If you were an 18 year old kid during the Summer of Love, you’d be clocking up a crusty 62nd birthday around about now. And if they were still alive, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would be a venerable 68. Allen Ginsberg would be a sprightly 84 and a half and yelling at them to get off his lawn. Are you smelling the fetid wafts of your own mortality yet?
Ginsberg died an old man of liver cancer complicated by hepatitus in 1997. Joplin overdosed on heroin of higher than normal purity (probably dumped on the street to pre-empt a well meaning police anti-drug initiative) and Hendrix choked on secobarbital and red wine vomit – both within a few weeks of each other in 1970. Given the choice, would you prefer old age and terminal liver disease or premature, unexpected, warm, comforting darkness and loss of consciousness?
Of course there’s only one socially acceptable answer to that question. Old age and suffering is imbued with some kind of obscene, almost mystical, de facto sanctity, whilst premature death by pharmaceutical misadventure is invariably labeled as selfish, reckless, hedonistic and any number of other expressions of contempt. The fact that the latter may have died happily, albeit inadvertently, doing something they liked is not even considered for a second. Welcome to the deranged moral landscape of the puritan. The true depths of the depravity is that these same folks who spit venom at the common drug user will at the same time laud the adventurer / mountaineer who through the pursuit of narcissistic hubris kills him/herself and half of his/her party climbing the unclimbable for no discernible good reason. Go figure. Death by chasing shallow, pointless gratification is apparently OK as long as chemicals are not involved.
Now that witchcraft has largely been dismissed as a nonsense by most of the enlightened world and is no longer a primary source of terror, it is not reason enough to hope that people have abandoned irrational fear altogether. Drugs appear to have become a more than adequate substitute for this purpose. When the average citizen’s mentality is still that of the superstitious villager, fear is a key component of the social economy and, naturally, a political class will arise that exploits that fear for its own personal benefit and social consequences of the irrationality are the least of its concerns.
As with all of the Great Fears, without scapegoats, they are nothing –
# Alexandra Smith # February 4, 2011
Matthew Chesher, a long-time senior Labor aide, admitted to his wife that police had caught him trying to buy a $20 ecstasy pill in Wentworth Park, only metres from their home.
It was the worst night of her life, the Education Minister said yesterday, speaking publicly for the first time about the arrest of her husband, who immediately resigned as chief of staff to the Roads Minister, David Borger.
Clearly shaken and fighting back tears, Ms Firth told reporters: ”It was a shock I cannot describe. I have never been more shocked in my life. I was incredibly angry with him. I was incredibly hurt.” [full article]
No, the pic is not the husband, it’s Ms. Firth, she’s just par for the course for the average, run-of-the-mill, androgynous, “free Tibet”, gentrified Balmain yuppie. A politician of no consequence and a teevee screen presence that makes you want to throw the nearest loose object at it. Which makes this section of the article all the more nauseating –
Ms Firth said she was at home, oblivious to what her husband was doing just down the road.
”I had no reason to suspect him of anything out of the ordinary – I am like a normal wife. I was just at home getting on with the evening.”
Ms Firth, who is battling to save her seat of Balmain, said the incident had shown what an enormous toll drugs could have on families, stressing that hers needed time and privacy to work through the issues.
But she refused to rule out having taken drugs, maintaining that it was her husband who had made the mistake.
”I have done nothing wrong. I have nothing to apologise about. My conscience is absolutely clear.”
Yes, when it comes down to being trapped on a hotplate because DRUGS are involved, everything else goes out the window and it’s time to curl in a defensive ball and plead normalcy – “Please, I am just a suburban housewife and am not my husband’s keeper”.
The denial of any knowledge of her husband’s activities and her own evasiveness on the drug taking issue tell me its one of two possibilites –
- She’s lying and avoiding, or
- She really is telling the truth, her marriage is a dysfunctional sham maintained for the sake of political normalcy, and the person who was once a “husband” is nowadays just a tenant.
However, as personally distasteful as I find Ms. Firth, she does have my absolute pity, and were there any way to help or support her I would. But there really is nothing anyone can do. This is a modern version of auto da fé, a stylised ritual of public humiliation and penance, followed by summary ruin of career. All for the sake of one tab of ecstacy.
We live in an age where old age pensioners share joints and reminisce about the ’60s, and if they were unlucky, the Vietnam war. It’s common knowledge that old folks do that stuff nowadays and no one raises an eyebrow. A friend relates an anecdote where some years ago, she shared the company of a 70 year old gent at a gathering and witnessed him apologise in advance and remove his false teeth so he could get a better pull on a bong. The humour of the anecdote lies not in the dope smoking grandpa, but the false teeth. It is a story that can be told even in polite teetotaling company without anyone having a conniption seizure. Add to this the fact that more people at some point in time have seen a Cheech & Chong movie than not and found them amusing and we have a very deranged and psychotic social dichotomy where recreational pharmacology is seen as a fairly normal kind of peculiarly human activity on the one hand, and on the other we see sacrificial goats like the Firths publicly crucified in an orgy of shrieking, puritanical hysteria. Over a pill.
The following table is a snapshot of Australian non-alcohol / tobacco drug use taken in 20041, and with the possible exception of amphetamine use (which has spiralled out of control thanks largely to prohibition2), there is no reason to assume the numbers have changed much –
The numbers seem fairly reasonable to me except for a couple of points –
- I think the “ever used” figure for pot is kind of low.
- The “drugs used recently” column is deceptive. It all depends on the calendar – if the poll was conducted around crassmass / new year for instance, the numbers would go through the roof, and in the wonderful world of “statistical anomaly” possibly even exceed the “ever used” values.
Let’s ignore the itemised figures and just look at the “ever used, none of the above” value. It states 61.9% which infers that 38.1% of all of Australia has at some point in time misused chemicals for kicks. Now look at that number in terms of the Firth incident and it implies that 38.1% of this country are incapable of, and should be prohibited from, holding any kind of position or office that requires responsibility and trust.
How in the hell, if that is a valid assertion, does our society function at all?
And if it is not a valid assertion, then what precisely is the purpose of the public destruction of the Firths and countless thousands like them?
We need to do a reality check here. We need to make the rational assumption that in our day to day dealings we encounter those who use / misuse / abuse drugs and that they are everywhere. At nearly 40% of the population, they are your neighbours, they go to your churches, you pass them on the street, you sit next to them on the bus. They make your cappuccinos and pour your beers. They are tellers in your banks, they are pharmacists that fill your prescriptions. They wire your house and plumb your toilet. They are your doctors and lawyers and teachers of your children. They interview you for jobs and they occupy positions of responsibility within government and law enforcement. And guess what? Society hasn’t imploded.
If a person is entrusted to manage a project and they succeed in bringing that project in on time, on budget and to the satisfaction of the negotiated agreement, then I really don’t care if that person unwinds on weekends by injecting heroin. Not only is it completely irrelevant to me, it is absolutely none of my business. And providing they don’t let their habit spiral out of control to the point it affects their performance and/or they need to resort to illicit revenue streams to fund it, it remains irrelevant. Some people just don’t like beer.
Contrary to tabloid media, law and order politicians. morality crusaders and others whose bread and butter is the professional exploitation of public fear, the proportion of recreational drug users who cross the line and become problematic abusers runs at approximately the same rate as that of drinkers who become problem alcoholics. I know from my own personal and intimate experiences with drug and alcohol detox units that the majority of the addictions being treated in them are those of the common, legal, tax paying drunk. They usually account for around 80% of the inpatients, the remainder is a fairly equal split between heroin / methadone (yes, detox units do treat methadone addicts), methamphetamines3 and prescription sedatives. The notable absence is pot. As hard as the wowsers may try pushing marijuana as a problem as serious as heroin, methamphetamines and booze, complete with its own 12 step idiocy, I’ve only ever met one dope smoker in detox and that was a kid who lived at home and it was clear he was there under duress, not necessity. This is a prime example of the puritan social problem factory at work creating nightmares out of vague shadows. The desperation to fabricate a problem is palpable, but reality just refuses to comply.
Of course there is no shortage of those that choose to catalog drug horror stories to promote their no-fun agandas. Its usually the same folks that want to ban smut, censor the ‘net and solve all of society’s myriad problems by reintroducing prayer in schools and national service. But statistical anomalies are called such because they don’t really have any realistic kind of relationship to overall observations and are of no use in decision making and policy. These horror stories belong in the same category as miraculous homeopathic cures and antivaxxer propaganda – there’s no science involved and it’s just meaningless random crap. Yes, they happen. No, they don’t happen either reproducibly or predictably. Yet we base all of our drug policy around the voices of these maniacs.
We can all agree on one point at the end of all this and that is that drugs can and do destroy lives. However, where I divorce myself from the “we know what’s best for you” brigade is in the mechanics of that destruction. What we can learn from the Firth incident is that that which should be a trivial and private non-issue can explode beyond anyone’s control and destroy innocent people who have in real terms harmed no one and done absolutely nothing wrong4. They are private adults doing private adult things and their world is being torn apart by holier-than-thou moral grand standers for no quantifiable social benefit.
The Firth drama as destructive as it is, is by no means the worst that can happen to people at the hands anti-drug Taliban. The US, the home of the War on Drugs, cannot build prisons fast enough to accommodate “criminals” convicted of victimless crimes. Untold billions5 are spent on policing and incarcerating the innocent with this madness, while trillions disappear into untaxed and unaudited organised criminal pockets and not even a dent is made in any of the global operations. Innocent children (and yes, as far as I am concerned, an 18 year old is a child) are torn out of tertiary education, which most never resume, and are thrown into hard adult prisons with genuine rapists and murderers for the sake of a bag of weed or a handful of pills.
So real people do get destroyed by drugs – it’s just that the majority are destroyed in ways unrelated to pharmacology. If it is ever even acknowledged, it’s usually accompanied by a steaming pile of sanctimonious “it’s for the greater good” babble.
This is perhaps the most staggering and intractable issue we have facing most of the Western liberal democratic world. The hypocrisy of it all is simply jaw-dropping. To have the general public zeitgeist being one of complete indifference to drug use with more people indulging in occasional chemical adventures without any harm being done than there are tobacco users; drug culture pervading our reading material, visual entertainment and music; studies of actual impact being published continuing to show that maybe, just maybe everyone has been overreacting just a wee bit – yet we all stand idly by and indifferent as the Firths get publicly humiliated and ruined. It’s all so a matter of fact that we just click along to the next news story without a second thought. It is so sick. The musings of the late Robert Anton Wilson are priceless –
This planet is, to put the matter baldly, populated and largely controlled by domesticated primates who are not in all respects reasonable men and women. Voltaire may have been exaggerating when he said that to understand the mathematical meaning of infinity, consider the extent of human stupidity; but the situation is almost that bad. Millions have been murdered by stupid leaders or stupid mobs, for stupid reasons, in every century; and the bizarre (accidentally imprinted) reality-tunnels which make this possible continue to rule us and robotize us.
Nor is stupidity the exclusive possession of one group or another; you do not need a “vocation” for it as you do for the priesthood. It seems to be a contagious socio-semantic disturbance which afflicts all of us at one time or another. Notorious examples can be found in the lives of the great. As we have already mentioned an exact measurement of the extent of stupidity among the learned is provided by the fact that every scientific revolution takes one generation. Elderly scientists hardly ever accept a new theory, however good it is, and the revolution is only completed when a second generation, free of the old imprints, with vulnerable neurons, imprints the new reality-map.
But if science, the paradigm of rationality, is infested with enough stupidity to cause this general one-generation time-lag, what can we say of politics, economics and religion? Time-lags of thousands of years seem to be “normal” in these areas. Indeed, it was through contemplation of religious history that Voltaire was led to his conclusion that human stupidity approximates to the infinite. The study of politics is hardly more inspiring. Let us just summarize the matter by saying that stupidity has murdered and imprisoned more geniuses (and more ordinary people), burned more books, slaughtered more populations, and blocked progress more effectively than any other force in history.
It may be no exaggeration to say that stupidity has killed more people than all the diseases known to medicine and psychiatry.
In this opening decade of the new millenium, Portugal embarked on an extremely important, if radical, social experiment. One that has been largely ignored as being, unlike the Firth story, not really newsworthy and, as such, not many people are aware of it. In 2001, the Portugese government, on being shamed by one too many gratuitous shock journalism pieces on tourists collapsed in gutters with syringes in their arms decided to do something about it. The very opposite in fact of what men of “reason” would have proposed. They committed an act of unprecedented and ultimate heresy in the eyes of the global prohibitionists – they decriminalised the personal use and possession of all drugs, even heroin. The police were ordered to no longer arrest anyone found taking any kind of drug. This was immediately proclaimed “ultraliberal insanity” and “pure lunacy” by the usual chorus of conservative demagogues. The sky was going to collapse, drug addiction would skyrocket, as would the crime rate and Portugal would be reduced to a junkie tourist Mecca.
Sadly, none of these things occurred. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald in fact did quite an in depth survey on the outcomes of the Portugese experiment6 and found –
In contrast to the dire consequences that critics predicted, he concluded that “none of the nightmare scenarios” initially painted, “from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’, has occurred.”
Mr Greenwald claims that the data show that “decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal”, which “in numerous categories are now among the lowest in the European Union”. This came after some rises in the 1990s, before decriminalisation. The figures reveal little evidence of drug tourism: 95% of those cited for drug misdemeanours since 2001 have been Portuguese. The level of drug trafficking, measured by numbers convicted, has also declined. And the incidence of other drug-related problems, including sexually transmitted diseases and deaths from drug overdoses, has “decreased dramatically”.
This, of course, is all being ignored because it’s not what our aging grey suited Mandarins want to hear. There is little hope of it ever being accepted, they will dismiss it as pernicious nonsense and not applicable to our “real world” (whatever that may be) and will continue to do so until their last dying gasp. It is something that at the very least, as Wilson says, will require generational change in order for us to be able to accept what is already commonsense. But our hippies are getting old. They’ll start dropping like flies. The only question is will any of them actually live to see any sanity?
1 – Statistics on drug use in Australia 2006 [full .pdf report]
2, 3 – The one drug market that has changed radically over the last decade or so and exploded is that of methamphetamines. First popularised in the ’60s, it was a drug that enjoyed a fairly stable supply of a fairly standard grade and known pharmacology from relatively large scale suppliers until the early ’90s. Since then, thanks to various prohibition initiatives, the market has fragmented and is largely now run by enormous numbers of small scale kitchens making do with whatever is available. The result has been a steady stream of ever more potent and damaging amphetamine derivatives – “crystal”, “ice”, “glass” etc. – that have had ever more devastating consequences on their users. While the older amphetamines produced their fair share of psychologically fucked up users, they are nothing compared to the full blown psychotics that are now par for the course with the modern stuff. Additionally, detox units that used to have a 2-3 day waiting period for beds now have delays of weeks or even months – this is due entirely to the newer types of amphetamine abuse. This baby is entirely, 100% the direct result of drug prohibition. Rejoice.
4 – Yes Firth broke the law – but the question of whether he did wrong depends on whether you agree with blind obedience to stupid laws or not. Yeah, yeah, I have heard the “but you are supporting organised crime and therefore contributing to the problem…” routine ad nauseam. Organised crime’s number one friend is prohibition and enforcement. You cannot operate a black market in something that is legal, available and of known quality. Organised crime’s worst nightmare is decriminalisation and legal, taxable distribution.
5 – The cost in Australia alone is well in excess of $6 billion per annum – it costs each citizen, from the new born to those at deaths door, over $300 a year to support prohibition. This is a conservatively low figure and does not take into account the massive direct personal costs to victims of crime. The Cost of Drug Prohibition in Australia
6 – The full report is available from the Cato Institute – Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies