Drugged Out

Anyone who came of age in the sixties has an odd relationship with drugs. It was more than all the business with Timothy Leary – more than “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

But maybe you had to be there:

The phrase came to him in the shower one day after Marshall McLuhan suggested to Leary that he come up with “something snappy” to promote the benefits of LSD. It is an excerpt from a prepared speech he delivered at the opening of a press conference in New York City on September 19, 1966. This phrase urged people to embrace cultural changes through the use of psychedelics and by detaching themselves from the existing conventions and hierarchies in society.

Well, the sixties were like that. There was weed, and uppers and downers, and acid, and all sorts of stuff. The idea seemed to be that you could become freer or more authentic or deeper or a more spiritual person, or more perceptive, or something, by fooling your brain with a bit of chemical intervention. At the very least you be more relaxed. Donovan would be singing Mellow Yellow in your ear. And your scotch-drinking father would be aghast.

Of course a few of us preferred our brains just as they were – but we had no problem with those looking for new things. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine – it seems that people have always found something to escape what their brain is telling them at the moment. The sixties just brought more options, and everything has its dangers. Some hard drugs could turn you into a criminal junkie, and then kill you. And some teenager, after his eighteenth beer, could lose it at ninety miles an hour and wrap his car around a telephone pole, and wipe out all your friends. Yes, in the sixties, drugs, widely or narrowly defined, ruined many people. It happens.

But we were the chemical generation, or the latest chemical generation. From 1935 through 1982, the DuPont advertising slogan was “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.” The short form everyone used was “Better Living through Chemistry.” In 1982 DuPont dropped the chemistry thing – it was then just “Better Things for Better Living.” But the damage had been done. Every hippie or would-be hippie in the sixties at one time or another did grin and say the magic words – “Better Living through Chemistry” – and took another toke. And if you were protesting at Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Agent Orange, which was mostly dioxin, you chanted the words sarcastically. Everything was about chemistry.

And perhaps the biggest change in the sixties was because of that other drug, the pill. The FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, but those were not available to married women in all states until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and were not available to unmarried women in all states until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972 – but that was only the law. Anyone could get them, one way or another. Griswold was critically important of course – for the first time the Supreme Court ruled that there was an implicit right to privacy in the Constitution. That led to Roe v. Wade and all sorts of rulings that the government has no business regulating private, consensual behavior, particularly when the regulation of that behavior is based on the moral tenets of this particular religion or that. The religious right is still fuming about that – moral relativism, flaunting God’s will and all that. And then they got Lawrence v. Texas – two gay men can do what they want at home, alone, without the Texas Rangers busting down the door. Damn.

But back in the sixties no one saw where that Griswold ruling would lead. The issue back then was the nexus of sex and chemistry. Time Magazine put the pill on its cover in April, 1967, and it was off to the races:

Because the Pill was so effective, and soon so widespread, it also heightened the debate about the moral and health consequences of pre-marital sex and promiscuity. Never before had sexual activity been so divorced from reproduction. For a couple using the Pill, intercourse became purely an expression of love, or a means of physical pleasure, or both; but it was no longer a means of reproduction. While this was true of previous contraceptives, their relatively high failure rates and their less widespread use failed to emphasize this distinction as clearly as did the Pill. The spread of oral contraceptive use thus led many religious figures and institutions to debate the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to procreation. The Roman Catholic Church in particular, after studying the phenomenon of oral contraceptives, re-emphasized the stated teaching on birth control in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical reiterated the established Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorts the nature and purpose of sex.

But they lost that battle. And women became free – not just to express themselves sexually without the risk of pregnancy, but able to plan when and if they wanted to have a child, or several, or do the career thing first, or forever. This did change everything. It was, in fact, women’s liberation. The religious right is still fuming about that too – there should be consequences for doing the dirty, for flaunting God’s will. They did not consider this better living through chemistry at all.

And none of this was lost on the pharmaceutical industry. Now, more than forty years later, we have pills for everything – an industry actually devoted to better living though chemistry. And it’s no wonder it’s gotten a little silly – hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to researcher on the issue of hard-on, or baldness, or the tragic agony of Restless Leg Syndrome. Sure, there is the research on matters of chronic or acute diseases, but that’s not where the money is. These guys know the lesson of the sixties – whatever the issue, even if you don’t know it’s an issue, there is a drug. And of course they want to override the measured or probably conservative your doctor might take – half of evening television is filled with those ads that tell you to tell your doctor about their new drug – tell your doctor to prescribe it to you. You may not know what condition you have, or if you have any, but that’s pretty effective. That’s how we deal with things. Blame Timothy Leary.

And now, in the middle of an economic collapse, it seems that Pfizer has decided to offer seventy medications for free to the jobless. There’s the usual outrage. Viagra for the homeless – when will this Nanny State business ever end? But Matthew Yglesias points out this is the kind of generosity that really only a pharmaceutical firm can offer:

The reason, of course, is that while the costs of developing a new medication are high, the marginal cost of producing additional pills is tiny. So insofar as a firm can identify people who would be genuinely unable to afford to buy medicine, there’s no real cost to the firm in giving the product away to those people. Indeed, it generates good PR. And good PR is important to pharmaceutical companies, in part because it’s a marketing-heavy business but more importantly because it’s a heavily-regulated business that benefits a lot from direct government expenditures on research and relies on government-granted monopolies (i.e., patents) for its business model.

Think about that. Over the years we’ve become enmeshed in an odd system where the government is in the business of pushing pills. But Yglesias also points out that “that financing medical research by providing firms with patent-generated monopoly profits is a very costly way of getting the research.” We have never examined alternatives to that system, or what those government-granted monopolies, in a free market, have left us with.

But he points out that Dean Baker has an essay in Boston Review where he has thought about this:

We could expand the public funding going to NIH or other public institutions and extend their charge beyond basic research to include developing and testing drugs and medical equipment. Or the government could contract out the research and development process to private firms and pay for the work up front so that all patentable results fall in the public domain. Or the government could construct a prize mechanism under which it buys up patents after the fact for a premium keyed to the patent’s usefulness.

Any of that might move things toward developing drugs that do something useful, perhaps. At least that’s where Yglesias is heading:

It seems to me that ideally we should be looking to develop a mixed system. There are a lot of so-called “lifestyle” drugs, like pills that are supposed to prevent baldness, that it wouldn’t really make sense to have direct government funding of. But it’s still good – all things considered – that those pills are developed. They’re basically a form of high-end consumer good, and their creation is progress. Our current system is a good way of financing that kind of thing. But bringing more prizes and contracting-out into the mix for key medical priorities could help build a much more efficient system.

That only matters if you value efficiency. Lifestyle drugs are a legacy of the sixties. There now may be no way to make people think of them any other way, or so the pharmaceutical industry hopes.

And we’re still thinking about drugs:

R. Gil Kerlikowske, the new White House drug czar, thinks the United States should opt for something slightly less bellicose than the phrase “war on drugs” when it comes to addressing the nation’s drug problems. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kerlikowske said the United States drug policy needs to shift the emphasis from incarceration to treatment.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” Kerlikowske told the Journal. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

He didn’t offer an alternative name for the effort, but you can see his thinking. And there is his background:

In tapping Kerlikowske for the cabinet-level position, President Obama selected a law enforcement veteran who is no stranger to unorthodox methods of policing drugs. As Seattle’s police chief, Kerlikowske permitted medical marijuana distributors to operate their businesses so long as they confined them to a few block radius in the city’s business distract.

And of course, the Seattle Times agrees:

He is absolutely right, words do matter. The “war on terror” was more than hyperbole for the Bush administration, which used the phrase to invoke, and invent, all manner of executive powers and prerogatives the country is still learning about.

So you want to promote treatment over sending drug users to jail:

Resources for law enforcement and the bricks and mortar of jails and prisons are clearly an issue for the administration, and states and local governments around the country. Locking people away yielded dubious results at very high costs to public treasuries. …

The United States is working through the consequences of three decades of policy that was no more creative than lock ’em up, forever. Columnist Neal Peirce has reported on an unintended consequence to prison reform: politically powerful unions representing tens of thousands of guards. Prisons are employment centers in many states.

There’s no end of trouble, and yes, folks should chill.

Wonkette riffs on the reaction from the right:

Why does President Obama hate wars so much? He takes office and suddenly the “war on terror” basically disappears, and now our beloved “war on drugs” has also ended, thanks to his new drug czar. Well, at least our thriving democracy still has czars! …

There you go, liberals, always coddling the drug-terrorists with your therapies and treatments instead of sending pot users to Guantanamo, where they belong.

Yglesias offers this, regarding any shift to more treatment and less incarceration:

I would actually be interested in a different switch. At the end of the day, outside the case of methadone replacement therapy for heroin addicts (an admittedly important exception), there’s not a ton of evidence for the efficacy of drug treatment. What we need is less emphasis on drugs and more emphasis on actual problems associated with drugs. For example, consider a town with two crack dealers. Dealer One sells twice as much crack as Dealer Two, but Dealer Two is operating an open-air market that’s a nuisance to the local community whereas Dealer One operates discretely out of his basement and people who aren’t crack addicts don’t even notice him. I think common sense indicates that you go after the guy who’s a nuisance rather than the guy who sells more drugs. But the logic of the “war on drugs” says you follow the drugs.

But arresting a nuisance will accomplish something useful – eliminate a nuisance, and encourage other drug dealers to be less of a nuisance – whereas arresting the guy who moves more product is just going to cause his customers to look someplace else.

Part of that strategy, of course, is recognizing that it’s insane to ever have a situation where someone who wants to quit drugs can’t get him or herself into a treatment program. So in that sense, yes, more treatment. But more broadly, more focus on problems in people’s lives – violent crime, drug overdoses, the spread of HIV – and less focus on aggregate quantities of drugs.

Yep – after the sixties what it comes down to is that the drugs are not the problem at all. We are, in the end, a chemical nation. And those DuPont folks had it right in the first place.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Chemical Nation, Drug Policy, Legacy of the Sixties, Pharmaceutical Industry, War on Drugs Ends. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Drugged Out

  1. Bill Nichols says:

    Another Worthless War Metaphor?

    Drug-related violence along the Mexican border is increasing so rapidly that people begin to talk of Mexico as a “failed state.” Poppies grown in Afghanistan provide funding for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s inmates, one-third of them imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. (We also consume 25% of the world’s non-renewable natural resources, and those statistics seem somehow connected, if only as measures of outrageous wastefulness.) Does anyone think we’re making things better with our multi-billion dollar “war on drugs”?

    If it were just a matter of knowledge, we would probably be clamoring to change our drug policies. But something keeps us from thinking together about the violence and colossal waste of lives and resources that result from our metaphorical war on drugs.

    Last year, Nancy Nichols and I joined a group of Quakers on monthly visits to a women’s prison in Vermont. Most of the women we met were in their early twenties and thirties, nearly all of them convicted of drug offenses. When they talked of their hopes, most them focused on being reunited with their children, many in foster care. They talked so thoughtfully, they could have been participating in a college seminar. It’s unlikely that society has been made safer by their imprisonment, and we are unquestionably made poorer. Given national statistics, we can assume several of the women were convicted for using or selling marijuana.

    In June of 2005, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman joined more than 500 economists who made a case for legalizing marijuana. They argued that ending prohibition would save $7.7 billion in enforcement costs, and taxation would yield up to $6.2 billion a year. “I’ve long been in favor of legalizing all drugs,” Friedman said. “Look at the factual consequences: The harm done and the corruption created by these laws. . . the costs are one of the lesser evils.”

    As the painful consequences of our crippled economy become increasingly apparent, it begins to look as though economic arguments for more reasonable drug policies might succeed where moral arguments have failed. In 1996 the California legislature legalized the medical use of marijuana with a physician’s approval, and now an assemblyman from San Francisco, Tom Ammiano, has introduced a bill that would regulate marijuana like alcohol. People over 21 would be allowed to grow, buy, and possess marijuana, which would be taxed. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced with a potentially catastrophic budget crunch, said: “I think it’s time for debate. I think all of those ideas of creating revenues—I’m always for an open debate on it.”

    The age 21 restriction would probably be a mistake. We already have a laws that allow people 18 years old to vote and die for their country but not to buy or drink alcohol. Such laws invite disrespect for our justice system and cause large problems on college campuses.

    What stands in the way of more reasonable drug laws? My guess is that marijuana legalization, like gun control and the abolition of capital punishment, has come to be viewed as a cause likely to end political careers. But several state legislatures have begun to reconsider their commitment to capital punishment as a result of its financial cost. Maybe if we begin to take account of the high cost of our “war on drugs,” we’ll consider a truce. And then maybe we can begin to talk about the financial downside of war itself.

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