It’s Sunday night in the living room of a small apartment in a college town somewhere. Two guys are sitting around the TV on couches, beers in hand; both are underage. A few feet away from them in the kitchen, a girl is putting the finishing touches on a bowl of homemade guacamole. She’s got a beer, too, standing with the hot sauce and the bright green little bottle of lime juice on the counter. She grabs the guac and a bag of chips, sits down on the floor in front of the couch and calls to a fourth, her roommate; cartoons are coming on. “Wanna smoke a bowl?” someone says with a grin, and they all laugh, because the question didn’t really need to be asked. Weed is procured and smoked, but the scene doesn’t change much: There’s laughing, chatting, eating, the repetition of funny-sounding phrases or gags on “Aqua Teen.” Typical Sunday evening.
Do you think any of them thought that what they were doing was legally, morally or ethically wrong?
People my age know an awful lot about drugs; we have ever since we were little kids. Long before we experienced illicit substances firsthand, teachers, parents and national luminaries the likes of Nancy Reagan told us all about drugs. Most of us went through the D.A.R.E. experience, in which a cop came to class and taught the “skills” needed to resist peer pressure; mostly, they told us not to smoke tobacco, but they covered illegal drugs and gang violence as well.
The right amount of skewed information was given to scare us away from pushers and parties, and it usually worked until we were 14 or 15. By then, a lot of kids are skeptical enough, fearless enough, to test some of the claims made by educators and parents; they’re confident that they can experience the effects these substances have on the brain and body without dropping out of school or becoming junkies. Unlike our parents, who could buy beer while they were in high school and drop acid while it was still legal, kids like me were expected to take comfort in their knowledge of the effects of amphetamines, to know what used needles look like, to understand what a lifetime of smoking and drinking does to people.
Then, at a certain age, disillusionment sets in. If drugs are so bad, and we shouldn’t associate with people who do drugs, then why do so many people use them? If alcohol is a drug, and drugs are bad for you, then what does it mean when your parents keep a steady supply of boxed wine in the fridge? Drugs — some of them, anyway — can’t be that bad for you, we reason. And the information that was once used to preemptively scare us straight seems half-assed. Our health teachers won’t even tell us about condoms — why should we believe anything else they say?
So we experiment — maybe a little, maybe a lot. But we’ve got to question the way things are when it’s easier for an underage kid to buy drugs than to procure alcohol. How is it that in some states, the possession of a drug like marijuana can carry a life sentence, or that outrageously tough federal laws can supercede state decisions about marijuana use? Why is Western drug policy the way it is? These are the questions drug education should answer.
Rather than rolling himself in a blanket and pretending to be a joint, the dad in that Partnership for a Drug-Free America ad should be asking his kid if she knows who Harry J. Anslinger was, or that the British East India Company monopolized the opium trade between India and China for decades in the 18th century, or that, in the Western world, classism, racism and xenophobia have had more effect on drug policy than has concern for public health.
In “The Pursuit of Oblivion,” a comprehensive history of illicit drug use throughout recorded time, Richard Davenport-Hines writes: “It is easier to make things illegal than to change human nature. The outburst of twentieth-century legislating on the use of drugs modified the way people behaved: but it could not stop drug use.”
The daughter in the ad should know that, in the words of Davenport-Hines, “intoxication is not unnatural or deviant. Absolute sobriety is not a natural or primary human state.” She should know enough about the history, uses and effects of drugs to choose how to explore her own existence.
Jones is a Daily fall/winter associate arts editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.