In the 1970s, the UK state ran a series of television adverts on the theme that “heroin screws you up”. The message was that if you messed around with this dangerous drug, you would be at death's door within a few years, if not within a few months. I was rather pleased that I had never felt the slightest temptation to indulge in taking heroin as I repeatedly saw the adverts warning us all against it. But, by the early 1980s, AIDS had emerged as a new scare. Government adverts relating to this new danger appeared on the UK television sets. It was spread only by blood contact, but to conform to the Politically Correct [PC] line, the state held that somehow we were all at risk, rather than drug users who shared needles and, maybe, some homosexual men if they would ever cut themselves in their activities. The state thought it had a duty to warn the drug takers, including the doomed heroin users, that if they were not careful about sharing needles, they might well get AIDS in some ten years time. But this would have been no danger to heroin users if the message of the earlier decade had been correct. There was no way that they could have lasted ten years if the earlier message was correct. Either way, the state was ignorant of those dangers.
Liberty and the Drugs Question
Why the illiberal ban on drugs? The body politic, like the actual human body, very often causes more dysfunctional activity by its reaction to problems than the problems themselves could cause. And not only in iatrogenic error in medicine but far more often in inept laws from the state; from statute law, [or is it really an attempt at totalitarian regulation?] The UK functioned quite well up to 1914, when it had no regulation on various drugs and no set pub opening hours. The liberal message that the authorities should relax in the short run, and gradually fade away in the long rum, is not an endorsement of drugs but is based on the assumption that the negative-sum political activity of the state is highly likely to be dysfunctional rather than being a boon to society. Political solutions impose more trouble on society than the problems to which they may be seen as the solution.
The liberal position is that people should be free, as long as they do not proactively impose on others. This is a normative social liberty rather than the Hobbesian positive freedom that we all do have already as a matter of fact. Social liberty can be seen as a factual option by an opponent who may not value it, or even by an advocate who simply wants to look at whether it is possible as a matter of fact or not. Social liberty is of society and between people whilst Hobbesian freedom is the fact that we can try to do anything we want, be it legal or not. It makes sense to talk about another's freedom being at the expense of one's freedom in the Hobbesian sense, and all too many do think in Hobbesian terms about liberty. The liberal idea of social liberty holds that a person who gratuitously attacks another for the fun of it would infringe social liberty, even if not his own Hobbesian freedom. This is not the idea that we should not help others if they are in trouble, but rather that the state deals in unfree and overtly hostile activity towards others. As state activity is almost bound to be proactively coercive it cannot quite be free. It harms people in two ways; by taxing the general public and by coercing the people it sets out to help. Moreover, people using drugs are responsible for their own plight. They are not owed aid from others.
Even if the banned drugs were as bad as the people who have made anti-propaganda [I say anti-propaganda as the aim is not to propagate, but to alienate] since the 1870s maintain, the liberal way of solving this problem would be for people to understand this problem for themselves. Banning a thing in demand automatically sets up a black market in smuggling the item, which is then usually a great stimulus to crime in general; most of it illiberal rather than victimless. Legalisation of drugs would allow firms to supply the drugs so that any problem that arises from the use of them can be countered openly and freely.
Today the state's case against drugs seems to be full of hyperbole. Keith Evans has written a short book, that he calls The Longest War (2000), that tells of the state's ignorance on drugs. Evans was a UK barrister and, later, an attorney in California but he retired to Wales before writing this book. He worked on drug cases in the UK in the 1960s, and later in California in the 1980s. He is not for the abolition of the laws on drugs, except for cannabis. In what follows, I will also draw on Ceremonial Chemistry (1975) by Thomas Szasz. The adage has it: to cite one author is plagiarism, but to cite two is scholarship. Maybe it should be that to fail, or neglect, to cite one author is plagiarism, as plagiarism is to pretend that you are the pristine author.
Evans feels that the basic facts about the war on drugs are unknown. He feels that the greatest danger is to the legal system and that the laws against drugs will be ignored, thereby bring the law into disrepute. I do not think that the law is as important as he thinks it is. Each person tends to overestimate his own niche in the division of labour and, as Evans is a former UK Barrister and Californian Attorney, this may explain why he overrates the law in society. But it is true that the law criminalises victimless crimes in its drug laws. And that scotches social liberty.
The law is being held in contempt by greater numbers, as Evans fears, but the drug problem and the authorities' ignorance on drugs, is not the only factor in this. There is a general demoralisation in society and the regulation on drugs is far from being the only inept regulation, for there are many statutes that make the law look like an ass.
Field of opium
The History of the War on Drugs
Opium and its derivatives such as heroin, are held to be the most dangerous of the illegal drugs. Opium was used in the first civilisation we know of; Sumer, some 7000 years ago; about 2 000 years before tea was first consumed in China. Alcohol is first recorded some 500 years before the use of tea, but it may well be that animals and pre-men had access to alcohol from rotting fruits. By 3500 BC, the poppy was being consumed in the area now called Switzerland. But around 2000 BC, some 4000 years ago, we find the first attempt at banning recreational drugs, by an Egyptian priest forbidding his pupil to indulge [Szasz, p. 183].
The war against drugs emerged in the USA in the 1870s. From there it spread to other nations. It mainly came to public notice in the 1960s, but it originated some ninety years before. Hence Evans's title. The long war is not cheap and cost about twelve thousand million dollars a year in the 1990s. Nor is any headway being made, nor is there an end in sight. It looks to Evans as if this is war that cannot be won.
The one drug that Evans does want to legalise is cannabis, also called marijuana or hemp. It was used as a medicine rather than a recreational drug for most of its history, and it was in common use by pharmacists around the world for ailments from loss of appetite to the eye disorder of glaucoma. Evans claims it to be very old, so old that it was brought to America from Asia with the first men who crossed the Baring Strait, and that was way back when the pristine horses made their own way in the opposite direction, from America to Asia. It remained legal in the USA till 1937. Taking the drug modifies perception, as does alcohol, but unlike alcohol, it results in the user becoming calmer rather than more aggressive than usual. Hemp has often been given to babies around the world over the thousands of years it has been in use.
Marijuana v Alcohol
The contrast of hemp with alcohol is stark. Alcohol has been used to encourage people to fight in wars but hemp would be hopeless in encouraging warlike behaviour. Both Hannibal and Caesar gave wine to their soldiers to encourage them to fight whilst delivering an harangue before the battle, and rum was passed round to provide “Dutch courage” before the battle of Trafalgar. Alcohol was used to aid men to go “over the top” in the 1914 war. Violence in the streets, and at football matches, is often fuelled by alcohol. And it often features in domestic violence also. Hemp, by contrast, tends to remove any natural aggressiveness, and would most likely make violence less likely under any circumstances.
Evans found at professional conferences he attended on drugs, that the experts thought it was not worthwhile having a law against hemp. They told him of their actual ideas in discussion after they had delivered their formal papers to the meeting. Many said that the law against hemp was pointless.
As there is no history of mishap with the use of hemp, it is odd that it has been criminalised. By contrast, alcohol and tobacco have caused all sorts of illness and social disruption, yet remain legal. It seems to indicate that the law has been made in some perverse way and that is contrary to good sense. How did this oddity arise?
Drugs in the USA
Evans holds that it all began with the USA in the 1870s. He notes that the nature of religion in the USA was greatly distinct from England, being way more enthusiastic. Opium was regularly taken in England, but it was taken as moderately as religion. By contrast, religion in the south of the USA was far from moderate or calm. In England, the 1660 outlawing of the two extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism created a moderate broad established Church of England that was almost devoid of the earlier enthusiasm that gave rise to the civil war of the 1640s. America was largely set up by the nonconformists banned from parliament and the colleges in 1660. The enthusiasts were marginalised in England up to 1829, but formed the main stream in the USA.
Evans eulogises the Puritan ethic, saying that, for all its faults, it made the USA a way more peaceful nation than it might otherwise have been. It aided the capacity for hard work and, despite some hypocrisy, it had lots of good things to offer. But he feels that it can be very judgmental. Once a person in authority has assumed that drugs are evil, especially if he has gone public, he is likely to remain wedded to that conclusion. He will not likely try the drugs out for himself, or even associate with those that do so. This problem is clearly reinforced when it becomes against the law to try out a particular drug. Karl Popper might reply to Evans that it is not so bad to jump to conclusions so long as you regularly attempt to refute them, or at least to put them to the test, and repeatedly. But that is exactly what the authorities are most reluctant to do with most of the things they decide to ban.
The USA experienced a mass immigration from the 1850s to the 70s and this had aided a population increase of some 50%. Many people were worried about the affect on social cohesion of such rapid population growth. There was also a widely felt need to reform institutions, and history books look back on this as ‘the Progressive Era'. The keenness to make things better manifested itself in the desire to provide more schools, housing, factory safety legislation, labelling on bottles, and the like. All this was to be proactively imposed by the state and so scotched social liberty. Part of the assumed ‘progress' was the temperance movement against alcohol. Evans tells of a lady called Carry Nation, who made the headlines as part of the temperance movement. She entered saloons with a Bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other, and she soon set about demolishing the furniture with the hatchet. Often, she even began on the building itself. She was arrested many times, but many people who only read about her in the newspapers rather thought she was doing a good job. Evans feels that this campaign resulted in a massive demand for prohibition that the politicians felt they simply could not ignore.
Evans holds that racism is another factor in the story of making certain drugs illegal. Szasz holds that it is largely a religious rather than scientific matter that some drugs are thought to be evil, largely owing to the fact that they are part of the rites of a rival ethnic group or maybe of another race. Szasz seems to suggest it is a matter of in-groups and out-groups that provides motivation for the ban, and if so, this sort of motivation does seem to be very widespread, and maybe something intrinsic to human nature. Contrary to PC, any functioning society needs to have a level of tolerance that allows for quite a bit of discrimination; and this is simply the civil liberty of free association. But the totalitarian drive that is PC today, is intolerant and is ironically offensive to almost everyone in its naïve attempt to stamp out unpleasant experiences for some. So it is dysfunctional and, given its aim, counter productive It ensures that almost all are offended in an avowed quest to ensure that none are. The war on drugs is another aspect of this totalitarian drive that now calls itself “left wing” whilst pushing the traditional right wing view to control society.
Evans reminds us that racism was not always as non-PC as it is today. A hundred years ago, it openly thrived in the USA, as it did elsewhere, without much censure. The USA had been originally largely settled from the British Isles, hence it still speaks English. This meant it thought of itself as mainly Anglo-Saxon, with a Celtic fringe. But soon many immigrants rolled in to take part in the American dream. It is often forgotten today that before 1917, the USA was thought of around the world as the home of freedom. After 1917, the USSR took its place and was thought of as the new acme by those “on the left” in the twentieth century. The USA in the nineteenth century was thus a magnet for young men from around the world who wished to better themselves, hence the adage common in Europe “Go west, young man!”
Migration and the Drugs Question
Evans holds that three groups in particular, from amongst the large inflow of newcomers from around the world, were hated by the settled establishment in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century. Those three groups were what are now called African-Americans, Chinese and Hispanics. The first cited were largely shipped into the USA as slaves, and they were still treated as an underclass after slavery was abolished in the 1860s. The Chinese arrived on the west coast and largely worked on the railroads there. Finally, there were the immigrants from Mexico. All three were seen as alien. The latter two groups had drug habits, each then mainly taken by smoking, opium in the case of the Chinese and hemp in the case of the Mexicans.
Chinese railroad workers in the 19th century
Evans tends to suggest that the whole problem was down to a few upper class anti- propagandists against drugs and their ignorant audience, but Szasz rightly sees that a fear of competition also played a part in this, and the common longing for security that diversity tends to upset. This was the main factor in the setting up of the trade unions, and why they are maintained today. Not many of their members realise the sort of economics of trade unionism that the late W.H. Hutt exposed in his books. Members of trade unions would be horrified to discover Hutt's views, as they think of the unions in idealistic and friendly terms rather than as the mean and thuggish organisations of Hutt's books. However, whatever the motivation of the members of the unions, they did favour action against the feared aliens who took drugs.
It was opium that first caught the attention of the authorities in the USA. Indeed, they did not notice hemp till the Great Depression of the 1930s. They reacted to opium in San Francisco, later celebrated for flower power in the 1960s, but fairly puritan in the 1870s. They took some time to notice the opium habit that the coolies had but, by 1875 it was deemed obnoxious to most respectable people, and a law was passed to close down the opium dens the Chinese were deemed to have set up. In 1876, Virginia City and Nevada followed suit. In Idaho, they rested content with a law against white people visiting the opium dens at first, but by the 1880s, they too banned the dens for one and all. By 1896, 22 states had joined the ban on opium dens. It was the beginning of the long drugs war that most people seem to think emerged mainly as part of the pop music rebellion in the late 1960s.
The Story of the Poppy
Back in the 1870s, most people knew next to nothing about opium. It had been used in medicine since the time of Paracelsus (1490-1541) who introduced laudanum around 1525. Various versions of this were freely to be had at the local chemists or pharmacological shops of the UK in the nineteenth century, but many people were only vaguely aware of this. Things were not distinctly different a hundred years later in the 1970s, but the shops no longer allowed such open access to narcotics which, by then, were illegal drugs. The Chinese went into washing clothes in the USA, in addition to their work on the railroads, and having a local Chinese laundry soon became commonplace, yet they were, ironically, still thought of as dirty! As most immigrants are in poverty till they settle, association with them may be thought of as slumming it, and aping their habits may be seen as the road to ruin. The war against the drug habits of the Chinese immigrants to the USA was fuelled by the view of the Chinese as an alien abhorrence, and the anti-propaganda [should I follow Jan Lester and say impropaganda?] against the poppy was little better than poppycock.
The poppy in the UK is used to remember the dead of the 1914 Great War, and the later wars since. People wear poppies, usually in their jacket buttonholes, to celebrate Remembrance Day [called Veteran's Day in the USA]. In the 1914 war, the poppies sprung up in the wake of the shells digging up the earth. They were so common at the front that they were adopted as a reminder of the trench warfare by those who made it back. Evans feels this is apt, as the poppy has always been thought of as a magical plant. It was thought to be special by the ancient Egyptians. It was held in high regard in ancient Crete. The Greeks of old used poppies to decorate the statutes they made of the goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Poppies have been used in religious celebration down the ages. The poppy has the capacity to smooth away the pain of the body, and the cares of the mind too. Coleridge celebrated it in his poem Kublai Khan and Lewis Carroll in the Alice stories. But it also can lead to danger if used in excess.
If we split the seedcase of the immature poppy, a milky fluid escapes that can be dried into brown gum. This is opium and it can be chewed, or swallowed, or crushed into a powder. The Greeks and Romans took it in powdered form, mixed with honey. Smoking it was an idea that emerged, indirectly, from America, though it was innovated in China after a tobacco ban there. Raw opium has more than twenty alkaloids, but the most important one is morphine. This was isolated in 1805 and named after the Greek god of dreams. It was soon adopted, around the world, as a very effective painkiller by doctors. It was openly on sale, in many different versions, in the local pharmacists or chemist shops. In 1873, heroin was produced and it was about four times as strong as morphine. Some thought it too dangerous to use, and when it was used, it was usually with some caution. In 1953, the British deleted it from their list of regular medical drugs. It was, by then, outlawed in the USA. codeine is a weaker form of morphine that is in use in Europe. Evans says that it is not to be had in the USA, but I am told, by a New Yorker that codeine is certainly available, and used widely in the USA in a variety of prescription medications.
Szasz makes clear that in the impropaganda war on drugs the language has been changed by formerly mild words being given new extreme connotations, and that is utterly right. For example, addiction used to mean just a liking for something, whereas nowadays it means that, to a large extent, we lose choice over what we do. Evans notes that all the varieties and derivatives of opium are known as narcotics, from the Greek word meaning go numb. Narcolepsy has the same prefix. The other banned drugs, like cocaine, the amphetamines and hemp are not pristine narcotics, says Evans, but they have come to be generally called such during the war against drugs. And this is now what we will most likely see them called today, if we look up, say, hemp, in a modern dictionary. The English language has been changed by the banning of drugs.
The Story of ‘Addiction'.
As I said above, the clearest change the war on drugs has made is in the use of the word “addiction”. It simply meant a regular habit back in the eighteenth century, but now has become part of the jargon of the anti-propagandists against drugs. Evans often fights against this change of language, as in his resistance to the widening of the term “narcotics” from just opium and its derivatives to the cocaine and the hemp family, but he unwittingly accepts things in the case of ‘addiction'. He feels we need to make a vital distinction between physical addiction and mere mental dependence, but Szasz rightly points out that the word was commonly just used to indicate a habit before the banning of drugs. Evans feels it is important to note that with a physical addiction we need further doses to get the same effect, as we build up a bodily tolerance to the drug. We may also develop a need for it so that we can hardly feel fit without it. To suddenly stop taking a drug may well make us unfit after we have got used to it. But mere mental dependence lacks the withdrawal result, that with some drugs has been called “Cold Turkey”. Evans holds that true narcotics are physically addictive, but that hemp is not. A true addict can take up to a hundred times the dose that would kill a tyro outright. Usage soon becomes a real need. He feels that mere mental dependence can apply to any habit but this physical tolerance is different in kind.
Neither Evans nor Szasz seem to mention the popular point that nearly all who served in Vietnam indulged in drugs to make their service bearable but, on returning home, very few had any difficulty in dropping the habit of indulgence. This has often be held to refute the common idea that it is easy to get physically addicted to the range of drugs soldiers used in Vietnam.
Evans feels that technology – though he says science he seems to mean technology – has made narcotics more dangerous, rather in the way wine was made more powerful by distillation into brandy. He has something of an anti-technology outlook here that, later in his book, he tends to develop into a pro-Green outlook. The hypodermic needle and syringe also concentrated the dose way more than it ever could have been in the past. It arrived soon after morphine had been isolated, making opium more risky than it had been of old.
Similarly, coca was a foodstuff in the lands where it was grown for aeons and when eaten as a leaf, it satisfied hunger and provided contentment. But as cocaine, it has been distilled into a modern high powered drug. And crack cocaine has been further refined, and concentrated, by technology. Evans feels this refinement allowed physical addiction to emerge whereas only mere mental addiction was found when the coca leaf was used in its natural state. That same dangerous intensification is true with natural opium too. Advanced technology is to blame.
One rather important ancient people had little to do with the poppy, but did made a big impact on the world by writing what we now call the Old Testament. The Bible contains no clear mention of poppies, but there are one or two texts in Jeremiah and Ezekiel that might just be vague citations. By contrast, wine is well known to this Middle Eastern tradition and it also features in the major rites of the daughter religion of Christianity. As the Bible was the place where the establishment in the USA looked for wisdom, they got none about the poppy from it. It was, therefore, seen as alien back in the 1880s.
The USA had the pursuit of happiness as a general principle. The use of illegal drugs is a quest for that end. So is the use of legal drugs. But the puritan ethic did not like the easy road to happiness. It disapproved of the drunkenness the Bible was aware of and, with way stronger motivation, it opposed any alien ways of dissipation.
Evans notes that during period of Prohibition, 1920-33, the same Christian movement that banned alien drugs also got alcohol outlawed throughout the USA. This created a black market of bootleggers and organised crime. Before long, judges and officers in the police force were taking bribes to look the other way, as people fairly openly broke the law. In New York, there were soon twice as many illegal saloons as there were legal ones before 1920. It was soon widely known that even judges could be regularly seen in the speakeasies, as the illegal saloons became known. It was soon the done thing to break the law and this is what Evans, as a lawyer, fears most of all about an unrealistic ban on drugs. By 1933, he says, the disrespect for the law was becoming so dangerous that Prohibition had to be repealed.
Evans feels that though the experiment failed, it was rightly called noble as alcohol is indeed dangerous. It leads to accidents on the roads and to violence in the home. He feels that it is a pity that the crusade against it stood so little chance of success. But he always expects people to oppose being controlled in ways they do not like, even if it is for their own good. Only a complete police state can stamp out something like the drinking alcohol as it was in the USA before the 1920s, or opium as it was in China before Mao took over.
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The UK functioned quite well up to 1914, when it had no regulation on various drugs and no set pub opening hours. The liberal message that the authorities should relax in the short run, and gradually fade away in the long rum, is not an endorsement of drugs but is based on the assumption that the negative-sum political activity of the state is highly likely to be dysfunctional rather than being a boon to society.
Evans holds that racism is another factor in the story of making certain drugs illegal. Szasz holds that it is largely a religious rather than scientific matter that some drugs are thought to be evil, largely owing to the fact that they are part of the rites of a rival ethnic group or maybe of another race. Szasz seems to suggest it is a matter of in-groups and out-groups that provides motivation for the ban, and if so, this sort of motivation does seem to be very widespread, and maybe something intrinsic to human nature. Contrary to PC, any functioning society needs to have a level of tolerance that allows for quite a bit of discrimination; and this is simply the civil liberty of free association. But the totalitarian drive that is PC today, is intolerant and is ironically offensive to almost everyone in its naïve attempt to stamp out unpleasant experiences for some. .
The war against the drug habits of the Chinese immigrants to the USA was fuelled by the view of the Chinese as an alien abhorrence, and the anti-propaganda [should I follow Jan Lester and say impropaganda?] against the poppy was little better than poppycock.