Using Your Brain on Drugs

October 13, 2003
Mike Newirth

In These Times

October 13, 2003

circ: 21,000


Numerous tightly rolled cannabis cigarettes were in evidence at a June 12 luncheon at The Heartland Institute, a libertarian policy think-tank in the Chicago Loop. These doobies were emblazoned on the cover of the provocative, plainspoken book, Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use by Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason (“Free Minds and Free Markets”) magazine.

Yet the capacity crowd of 36 hardly appeared ready to kick back and smoke up: Mainly white men over 50 and conservatively dressed, they appeared more likely to break a bong over a slacker’s head than to consider Sullum’s argument against prohibitionism’s moral fearfulness and shoddy science.

Sullum’s thesis is that drug war policy has been ruled by “voodoo pharmacology,” the notion that certain chemicals can compel immoral behavior. Anti-drug messages depend upon the idea that illicit substances usurp users’ judgment and free will, and that any usage equals abuse. Punitive standards of interdiction and punishment compound the message that such substances inspire immoral behavior.

Sullum subjects this invocation of automatic turpitude to a withering critique. By examining the mythologized links between sloth, lust, madness, gluttony, and wrath and their purported chemical precursors (historically including tobacco and alcohol), he reveals the intellectual poverty of the right’s central conceit and retrieves the moral high ground ceded by uneasy legalization proponents.

By discussing illicit substances in terms reserved for socially valued drugs (notably alcohol) Sullum is able to examine what psychiatrist Norman Zinberg termed “set and setting”--the combination of environment and expectations that determines the qualities of a drug experience. When alcohol prohibition’s failure discredited the “demon rum” fervor of its proponents, our extensive cultural experience with drinking allowed us to encourage “controlled use,” Sullum says.

The demonization of illicit drugs has resulted in a cultural naivete that promotes irresponsible use and the black market. In Sullum’s terms, voodoo pharmacology recasts illicit substances (and their users) as the dreadful “other,” by averring that alcohol and drugs are fundamentally different, one controllable and humane, the other corrupting and devilish. This intellectual dishonesty, spoon-fed to children, contributes to rampant social misuse of alcohol and other substances, as anyone familiar with drug use among adolescents knows.

Moderate, responsible drug use is the elephant in the room of anti-drug zealotry. Thus, even a politician like former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who supported consideration of decriminalization, was unable to deviate from the Clinton administration’s script that drug use is always bad. While then-U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) Saw no contradiction in his support of a major donor, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, that sought to kill legislation limiting beer ads on television, calling alcohol “a product that’s in demand.” (Sullum finds Ashcroft’s self-justification “notably lacking in moral reflection.”)

If, as Sullum suggests, the fearsome otherness of illicit drugs is artificial and sags under analysis, then what allows the drug warriors to get away with such a transparent syllogism? At The Heartland Institute luncheon, Sullum dismantled the melodramatic, exaggerated morality that props up our denial of temperance’s possibilities.

Sullum detects this in the equating of “sloth” with substance use, which was key to pre-Prohibition anti-alcohol propaganda and now is used to demonize cannabis as an aspiration killer suited to losers. Sullum examines “amotivational syndrome,” the concept that marijuana use creates “dropouts” disinterested in achievement, which provided the psychiatric underpinning for cannabis prohibition once the ‘30s-era “reefer madness” typography of violence had been derided.

Discredited by the ‘90s, yet still key to anti-cannabis sentiment, amotivational syndrome seems inconsistent with the strange case of Progressive Insurance’s Peter Lewis, innovative businessman, billionaire, and “functioning pothead.” While Lewis may be an extreme example, Sullum contends that rather than candidates for “That 70s Show” couch, average cannabis smokers are employed adults with family and community ties--and therefore have reason to conceal their preferred intoxicant. ...


Mike Newirth is fiction editor of Bridge magazine and a contributor to The Baffler, Chicago Reader, and the anthology Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy.