This Is Your Country on Drugs

Maybe it’s got to do with television: It goads us, but it’s too banal to hold us. Maybe it’s religion, how it failed us, or we failed it. But the numbers don’t lie: In this nation, in this culture, one of our favorite ways to break out of the doldrums is to get high. We connect, we tune in (out?), we transcend, we crash. Maybe not today, maybe not anymore, but we’ve all got our stories.

We share a few of them here, because we want to celebrate, because we want to confess, because it’s taboo, because we’re convinced that the complexity of true experience is more illuminating than the black-and-white projections of the mainstream media. We find drugs in the movies, and shot through the history of rock & roll. But it’s not just fun and games. We write about tragedy and human wreckage, about all the facets of America’s love-hate relationship with any substance that will get us off.

Of course, that’s not the only cost of our national fascination with drugs. The guns are muffled by distance and the casualties kept from view, but there’s a war going on, declared by President Reagan in 1982 and unabated since. We may be inured, but the war continues. We’ve armed our cops and our allies, we’ve filled our prisons and then built new ones, and still the contraband flows. Prices for cocaine are at an all-time low, suggesting that quantities have reached an all-time high.

What are we to make of this? What are the moral implications of a society that outlaws drug use while indulging in it? What is the imperative to punish inebriation? And why are we so committed to creating a black market where the smugglers flourish?

We don’t claim to have the answers, but we do come at these questions from a unique perspective. While we don’t advocate drug use per se, we don’t reject it either, as inherently evil, or even wrong. We look at the issues in human terms, in light of what people need and want and do, and we weigh the questions of policy and punishment, of judgment and morality, in that light.

Herewith, some inquiry, and some responses. We take a close look at the hard line of “zero tolerance,” the all-or-nothing maxim for so much public policy. We tour the battlefront we’ve opened in Colombia; here in California, we examine the effort to forge a new alternative to criminalization, a project that begins statewide this week.

Nothing here is automatic. There are no easy answers. But we want to examine this crisis in our midst, so easily overlooked, unfolding in slow motion, often behind the scenes. Perhaps this week, as we continue to celebrate our War of Independence, you will join us in taking a moment to reflect on the war America is fighting today.

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