If you grew up in the 1980s, it was hard to miss Nancy Reagan’s call to “Just Say No” to drugs. While the Baby Boomers famously ingested a lot of narcotics, drug use among young people declined significantly in the years following this public relations effort.
The “War on Drugs” was not just about law enforcement, criminal sentencing, or the deployment of the military to Latin America. It also involved a cultural shift that addressed the problem of demand. The 1980s were a brief period of resistance and of modest moral renewal. In short, “Just Say No” worked.
Generation X, who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s, had lower rates of drug abuse than their Baby Boomer predecessors. As they were coming up, the scourge of crack cocaine and heroin had already started to decline. Some of this change happened spontaneously; young people who saw parents and older siblings destroy themselves with heavy drugs stayed away out of fear.
But the leaders of culture also reinforced positive behavior: drugs became seen as less mind-expanding than mind-destroying. They weren’t cool anymore.
Drugs Are Back in Style
In the past 10 or 15 years, something changed . . . for the worse. The vanguard has been marijuana, which advocates have distinguished from other drugs, leading to substantial success for the cause of marijuana legalization.
Like pro-abortion activists focusing on rare cases of rape and incest, marijuana activists told sob stories about people suffering from glaucoma and cancer who would benefit, as if this were the chief reason people smoke pot.
The rhetoric soon became more extravagant. Marijuana and its derivatives were being hailed as a magic elixir, useful for treating serious pain, anxiety and other conditions. After this public relations onslaught—to which the right largely has been indifferent—marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in 11 states and for medical use in 22 more. The legality of course is limited, due to the preemptive effect of federal law. But in spite of this gray zone, the states have tarried forward.
The result has been substantially increased marijuana use, particularly among Millennials and other young people. Like every loosening of restraint, these changes have had consequences. The hangover from marijuana legalization already has begun to be felt in places like Denver, whose downtown has now been occupied by an army of homeless potheads.
At the same time, evidence has confirmed what most people figure out in high school: early marijuana use lowers IQ and leads to a mental breakdown in some users. Pot is not harmless, contrary to the recent PR campaign.
While causation is always hard to measure definitively in matters of social behavior, surely the increasingly flippant attitude about drug use by leading cultural figures has something to do with the trend. After all, a decades-long push against smoking led to a steady decline in cigarette smokers after 1970. We know messages have an effect.
But just as tobacco came to be seen as a seriously dangerous indulgence signaling something uncouth and lower social status, recreational drugs in general—and marijuana in particular—increasingly have come to be accepted.
Our leaders’ messages surely matter. While Bill Clinton famously said he “didn’t inhale,” and George W. Bush admitted to having spent his youth partying, each was rather reticent and embarrassed by their youthful transgressions. They reflected the sensibilities of an older and more judgmental America.
Squandering his chance to be a positive example, Barack Obama talked rather loosely about smoking marijuana and using cocaine as a young man. Instead of waging a “war on drugs,” he spent a good part of his political capital on the so-called crisis of incarceration and the disparities in the criminal justice system. Drug dealers were now victims instead of perpetrators. Trump, for all his other faults, is a teetotaler and the picture of vitality at 73.
Opioid Overdoses Doubled During the Obama Years
A growing national problem on which Obama spent very little time was the increase in opioid addiction and drug overdoses.
“There were fewer than 3,000 overdose deaths in 1970, when a heroin epidemic was raging in U.S. cities. There were fewer than 5,000 recorded in 1988, around the height of the crack epidemic,” according to the CDC.
Even in the late 1990s, overdose deaths hovered around 16,000. By 2017, the number had skyrocketed to 70,000, nearly doubling in number after 2008. This far exceeds annual deaths from shootings by a factor of four. The rise in drug overdoses occurred following a decade when prescription opioids were aggressively peddled by the Sackler family, whose victims switched to heroin and then synthetic substitutes like fentanyl, which began to flood the market in 2013.
More Americans die from drug overdoses every year than died during the entire Vietnam War. For those who do not overdose, drug addiction guarantees a living death of poverty, despair, and purposelessness.
While the liberal and libertarian mantra proclaims that “as long as you’re not hurting someone else, what do I care,” this impoverished view of life ignores how what we do almost always affects others.
If someone shows up at the ER without insurance because he is an unemployed dopehead, he is costing his family and neighbors and taxpayers money. And if he can’t support a family because he has gone down a spiral of self-destruction, he’s hurting his wife and children.
Advancing the welfare of our friends, family, and fellow citizens is one of the most basic purposes of a society.
Beyond the Impoverished Libertarian Ethic
There are two important moral dimensions to drug abuse that need to return to center stage. First, drugs destroy their users’ humanity. They offer merely the illusion of escape, and, over time, increase the degradation of the user. It is easier to get addicted than to turn away from addiction. And, while not everyone will get addicted to drugs, experimenters don’t know whether they will be one of these unlucky souls when they partake.
Even marijuana—often portrayed as a safe drug—leads to a measurable increase in psychosis. Recall that the “bath salts” zombie who literally was eating the face of his victim—a Florida man, naturally—was only found to have marijuana in his system.
Second, in this age of consumer consciousness, where we worry about Chick-Fil-A’s charitable giving and whether chickens have enough room to roam during their brief lives, users should consider who benefits when they buy drugs.
My perspective is informed by recent binge-watching of “Narcos.” The excellent series portrays the rise and fall of the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia, as well as the Guadalajara cartel in Mexico. After seeing the large number of innocent Colombians and Mexicans terrorized by these cartels, the capstone event is the torture and murder of American DEA agent Kiki Camarena.
His death galvanized our nation and exposed the callous violence of drug cartels and their grip on Mexico’s entire political class. Drug gangs kill innocent people every day in the United States, Mexico, Afghanistan, and everywhere they reach. There have been gallons of ink spilled on “Russian collusion,” but buying and using illegal drugs is collusion that directly supports the worst kinds of people. That collusion is supporting terror in the countries that supply America’s drug habit.
In other words, when Americans use drugs they are participating in an evil enterprise and contributing money to evil people. Drug users share some portion of the responsibility for the murders, kidnappings, and violence that are fellow travelers of this illegal enterprise wherever it goes.
While the nihilistic and permissible Left have forgotten this message, Conservatism, Inc. has not been much better, as its think tanks and other institutions are so thoroughly penetrated by the libertarian faction. Under Nixon and Reagan, the evils of drugs were well known, a theme front-and-center in opposing the Left’s politics of degeneracy. But those on the Right today are nearly as likely to champion drugs as everyone else.
Libertarians will suggest that the evils of drugs—particularly violence—stem from their criminalization, but this is not so obvious. After all, opioids have wreaked havoc on America’s heartland, even though they are a legal prescription medication. The damage to users was just as real and ended up being a gateway to illegal sources, as exponential demand for opioids outpaced even what profiteering “pain clinics” could supply.
Recognition of the link between personal vice and public squalor used to be the hallmark of conservative thinking. While the Left has always championed hedonism, the Right distinguished liberty from license. Figures on both the Left and the Right have engaged in moral retreat, forgetting the moral dimensions to drug abuse. This retreat is just part of their broader abandonment of the rich western tradition of ordered liberty and its replacement with a weirdly absolutist libertarianism.
A stand against drug abuse is fundamentally an affirmation of our humanity and a recognition of the requirements of community. The Right should reclaim the moral high ground on this issue and save the next generation by reasserting these forgotten truths.