It’s been said that, “To a hammer, the whole world is a nail.” With this in mind, I am cognizant of the fact that drug counselors may have a propensity to see issues of substance abuse everywhere. However, it sure seems as though a variety of news sources have reported on issues and events; like the decriminalization of marijuana, prominent politicians being pulled over for impaired driving, underage drinking at a police chief’s house and a number such concerns in recent weeks. It certainly appears as though alcohol and other drugs are hot topics. When you think about it, they have been for some time.
Perhaps this is a crazy thing for drug counselors to say, but drugs play a major role in our society. Many Americans drink alcohol and smoke marijuana to relax and socialize. Many also celebrate and grieve using substances as well. Our baseball and football games often include alcohol as part of the experience. If you are over 50 and can remember Woodstock, the music was accompanied by a significant amount of alcohol, marijuana and LSD. If Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, many others certainly have (and continue to do so). We all know folks who ‘cry in their beer’ or ‘drink to make it all go way’. While we have many laws on the books seeking to control and limit drugs – many in our society continue to use (legally and illegally). In addition, many who do use are otherwise law abiding and successful members of their communities.
Confusing? Sure seems like it. After all is said and done, it looks as though there is a huge disconnect between what our laws espouse and what many do and feel. That is why I think the entire (well intended) “War on Drugs” approach was off base.
The “War on Drugs” placed a great deal of emphasis on enemies. We blamed other nations, sprayed all kinds of fields, patrolled thousands of miles of borders and sent people to prison. In the end, we still have a drug problem. To make matters worse (or at least interesting) is that our major peddlers of drugs are legal ones. Companies that make alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs are all doing quite well. Add to this organizations that dispense marijuana and it is clear that drugs are big business. In some ways, our nation’s economy benefits greatly from the sale of drugs. It is capitalism at its best.
Another illustration of our convoluted attitude towards drugs is offered to us in the sports and entertainment world(s). Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Lyle Alzado and countless others have all been scrutinized for using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). While many lament the used of PED’s, others (inclusive of many coaches, owners, other players and fans) have pretended ignorance.
Barry Bonds was regularly given standing ovations in San Francisco as rumors abounded regarding his use.
In the entertainment world, some of our greatest rock stars suffered from addictions to drugs. Icons like John Lennon and Eric Clapton struggled with heroin. Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin paid a dear price for using [drugs] with their lives. Still, after all is said and done, these folks are idolized by millions.
We scoff at Wynonna Ryder when she gets caught shoplifting. We wag our fingers at Susan Sarandon or
Tim Robbins if they get too political. But for some reason, drug use is often expected from our performers and athletes.
All of this brings me back to the “War on Drugs.” In the end, aren’t we really at war with ourselves? At the very least, aren’t we really battling with social norms, stress and existential concerns? Blaming the Boogie Man is kind of like saying “The devil made me do it.” Eliminate the market and the seller goes out of business.
In an amazing turnabout, drugs went from a symbol of rebellion in the 60’s to recreation, stress relief and compliance today. Who would have ever thought this would have been uttered by a parent a generation ago? “Jimmy, Mom and Dad are going out for a drink.
Did you take your ADHD medication today? Oh yeah, and leave your grandfather’s medical marijuana alone – he only has enough until his next Doctor’s visit.” Like Bob Dylan wrote, “the times they are a-changin.” How do you fight a war with these dynamics in play?
Earlier, I stated that the “War on Drugs” was off base, although well intended. The heavy-handed approach, sprinkled with jingoism, promises, shallow slogans, lots of guns, prisons and enemies galore has proven to be the Vietnam of social wars. Despite lots of might, major portions of the country don’t want it, and putting addicts in jail is the Tet Offensive in the so-called war. As a drug counselor, I am obviously concerned with the use and abuse of illegal drugs. I am also alarmed by our over-reliance on prescription medications and their abuse as well. With this said, I am equally troubled (and have been for a long time) by the shallowness of the “War on Drugs.” It’s been said that, in some cases, “less is more.” Perhaps, in this case, we should provide less harsh rhetoric and physical might and more treatment, prevention and education.
We probably should be asking questions about why the need for all of these drugs? Sure, it’s O.K. to have a drink (if you’re an adult). Sure it’s O.K. to use prescription medications (if needed and taken appropriately). My concern is more for why we need to use drugs like marijuana and alcohol to socialize, cope and get away from it all. Are our friendships so boring that they can only be handled by a drink or blunt? Are our coping mechanisms so fragile that we can only unwind in the same fashion? No other options are available? Jogging, reading, walks in the park, friendly conversation and a movie every now and then – not any good?
The “War on Drugs” needs to be addressed on a much smaller scale. Smaller, but no less important. First off, let’s drop the War stuff. Secondly, the real struggle is on an interpersonal level. I’ve written about this numerous times before but much of our use of legal and illegal drugs is existential at the core.
It’s about who we are. It’s about who we want in our lives. It’s also about our own needs, insecurities and lifestyles. Again, a drink now and then can be fun, social but, when it (the drink) becomes more than that (a means to cope or one’s socializing strategy) a balance has been lost.
Alcohol, marijuana, and prescription meds are things. In some ways, we’ve found a place for them in our worlds. For some, that place is larger than that of others (for a multitude of reasons). This disproportionate reliance on an artificial means eventually leads to a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “Give a man a why and he will endure any how.”
The why’s in our lives are our causes – the how’s are about what we will do to achieve them. It seems as though now is a time to place more emphasis on our why’s. The “War on Drugs” never asked us about the why’s. It just surged ahead, making and finding enemies and ignoring root causes. Looking inward might actually prove to be more difficult than outward. But, if we really want to address this whole “drug thing,” it’s the most effective way. Sometimes the simplest truths are the most difficult to find. Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home.” It all begins in our backyard.
Bob Houghtaling is the Director of the East Greenwich Drug Program serving in his 29th year. He was also a member of the Exeter/West Greenwich School Committee and taught for 7 years at the Providence College Graduate School of Education.