Fear v. Foresight
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
F. D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural address
President Obama, echoing FDR in a recent address, declared that foreign policy must be based on foresight, not fear. The same reasoning applies to drug policy as well. But from the earliest days in the nineteenth century, fear has been the driving force behind American drug laws.
Fear of the “invading” Irish and German immigrants and their social drinking drove the early alcohol Prohibition movement (and Italians with their wine soon joined the growing hordes). The Californians distrusted their Chinese newcomers and feared the opium dens were luring their daughters into lives of sin. Cocained Black men, lusting after Southern women were so strengthened by their drugs that normal police bullets would not stop them. Greasy Mexicans crazed by their “locoweed” would ravage Western farm wives. In the 1930s, Drug Fear broadened from its xenophobic roots. Any teenager could be turned into a raging homicidal maniac by one puff of the demon weed, although (as Anslinger told Congress) only 200,000 people, mainly Negro (sic) musicians, used it. By the 1970s, every suburban parent knew marijuana would make their perfect suburban kids run away from home and become unwashed hippies. Even today, anything can be done to “protect the children.”
Any politician knows that fear is a great motivator; and since it acts only on emotion, it needs no facts to energize it. Fear is totally reactive and acts strictly in the present. When presented with a rattlesnake or a burning house, one must either fight or flee, with no time to look for alternatives or weigh the costs.
Foresight, on the other hand, is proactive and deliberative. It requires the time and effort to assess the situation, enumerate the possible alternatives, balance their costs against the probable outcomes. When an action is chosen, a plan for implementation must be developed and the necessary resources must be marshalled. Simply yelling “snake!” and running away is simpler – until you trip on a rock, breaking your leg and falling face-down into a cactus.
However, foresight rarely leads to the answer. Most of the time no the answer exists. Many answers, some more complete than others, exist; and all come with different costs. Whichever solutions is chosen will also bring with it unintended consequences, which must, in turn, be dealt with. All solutions bring new problems – and that’s a good thing.
The seduction of a fear reaction is that, at the time, it feels like a permanent solution. But since it was done reflexively, it was not carefully chosen from all of the possible solutions; and chances are that fear will choose whatever is closest, not what is most effective and least costly. The fear reaction is reflexive and stereotypical. When it is not totally effective, the fear situation will recur. When it does, the new reaction will be the same stereotype, leading to a vicious cycle fear-response, repeated fear followed by repeated response, with no way to end the repeating.
For over one hundred fifty years Prohibitionists have been reacting to drugs (including alcohol) and their users from motives of fear and with stereotypical reflex actions. First, they try to smash the drug itself with organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and then they try to destroy the users, first with compulsory sanitaria then with prisons and ultimately the gallows. When these fear reflexes have not worked, they have simply gotten scared again and tried to repeat them – but more violently with each repeat.
Fear of drugs has dug this country into a hole so deep that climbing out of it will be a massive task. Now is the time to move past fear and start employing foresight. The first step is to recognize that most of the current problem is not caused by drugs but by the fear-generated response to them. Many solutions has been proposed, and a large number of those have at least some merit. The task is to weigh them objectively, calculate both the gains offered and the costs imposed. More important is to realize that no one of the proposals will solve all the problems, and all will call for additional actions even if they are effective.
The time to start working on them is now. A voyage of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Don’t be afraid, just put that first foot forward and begin the trip.