on drug-related law enforcement represents money not spent on improving schools and rebuilding neighborhoods. Those who can't hope for the lasting highs of achieve and self-respect are aU too often condemned to crack.

So why not kick the prohibition habit? Is it high-minded puritanism or political cowardice that holds Americans?

Or maybe its time to admit that one clings to prohibition for the same reason one clings to so many other self-destructive habits: because of the way they make one feel. Prohibition, for example, tends to make its advocates feel powerfully righteous, amd militant righteousness has effects not unlike some demon mix of liquor and amphetamines, the eyes bulge, the veins distend the voice begins to bray.

But the most seductive thing about prohibition is that it keeps one from having to confront a other little addictions that get many through the day. It's the artificial sweetener in the coffee used to wash down the chocolate mousse; a dad's "Just say no" commandments borne on martini-scented breath. "Don't do drugs," a men's clothing ad advises, "Do clothes." Well, why "do" anything? Why not live more lightly, without compulsions of any kind? Then there's TV, the addiction whose name one can hardly speak -- the poor man's virtual reality, the substance-free citizen's 24-hour-a-day hallucinatory trip. No bleary-eyed tube addict, emerging from weekend-long catatonia, has the right to inveigh against "drugs."

When cornered, the prohibition addict has one last line of defense. We can't surrender in this war, he or she insists, because we'd be sending the "wrong message." But the message sent is this: Look kids, we know prohibition doesn't work, that it's cruel and costs so much we don't have anythmg left over with which to fight the social causes of addiction or treat the addicts, but, hey, it feels good, so we're going to keep right on doing it. To which the appropriate response is, of course, heh heh.

It's not necessary to quit cold turkey. Consider starting with marijuana, then easing up on cocaine and heroin possession , concentrating law enforcement on the big-time pushers Take it slowly, see how it feels. One day at a time.