Barbara Ehrenreich, the Honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, is a journalist of considerable verve whose “field” is nothing less than the sins and foibles of the entire society, and the culture, in which she finds herself. Her scrappy mordancy of style and her broad interests have carried her all the way from the columns of Mother Jones on the far Left to the back page of Time, on which she periodically produces that magazine’s “Essay” feature. In a recent Time essay (February 28) entitled “Kicking the Big One,” she turns her colorful attention to the problem of drugs.
“An evil,” she begins, “grips America, a life-sapping, drug-related habit.” The evil she refers to is not drugs themselves but the country’s continued insistence on prohibiting them. In her view this nourishes “a low-minded culture of winks and smirks,” and it also siphons off “the resources that might be better used for drug treatment or prevention.” As she sees it, along with heroin and nicotine, drug prohibition is itself an addiction that is “hell to kick.” She recognizes that legalization would not be cost-free—so voracious is the American appetite for drugs—but prohibition has proved to be an even more debilitating social toxin.
Consider, she continues, the moral effects of outlawing marijuana. An estimated 40 million Americans have tried it at some point, yet in certain states one can be sentenced to years in prison for possessing only a few grams of the stuff: “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?” And the prohibition of cocaine and heroin may be more corrosive still, constituting as it does such a profitable invitation to organized crime, as well as to youth gangs and other lower-level distributors.
Drugs, of course, can kill, but so, too, Ehrenreich would remind us, does their prohibition. In Washington, D.C., for instance, 80 percent of homicides are drug-related, which means drug-prohibition related. It is gunshot wounds, not overdoses or bad trips, that fill our emergency rooms. Finally, the billions spent each year on drug-related law enforcement represent money not spent on improving schools and rebuilding neighborhoods. “Those who can’t hope for the lasting highs of achievement and self-respect are all too often condemned to crack.”
Why, in the face of all this, do we not change our policy? We cling to prohibition, answers Ehrenreich, “for the same reason we cling to so many other self-destructive habits: because we like the way they make us feel.” Prohibition makes its advocates feel powerfully righteous, and “militant righteousness has effects not unlike some demon mix of liquor and amphetamines: the eyes bulge, the veins distend, the voice begins to bray.” Most of all, she adds, prohibition keeps us from having to confront all the other little addictions that get us through the day, such as the “NutraSweet in the coffee we use to wash down the chocolate mousse”; the martinis; the shopping for clothes—not to mention that addiction whose name we hardly dare speak, TV, “the substance-free citizen’s 24-hour-a-day hallucinatory trip.”
In answer to the argument that legalizing drugs would be sending the wrong message, especially to the country’s children, she declares, “[The] message we’re sending now is this: look, kids, we know prohibition doesn’t work, that it’s cruel and costs so much we don’t have anything 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.” And in conclusion, she consolingly tells those whom she calls the prohibition addicts that they do not have to quit cold turkey. The thing to do is start with marijuana and then ease 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.”
Barbara Ehrenreich’s view of how to deal with the drug crisis is, of course, not new. The argument for decriminalization has been coming at us—maybe not so cutely as in her essay, but with as much assurance—from a variety of sources for quite a while now.
Nor is this argument lacking in seductiveness. There is no denying that drugs are a major, and possibly the major, source of social pathology in America today. Nor could anyone in his right mind deny that law enforcement has scarcely made a dent in the problem; it is even possible, as Ehrenreich says, that the opposite is the case. We have, for instance, long tried, and long failed at, interdiction, including even an effort (if memory serves, first proposed to the Nixon administration by Daniel Patrick Moynihan) to plow up major poppy fields overseas. We have tried, and failed, to get all the drug dealers—big-time, small-time, and in between—put away. And clearly, the reason for these failures is that the processing and distribution of illegal narcotics and hallucinogens are enterprises so profitable to those involved that they are worth the great risks they impose.
If none of this is new, neither is another element of Ehrenreich’s argument, which can be summed up as tu quoque—or, you’re another. This very charge has been leveled on behalf of drug users ever since the famously stoned “kids” of the 1960’s first accused their martini-drinking parents of hypocrisy. Still, it must be admitted that adding NutraSweet, chocolate mousse, and buying dresses to the list of bourgeois infractions is intriguing, as is Ehrenreich’s rather surprisingly uneducated impression that people in this health-conscious time are still drinking a lot of martinis. And it also must be admitted that she has managed to add a new fillip to the familiar charge of hypocrisy—the notion that we prohibit drugs because to do so makes us feel high, as if we were downing a cocktail of liquor and amphetamines.
Yet like many critics of one or another form of strict legal sanction, Ehrenreich does not seem to understand that society metes out its punishments not only to avenge itself against wrongdoers but to confirm the law-abiders. She is flippant about the “wrong message” that opponents say would be sent by legalization. But it is important to teach the young that there is virtue and benefit in living within the limits set by one’s community. The opposite (wrong) message is not only harmful—communicating to the young souls Ehrenreich claims to be worrying about that society actually does not give a damn what they do—it is also a lie.
So society struggles along—just as Ehrenreich urges, though in a different sense, “one day at a time”—with no notable success where drugs are concerned, but in the hope that if we cannot stop the supply, we might at least begin to reduce the demand. And no one anywhere has a single moment of feeling good about any of it.
No one, that is, except, oddly, Barbara Ehrenreich herself. In addition to affording herself the keen pleasure of arguing her position mainly by deconstructing the moral character of those who disagree with her, she indulges herself in sniffing a most reliably soothing old Democratic Socialist panacea: money. (There is no faith in the power of money more abiding than that held by socialists.)
This explains why she makes such a great point of telling us that the billions spent on law enforcement to deal with the drug problem represent a siphoning off of resources from schools and drug treatment and prevention—quite as if over the years many, many billions had not been spent, and are not now being spent, on schools, with, to put it mildly, small effect, and quite as if she or anyone else knows how to cure addiction in the absence of a moral decision by the addict himself.
Surely even Barbara Ehrenreich must realize by now, deep down, that the problem is not money, just as she must know that the boys and girls who are today killing themselves with crack are not doing so because the government is withholding its resources from them. Nevertheless, the smell of public money is out there and she sniffs on. Talk about addiction.
Contentions, a new department we introduce here, will be devoted to the critical examination of a recently published article or report which is either significant in itself or representative of an important tendency in contemporary American thought and culture.