The Pharmacological Crusade: 20 years later
English - Spanish
In a globalized world, new trends emerge as quickly as they disappear, and the pharmacological situation may have similarly undergone notable changes between 1989 and 2008. Having been fascinated for some time by the relationship between politics and religion, and returning for a moment to the subject of drugs (in reality a sub-variant of that relationship), I can see to what point writing lets us forget an object without losing it. When attention is refocused on that object, it continues to be there, but it becomes the memory of a memory, and the abundance of its details isn't so overwhelming. Conditioned by the inmediacy of things as they were then, or changes produced over time, what would I highlight from the research and what have I left pending? For one thing, distance lets me sum up the development of the pharmacological crusade drastically.
The crusade broke out in a United States that was conscious of its future as a superpower and was thoroughly instructed in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which contemplated a moral regeneration within the nation itself as well as in the rest of the world. Focused on that Destiny -and while Europe prosecuted the First World War, in 1914- the US Congress ratified a series of bills that included: A) restricting access to opium, morphine and cocaine to physicians and pharmacist; B) making the production and consumption of all alcoholic beverages, except Eucharistic wine, illegal; and C) extending a prohibition of public tobacco use, already in place in twenty-eight states, to the entire United States. Spearheaded by the Prohibition Party -then a powerful element in the Senate- the new laws also counted on support from two fundamental entities: the American Medical Association and the American Pharmaceutical Association, both motivated by licenses to continue prescribing small quantities of cognac and whiskey for medicinal purposes, and above all, in order to wield a definitive blow to unlicensed competitors ("quacks"). Then US Representative Herbert C. Hoover -who was later elected president- defined the new las as "the greatest moral experiment in History".
Controlled or prohibited substances represented a notable source of tax revenue, and given that revenue collection was soon to contract by one-fourth, Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, allowing the federal government to tax personal and corporate income. Prohibition would later be repealed in 1933; and tobacco successfully resisted its detractors until clashing with them again and the end of the last century. But those three controlled (though originally pharmacy-dispensed) substances would ultimately become dozens, and later hundreds, and finally countless other mood-altering substances, some available by prescription only and others excluded from the pharmacopeia. Distant from the original source of the change, the therapeutic community liberally continued consuming and dispensing morphine and cocaine, until police, impersonating addicts or simple users, started showing up clinics and pharmacies, so that by 1921 some 70.000 US doctors, dentists, and pharmacists had been or were in prision for "unlawful conduct". In that same year the Journal of the American Medical Association denounced a "conspiracy to deprive medicine of its traditional rights and responsabilities".
These new measures placed the United States into a set of complex consequences -contraband, institutional corruption, organized crime, disregard for the law, and the first generation of so -called "junkies"- but it's important to remember that the rest of the world didn't get dragged into all this. There was a spiritual difference in the US, easly appreciated when we remember the words of Senator J. Volstead (Prohibition's law were called the Volstead Act) when his project went into effect: "All men will once again walk upright; all women will smile; and children will laugh; the gates of Hell will be closed forever". Europe and the rest of the world undertook a much less ambicious policy, that in time came to be known as harm reduction. Between supposing that certain drugs were limited to medical/scientific uses, and denying those uses -as US crusaders proposed- the rest of the world's doctors preferred the former attitude.
As well, advances in synthetic chemistry were rendering the traditional arsenal of intoxicants obsolete, and it was easy to out-manoeuver restrictions on opium, morphine ended up being returned to the medical establishment without undue restrictions, and easing-up of things was seen once the sale of alcoholic beverages was no longer prosecuted. There was a whole galaxy of new analgesic, sedatives, stimulants and sleeping aids, sold pure, cheap and over-the-counter in pharmacies, and hardly anybody misses cocaine when they can find more potent, cheaper and purer stimulants right in their medicine cabinets. The same thing could be said for opium and morphine once heroin, and sometime later, demerol or palfium were available, soon joined by benzodiazepines for use as tranquilizers and sleep aids.
Some will remember Optalidon, a remedy especially embraced by housewives around the world since the 1950's, whose secret was a combination of amphetamine and barbiturates. In Europe, lax control measures were supported by positive results in practice, and pharmacies were even allowed to dispense hallucinogens such a mescaline. Note that it was older, upstanding individuals that availed themselves of these products and they did so in no scandalous fashion. But with the end of the World War II, the United States, now the unquestioned superpower, once again reverberated with a sense of Manifest Destiny, and its paladins denounced drug makers and pharmacies for surreptitiously fusing cabaret vices with those of an opium den. The left and permissiveness were their enemies, and the recently created a network of international organitzations committed to promoting prohibition. Before the end of the 1950's, the UN had rolled out its first five-year plan for a "drug-free world".
At the heart of the project was US delegate H.J. Anslinger, a former prohibition agent who was used as a behind-the-scenes organizer and ideologue for decades. The UN Bulletin on Narcotics, a monthly publication where he presented his own ideas on dangerous drugs and unseemly minorities, was also his initiative. We can read in the Bulletin, for example, how opium was linked to child abuse among the Chinese in San Francisco and New York; cocaine with immorality on the part of Irish and Jews; and marijuana with episodes of maniac dementia among Mexican immigrants or Malaysians literally running amok.
This precarious balance between normal life and a drug-free world collapsed at the end of the 1960's, a period of insurrectional apotheosis that reclaimed drugs and sex so earnestly that it proclaimed slogans like "it's prohibitied to prohibit". Under the aegis of its triumph in matters of aesthetics and tastes, May 1968, Woodstock and other analogous phenomena also marked the beginning of an explosion on recreational drug use. A brotherhood of the needle -founded by William S. Burroughs within the world of certain sordid US conditions- or Timothy Leary's antics -endowing LSD with the ability to conjure up 100 orgams or better the US economy- were among the most outrageous. An even greater stupor provoked a "badck-to-the-land" pilgrimage among numerous young people, which some interpreted as a shift from the System to Nature. A French version, involving worshippers of Mao and Che, was soon opting for heroin and terrorism. The Anglo-Saxon tendency, that officially sought only peace, rejected the fixed menu offered in pubs and pharmacies for an a la carte plan where marijuana and other hallucinogens were the preferred fare.
With the horror of Vietnam War as a background, the institutional reponse was a war without quarter, declared by President Nixon on drugs old and new. The US's sponsorship of UN prohibition organizations, up to that point insufficient for getting the West and the East to join together in an officially declared crusade, proved fruitful when those organizations proposed an accord demanding just such an effort: 1971's UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. International Legislation once limited to narcotics and addictive drugs was now broadened to include any sort of substance with psychotropic effects (psychotropic being a neologism created by the Convention), in an understanding that "all member states ought to look out for the emotional state of its citizens". Up to that point, only US legislation had punished the consumption or even mere possession of controlled or prohibited drugs; now it was the UN that was acting against them. Furthermore, it pressured all states to created specific narcotics task forces, toughening previously existing penalties for trafficking and possession. Where such laws were not already on the books -as was the case in India, Iran or Afghanistan- the convention urged they be created.
"Pharmacological disobedience," the nation's number-one enemy, Nixon declared, was a plague commensurate to the black death of the Middle Ages. The world was then still embroiled in the Cold War, divided into friends and enemies of business; yet for once, communists, capitalists and developing nations were in aggreement, and the list of nations that punished the drug perp with death went from almost none to nearly forty. The remaining countries -a conglomerate from which Spain was the exception, since its judiciary refused to criminalize simple consumption- joined without hesitation in support of the Convention's only cogent point. Specifically, that laboratories and pharmacies scale back production substantially, handing over monopoly-like conditions to the black market.
The new interantional law exchange each country's then existing paradigm in favor of one that dismissed improvisation and local particularities, but did not prevent the introduction of a new, spontaneous paradigm that further widened the gap between intentions and results. For example, it was at this point that young people began to be the principal consumers of drugs; and that the "brotherhood of the needle" began to engage in prostitution to get its fix, or steal and mug, as US reformers had feared -though unfoundedly so- early on in 1914. Something that was once problematic only for marginalized indigents had become generalized throughout all socioeconomic sectors. Demand for cocaine and heroin went up as their pharmacy-bought analogues grew scarce; cannabis and recently illegalized LSD became the favorites of the counterculture, which denounced the crusade as a pseudoscientific initiative, whose solutions did nothing bug aggravate drug-related illness.
II- SELF-ORGANIZATION WITHIN OUT-OF-BALANCE REALITIES
Some thirty years of total war passed, during which us directives against old and new drugs was ever more widely imitated by international community, with the exception of the Netherlands and Switzerland, since all or some of their municipalities favored a policy of harm reduction (thought this did not prevent them from being signers to international conventions). 60's radicalism did not survive much more than a generation, and a fair number of those who'd once shouted "it's prohibited to prohibit" had OD'ed on purpose, or, more commonly, had been killed by adulterated substances. But in the meantime, innumerable individuals from every part of the world had come to disobey prohibitions, and involvement in drugs had come to be the number-one cause of arrest and convictions across the planet, as well as the source of a parallel increase in crimes against property and persons, perpetrated by addicts or those who claimed addiction as an alibi.
The United States, the only country with previous experience regarding this new kind of criminal, soon achieved a prison inmate population of 1 million. Other nations confronted this exponential growth in repressors and the repressed by means of different responses, among them corruption. At the end of 80's, the UN, through its International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), declared that Colombia, Burma, Afghanistan, Morocco and 21 other countries mass produced or distributed illicit drugs, fostering a business of roughly a half trillion dollars annually, whose laundering involved worldwide banking. The INCB failed to point out that the common denominator uniting these corrupt states was that they complied to the letter with the INCB's own directives, punishing trafficking with the death penalty or life in prison. In practice, however, punitive inflexibility sanctions monopolies that are divided up between the military and the police.
At about that time, what was a simple narcotics division founded with thirteen inspectors became the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the only US government organitzation with more employees than the CIA, whose director amended a previous policy of eliminating supply in favor of defensive war, or war of attrition: the goal would now be to make drugs impossibly expensive and adulterated. Nevertheless, not having competitors means that the black market ends up competitive, and its products end up being the most immune to price increases. At the same time, policing, punishing and promoting abstinence created a revenue stream that before long became comparable to the stream producted by illegal traffic, at the same time it employed millions of individuals from all across the globle. Illegal traffickers took advantage of growing demand to introduce an innovation known as "desing".
A memorable moment in this process ocurred in spring 1985, when a UN blue-ribbon panel convened to decide what to do with the emergent drug known as MDMA, or ecstasy. The agenda featured testimony on the part of psychiatrists and pharmacologists who favored adding the drug tho List II or List IV, along with products likecodeine and valium. Not one technical report in opposition was presented during the entire session. A classification of the substance in acordance with a regime of legal manufacture and more or less controlled distribution seemed imminnent when at the eleventh hour, the Experts decided tho place it on List I (drugs lacking any legitimate medicinal use, like heroin, LSD, cannabis, etc.) Its response to the corpus of reports regarding therapeutic use was to declare that the "Committee recommends member states [...] facilitate further research into this interesting and intriguing substance."
Nevertheless, research regarding List I drugs is not permitted, and the dismay of the professionals who had assembled for this 22nd session was summed up by no less influential an observer than the then director of the DEA, Frank Sapienza, who explained to the press that "a drug doesn't get banned because it's dangerous; but because apparently a lot of people want to take it.". In effect, a lot of people wanted to try it, and they were going to try it. but it wasn't going to be under the supervision of psychologists and family counselors as the participants at the 22nd session had envisioned. Illegal trafficking therefore added the most popular drug in recent decades to its menu, to be consumed by young adults (and those even younger) whether it was on the beach in Bali, Thailand or Vietnam -or in discos and at home in temperate or colder climes. Expensive and pure at first, later cheap and adulterated, it was the most effective alternative to the recreational model represented by the alcohol and cocaine combo. Making ecstasy illegal changed nothing.
As ecstasy began to cause a sensation in youth circles, prohibition, in reality, found itself battling chemical innovation and invention -an adversary motivated by profit and rebellion. The black market adapted to that change, and since then has offered merchandise that fits into every possible space in contemporany life, through alternatives to traditional products that simultaneously satisfy the market's interests as well as those of the consumer. That is where design comes in, which includes Moroccan hashish, crack, rock, a wide variety of pills, and special K among its discoveries, as well as fentanyl, so -called liquid ecstasy and hydroponic cannabis. Furthermore, I'm certain I'm forgetting the illegal imagination's latest discoveries. What these substances have in common is that they're not the old original ones, whose absence may be felt with varying degrees of nostalgia, and that they better adapt themselves yo user groups and subgroups, specific time zones and even transitory spaces.
Their improvisatory "chefs", in some cases renowned chemists such as Alexander Shulgin, offer up their discoveries and suddenly a sedative called "hashish gum" appears, at the same time as do thousands of phenethylamines and tryptamines. more or less distant cousins to MDMA. The highly technical work of launching a new drug goes hand in hand with prosaic adaptations of existing drugs and the creation of new uses, such as taking a dissociative anesthesic to wind down at an after-hours club or multiplying the THC in cannabis by means of advanced agronomy. THC causes a "bad trip" for many, so to serve this market, there are those who transform it into cannabinol (CB) -by simply sun-drying the marijuana- offering a hashish that doesn't "kick in" like the classic varieties, but at the same time provides the same "choreographic" effects and also offers a certain psychoactivity.
The "alternative designer drug" era also brought normalization and standardization into the world of the prohibited, which seamlessy became a part of youthful rites of passage and increased the prominence of the increasingly democratic weekend. Inconceivable a generation earlier, the custom of "partying hard" every Friday and Saturday might have been considered the height of frivolity had it not also become a notable focus of economic activity and a means of open socialization throught stress relief and relaxation. Contemporany societies are now the antithesis of asceticism, and the fact that partying is always ceremonial exerts a magnet-like attractions to any drug that affords intensity or endurance. Alcohol's powers for removing inhibitions have tradicionally exerted a central role in celebrations, but as such occasions multiplied, grew more prolonged and diverse, their undesirable side effects have allowed for infiltration by an ever wider array of supplements and alternatives.
Cocaine, for example, allowed one to disguise alcohol-induced intoxication with a certain amount of muscular coordination, so a notable cohort at the disco favored such a mix. Another party subset consumed only pills and water. A third sector practices an even more heroic variation with hallucinogens. A fourth starts with pills and if it can't find special K or something analogous to bring down the party, falls back on cocaine and booze. A fifth sector drinks little, smokes a little cannabis and maybe takes an opiate. The sixth ... And all these millions upon millions of people are neither gangsters nor their molls -but rather something akin to a crowd afflicted by some sort of St. Vitu's dance. Contemplating this spiraling consumption, a good part of law -enforcement and the judiciary stopped supporting prohibitation starting at the end of the 80's.
It was at that point that an ongoing vogue for televised debates on drugs ended up demonstrating that a reformist position might overturn the traditional prohibitionist one -perhaps even by wide margins- if the question were left to local and national referenda. On the other hand, contemporaneous surveys indicated that drugs were the number-one cause of public alarm, and no government was willing to risk the political costs of intervening in something where special interests, prosecutorial zeal and near-maniacal passions had converged to form an inextricably tangled ball of yarn. The fashion for discussion of drugs led to televised debates on sundry other subjects -with an identical format wherein the audience applauds or boos a panel of guests whose numbers make it impossible to examine any issue properly. But at about the time these programs fell out of favor, it also became impossible to claim, without being quite hypocritical, that in Spain and in much of Europe institutions were still operating in state of pharmacological war.
Rather on the contrary, in a moment when the quantity and variety of products demanded a hardening of hostilities, repression mechanisms began to provide funds for educational campaigns, in support of studies on the dangers of this or that illicit substance, therapeutic bureaucracies and rehabilitations teams. Teenagers would be subject to fines or inspection on the part of municipal police, but detectives and judges no longer felt the hate/pity they had in other times for occasional users and addicts, which was equivalent to seeing the crusade as an ultimately pointless expenditure.
Before anyone could even propose it, the crusade began to contract right when it needed to expand , and ignoring UN recommendations, began to be content with merely keeping up appearances. Nor was there any other way to react in the face of absurdities ranging from organizational budgets to the fact that points-of-sale for drugs were multiplying without a corresponding uptick in overdose rates, one among numerous indications that those given to drug-induced euphoria were developing autonomous mechanisms for training and awareness, and were doing so in the user/provider spiral, jailing just a small percentage was exposed as discriminatory. Judiciaries began insisting on the prosecution of large-scale traffickers only; however, this left local channels intact at the same time it ignored that large-scale trafficking only exists in conjuction with support and facilitation on the part of police -and that every arrest comes at the price of impunity granted to others. In short, the so-called underground empire continued to grow and consolidate power, once more making manifest that the vitality of unconscious or self-fashioning orders always exceeds the power of the resources put in their way by any particular and deliberate scheme.
Variables as divergent as the ability to "cook" and cultivate in any house, increases in spending power on the part of teens and young adults, a collapse in the social stigma surrounding illicit substances and a growing sense of impotence on the part of those charged with achieving a drug-free world could be added to that overarching root-cause. By the mid 1990's in Spain and throughout the EU -except in Ireland- illicit drugs were cheaper and in some cases purer than they had been in two decades. Some, because they could be made at home (marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, and every other kind of plant), and others because their synthesis, with the right equipment, was not difficult (ecstasy and its hundreds of cousins, for example, plus LSD and speed), and still others because demand outweighed the cost of elaborate exportation schemes from Latin America or Asia (e.g., heroin and cocaine).
On a parallel path to these changes was the fact that users "and addicts" civil disobedience advanced hand in hand with "pharmacological education", using "psycho-nautics" (Jünger) as a response to drug-related self-destructiveness and marginalization that peaked in the 70's and 80's. Magazines with readership comparable to equivalent journals on motorcycles, fishing and political gossip, as well as conferences, associations and specialty stores, complemented the emergence of consumers who adopted observant attitudes, as might an entomologist or an astronomer, something closer to a wine connoisseur as opposed to a drunk. Although "psychonauts" are by no means immune to subjective follies, the vision of drug use limited to crusades and equally foolish rebels has developed into something more akin to the old Greco-Roman principle of sobria ebrietas.
Even Dr, Frankenstein's pharmacological monster, the junky, changed more than a decade ago, willingly shifting from needles to alternative, less risky administration methods. The addicts that would hold up pharmacies or even passers-by with a supposedly sero-positive syringe have disappeared and even though there are more users of illegal substances, overdoses have steadily become less frequent and no longer figure in National Plan statistics. On somewhat closer inspection, the abatement of these most problematic cases has depended on settlements in Spain run by Roma people that have emerged on the margins of cities.
To visit one such community -like Madrid's Baranquillas neighborhood, recently pushed out to the Cañada Real area- allows us to see something supported by equal parts discreet realpolitik and harm reduction. In addiction to the desmoralization that comes from observing a population that is essentially toothless and in rags, one also witnesses a stream of buyers who seem no different from normal citizens. Police patrols monitor entrances and exits; a city-sponsored IV drug-use unit gives away needles and syringes, and a methadone-dispensing mobile health unit takes pity on those with no money. Day and night, the board that serves as a table in every modest, low-slung dwelling supports three plastic bags and as many kitchen scales for the dispensing of heroin, cocaine and crack. The salesperson, male or female, insisting on silence within the house, only wants to know how much, and of what, from clients. After visiting more than one dwelling we noticed that fringes really weren't the major buyers. Normal-looking customers are attracted to the fact that rivalry between dealing families tends to insure the cheapest and least adulterated product in every city.
III- THE CRUSADE FUTURE
Unnerved by the stink of a toilet-free shantytown, we breath a real sigh of relief leaving behind this penultimate metamorphosis in the drama -a "supermarket" that evokes a medieval leper colony at the same time it fulfills complex functions. "Under-control" users access drugs that would otherwise be more tightly controlled by the black-market monopoly; "out-of-control" users access an area where they can be rented for seasonal camp-outs. They're an offense to the senses, but city hall knows in every case up to what point they can displace these settlements without their disappearing, and that their existence perceptibly reduces collateral crime and street sales. Unseemly as it may be, it's the only option as long as pharmacies and other legal dispensaries have no access to salable alternatives.
In 2007, Andalusian authorities made public results af years-long observations of two control groups, one supported on methadone and the other on pharmaceutical heroin. The report showed that those who received the drug considered the most nefarious were happier and more willing to work than those who received the supposed antidote -a far from unforeseen conclusion. In effect, methadone is a more toxic compound, devoid of euphoric properties- just highly addictive. Anyone attempting to use it long term probably adds valium, alcohol, cocaine, liters of coffee, and heroin, naturally, to the mix, while the straight heroin addict is satisfied with just his drug. So heroin is more humane for addicts; diving them heroin instead of methadone better supports their reinsertion into society. For the time being, however, program participants only get the drug intravenously -now an anachronism produces when heated are not considered appropiate delivery methods within medical protocols.
Even though it has come up against resistance since the beginning, the crusade has achieved much of what it set out to do in its original country and in the rest of the world, demostrating zealous energy to an excessive degree. Like Che Guevara's revolucionary cause, charged with "struggling always until victory", the crusade is neither an ethical, medical or legal school of thought, but rather an amalgam of politics an religion, subject neither to questioning nor discouragement. Without doing anything more, it has maintained an unchanging stance before situations as divergent as the initial one -a planet ordered by lax, highly idiosyncratic rules- and the current one, where a highly strict order reigns formally, and the underground empire grows at will. In crises like this, the danger ascribed to others is also a measure of each person's fear of himself. What sense does it make to reflect on the long -and medium-term consequences of this or that attitude, when chemical nirvanas even tempt our leaders?
Just as in other sublime, coercive undertakings, volition overrrides the intellect and presents setback as an impetus for more action, objections as if they were a desertion. The crusade is as prepared to make protests that no one can hear as it is to guide everyone's conduct with an iron fist. The only remedy time possesses for influencing its decissions is to gradually channel its outrage/anguish into other causes for alarm. Rational arguments convince those who can think without fear, but do not in the case of those who see "Drugs" as an epidemic, and a state of quarantine only diminishes to the degree that the attack on the part of the threatening other infiltrates the fearful through contact. Right on the table in closed-door sessions with Committes of Experts, you can find reports on the lamentable situation of medicine being dragged into the fight against the chemical imagination, at the same time legions of rebels mock each of their recommendations. A certain familiarization or coexistence phenomenon has been the decisive factor, in my judgment, so that a war without quarter ends up as silent armistice.
In fact, tobacco -the only addictive drug that has remained undisturbed in recent centuries- has now come to take advantage of legal rights acquired on behalf of other drugs, kicking off a "crusade light" that assesses tolerance for a vast minority(1) in light of administrative meddling. It's a way of suggesting up to what point liberal democracy can adapt to the fundaments of the Clinical State (Szasz), and only time will tell if makers and users will continue to tolerate that their belongings be covered in slogans and images printed there without their consent or indemnification, or will tolerate discrimination that provides a third of all adults only one-twentieth of public space -or simply nothing whatsoever. If growing restrictions placed on smokers are not met with resistance, then the "it's for their own good" reasoning could be extended to go after powders, pills and other non-odiferous substances, and maybe revert to an even greater adherence to the rest of the crusade.
When I began to take notes and accumulate research materials on the history of drugs, I was in my mid-forties. Now I'm nearing 70, and maybe readers will wonder if the passage of time moved me to switch positions on this or that matter. Naturally if I wrote it all again, I'd remove a certain amount of poorly (or properly) contained indignation, since putting in too much that's obvious weighs down one's expository rigor. Other than that, I haven't changed my mind when it comes to crusades in general, or this one in particular; they still seem like explosions of collective paranoia to me, all the more cruel to the degree that they always end up doing the same thing: imposing a strategy of scapegoating on behalf of sundry pretexts. Our mind's most primitive, reptilian substrata serve as a support to this, more or less permanently derailing our desire and efforts on behalf of responsible liberty, a prerequisite for civilized existence.
That doesn't mean, of course, that the benefits of our relationship with the psychoactive substance arsenal will outweigh its damages, unless we condition that relationship with at least as much care, self esteem, art and respect for others as is required in other spheres of conduct. Nor does it mean that the future will be fundamentally bright and not need attending to.
The fact that I'm the father of seven children, six of whom are between the ages of 15 and 40, and that I'm proud of them all, doesn't mean that a phone call in the wee hours of a weekend night -when statistics for highway incidents peak- doesn't still shake me up. With spending power they never had before, young people prolong something analogous to partying at Prohibition's funeral, as if some sort of generic mutation allowed them to ingest amounts and varieties of drugs that would have been able to temporarily or permanently incapacitate a good many in my generation. This comes with familiarity, but life has become increasingly onerous, and stretching the limits of safety -the proportions between active and lethal dose- hasn't moved the limits of social acceptance one milimeter. Society is more implacable than ever when it comes time to punish someone who wastes his time or thinks she can intoxicate herself without paying the corresponding bar tab.
Within a generalized herd mentality, the Netherlands stands out as an oasis of sanity. By distinguishing cannabis from other drugs in the 70's, it avoided losing the trust of its young people, in contrast to what governments do when they lump any drug except alcohol, tobacco and what you buy at the pharmacy into one diabolical bin. Later the Netherlands rolled out mobile laboratories to detect adulteration in drugs distributed in nightclubs, at after-hours parties, and at raves, following its policy of realistic harm reduction. Its municipalities were also pioneers -along with some cities in Switzerland- in the distribution of heroin as a substitute for methadone, and in the controlled availability of LSD. There is no country with a wider array of drugs available, yet none has fewer of the addicts classified as "incorrigible". It has casually turned the same marijuana that in Malaysia and other countries calls for a dusting off of the gallows into a largely peaceful business that supports innumerable families and is a source of tourism that everyone can benefit from. As a final source of disquiet to crusaders, thousands of Dutch "coffee shops" (where marijuana is legally sold), with their select offerings of cannabis and hashish, keep domestic consumption at a notably lower level than that of Spain, or even Italy and England.
Perhaps technical progress is inseparable from the expansion of "psychonautics", which by stretching interior space makes up for a slow, steady shrinking of the exterior caused by demographic pressures and the price of land. It's also likely that drugs not yet discovered will become de rigeur in certain circumstances, as seatbelts and third-party liability insurance are now. In any case, our children are ignoring the Prohibitionist sermon, whose very presence, because of their indifference, is counterproductive. When we talk about prevention without sabotage, it will be to offer instruction manuals, not instructions for abstinence. The fact is that intoxication isn't forced on anyone. Steering clear of avoidable misfortunes means building knowledge instead of prejudices. The current challenge is to apply harm reduction policies not only to minorities punished by economic or psychological marginalization, but as well to those individuals who for one reason or another deviate from the official pharmacological menu.
To continue impeding those four or five billion people's access to the quality controls in effect for pharmacies, dispensaries and supermarkets multiplies the danger of the nominally forbidden object, easy to acquire in practice, yet singular for including the only things in the world where sola dosis facit venenum. Behind decades of war designed to redeem souls held hostage by diabolical drugs, imagining that an enormous black market could revert to transparency without interventions as unrealistic as liberating the planet from all illicit drugs. While the true story continues to forge new paths that will ultimately be decisive, in the meantime, in my opinion, compassion dictates replacing the Crusade's experiment in eugenics with empirical and observational intelligence, unburdened by myth and fable. The disturbing part of it all is that we will go to the devil if we don't teach people to administer sensibly, as we tried to teach the professions, since this skill depends on understanding quantity and purity clearly.
The prohibicionist experiment has not managed to dissuade users, limit points-of-sale or even make the illicit more expensive. But it has managed to thicken the fog around the substance's composition, and for that reason has ended up being the principal ally of its supposed adversary: callous, reckless drug traffickers.
1 - In Spain and other EU countries, approximately one-third of the total population smokes tobacco.
* Editor's Note: Thist text was originally written as an appendix to the eighth revised and expanded edition of Escohotado's classic study: Historia general de las drogas (Madrid, 2008).