In this country, the drug war is shaped by a cycle as inexplicable as the Mayan million year year. Every decade or so, a celebrity overdoses or generally gets in trouble with a drug. In the eighties, Len Bias, a basketball star, and -- it turned out - an avid tooter, suffered a heart attack, died, and was discovered to have traces of cocaine in his blood stream. Congress went bonkers, and built him their sweetest little memorial, all made out of millions of people�s lives, ticking away, 5- 15 years at a shot. Prison populations, you embrace multitudes, the Congress cried, faintly echoing Whitman. The thing was called the Drug Abuse act of 1986. The thing is with us still.
Unexpectedly, Rush Limbaugh, who one would imagine to have more trouble with bourbon than with heroin, is the celebrity for this year�s cycle. I�m not really interested in Rush Limbaugh as a person or as a controversialist, and I think it is rather funny that we are being treated to various snippets of what he had to say about the drug wars. Liberals dredge up his most neandrathalish pronuniciamentos and rightwingers counter with his occasional stabs at compassionate conservativism. Which certainly begs the question: is it true that the crimes committed by the upper class are excused if they aren't hypocritical? Is this the new rule? I didn't know. I thought that suborning your maid, apparently, to score meds for your stash was a black mark even in the account books of the wealthy.
More interesting than the verbiage, because more symptomatic of the cussed wrongheadedness of the drug war, is the idea that creeps into this discourse on little cat feet, viz, that a person is somehow less responsible for drug use if the use is to relieve pain. Rush, it seems, hurt his back. To relieve the pain, he used those habit forming prescribed meds. He found, like others have, that they were wonderfully soothing. Soon he wanted them around him. He wanted them available. He wanted a stash. Now, if he had just been a sixty year old with the hots for Florida party life, poontang, and medical heroine, that would have been terrible, and there'd be no question of him taking a break from an ongoing investigation so he can retire into a rehab center. No, that wouldn't have been right. Or so the discourse goes. Or so the implications underneath the discourse go. But wait: for the same action � soliciting quantities of prescription heroin illegally � there are two attitudes. One, which takes a grip on the fact that the drug abuse is about simply relieving pain (don't even think that the buzz that accompanies that is in any way a high, or in any way pleasurable), finds the full force and panoply of tragedy in it. The other, which gestures towards the fact that the drug is about frankly grooving on a high until the high grabs you like a devil and it grooves on you -- that is found to be disgusting and incarcerable. We�ve read more than a few comments that approximate that line of thought thrown at l�affaire Rush.
The distinction between recreational drug use and �medical� drug use is even inscribed in law. The habit forming drugs are legal, shooting out from BigPharma. The narcotics are illegal, shipped in by Big Mafia. So some go to jail for selling a couple of bags of spliff, and some have diplomas and dispense painkillers to the multitudes. Well, this is what we think. We think it�s the last rotten gasp of an old and honorable ascetic tradition. We think the division between recreational and non-recreational use, however helpful it might be in diagnosing the causes of behavior, shouldn�t be inscribed in the law at all.
If Rush had been using the drugs for pleasure, his use of it might actually have been easier to monitor and control. The pop image of recreational drug taking as an orgiastic enterprise is not generally true. However, it is true that shameful drug taking can lead to solitary excess, and the kind of seedy behavior that apparently went on in the Limbaugh household with the maid. Why? Because, as the social control of the drug is taken from the hands of the doctor to the hands of the solitary user, the kind of feedback that would spot problems, or that would ritualize the drug use in some way, is subverted. An interesting article from the eighties is all about this: Drug, Set, and Setting by Norman E. Zinberg. Zinberg cites the case of a bourgeois heroin user from South Africa. The first sentence is meant to be provocative: �Carl is an occasional heroin user.� Zinberg�s study was released before the Len Bias death, but it didn�t have much of an effect anyway. In the eighties, the old, Carter era liberalism was giving way to the new, Bennett era moralism. William Bennett, Bush I�s drug czar, famously said that drugs weren�t a medical problem, but a moral problem. He meant morale problem -- as in boosting the morale of the Republican electorate. By vastly accelerating the rate of incarceration for drug users, the Fed�s probably did untold damage to the eco-system of occasional drug use. Drug abuse is aggravated by drug crimalization insofar as the drug setting becomes an outlaw site � or it becomes the solitary mansion of a sixty some year old man in Palm Beach, Florida.
Zinberg was having none of it, back there in the eighties: �The new interest in the comparative study of patterns of drug use and abuse is attributable to at least two factors. The first is that in spite of the enormous growth of marihuana consumption, most of the old concerns about health hazards have proved to be unfounded. Also, most marihuana use has been found to be occasional and moderate rather than intensive and chronic.�
That, of course, is old stuff among hempheads. But Zinberg�s essay is not about the chemical concomitants of addiction or non-addiction, but the social forms that filter the addicted, the part time user, and the abstainer. This, to me, is the heart of the matter. Here are two grafs that lay out Zinser�s central contention:
�Of course, the application of social controls, particularly in the case of illicit drugs, does not always lead to moderate use. And yet it is the reigning cultural belief that drug use should always be moderate and that behavior should always be socially acceptable. Such an expectation, which does not take into account variations in use or the experimentation that is inevitable in learning about control, is the chief reason that the power of the social setting to regulate intoxicant use has not been more fully recognized and exploited. This cultural expectation of decorum stems from the moralistic attitudes that pervade our culture and are almost as marked in the case of licit as in that of illicit drugs. Only on special occasions, such as a wedding celebration or an adolescent's first experiment with drunkenness, is less decorous behavior culturally acceptable. Although such incidents do not necessarily signify a breakdown of overall control, they have led the abstinence-minded to believe that when it comes to drug use, there are only two alternatives�total abstinence or unchecked excess leading to addiction. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, many people remain unshaken in this conviction.
This stolid attitude inhibits the development of a rational understanding of controlled use and ignores the fact that even the most severely affected alcoholics and addicts, who may be grouped at one end of the spectrum of drug use, exhibit some control in that they actually use less of the intoxicating substance than they could. Moreover, as our interviews with ordinary citizens have shown, the highly controlled users and even the abstainers at the other end of the spectrum express much more interest in the use of intoxicants than is generally acknowledged. Whether to use, when, with whom, how much, how to explain why one does not use�these concerns occupy an important place in the emotional life of almost every citizen. Yet, hidden in the American culture lies a deep-seated aversion to acknowledging this preoccupation. As a result, our culture plays down the importance of the many social mores�sanctions and rituals�that enhance our capacity to control use. Both the existence of a modicum of control on the part of the most compulsive users and the general preoccupation with drug use on the part of the most controlled users are ignored. Hence our society is left longing for that utopia in which no one would ever want drugs either for their pleasant or their unpleasant effects, for relaxation and good fellowship, or for escape and oblivion.�
Exactly. Here's one way to show our sympathy with the poor addicted talk radio host: reform the Len Bias laws now.