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DRUGS AND THE PONY EXPRESS

by

John Clayton, Sr.

My mother used to tell me that when I had a dollar, I had an almost infinite variety of options, but that as soon as I spent the dollar, I would narrow my options to one and, in the process, greatly limit my freedom of choice.

"Opportunity costs," she would say, using the jargon of my father's fellow economists.

As I understood the phrase (with my dollar in hand), you had to consider all the things you couldn't do, once you had spent your dollar -- not just the one thing you could do. You didn't just spend the dollar; you spent all of those opportunities to do something else.

More and more I have come to learn that the initial decision is the critical one; it immediately transfers power from you to the object of your decision as does each choice that follows.

Some years ago a friend of mine, theologian Bill Poteat, explained the process this way: "Say  you begin with a piece of wood. At first, most of the decisions on what to do with it are  yours. You can decide to make a table leg or a violin. But with each cut of the knife, the  wood begins more and more to tell you what it can be. At some point, the wood begins to determine its own future. It says, in effect, 'You can't make me into a violin. I can be a gun  stock, or a table leg, or a pool cue, but you no longer have the power to make me be something else.'

"There is," Dr. Poteat concluded, "a process of self determination where the creator (the decision maker) transfers power to the created, and it begins to determine its own character. It tells the creator what it can be."

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, at the beginning he could have made the character male or female, old or young, prince or pauper. But with each of those decisions, the character he has created begins to tell Shakespeare who he is and what he can do. By Act V, Hamlet is in charge, not Shakespeare.

This has repercussions, especially in a society like ours.

Just for the fun of it, follow along with this. Let's suppose that you know that a horse can  carry a rider with a message for twenty miles. And let's also suppose that your problem is to deliver a message across a continent -- three thousand miles.

And now let's suppose that from this data you conclude that the way to solve the problem is with more horses and more men. It is logical, rational, and combines the evidence of  experience with a clearly defined objective.

So you commit your society and its resources to that solution. From then on, old buddy, the best minds and intelligence of the society, the best resources of a rich nation, are engaged.

Government agencies are formed as army engineers begin to survey the most effective routes to be followed.  

Grants are made to various prestigious universities for time and motion studies of the optimum techniques for dismounting and mounting, the design of saddles, the construction of lighter and more durable materials, and the psychology of horses.

A raging debate separates the South West from the North East over the relative merits of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, with numerous papers published on the  cost-effectiveness of distance versus speed: a horse that can run further requires fewer stations; a horse that can run faster gets the message delivered sooner.

The paper mills develop lighter products that are threatened by innovations in image  reduction at M.I.T.

Scandals occur over breeding contracts, right of way, and equal opportunity employment of riders, wranglers, and way station operators.

The Department of Agriculture sponsors research in the production of grains that have maximum nutritional value for horses while a controversy springs up between the S.P.C.A. and advocates of steroids, amphetamines, and other pharmaceutical products to improve the performance of horses.

The National Institute of Health establishes a cooperative program with the Department of the Interior over the environmental impact of by products of the system, including their  appropriate control and disposal.

Hollywood, the networks, and the press have a field day, whipping up public enthusiasm and elevating both horses and men into nationally known figures. A Congressional Committee is formed to investigate the ethics of horses in the public service profiting from publicity generated by their activity in the public interest.

And keep in mind. These are our best brains, entrepreneurs, and scientists giving their all out best to a national effort and commitment based upon a decision: the answer is more horses and more men.

Overnight, there is an enormous vested interest in the perpetuation of the enterprise.

Guest experts abound who can tell you of the virtues of the chosen solution on every talk show, including little old ladies who rhapsodize over the explosive return of song birds, long denied the base constituent of an abundant supply of insects and grain: horse manure.

Alternatives are a threat. They threaten vested interests, an established system that is both complex and pervasive, and the future of politicians whose constituents love THE PONY EXPRESS!

The decision, having been made, now dictates to us our future direction, the employment of our skills and resources, and our mind set.

Well, it never happened. Right?

Wrong.

Some years ago, I was the producer/moderator of an open ended television talk show in North Carolina. One evening I invited a group to discuss "The Drug Problem," by no means as pervasive a topic of concern as it is now (this was forty years ago), but nevertheless a subject even then of growing interest as the age of the drug culture sixties was beginning to dawn.

The group was composed of two sets of "experts"-- those engaged in the enforcement of laws against illegal drug usage and physicians engaged in the study of drugs and their effects.

The contrast in their views was a revelation to me.

The drug enforcement people had a litany of well documented horror stories about the effects of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD, peyote, and a variety of mushrooms. Above all, they spoke of the pervasive use of drugs as a threat to the society and the need for rigorous enforcement of laws prohibiting their use.

The medical people held a different opinion.

Such drugs, they said, had been available for many years in our society with little or no restriction on their use. At one time, as recently as the childhood of my parents, you could go to your local druggist and have him slice off from a block of opium or heroin a portion to take home with you for medicinal (or recreational) purposes. The society seemed to get along well enough.

Addiction, to alcohol or to tobacco or to drugs, was a problem for some -- most communities had their town drunk -- but to escalate these relatively isolated problems into a concern that the entire fabric of the society was threatened was to distort reality seriously. It simply wasn't true.

The idea, they said, that one snort, puff, injection, or inhalation of one of these "popular" drugs would turn you into an instantly depraved "dope fiend," was utter poppycock. Oh, there are such things as addictive personalities -- whether for drugs, coffee, gambling, or church revivals -- but where you see a pervasive problem is where the real problem is the quality of life.

In Charles Dickens' England, the grog shops serving rot-gut gin were the only relief from grinding hardship, poverty, and suffering. Peruvians chew cocoa leaves, numbing their bodies and minds to the conditions of drudgery and climate that is their destiny. Dirt poor farmers drink moonshine and dirt poor ghetto dwellers smoke crack.

What the hell else does life offer most of them? The problem isn't the dope; the problem is the misery of their lives and the hopelessness of their condition.

When life gets to be too much for rich folks and they turn to the escape of drugs or alcohol, it is possible to straighten them out at the Betty Ford clinic by restoring to them a useful future. Try that with a kid in the swamps of the ghetto. What future?

For a society not driven to a need for escape as a constant condition of existence, drugs simply do not become a threat to the majority. White collar workers are living witness, and have been for a very long time. They do fine until things get a little dull or lousy at the office. ("Quick Watson, the needle!")

Both then and now, the physicians argued, numerous persons were occasional users of drugs without becoming addicts or suffering any apparent ill effects, unless you consider pleasure a detrimental effect.

And that was the problem.

Much of our culture -- especially the Protestant culture -- was deeply suspicious of pleasure. It was, by definition, sinful. And it was not only Queen Victoria who was not amused. My father-in-law was raised in Wisconsin to believe that playing cards was sinful, dancing was sinful, drinking was sinful, and (not to mention it, because you couldn't) pleasure in sex was sinful. While he managed to overcome some of his early programming, our society has inherited the burden of decisions made by people (our fellow citizens) who were dedicated to the eradication of pleasure.

The more passionate disguised their passion by becoming preoccupied with the problem of pleasure. How they were titillated by stories of naughty behavior, the exposure of an ankle, and sermons that described in graphic detail the consequences of indulging or sampling these forbidden delights! And if you really wanted to revel in these proscribed pastimes, the route was clear: become a censor, become a militant prohibitionist, make a career of warning the world about the evils of sensuality.

Shoot, when I was a kid about nine years, one of the older lads who was in to sexual activities undreamed of in my philosophy tried to bribe me into leaving our bedroom shades up so he could watch my sister undress. He grew up to be head of the Vice Squad. He was some bent twig all right, but at least he found a socially acceptable vocation for his preoccupation. Though it doesn't say much for what is socially acceptable in the society.

Nevertheless, my precocious childhood acquaintance had no corner on the market when it came to a fascination with the temptations of the flesh or in finding a way to both disguise it and express it by joining the "Tut! Tut!" brigade.

The tabloids prospered, the politicians prospered, the preachers prospered, and the police prospered. Fighting sin was great for business.

But you had to sell the product.

In the beginning was the word: Dens of iniquity were about to take over the land (though few had ever seen one, many had longed for the opportunity, at least for a peek inside). White slavery was rampant and women were not safe on the street. Dope fiends were ravishing our maidens. Father dear Father come home to me now!

And the word was made flesh. Laws were passed. Books were banned.

Pictures were censored. And drugs were made ILLEGAL.

Not tobacco, of course. There wasn't a man in the country that didn't chew, spit, snort, or smoke tobacco. The country had been founded on tobacco! Nope, the threat had to be from something other people did. The fact that you didn't know any of them made it even better. It's much easier to hate an enemy you don't know.

And virtue, please remember, is for the poor. I can remember Knoxville, Tennessee, in the fifties. No booze. No gambling. Except, of course, in the very best country clubs where the very best people -- the Power People -- could sidle up to a bar as long as a Pullman car or walk over to a row of slot machines to try their luck. Hell, it didn't hurt them. But they sure were concerned about the poor folks.

Yep, virtue was for the benefit of the poor.

And virtue for the poor is good business. Good for the preachers and good for the bootleggers. Good for the police and good for the politicians. And all of them prospered.

The bootleggers got rich and the law enforcement folks got more funds to fight sin, and the public was persuaded that what the LAW needed to do was to concentrate on the sins of pleasure, not on the sins of venality and corruption: cheap housing, land grabs by the railroads, the unspeakable cruelty of conditions in the mines or in the factories.

Virtue was for the poor.

And pity the politician who tried to repeal the idiot laws passed by the protectors of public morality. They were sitting ducks. Show the suckers a picture of some wretched child  prostitute, or description of sexual behavior seen only at Police Smokers, or a drink sodden street bum looking for a handout, and this is what Congressman X or Alderman Y is IN FAVOR OF!

The phony word became pernicious flesh, and the vested interests were committed. It MUST be a problem, because if it isn't a problem we wouldn't be needed, we wouldn't be important.

So I listened, forty years ago, to the law enforcement guys singing their song. They needed more money, more personnel, more laws, more power to save the society from doom.

And I listened to the physicians, the researchers, the men without a motive for profit, singing a very different song. A small problem, they said, for some. But much of what the cops and the reformers say about drugs is simply not true.

We have problems of poverty and despair. And for some, those problems are alleviated by drugs. For them, if you will, drugs represent an escape, if not a solution. But take away the drugs, and you will still have the problem. Take away the problem... and you won't be seeing the drugs.

Once, alcohol had been the villain. Not that we were a nation of drunks. Not that the fabric of our society was being torn apart. But it was immoral. And so, we passed laws to prohibit its use. And in the process created a giant criminal class that continues to plague our society to this day, wreaking far more havoc on our values and our economy then all of the martinis ever consumed. And killed more too.

But the police prospered. The FBI prospered.

And people drank even more.

We learned not to prohibit drinking.

But apparently we learned nothing else.

So... despite the fact that drugs were not a national problem, and despite the fact that even at the height of the so called drug culture of the sixties, few of our children were gravely wounded -- some were, and I knew them, but most were not -- we committed.

And created what is now regarded as the largest problem of our current society.

And what is the problem?

Crime! Murder! Corruption! The takeover of sovereign states (like Colombia and Panama) by a criminal cartel.

Millions of dollars spent in removing the scourge, and billions  more committed.

Research grants, government agencies created, a drug czar named, election campaigns, and nightly news stories reveling in the slaughter.

Hot Dog! We've reinvented the Pony Express!

The entire country girding up its loins because in our folly we have decided that the solution is more horses and more men.

Okay, pause, hold it a moment, Time Out!

Are you trying to tell me we don't have a drug problem?

Yes, Bunky, that's the grim joke. What we've got is a monumental investment of our psyche, resources, manpower, and public prestige in escalating the problem by every means available to us -- including the commitment of American personnel in foreign adventures in a new Opium War. Only this time, irony upon irony, we're going to be trying to stamp out the Drug trade instead of maintaining it!

Remember Al Capp's L'il Abner? Somehow he comes to mind when I contemplate the obvious nature of the problem we are facing. The problem is that we have created a market. ("As any fool can plainly see. Ah see," said L'il Abner.)

Opium, marijuana, mushrooms -- all of that stuff -- are dirt cheap. The poorest peasants in the world grow it in abundance. Some of 'em even use the stuff, and go back to growing more. It's cheap. So, by the way, are all of these goodies: booze, sex, tobacco, breathing.

June Allyson had it right in Good News, "The best things in life are free." You can produce marijuana in your back yard, mushrooms in your basement, booze in your bathtub, and sex almost anywhere.

You can, that is, unless we control the supply and artificially escalate the price. As the IRS does with booze and tobacco, the internal combustion machine does with breathing, and Zsa Zsa Gabor does with sex.

So we made it profitable. Profitable to the dirt poor peasants to grow it, profitable to the street kids to sell it, and extremely profitable to the guys who "enforce the law" -- how else are they going to get an economy minded president to advocate giving them eight BILLION dollars?

Holy Toledo!

Why do grade school kids buy and sell the stuff? They never did before. It was around when I was a kid. Nobody used it. Well, maybe in High School some of the kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Maybe. I never knew anybody who did. But why so many now? Because the people selling it are motivated by profit. And if you were living in a lousy neighborhood with no prospects for a future, how would you feel about a chance to make five hundred or a thousand bucks a week? There are young men standing on street corners in Chicago who make more than that selling drugs in an hour!

You want to give a lecture on morals? "The only crime," Bernard Shaw once said, "is to be poor." You betcha.

They call marijuana "grass." It is. Try this. Go to your nearest lawn, pick up some clippings, and try to get someone to market it for you. No luck?

Now tell them, you'll pay them a thousand dollars to sell a handful.

Maybe they can; maybe they can't. But they're sure as hell going to be motivated to try.

Kids aren't killing each other for drugs. They're killing each other over the opportunity to make money, to buy a car, own a suit, have a good looking girl. The fight isn't over drugs; it's over MONEY.

We have two problems to solve. Three, if you count getting our heads straight.

The first problem is CRIME. It's major. Your house get burgled? You got mugged on the street? Your kid got shot down? The cops will tell you, "It's drug related." What that means is that the perpetrator -- as they call them in the Police Shows; I don't know if they really do -- the perpetrator either needed to obtain money to buy drugs or was protecting his gold mine from claim jumpers.

The second problem is drugs. It's minor. Or it was. It's getting major, because we have made it highly profitable to market it. But not too many people die from drugs. They die from dirty needles or malnutrition or poor health care in general or getting shot. But not many from drugs. But let's grant that drugs are a matter of concern.

Okay, that's problem two.

Be clear on the difference. Crime is one problem. Abusive use of drugs is another problem. They are not the same.

Can these problems be solved.

Certainly.

To solve the crime problem, remove the profit. Drugs are cheap to produce; make them cheap to buy. The only way to do that is to make them legal. Forget the IRS driving up the price. That's how you bring in the bootleggers and the Poppy growers. Keep it cheap and available. No hassle.

When a kid finds he can make more selling hamburgers then he can selling crack, guess what he's going to sell.

And more people like hamburgers.

So much for the crime problem.

As for the drug problem, we've already taken the first giant step when we get rid of the motive for pushing the stuff. Demand will go down. You don't advertise, you don't sell. At least that's what the people who make beer believe. And they ought to know.

Make it a social liability. We've had a lot of success with that on smoking, and we've made some progress on drinking too. Will we still have some problem users? Certainly. But far fewer than we have now, and they will be our only cost. That will be a lot cheaper in terms of lives and money than what we're paying now. AND, we wont be supporting a criminal empire in Florida, Panama, Colombia, or your neighborhood school.

You want to spend eight billion dollars? Spend it on getting kids out of the ghetto, giving  them a chance for a future, giving them decent food, clothing, and shelter.

And spend a little on drug rehabilitation too. It won't take much.

There wont be that much of it.

Or...

You can keep trying to solve the problem with the Pony Express.

You see, the first decision we made about Hamlet in Act One is telling us what to do in Act Five. And what it's telling us to do is crazy. We've got the whole damned society baying down the wrong trail on the wrong scent. It'll be tough to call off the dogs.

But wait'll you see the bill if we don't.

 

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