Spare the Rod

He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. — Proverbs 13:24

“Proverbs,” of course, refers to one of the books of the Christian Bible, located in the Old Testament between the Psalms (Protestant/Roman Bible) or The Prayer of Manasseh (Orthodox Bible), and Ecclesiastes.

“The rod” refers to beating a child with a stick.

This traditional wisdom says that beating a child with a stick is a sign of love, and that not beating a child with a stick is the sign of an unloving, uncaring parent. This one passage in the Bible underlies the entire US American idea of “spanking” and “corporal punishment.”

Let me propose a purely hypothetical consideration. Let’s say — just for argument’s sake — that beating a child with a stick, however lovingly, always and without exception causes lifelong and irreparable damage to the child: not so much to the body, which will heal with minimal scarring, but to the mind, the heart, and the soul. Let’s also say — just for argument’s sake — that this can be clearly demonstrated to anyone willing to examine the question.

Given this hypothetical situation, how many parents would still insist on beating their children with a stick?

I think the answer would be, “Many.”

There are first the parents who actually want to damage their kids, or who don’t care if they do, or who are acting out some fantasy of an unbalanced mind: these parents beat their children out of their own need to commit violence. It has nothing much to do with the child at all, and any evidence that it harms the child is at best irrelevant.

Then there are the ignorant parents — the ones who have heard proverbs like the one above and have never had any opportunity to learn otherwise. Their own parents doubtless beat them with a stick, and they’ve managed to stagger more-or-less erect into adulthood despite their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual scars — indeed, surviving that violent childhood assault by a parent may be the one thing in their life they claim to be proud of — and they figure this is just part of growing up, like getting through measles and puberty. Any child who doesn’t make it through all that, they believe, is weak and probably doesn’t deserve to live, anyway.

Then there are the herd-followers: the parents who already know they are harming their children, but fear even more the consequences of going against the Proverbs of their tribe. They reason that it is better for their children to suffer a relatively minor physical or spiritual scarring now, at their hands, than for them all to face the uncontrolled wrath of a community that will destroy them for the blasphemy of ignoring the Proverbs.

Finally, there are the ideological purists. These are the parents who believe in the ideology of punishment, who claim loyalty to the ideology, and who will persist in upholding the ideology regardless of any and all evidence that it is harmful. These are the parents who say, “Don’t confuse me with facts: this is my belief. It is God’s Will, and you are a blasphemer.”

Maybe it’s just my training as a scientist, and my long career as a technologist, but I tend to insist that solutions to problems actually solve the problems, and without causing more harm than good. Folding the candy-bar wrapper after eating the candy-bar to make it “thinner” isn’t going to solve a weight-gain problem; and while cutting off your leg will, in fact, reduce your weight (and quickly!) it’s hardly what I’d call a satisfactory solution to being overweight.

Solutions that don’t work are not solutions. Solutions that cause more harm than good are not solutions. In my view, it isn’t in any way “disloyal” to abandon them: to the contrary, it’s merely good sense.

Now, it turns out that this post has nothing to do with children, or beating them with a stick.

It’s about the War on Drugs.

On my flight back from Australia — it’s a long flight — I read a book called Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. The subtitle is “The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” and I certainly hope it is an accurate subtitle, because the War on Drugs has very nearly wrecked the US American nation in ways that run so deep, it’s frightening.

Not drugs, mind you: the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has been put forth as the preferred solution — the only solution — to the drug problem. It doesn’t in fact solve the drug problem — it makes it substantially worse. And it causes a great deal of secondary harm in the process of not working.

The book begins the story of the War on Drugs with the rise of Harry Anslinger, who in 1930 inherited control of the defunct Bureau of Prohibition, renamed the Bureau of Narcotics, and remained in control of that bureau until 1962. President Richard Nixon escalated the war that Harry started during his term in office (1969-1974), and Ronald Reagan escalated it again during his term (1981-1988). During this entire period, Anslinger’s Bureau pressed the entire world into copying his Prohibition model, strong-arming them as necessary through threat of US sanctions.

At the core of the War on Drugs is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of drug use and addiction.

The War on Drugs model is drawn directly from Medieval demonology.

In the Medieval view of demons, if you consort with the Devil, His demons will possess you, and you will lose your will and your way. In the modern case, the demons are any psychotropic drug, whether it is Demon Rum or Demon Marijuana or Demon Cocaine or Demon Heroin or Demon Meth. These demons, though they are merely chemicals, have a Demonic Power, which is the power to steal your soul. Once your soul is in thrall to the drug, you have no more will power: you have no choice but to do the Evil Bidding of the Demonic Drug and thus, the Devil.

The only possible way to combat this possession by drug-demons is, first, do not get possessed (Just Say No); second, if you do get possessed, you must have the demon driven out of you, typically through some form of severe punishment of the flesh, rigorous asceticism, and heartfelt prayer: the more severe the punishment, the more profound the asceticism, and the more earnest the prayer, the more likely you are to regain your soul. But rather than have a priest of the Church lock you in an Iron Maiden until the demon leaves you, we call upon Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona to lock you in an iron cage exposed to the Arizona sun until the heat bakes the demon out of you.

If the treatment kills you — well, you were too weak. You deserved death anyway, for dancing with the Devil: it is no great loss to any of the rest of us. Indeed, we went far outside our way to even try to save you. It isn’t our fault you died.

If the treatment succeeds, then you will have your soul back, but you will never again be robust and whole — should you so much as glance back at your wicked ways, much less “fall off the wagon,” you will be gripped again by the demons. So you are not trustworthy; you are a moral leper to be shunned forevermore, denied jobs, voting rights, and any participation in normal society. You are a drug felon.

It should not be terribly surprising that scientific research into addiction tells us that this Medieval myth is total crap, top to bottom, and the alleged “cure” is nothing other than thinly disguised sadism.

One of the early scientific supports for this Medieval model of possession comes from rat research, in which a rat is placed in a cage with two bottles of water, one normal, one laced with cocaine. The rat comes to prefer the cocaine-laced water, and begins to drink, and drink, and drink, until the cocaine kills the rat. The rat has lost its will to the Demon Cocaine, you see, and has been dragged into Hell. A television commercial, paid for by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, propagandized and popularized this research extensively in the 1980’s.

Another researcher named Bruce Alexander reviewed these experiments, and noticed something interesting: the rats in the experiments were always alone in a cage with nothing to do but drink water. So he re-created the experiments after constructing something he called Rat Park: an environment where rats (which are social animals) could interact freely with other rats, and had toys to play with and places to explore. His control — rats stuck in solitary confinement with nothing to do but drink cocaine-laced water — killed themselves, exactly as before. The rats in Rat Park did not: in fact, they tended to avoid the cocaine-laced water. Those that used it, used it recreationally. They controlled their intake, remained healthy, and continued to act normally. None of them died.

They took the experiment one step further: they let rats in isolation drink themselves nearly to death, allowing them to become as completely addicted to cocaine as is possible for a rat. Then they removed the addicted rats from solitary confinement and put them in Rat Park.

The addicted rats stopped using the cocaine. They got healthy, and started to behave just like the other healthy rats in Rat Park.

Of course, that’s just rats. Rats aren’t people.

Well, it turns out that humans behave exactly the same way, and Hari gives numerous examples. It’s fascinating and heart-breaking to read about them. That’s when the full sadistic brutality of the Drug War comes into full focus.

This is the same story I’ve heard from the high-functioning drug users I’ve known: they are often self-medicating, not tripping, and they manage their “addiction” quite well. I knew one woman years ago who sprinkled just a bit of crystal meth in her coffee every morning, and for her it served much like the Ritalin (an amphetamine, in case you didn’t know) that we force our “hyperactive” children to take — it calmed her down, steadied her nerves, let her focus on her work. She wasn’t looking for a “high.” She took it to have a normal life, because her “normal” life required focus, and her natural brain chemistry and psychological history didn’t permit focus. In exactly the same way, narcotic addicts typically use narcotics to mask horrific chronic pain — physical or mental — that prevents them from functioning at all.

Studies show that approximately 85% of all chronic illegal drug users hold jobs, have marriages, go to church, and function in society. They may be thoroughly addicted, but their addiction is self-regulated, and it’s something that helps them to survive and continue to function.

The remaining 15% have a deeper drug problem, but it is usually layered on top of serious psychological problems, most often childhood trauma resulting from a too-liberal application of “the rod” by overzealous (or psychotic) parents, or an underlying mental illness, or both.

Drugs are not demons, and Medieval exorcisms and tortures don’t solve the problem. In fact, given that most users — even the 15% with a real drug problem — are self-medicating to manage underlying pain, the brutality of our legal “solution,” which includes incarceration, violence, isolation, torture, and lifelong ostracism, is pretty much guaranteed to make their drug problem worse.

Our Drug War system is like the old saying: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Apart from its grotesque failure as a means of solving the drug problem, the Drug War itself is enormously destructive to society.

The biggest problem is that the Drug War creates nearly all the crime, and all of the most violent and disruptive crime, associated with drugs.

We saw this play out with the prohibition of alcohol in the US, beginning in 1920, and ending in 1930 when prohibition was repealed. We’ve seen exactly the same process in the subsequent Drug War, and the outraged question asked by anyone who even glances at this history is invariably, “How can our government be so stupid?”

I don’t really know how to answer that question. Mark Twain once commented that a flea can be taught anything a Congressman knows. Whether our modern Congresscritters are fully twice as intelligent as Twain’s Congressmen, or only half as intelligent, it isn’t surprising that they don’t learn much from history.

However, it’s worth noting that the government in Mexico is currently all-but ruled by the Mexican drug cartel leaders, and one has to question to what extent the US government is also in the grip of the cartels.

You see, the drug cartels, worldwide, love the global Drug War. In fact, they can’t exist without it.

Without Prohibition, Al Capone was a two-bit hood from New Jersey — with Prohibition, he became one of the richest and most famous men in the country. There is not a single drug lord in Colombia, Mexico, China, Turkey, or the US, who does not owe his position to the US-led criminalization of drugs. The last thing they want to see is the end of the Drug War, and the rise of legitimate businesses that supply their black-market product to their customers.

It also seems that the last thing the US Government wants is an end to the Drug War.

Maybe it’s just reflex. Government Bureaus become autonomous money-eating machines, and the DEA is certainly no exception.

Maybe it’s an “enemy of my enemy” thing. Drug cartels and the US government both want the Drug War to continue, not because they’re actually working together, but because they both benefit enormously from the War.

Or perhaps the US government is one of those parents that will continue to beat their children with a stick regardless of the damage that it does, because they are ideologically committed to solutions that don’t solve the problem, and cause more harm than good.

Or just possibly the US government is in bed with the cartels, just like the Mexican government. I’ve heard repeatedly that a lot of CIA black-money comes from drug trafficking, and that simply isn’t going to happen without cartel involvement.

I don’t know. What is clear is that the cartels want the Drug War to continue. It’s the source of all their wealth and power.

The link between the Drug War and crime isn’t just a statistical correlation based on Prohibition: there’s a straightforward cause-and-effect involved.

When you criminalize the sale of a product that people want, they obtain it through the black market. A legitimate business can draw up agreements — call them treaties or call them contracts — with other businesses, and can rely on the government to enforce those agreements. The black market is, by definition, unregulated by government, and contract-enforcement must therefore be done by the business itself: typically through violence. As Hari points out, however, it isn’t enough to just kill partners who cheat you, or competitors who move in on your territory, because there are always more willing to take their place and do it again. If you want any profitable peace in your business at all, you have to terrify your competitors into not even thinking about crossing you. So violence quickly escalates into ever-more-grotesque atrocity.

Read about the way Al Capone personally handled the partners that he believed had cheated him. Read about the atrocities happening right now in Mexico. This violence isn’t the consequence of drug use. It is the consequence of an unregulated drug business. And it is an inevitable as water flowing downhill.

The Iron Law of Prohibition mandates that popular but mild drugs like beer or marijuana be replaced by hard drugs, like whiskey or heroin, not because the users want harder drugs, but because the profit margins are higher and these drugs become the only things the users can get on the black market. Prices rise, and addicts are forced into crime to afford their fix. Drugs are resold by addicts and dealers alike after being cut with all kinds of adulterants, which cause health problems that weaken the users until they can’t function and end up on the street. Drugs are taken in secret, leading to overdosing and death.

It’s a social catastrophe. It’s been a social catastrophe from the start.

Here’s what happens when you fully legalize (and regulate) drugs — all drugs — and shut down the Medieval exorcisms managed by our prisons-for-profit legal system. According to Hari, this is not theory — it’s what has already happened in the cases where countries have had the nerve to go against the will of the US government and its Medieval War on Demon Drugs.

First, the drug cartels get out of the business. No one buys hooch on the black market any more, like they did in the 1920’s: instead, you go to the liquor store and buy high-quality beer, wine, and whiskey for reasonable prices — you take your conservative in-laws on brewery tours, or take them on a vacation to Napa to sample wines. After legalizing drugs for sale and use, the drug cartels vanish and their leaders either retire to the Bahamas or move into the shadows of some other black-market trade.

All of the violence associated with the unregulated drug business vanishes — or rather, it moves into contract-law offices and the courts. Drug-business-related gang activity drops. Street dealers disappear.

Because the wildly inflated black-market prices for drugs drop, addicts no longer have to commit as much crime to support their habit. They might even be able to take a normal job and still pay for the habit, just as Great-Great-Aunt Tilly used to buy a spot of morphine for her aching joints in the form of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.

Adulterated drugs are replaced by inspected high-quality drugs that are readily available, so addicts’ general health improves: they now know the dose they’re getting, and they are no longer injecting talcum powder or corn starch into their veins. They can obtain and use clean needles. The AIDS rate drops. The rate at which overdosed dead bodies pile up in alleyways drops.

Since drug sale and use is now legal, cops are no longer forced to violate the Fourth Amendment on a regular basis. Relations with their communities improve, and their jobs become easier and less dangerous. The prison population drops. The racism inherent in the Drug War — built into it by Anslinger, who was an unashamed racist, and used race-fears freely in the drug-propaganda of the 30’s and 40’s — declines.

Drug usage patterns shift. Many hard drug users will shift back to softer drugs as they become available, just as beer replaced whiskey when Prohibition ended. Some alcohol users will shift to marijuana, which will by itself be a significant benefit to society. Some users — particularly among the 15% of addicts who are not able to manage their addiction — will increase their usage, or move to stronger drugs.

Then drug use stabilizes.

Now you can take things a step further, by treating the addicts like people instead of dehumanized host bodies for Demonic Influences.

You can do as they do in Portugal — anyone caught taking drugs in public is issued a ticket, requiring them to go to a clinic for evaluation. The clinic tries to determine if they are merely recreational users, or addicted. If they are recreational users, they’re given medical advice on doses, safe practices, the need to have friends around rather than shooting up alone to avoid overdosing, and are told to stop making a public spectacle of themselves. Then they walk away, and that’s the last time the recreational user interacts with the law.

If they are addicted, they are given free treatment options, much of which involves developing alternative ways to cope with whatever agony they are using the drugs to mitigate. But the most important part of their therapy is integrating them into a meaningful, productive life: a community that is not their old drug-using community, and assistance in getting and holding a decent job. They are integrated into a Rat Park of human dimensions, and that’s often enough, by itself, to get them off and keep them off drugs. Just as with the rats.

Not all of the addicts are necessarily ready to quit, so (in Portugal, where heroin is the main problem) they can receive free methadone for as long as they need it.

You can now take this one step further, and simply regulate, prescribe, and administer hard drugs to the addicts, be it cocaine or heroin or meth, in conjunction with helping them come to terms with the underlying pain they are trying to escape.

As it happens, even hard-core addicts, if they live long enough, tend to taper off and eventually stop using the drugs. Who knew?

But even if the drug use were to eventually kill them, as with the rats in solitary confinement — well, at least they go out peacefully.

Compare that to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s little slice of Hell on Earth in the Arizona desert, where a bipolar woman convicted on drug abuse charges was placed in a cage in the sun and allowed to bake to death, in full view of the guards: when she asked for water, they ignored her, and when they finally decided to call the medics because she was “unresponsive,” her internal temperature was over 108 — the thermometers didn’t go any higher — and she died a few hours later.

Baked to death in the sun.

As for the cold-hearted conservatives who only want to count bottom-line costs and don’t want “their” tax money being wasted on drug addicts, I invite you to do the math.

How much does it cost to arrest, try, convict, imprison, and bake an addict to death in the sun?

How much does it cost to offer an addict a free shot of heroin three times a week for the rest of his life?

Are you really that hung up on torturing them?

I hope Johann Hari is right, and that the various humane drug treatment policies breaking out around the world will, indeed, spell the end of the Harry Anslinger’s Drug War.

This entry was posted in General.

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