The Way We Live Now: A Very Fine Line

The same week that a Republican candidate for President spent struggling to compose ever more tortuous nondenials of his drug use as a young man, a former Republican Presidential candidate could be seen in full-page advertisements forthrightly acknowledging his own use of another drug. Oh, I know: two completely different and incomparable situations; how unfair to Robert Dole and the Pfizer pharmaceutical company even to mention them in the same paragraph as George W. Bush and cocaine. One concerns an illegal drug that people take strictly for pleasure. The other concerns a legal drug that people take . . . well, also strictly for pleasure, but (almost) always with a prescription.

The ability to draw and patrol distinctions of this kind becomes critical in a society like ours, with its two thriving multi-billion-dollar drug cultures. Everyone understands that licit and illicit drugs are not the same. How much easier things would be if, instead of having to lump them all under the rubric of “drugs,” we had one word for the beneficent class of molecules to which Viagra and Prozac belong, and another for the pernicious class that contains cocaine and cannabis.

The problem is that there is a long history of molecules getting switched out of one drug culture and into the other. Alcohol, for instance, has spent time in both cultures in this century. For part of the time that alcohol resided in the bad drug culture, opium, now evil, occupied a prominent place in the good drug culture, where it was dispensed by reputable pharmaceutical firms. More recently LSD and MDMA (aka ecstasy), both born in the good drug culture, have found themselves exiled to the bad. Occasionally the drug traffic flows in the opposite direction. After spending the last few years firmly ensconced on the demon side of the drug divide, cannabis has lately got a toehold on the therapeutic side, at least in the half-dozen states that have legalized medical marijuana. Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine announced that for a small class of patients, cannabis did indeed have therapeutic value.

What we have here, then, is a drug war being fought on behalf of a set of distinctions—a taxonomy of chemicals that, far from being eternal or absolute, has actually been shaped by historical accident, cultural prejudice and institutional imperative. You can imagine an alternative history in which Viagra wound up on the other side of the line—had it, say, been cooked up in an uptown drug lab and sold first on the street under the name Hardy Boy.

You would be hard-pressed to explain the taxonomy of chemicals underpinning the drug war to an extraterrestrial. Is it, for example, addictiveness that causes this society to condemn a drug? (No; nicotine is legal, and millions of Americans have battled addictions to prescription drugs.) So then, our inquisitive alien might ask, is safety the decisive factor? (Not really; over-the-counter and prescription drugs kill more than 45,000 Americans every year while, according to The New England Journal of Medicine, “There is no risk of death from smoking marijuana.”) Is it drugs associated with violent behavior that your society condemns? (If so, alcohol would still be illegal.) Perhaps, then, it is the promise of pleasure that puts a drug beyond the pale? (That would once again rule out alcohol, as well as Viagra.) Then maybe the molecules you despise are the ones that alter the texture of consciousness, or even a human’s personality? (Tell that to someone who has been saved from depression by Prozac.)

At this point our extraterrestrial would probably throw up his appendages and ask, Can we at least say that the drugs you approve of all have a capital letter at the beginning of their names and a TM at the end?

Historians of the future will wonder how a people possessed of such a deep faith in the power of drugs also found themselves fighting a war against certain other drugs with not-dissimilar powers. The media are filled with gauzy pharmaceutical ads promising not just relief from pain but also pleasure and even fulfillment; at the same time, Madison Avenue is working equally hard to demonize other substances on behalf of a “drug-free America.” The more we spend on our worship of the good drugs ($20 billion on psychoactive prescription drugs last year), the more we spend warring against the evil ones ($17 billion the same year). We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be that we hate the fact that we love drugs?

To listen to the storm of comment surrounding George W. Bush’s “irresponsible youth,” one might reasonably conclude that no upstanding American has taken an illicit drug since 1974 or so. Illegal drugs have been so thoroughly demonized that the only way a person can talk about his drug use in public (in private is a different matter) is by drawing bright lines in time: it was a different moment, I was a different person. Thus we have a tortuous taxonomy of self to go along with our tortuous taxonomy of chemistry.

Every time a politician finds himself personally ensnared in the drug issue—finds himself, that is, on the wrong side of the drug war’s battle line between Us and Them—an uncomfortable truth threatens to burst into public view: in this war there is no Them. The enemy in the drug war is Us—our faith in the power of drugs to bring us pleasure, to alter the given textures of consciousness, even to gratify the (unspeakable) wish to get high. These are qualities hard to accept in oneself, despite the fact that we humans have indulged these desires since time immemorial. It’s much easier to talk instead about political hypocrisy or youthful indiscretion. And so these scandals invariably devolve into dramas about the virtue of the candidate rather than that of the drug war itself. Candidates come and go; the war must go on.