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Is the War on Drugs a Losing Battle?

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Drug uses and society’s response to it contribute vastly towards undermining key social institutions. Families are destroyed by the disabling effects of drugs on parents and by the conflicts created in families, where children have issues of drug using or drug dealing. Schools become less able to teach, when there is widespread drug use among their students, and when they are enlisted in ill-conceived efforts to institute punitive control regimes. The criminal justice system, which has been assigned a prominent role in the war against drugs, may be overwhelmed and transformed by that effort. The crush of cases may prove effectively that it destroys that residual commitment of these institutions, which now have to individualize justice or the hope of rehabilitation. The urgency of the job may lead officials to cut corners in investigating drug dealers. The enormous wealth created through the drug trade may tempt public officials into corruption.

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The war against drug use and drug trafficking has taken on the qualities of a holy war or religious crusade. In the ensuing fervor, the factors that underlie the problem of drug trafficking and abuse are obscured. The more powerful segments of society do not wish to confront these causes, since it can require an ameliorative action. At a minimum, this would force the recognition of both effects of the economic exploitation and inequality and the reality of social life in advanced capitalist countries, which is rather unbearable and excessively stressful that most people (even the well-off) spend a substantial amount of their time trying to escape from the reality in one way or another.

The problems generated by that social and economic inequality have been redefined or transformed in the popular consciousness as they are at least partly, if not primarily, caused by drug use and drug trafficking. Predictably, urban inner-city ghettos now abound with drug dealers, since the segment of the population confronting the greatest obstacles, when attaining the rewards of the social system, tends to opt for a fast and easy route to the affluence all are taught to expect.

The answer becomes, then, the war on drugs is a losing battle. It is true, because this first issue states that, according to the constitution, the government has no right to control what one puts into his or her body. Thus, the ideology of the War on Drugs has functioned to mask the society's failure to establish a fundamental economic and social justice domestically. The government’s amplification of drug trafficking and abuse due to those policies have resulted in far more devastating social damage than the use of and trafficking of illegal drugs themselves.

Parker & Measham (1994) summed up the situation well, when they stated that “the United States...seems determined to close its eyes to the realities that menace its future. That is true of the Government and of the public”. The War on Drugs plays an important role in diverting attention away from these issues; therefore, it is unlikely that the war will be given up any time soon.

Hence, the war against drugs is faring badly. The next major issue masked through the rhetoric of the War on Drugs proves that the social and cultural reality makes the U.S. population a consumer of drugs.

The U.S., for example, makes up five percent of the world's population, but consumes 50% of the world's cocaine. Drug use and abuse are pervasive not only among lower class and minority segments of the population, but also among the well-to-do. Although widely considered a problem in urban ghettos, crack is not confined there. There has been an increasing crack use among middle- and upper-class segments of the population. In fact, the use of cocaine in all its forms is greatest among white single men in metropolitan areas.

Furthermore, the U.S. population is also a mass consumer of legal drugs. Alcohol, tobacco and mood-altering prescription drugs are endemic in all classes.

Part of the explanation for the widespread use of so many drugs within this society can be found by examining the social reality of life in advanced capitalist countries. The reality is that even the affluent in this society live the lives of profound stress and alienation.

Life in post-industrial centers requires existence in a highly stressing context, partly because it involves the overuse and overexploitation of time. According to one survey of Harris, for example, the amount of leisure time enjoyed by the average American has decreased by 37% since 1973. In some professions, such as law, finance and medicine, the work week often exceeds 80 hours. Workplace demands for time have decreased the amount of time available for family and social life.

Besides the increasing amount of time North Americans spend at work, researchers have also documented elevated levels of stress in the workplace. Management recruiting firms have noted the increased susceptibility to colds and minor infections among management, as well as complaints of exhaustion, difficulties when making decisions, and guilt feelings about work left undone at the office. These symptoms of stress are now being found at an earlier age.

In addition, even the affluent live with the threat of economic insecurity. The increasing phenomenon of mergers has led to feelings of insecurity on the job and is blamed for much of the stress. Westinghouse Electric Corporation conducted a study of their white-collar employees in 1987, shortly after layoffs and restructuring were announced. Nine percent of men and 17% of women reported having had major episodes of depression lasting 10 days or longer during the year before the study. Twenty-three percent of the men and 36% of the women reported having had such an episode at least once during their lives. The major factors causing depression at work were uncertainties about the future employment, lack of rewards, pay cuts and negative employer evaluations.

North Americans have less leisure time than many people in the so-called underdeveloped countries, and they structure that leisure time they have in such a manner that it loses its quality of leisure. Leisure has become work. Physical fitness, for example, in the U.S. is not a leisure activity. In fact, leisure has become a consumption. Therefore, demands of the workplace are compounded by the constant consumerism of leisure time. Children's leisure activity in some families is scheduled as tightly as the parents' work schedules, and the incessant activity, the excessive planned consumption of time, is having a profound impact on the family life. Many middle and upper-class children are overprogrammed and pressured into rapid achievements. There are also disturbing indications of the consequences. The suicide rate for teen-agers has doubled since 1968. Ten percent of adolescent boys and 20% of girls have attempted suicide.

The requirement of constant excessive action translates into physiological and psychological demands, far greater than what the human can withstand. The body must assume these demands. It is argued that one of the reasons why cocaine became the drug of choice for middle- and upper-class communities is that “success” in the post-industrial world demands overactivity. Cocaine stimulates overactivity. Cocaine keeps a person awake, functioning, striving, competing, running with the accelerated rhythms of life in post-industrial centers.

Post-industrial life imposes a permanent state of “organic alarm”. McNagy & Parker (1992) state “the ideological paradigms of post-industrial society are linked to excessive competition and consumption and impose elevated psychological and physical demands on individuals. In response to these requirements of success, personal power, and consumption, cocaine is a panacea”. Every culture has a unique experience of time. Time forms a dimension of life, pleasure, work, knowledge, satisfaction, pain, as well as a corporal experience. The post-industrial capitalist society requires those, who are economically useful, socially efficient, and politically innocuous. Drugs, especially cocaine, ensure such consequences. Life for everyone in this society is highly stressful and overly demanding. Not only is the workplace stressful, but the social interaction is also increasingly stressful and dangerous, leading to a high level of non-instrumental violence. There is an element of fear imbedded in every chance encounter. Especially in urban centers, any stranger can become a predator.

Every daily newspaper carries examples of the growing social pathology. For instance, one day of events from USA Today (1990) revealed a raid in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which 200 handguns, 300 rifles, a machine gun and an antitank gun were seized from a duplex apartment, exceeding the firepower of the city police; a 22-year-old man, after barricading himself in a motel for five hours, shot himself; a Missouri state representative was arraigned on federal charges for distributing marijuana and amphetamines to persons under 21 (he was awaiting trial on cocaine- and amphetamine-selling charges); a 53 year-old man in Aspen, Colorado, holding off police for a fourth day, threatened to kill himself and his wife. In August 1990, a 30-year-old man set himself afire after pouring a flammable liquid over his body. He was having what was described as marital difficulties. In July 1990, a woman testified against her husband in the death of their son. The husband had used disciplinary techniques on the two-year-old son, including forcing the child to stand in the corner with his hands on his head, forcing him to eat feces, and grinding his fist and cayenne pepper into the child's genitals. The father dunked the child repeatedly in the toilet, holding him by the ankles. After this, the child was made to take a cold shower and come to the living room, where the couple beat him with cushions, until he collapsed. The child was pronounced dead the next day. In a taped statement, the father said that he had meant to scare the child and had had "a bad day".

Incidents, such as these, create a climate of the pervasive social disintegration and anxiety. Drugs, legal and illegal, intervene to perform a dual function. First, drugs provide an escape from stress and anxiety (whether issuing from fears of losing one's job or being mugged in the street). Second, drugs (used by others) become the convenient explanation for the social disintegration. Confronting the violence and corruption of the society without the explanation of drugs is deeply disturbing.

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One example of how pervasively the drug excuse is in present explanations of the social disintegration can be seen in the Central Park jogger case. For weeks after the event, commentators struggled for an explanation, since none of the youths arrested were involved with drugs. Even if one of them had been involved with drugs, the media and the public could have rested more easily, while being satisfied that the brutal event was just another example of a drug-crazed bunch of youths destroying life. The fact that none of those arrested could have even been implicated in taking drugs left the media and the public deeply anxious. Events, such as these, force the public to confront the severity of the social breakdown, which cannot be attributed to drugs or psychotic disorder. The undercurrent of a confused rage and disregard for life displayed so vividly in the Central Park case %u2015 which involved violence not only against the woman jogger, but also against other people in the park %u2015is much more complex than people wish to admit. This event was an example of the reproduction of violence that is endemic within society and is too deeply disturbing to confront.

The violence and pathology of the social order is written off as resulting from either drugs or mental illness; increasingly, individuals retreat into their drugs of choice or television. Survey researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland have found that the amount of time spent watching television has increased faster than the average amount of free time in the past 20 years.

The retreatism is evidenced on many levels. Politically, U.S. citizens are increasingly alienated from the society they live in. They feel increasingly distant from any ability to influence or change the course of events. At a time, when the administration and the media are celebrating participatory democracy in Eastern Europe, Americans participate less and less. After a two-year study of presidential politics, the Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate concluded that most U.S. citizens are not even well enough informed to recognize manipulative advertising or false campaign claims. The Commission report termed the voters as “cynical, passive, and uninformed”.

To conclude, this society's values are characterized by opportunism, greed and corruption at every level. However, the expressions of these values by the more powerful segments of the society are not prosecuted with the zeal reserved for minority and lower-class drug traffickers and drug abusers. These overriding values have been institutionalized at the upper levels of the social system. What people are experiencing is the vague, alienated realization that the “values”, supposedly so cherished in this society, are values that apply only to certain classes of people. Delay of gratification, honesty, hard work, respectfulness, trustworthiness and morality are qualities expected from working- and lower class individuals, but not the powerful. The lie that these values are cherished by all levels of society has been and continues to be exposed. The reaction, though, is not outrage or disappointment, but depression and alienation.

Thus, some people in the U.S. have realized that something is desperately wrong. As Kidder, for example, has written in the Christian Science Monitor: “…the secret of the drug problem is that it isn't most fundamentally a drug problem. It's a values problem. It's about failure of self-worth, respect for others, sense of purpose, and meaningfulness of life”.

The problem with the U.S. losing battle against drug, however, as well as most like it, is the assumption that these failures come from a movement away from communicating ethics to children. The problem is not that people as a society are not communicating ethics. The problem is that they are communicating the wrong ethics.

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