If the topic is illegal drugs, then a little candor is in order: I first smoked dope late one spring afternoon in the seventh grade, on a shady corner of the playground behind good old St. Mary's grammar school in New Monmouth, New Jersey. (Bless me, father, for I did sin.) I didn't get high that day, though I remember the weird sensation of taking my first hit off a joint while squinting across the playground at a cement statue of the Virgin Mary. Her arms were outstretched, her palms were turned upward, and her eyes were cast toward heaven in what struck me as a display of exasperation with the bad conduct she was witnessing.
After that precocious experience, I didn't experiment with drugs again until I was in college. By then, I was more adventurous and after long days of studying (really), I tore through pretty much whatever was at hand: pot and alcohol mostly, but also occasionally acid, mescaline, mushrooms, cocaine, and meth. Why? Partly in earnest pursuit of expanded, even "cosmic," consciousness. (I'd read a lot of Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse -- bless me again, father.) But mostly I did drugs because they were fun and I liked the way I felt when I was high.
After college, I continued to engage in similar bouts of recreational drug use. As I've grown older, and especially as I've become a parent, such moments have become increasingly rare. That's mostly because of time: Work and family take precedence over what might be called optional leisure-time experiences. Indeed, for exactly the same reasons, I don't -- alas -- exercise as much as I used to.
I recount all this neither to boast of an unsavory pedigree nor to confess to dark, personal demons. In fact, there's little extraordinary in such biographical material: According to the federal government's latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which tallies the frequency and types of drug use, about 39 percent of Americans 12 years and older -- some 87 million people -- said they had used illegal drugs at least once; about 11 percent -- 25 million people -- reported using drugs in the past year. What's more, drug use typically climbs during adolescence, peaks in the late teens and early 20s, and then begins a long decline, interrupted only by a slight uptick among 40-44-year-olds (something to look forward to, I suppose).
I mention my drug use as a way of introducing several stories in this issue that take a sharply critical look at the War on Drugs, that $40 billion annual effort by government to keep people from using certain "illicit" substances. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum's "Sex, Drugs & Techno Music" (page 26) demonstrates how recent stories about the drug Ecstasy tell us more about longstanding social anxieties regarding sex and youth than they do about today's kids. In "Battlefield Conversions" (page 36), National Correspondent Michael W. Lynch talks with a former police chief, a former federal drug agent, and a California Superior Court judge and learns why they've turned their backs on the drug war. Finally, in "A Splendid Little Drug War" (page 63), Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin explores how drug policy has thoroughly perverted U.S. relations with Latin America.
These are very different stories, but they have this in common: They recognize that drug prohibition is underwritten by the sense that drug users are strange, alien beings -- "others" who are out of control and must be stopped, for their good and ours. Each of these pieces underscores that in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true: It's the people prosecuting the drug war who need to be stopped -- the sooner, the better.