It’s rare that I read books about drug policy. After just a little exposure to the genre, one finds, over and over again, the same dates, the same key people, the same arguments from the government and the same arguments from the policy reform camp. There is the grand narrative told by the government (“drugs are bad”), and there is the counter-narrative told by the reformers (“drug prohibition is worse”). It sometimes reminds me of how in the late 1970s I’d sometimes adjust our family’s Pong game so that the paddles would continually reflect the pong ball back and forth, leave for school and return to find the ball had remained in motional equipoise.
Yet when I heard that Jacob Sullum was working on a book about drugs and drug policy, my expectations for something new were lifted. As a senior editor for Reason Magazine, a publication devoted to intelligent discussions over how to best allocate power between the government and the individual, Sullum had penned a number of fairly unorthodox essays about drugs. I was looking forward to getting more of his thoughts on a topic that while always in motion, rarely seems to advance.
Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use is the fruit of Sullum’s thinking about drugs and drug policy. Compared to most books in this genre, Saying Yes is refreshing and insightful, and could well produce some of the traction needed to advance beyond the policy of Just Say No-an infantile policy equivalent to “Don’t Put that in Your Mouth.”
Saying Yes dismantles much of the exaggeration concerning illegal drugs, leading the reader to conclude that this or that illegal drug isn’t nearly as harmful as the government has led us to believe.
Sullum’s book is anchored in a particular level of discourse about drugs-the fact-based, medical, scientific, analytical, reporter level. Sullum’s arguments tend to conclude at the point where he has taken the government’s thumb off the harm scale. While he sometimes takes the government to task for trying to rig the scale, he seldom explores the government’s fundamental motivations for playing unfairly in the first place.
Rarely does Sullum address drugs or drug policy from a deeper philosophical or principled perspective. This is a book about drugs that is grounded in rationality. While this is the book’s strength, it is also its weakness. Empiricism will only get you so far when the landscape has been constructed by the irrational forces, deep-seated fears, religion, power, and money.
An ever-present theme in Sullum’s book is what he calls “voodoo pharmacology” the idea, largely promoted by the government, that certain drugs have the power to hijack a person and enslave him or her in an inescapable prison of craving and compulsion. Sullum’s aim is to show that this is a myth, that only a very small percentage of illegal drug users become addicts, while the vast majority of people who use illegal drugs live normal, productive, loving lives.
Sullum’s book is filled with valuable insights derived from deconstructing government statistics about drugs and drug use. He shows how even the most vilified drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine are not nearly as addicting as the government would have us believe.
He adds a new gloss to these statistics by suggesting that one reason why marijuana is widely perceived as a “soft” drug, deserving of less stringent controls than say crack or heroin is, at least in part, because over 30 percent of the US population has tried marijuana and that makes it very hard for the government to sustain a false stereotype of marijuana users. In contrast, it is much easier for the government to maintain a disparaging stereotype about crack and heroin users, because those drugs are used by a relatively small percentage of Americans. A drug like LSD, which has been used by roughly nine percent of the US population at least once, falls somewhere in the middle; more vilified than marijuana, but less than crack or heroin.
The bulk of Sullum’s book is devoted to logically demonstrating that most drugs aren’t as bad as most people believe. Sullum never denies that some people do indeed get into problems with illegal drugs, but he marshals plenty of evidence to prove that even with the “hard drugs” like crack and heroin problem users are a small minority of users; the exception rather than the rule.
Saying Yes is best, however, when Sullum goes beyond the empirical and begins to explore why even intelligent, responsible, drug users have such a difficult time getting outside the established frames that define drug use.
Sullum suggests (but only quickly) that because there is so much political, legal, and social pressure to abstain from using illegal drugs, that many people who do use them are quite anxious about doing so and as a result, commonly feel driven to justify their drug use. For some, this manifests as a need to frame their drug use as “medical” or “religious”- two categories that abstainers of illegal drugs might appear more willing to accept. Sullum writes: The search for excuses reflects the lingering suspicion that drug use is sinful without a special justification. Yet the desire to alter one’s consciousness appears to be a fundamental aspect of human nature. Like sex, it is nothing to be ashamed of, but it needs to be constrained by moral principles, which means getting beyond the unthinking blanket rejection of drugs.
At another point Sullum also expresses frustration (but again without much elaboration) with drug policy reformers who rely almost exclusively on harm-reduction arguments (e.g., the war on drugs does more harm than good), calling attention to the fact that such reformers have an almost universal tendency to stress that they are opposed to drug use. The bumper sticker statement “Drug use is bad, but the drug war is worse,” epitomizes this position.
Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, and a darling of the drug reform movement was a poster-child for this position, calling drugs a “handicap” and a “bad choice,” and telling a group of college students, “I hate to say it, but the majority of people who use drugs use them responsibly.” Sullum rightly wants to know why, since most people do in fact use drugs responsibly, Gary Johnson “hates to say it.”
Echoing the point made by Thomas Szasz (most recently in his book Pharmacracy), Sullum identifies the evolution of modern medicine as largely responsible for the current bifurcation that divides “good drugs” from “bad drugs.” If a drug changes the way a person thinks or elevates a person’s mood, it is taboo unless it is being used to improve a medical deficit. Nonmedical use of drugs, including nonmedical use of prescription drugs, is viewed as ‘abuse” by the government and by most of the medical establishment.
This is the uneasy tension that exists with respect to marijuana. More and more Americans seem willing to accept marijuana’s use within a medical framework, but they remain deeply concerned that some people will make bogus medical claims in order to simply get high. Indeed, as Sullum points out, the medical model for drug use is now so overgrown that it has prompted some school districts to coerce parents to place their children on Ritalin in order to attend school. In other words not only does a medical imprimatur make drug use acceptable, a medical purpose can be enough to force a person to take a drug.
Sullum rightly asks why it is that “legitimate” drug use must satisfy a medical model. Why can’t we recognize that there are perfectly good nonmedical reasons for why a person might want to use a drug? Why is it so hard for most people to accept that drugs can be used responsibly for the express purpose of enhancing the senses, boosting mood, occasioning a pleasant evening, or eliciting a spiritual experience? As Sullum notes, all of these uses of drugs are legitimate. Indeed Sullum is weary of creating hierarchies that characterize some reasons for using drugs as acceptable, but others as unacceptable. Sullum writes: Seeking a medical or religious exemption from drug prohibition amounts to asserting that my use of this substance is important, that it deserves respect in a way that more frivolous uses do not….The urge to offer such excuses is based on the sense that drug use is morally suspect without an elaborate and serious sounding defense….Wine drinkers generally do not feel compelled to proclaim that their beverage was endorsed by God, that it relieves anxiety or reduces their risk of heart disease. They simply say, “I like a nice glass of wine.” It is in these portions of Saying Yes, where Sullum moves into a more principled examination of drug use, that he is at his best. Yet, just as Sullum begins to travel off the beaten path, the book concludes, leaving one feeling the textual equivalent of a dreaded drug under-dose.
Nevertheless, for dissipating much of the hype surrounding the dangers commonly associated with illegal drugs, Saying Yes is the best book since Andrew Weil’s The Natural Mind. It is hard to imagine an open-minded person reading Sullum’s book and coming way from it without a much more informed understanding of why so many intelligent people choose to use illegal drugs.
RICHARD GLEN BOIRE is director and chief legal counsel of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics.