The school year is about to begin, it is late August, and I have returned home from my family’s annual sojourn to Maui. A tropical paradise save for such earthly matters as a purported metaphetamine epidemic, with youth taking “ice” to “go up” and booze to “come down” accompanied by a skyrocketing crime rate, with so many Mauians incarcerated that convicts are being shipped to the mainland due to an overflowing prison population.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Not too many years ago, the drug of choice on Maui and its sister islands was marijuana, but the war against drugs, known as “green harvest” in Hawaii, has taken its toll. The price of marijuana has sky rocketed to between $400-$500 an ounce due to a very diminished supply, resulting in relatively cheap “ice” and booze becoming the drugs of choice. However, while marijuana tends to mellow one out, “ice” tends to rev one up to supercharged status, sort of like a bull in a china shop. And with cheap liquor in abundant supply, getting drunk as contrasted to getting stoned has also become a way of life among youth.
I fear for a country and culture continuing to engage in a war that has cost over $100 billion with no end in sight while public services, including education, suffer enormous losses in funding, fostered vicious criminal networks, corrupted police forces, decimated inner-city minority communities, created an America with the highest prison population in the world, resulted in one out every three black males either in prison or on probation or parole, and turned waging a war against one’s own citizens into public good.
When I was a student at the City College of New York in the 1950’s, the war at home against communism was in its heyday. I learned that if I wanted to enjoy a successful professional life after my studies were completed, I should “Just Say NO” to communism, which meant not associating with communists, but also not engaging in any semblance of serious discussion or study of the subject in terms of its pros and cons as a political and economic system except to damn it as a horrible evil, and that was to be the end of any inquiry. The conviction that an institution of higher education should have at its essence the principle of a free marketplace of ideas where divergent points of view would be freely discussed and measured against thoughtful and reasoned discourse, resulting in truth unfolding, was deemed to be unacceptable according to the dictums laid down by Senator Joe McCarthy, the House Un-American Service Committee, the Senate Internal Security Committee, and their minions.
In sum, a war against communism became a war against speech, against civil liberties, against serious study of a controversial subject, against thought itself. America and its peoples paid a huge price for such a witch hunt--lives and careers were ruined by this anything is justified war, by blacklisting and other nefarious means, and life in academia was corrupted by fear, threat and silence. The Inquisition would brook neither heresy nor heretics even if the very reason for having a constitutional right protecting free speech was to ensure the right to speak and write words that challenged the orthodoxies of the day.
The war on drugs has been pushed to the main stage front of American consciousness by the criminal justice system, the DEA, and other government bureaucracies, by private corporations who profit from the design, construction and maintenance of prisons, and the mass media that both feeds and preys on public fear to hype their ratings and sales. The main theme of the play being staged before our eyes, the criminalization and militarization of a socioeconomic, psychological and spiritual problem, would seem to validate the insight offered by political scientist Richard Barnett: “The chief threat facing any national security bureaucracy is the absence of enemies.”
In Hollywood, Gore Vidal has President Wilson instructing us: “I pray I’m wrong. But I’m deathly afraid that once you lead this people--and I know them well--into war, they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. Because to fight to win, you must be brutal and ruthless, and that spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life. You--Congress--will be infected by it, too, and the police, and the average citizen. The whole lot. Then we shall win. But what shall we win?”
When a large police machine is established to fight evil, and the war on drugs is seemingly being at war with evil, the edifice so constructed in order to justify its existence and expansion soon outgrows its original objectives, and it demands, as Vidal reminds us, “More enemy! More raids! More monitoring of entire communities! More tests to prove ones innocence! More enemy! More raids! …”
The “Just Say No” to drugs campaign has unleashed the furies of another witch hunt upon this land of ours, similar in nature and scope to the Red Scare of earlier times. For both teachers and students are being instructed to say no to exploration, to examination, to reflection, to discourse, in sum, to that which comprises studying and learning. That is what “Just Say NO” means in essence. To say yes to a serious, non-prejudicial and disciplined inquiry into the subject of drugs becomes the basis for being charged with being soft on drugs, to encouraging drug use, to condoning an illegal activity, to undermining the moral fabric of America, to playing into the hands of the drug cartels, accusations that carry serious personal, social and professional penalties. In sum, a “Just Say No” national policy has turned into a “Just Say No Or Just Say Nothing” cultural dictum.
A few years ago, after speaking out against and circulating a letter of concern addressed to the college administration among my colleagues about police accompanied by German Shepherds being called in to deal with the issue of alleged drug use and dealing in a student dormitory, I received an irate telephone call from a top-level Administrator who told me in no uncertain terms that there were only two sides in this issue--either support the Administration and be against drugs, or be known as someone who favors drug use.
When I informed the four (yes, a total of four) co-signers of the letter about the telephone call, two of them, both of whom were on tenure-track appointments, stated that had they known the position of the administration, they would not have appended their name to the letter, fearing how making public their voice would play out in their tenure applications. Fearful teachers make for fearful students, with freedom of inquiry and speech being the victim, and our students learning by dint of example to remain silent in the presence of controversy.
Last year, following the publication of my book, “Deep spirit & Great Heart: Living In Marijuana Consciousness,” I sought the support of my Department (Liberal Education) in hosting a book reading and signing, a quite common occurrence at Columbia. However, for the first time in the history of the college, such a request was submitted to the college’s legal counsel for approval, who banned such an event from occurring. When I inquired of her on what grounds had she rendered such a decision, I was told that my book promoted drug use, an illegal activity. Had she read the book? “No,” was her answer.
I immediately informed my colleagues of what had transpired resulting in the college’s provost being flooded by irate phone calls and e-mails protesting a flagrant infringement of academic freedom. Our provost overturned the decision, and the book reading went on. However, once again a lesson was being taught to junior and tenure-track faculty—there are some matters that call for silence if one’s career aspirations are to remain on track.
Mention drugs and you have a subject that affects and concerns students in most profound ways, and that they most earnestly desire want to know about in an intellectually honest way--the truth in its entirety. For our institutions of higher education to ignore and/or deny the reality and necessity of such inquiry is shameful and destructive of both the scholarly tradition and free speech as well as being harmful to the best interests of our youth.
Let us now turn to the practical aspects of what an intellectually honest and holistic approach to educating youth about drugs would entail.
We must first realize that drugs are here to stay, that the war on Drugs isn’t working, that we’ll never build prisons fast enough to find room for all drug offenders, and that the philosophical underpinning of the drug war--the carrot and stick approach of drug education and incarceration--cannot work because the human urge to gain the effects of drug use ultimately is so strong that we cannot be either educated or frightened out of it. (See Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise by Ronald K. Siegel, in which Dr. Siegel makes a strong case that the biological impulse to get high rivals the biological impulse for food, water and sex.)
History teaches us that it is fruitless to hope that drugs will ever disappear, and that any effort to eliminate them from society is doomed to failure.
As Dr. Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen state in From Chocolate To Morphine, “During most of this century, Western society has attempted to deal with its drug problems through negative actions: by various wars on drug abuse implemented by repressive laws, outrageous propaganda, and attacks on users, suppliers and sources of disapproved substances. These wars have been consistently lost. Drug use is to be extensively found among all socioeconomic classes and racial ethnic groups, and the drug laws have created vicious and ever-enlarging criminal networks that corrupt society and cause far worse damage than the substances they distribute.
“We must learn to distinguish drug use from drug abuse. As long as society continues to call all those who take disapproved substances drug abusers, it will have an insoluble problem of enormous proportions. Real drug abusers are those in bad relationships with drugs, whether the drugs are approved or disapproved by society.”
“Preventing drug abuse is a realistic goal. Two approaches are possible. One is to teach people, especially young people, how to satisfy their needs and desires without recourse to drugs. The second is to teach people how to form good relationships with drugs so that if they choose to use drugs, they will continue to be users and not abusers.”
Drugs in and of themselves are neither good nor bad; rather, they are powerful substances that can be put to good or bad uses, whether legal or illegal, approved or unapproved. We educators need to believe that by presenting reasoned discourse and open and enlightened dialogue, we can help people, especially our students, to live intelligently in a world where drugs will always exist.
It is time for the silence to be broken.
Louis Silverstein, Ph.D.
Dept. of Liberal Education
Columbia College Chicago
600 S. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL. 60605
Copyright remains exclusively with the author.