One hoped that after a few months the antidrug hysteria occasioned by basketball player Len Bias's death would diminish. Alas, that hasn't been the case. Oh, sure, Newsweek has stopped putting a cocaine skull and crossbones on its cover every other issue. But the uproar over Judge Ginsburg's marijuana use indicated that America has yet to learn to deal with drugs without hysteria or hypocrisy. As a result, individuals guilty of nothing more than catching an occasional buzz are losing jobs, being arrested, and forfeiting property. Daily, someone experiences the bad trip of a life ruined, not by drugs, but by antidrug laws.
Most journalists and medical professionals cannot probe the motives behind the war on drugs without jeopardizing their careers. But it's time for someone to say what many of us really believe but few have the leeway to write: we need to rethink the war.
At the very least, we should reconsider the hypocrisy of outlawing mild drugs like marijuana while condoning potentially more-harmful drugs like tobacco and alcohol. We might also wonder why occasional drug users who have been performing quite capably at the office for 10 or 20 years have suddenly become incompetent workers in dire need of rehabilitation. We could even ask whether the vaunted connection between drugs and violent crime should be blamed on the drugs themselves or on a drug policy all out of proportion to the problem it is supposed to address.
But the most important questions should probe even deeper than these. What really needs to be asked is why many Americans are so opposed to drug use in the first place. It's obvious why everyone despises drug abuse: that kind of enslavement destroys lives. But why drug use, specifically? Why is getting high a bigger problem in the contemporary American consciousness than poverty, bigotry, illiteracy? Why does a society whose identity is in large part determined by capitalist ideals take such pains to obliterate a case of voluntary exchange between the supplier of a commodity and a willing consumer?
Why do so many people maintain an utterly unexamined double standard when it comes to drug use and almost all other potentially dangerous yet potentially rewarding activities like drinking, rock climbing, and falling in love? And what does this double standard imply for the health of some of our most fundamental principles: individual liberty, cultural diversity, and the value of risk?
• If Lynn becomes addicted to running, determined to get her daily training fix no matter what the cost to health or family, do we Just Say No to 10K road races?
• If Greg commits suicide under the trauma of unrequited love, do we declare a War on Romance?
• If almost 5,000 people drown each year, do we brand bathtubs and swimming pools a Menace to Society?
• If 50,000 citizens perish every year in traffic accidents, do we demand the death penalty for car "dealers"?
• If Len Bias dies from a massive cocaine overdose, what do we do?
Surely we would all answer no to the first four questions, because we recognize that many of life's simple pleasures and conveniences are accompanied by unavoidable risks. Even though alcohol, for example, contributes directly or indirectly to some 200,000 deaths each year, we remember the folly of Prohibition, and few suggest the need for an alcohol-free society. Instead, we evolve formal and informal rules governing the use of alcohol: age limits on its purchase, drunk-driving laws, ad campaigns discouraging excess, and so on.
Even though tobacco-related illness causes over 350,000 deaths each year, lawmakers rightly refuse to prohibit smoking; instead, their concern is that everyone be well informed of the risks (the Surgeon General's warning) and that nonsmokers can enjoy no-smoking areas in public places. Even though some 370,000 high-school football players were injured last year and 11 died while playing, no one crusades against football. Parents advocate stricter preseason physicals, safer practice conditions, rules that penalize dangerous blocking, etc., but not abolition of the game.
What's more, we recognize that risk isn't always just an unfortunate by-product of pleasure and convenience but is often an integral part of our most significant experiences—the very pulse of adventure, experiment, and exploration. After all, would the ascent of Everest prove so satisfying if rocks were soft and oxygen plentiful? Why do sports fans reserve their greatest praise for athletes who not only win but do so by refusing to play it safe in the crucial final moments of a contest? Why do we admire the Odysseuses, Fausts, Byrons, Rimbauds, and Van Goghs of the world—those wild questers who risked limb and soul in their eagerness to explore?
Why? Because part of the vital double-structure of many activities is the risk of frustration, failure, injury, or even death, and right in the teeth of this risk, the bold, insouciant leap into the unknown. Poet James Dickey calls this double-helix of danger/delight the Edge: "the place where one danger or the other charges the physical batteries and brings with it the will to live and search for more of the same."
While many of us are too timid to "dance on the Edge" ourselves, we recognize the right of others to do so, to nudge right up against the boundaries of sanity and mortality in the pursuit of triumph, adventure, or discovery. Indeed, how barren the landscape of our knowledge would be today without the willingness of explorers, adventurers, and artists to enrich it with their own bold leaps.
And whatever the nature of the risk that a privately chosen activity entails, the point is that in America it's generally up to the individual—not preachers or government or received opinion—to decide whether or not to accept it. As J.S. Mill explained in On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.…Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (emphasis added).
We might discourage a sibling from marrying someone, a spouse from chewing tobacco, or a friend from cliff diving. Respecting the complexities of communal life that sometimes qualify Mill's formula, we might regulate the sharpest edges of danger, requiring information (Surgeon General's warnings), establishing eligibility standards (adulthood, competence), imposing personal safeguards (life jackets, helmet specifications), and restricting behavior that might endanger the public at large (drunk driving, smoking in public areas, driving fast).
But we generally refrain from outlawing such activities, because we admit—unlike so many countries—the inapplicability of rigid guidelines of thought and behavior to people of diverse backgrounds, motives, and tastes; we recognize the peril of one-sided tyranny in a many-sided world; and we therefore affirm the primacy of individual choice. Indeed, the glory of American culture is its willingness to promote the individual pursuit of meaning and to refrain from prohibiting activities just because the majority finds them distasteful, bizarre, incomprehensible—or so risky that most people wouldn't even consider doing them.
From this belief in individual choice, even when that choice entails potential personal harm, stems the rich diversity of American thought, expression, action, and experience. To its credit, America is a land that encompasses Buddhism and Mormonism, ballet and break dancing, mud wrestling and wine tasting, surrealism and surfing, drag racing and men in drag, Merry Pranksters and sour preachers, Huck Finn and Spiderwoman…Not only do most of us accept this diversity, but we praise our country for it, and rightly so.
Yet when public policy focuses not on junk food, beer, cars, sports, adventure, love, or other hazards but on DRUGS, rationality withers and hysteria flourishes. Antidrug warriors simply refuse to admit that drug use has exactly the same structure as many of the activities mentioned above: potential personal harm combined with potential reward. Instead, they utterly reject the possibility that there might be something worthwhile about intelligent experimentation with certain drugs, something uncanny, or wildly interesting, or even illuminating, as many poets, artists, and mystics have claimed (Tom Robbins, for example, says, "I regard LSD as right up there with the microscope and telescope as an instrument of exploration").
And they grossly exaggerate the risks of drug use. From the anguished rhetoric that saturated the news media after Len Bias died, one would have believed that coke users were dropping dead in every living room. But statistics suggest that drug use might be even less dangerous than comparable risk-reward activities.
Consider again the statistics mentioned above: 5,000 people drown every year, 50,000 die in traffic accidents, alcohol contributes to the deaths of 200,000 and tobacco to at least another 350,000, 370,000 high-school students get hurt playing football. Meanwhile, in 1985 cocaine contributed to just 613 overdose deaths, and the number of deaths caused by all illegal drugs combined totaled only 3,562.
Failing to place drug use in this context, antidrug warriors throw overboard the public policy standards they apply to most other risky yet potentially rewarding activities: inform participants of potential dangers, sometimes regulate the activity to eliminate unnecessary hazards, but generally allow individuals—not government—to decide whether the risks outweigh the rewards. Instead, in a futile attempt to eradicate drug use, they cry for the elimination of personal choice, the suspension of constitutional rights, and the imposition of death penalties for dealers.
In other words, they have a double standard, which distorts drug use into some kind of incomprehensible aberration. This doesn't just stack the deck in drug-related debates; it altogether eliminates intelligent debate on the issue. All anyone has to say is "Drugs kill" or "Drugs harm our precious children" or "Drugs destroy society," and the discussion is closed. No evidence need be forthcoming, no similarity need be perceived between drug use and other risks, no mention need be made of the vast majority of drug users who neither die nor become addicts nor sell drugs to children.
Even "experts" succumb to this double standard, overlooking the most obvious implications of their studies in favor of predetermined conclusions. When social scientists discovered that in the aftermath of drug education programs, drug use among students doesn't necessarily decrease but often increases, they offered all kinds of explanations, from poor teaching methods to the inability of students to respond rationally to information.
The only explanation they failed to mention? Students found many drugs to be more interesting and less dangerous than they had been led to believe by worried parents and a sensation-hungry media, and their willingness to try drugs was therefore perfectly rational. This may not be the correct explanation, either, but it's certainly an obvious one. That no one even considered it demonstrates once again how constricted people's powers of reasoning can become when hysteria rules.
Examples of such narrow reasoning could be multiplied indefinitely as coaches, columnists, and politicians seem to vie with one another to see who can use the most overheated rhetoric, generate the most glaring inconsistencies, disregard the most obvious facts, and produce the purest urine. And from this welter of misinformation and flawed reasoning, a sensible drug policy is supposed to be fashioned.
How can we eliminate this double standard and establish drug policy with consistency and integrity? There are two choices. Either we apply drug-war reasoning to every activity, in which case all but the most banal sources of fun, adventure, and significance would have to be criminalized because they bear risks. Or we apply football-alcohol-skydiving logic to drug use, so drugs would no longer be considered the scourge of civilization but a matter of temperament, curiosity, and lifestyle. Since we don't live in Iran or the Soviet Union, it's clear that the second choice provides the only palatable foundation for our drug policy.
This is not a radical suggestion. It springs directly from the fundamental beliefs of a pluralistic society, straight off Master Card and Merrill Lynch commercials ("Possibilities and Personal Choice," "Your World Should Know No Boundaries"). What could be more American than that? And it's certainly not a call for anarchy or license, as the soldiers in the war on drugs will be sure to cry. I'm obviously not encouraging license in drug use, any more than I am in football or drinking. I'm simply encouraging, first, the right to choose one's own privately pursued activities, and second, the application of no more than the same restrictions we apply to other risky activities.
It might be difficult for many people to countenance these conclusions, so deep is the bias against drug use. But if we truly live in a free country that takes its rhetoric seriously, then we must countenance them. It's easy to support freedom as long as people are thinking and doing things of which we approve. The real acid test of a free people is its ability to support the freedom of those who think and do things the majority don't favor or even understand—like testing acid. As Voltaire almost said, "I may hate what you swallow, but I'll defend to the death your right to swallow it."
Mark Buechler is a doctoral candidate in literature and philosophy and teaches English at Indiana University.