Thursday, June 05, 2014

Legal Drugs?

Another new experience our Rhine trip exposed us to: Legal marijuana in the Netherlands. I learned that “Coffee Shop” above a door in Amsterdam doesn’t mean what Americans think it should. If you want coffee and pastry in Holland, you go to a cafĂ©. A “coffee shop” sells marijuana. I stepped inside two of those for about a minute each. One, dim and strange-smelling, had a colorful sign on the wall advertising the various types (brands? varieties?) of pot. The prices started at about six Euros per gram. The other shop, lighter and cleaner-looking, displayed a list of rules next to the front counter. They included what you’d expect, nobody under 18 allowed inside, no outside drugs or alcohol, product must be consumed on the premises, etc. This shop also sold spiked brownies and displayed a case of glass curios and paraphernalia. (For a few seconds I considered buying something but didn’t know whether the objects—whatever they were, I couldn’t tell—might be illegal to import to the U.S.)

A news story earlier this week reveals that in the 1970s at least one tobacco company researched going into the marijuana business, if it were to become legal. This fall Maryland law will reduce the penalty for simple possession of a small amount to a civil offense (like a traffic ticket) rather than criminal. The catch is that selling the stuff is still illegal, so it’s easy to anticipate law enforcement problems. Some states already allow medicinal applications of marijuana or, in Colorado at least, recreational use.

In all the public controversy over pot legalization, what I haven’t seen is analysis of how well the system works in places such as Holland. Are young adults being ruined by indulgence? Has economic productivity gone down? What about crime? As for legalization—or, more sensibly, decriminalization and treatment as a medical rather than law enforcement problem—of “hard” drugs, I’ve never come across anything in the media comparing our present disastrous “war on drugs” to the situation in the nineteenth century when these substances could be bought over the counter in any pharmacy. (Remember laudanum? And Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine? Sigmund Freud used the latter, too.) How do addiction and drug-related crime rates compare? Why don’t these concrete examples from past eras’ experience enter the discussion? And what about the medicalization of heroine treatment in Britain? Instead, we hear arguments based on fears of encouraging increased drug abuse. Has this happened in those other situations?

Science fiction supplies us with thought experiments in this area just as with other social issues. In Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, everybody has unlimited access to soma, the ideal recreational drug, giving pleasure without addiction or hangovers. Economic productivity doesn’t suffer, but that may be because people are conditioned from birth to carry out their assigned duties with diligence and good cheer. In this novel Huxley disapproves of dulling citizens’ spirits with drugs and mindless entertainment. In a later work, ISLAND, however, he constructs a utopian society that also features sexual freedom and acceptance of drug use but shows these customs in a positive light. Moreover, Huxley himself experimented with mind-altering substances in his later years. Spider Robinson, one of my favorite SF authors, is outspokenly pro-marijuana in both his fiction and his opinion essays. In SF the positive or negative effect of drug use seems to depend partly on whether it’s imposed by a coercive totalitarian regime (which the one in BRAVE NEW WORLD is, even though quite benevolent) to keep the masses pacified or freely chosen by individuals as a means of relaxation like social drinking. Freely, that is, without the “coercion” of a miserable upbringing and immersion in a soul-poisoning drug culture.

I have no inclination to take up the practice myself, but decisions about legalization, in my opinion, should be based on pragmatic considerations, not individual scruples or philosophical and moral arguments. Would legal availability of substances currently illegal create a situation better or worse than the one we’re now in? Given the examples of past historical periods and the cultural practices of some other nations, what does the evidence show?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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