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Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs.

What issue on the political agenda offers more contradictions and perplexities than drug policy? Eight decades of ever-stiffening prohibition of an ever-lengthening list of substances have inarguably succeeded in deterring some potential users simply by subjecting access to these substances to the ministrations of a violent and rapacious black market.

And yet, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's 1996 strategy report, 72 million Americans have experimented with illegal drugs. Casual use of illicit drugs has fallen off by perhaps half since 1985. But 12.2 million Americans continue to be steady users, and almost 3 million of us slog on as hard-core heroin and cocaine addicts. Meanwhile, our inner cities are free-fire illicit economic zones and our jails are jammed with prisoners of a "war on drugs".

Given that illicit drugs are not going to be eliminated any time soon, what is there to do? How much of the harm caused by certain drugs is due to their inherent effect on users, and how much to the consequence of striving to limit that use with blunt judicial instruments? More of the same - Constitution-clipping searches and seizures, mandatory minimum sentencing, asset forfeiture and so on - can merely assure us, well, more of the same. Legalization or decriminalization would surely ameliorate some - but by no means all - of the damage a black market drug culture currently wreaks on body, wallet, and, lifestyle; it would also get the government out of the business of policing private behavior. But it would do so, just as surely, at the cost of increasing the number of those using potentially dangerous drugs.

A confounding quandary, this, and one that continues to generate a tsunami of tomes ostensibly explicating its causes and effects. Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dream, a popular history of illicit drug use, trafficking, and regulation in 20th-century America, is just one of this summer's additions to the drug policy bookshelf. Penned by former journalist Jill Jonnes as her doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins, Hep-cats succeeds as an engagingly crafted account of a colorful slice of U.S. history.

It fails, however, to truly illuminate this dark topic, thanks to the narrowness of Jonnes's analytical vision. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, she cold-shoulders any suggestion that popular and legal attitudes toward opiates, cocaine, marijuana, and such have been shaped not just by psychopharmacological factors, but also cultural and racial ones. Jonnes attributes the chemical underground's ineradicable persistence to a pernicious "hipster ethos" spawned in the jazz clubs and black ghettoes of America and adopted by white "middle-class screwups." Never "underestimate the powerful link between hipness and drugs," she sternly admonishes.

Sound advice, that. But there, precisely, lies the rub: Certain drugs retain their hip aura largely because they are illegal. Jonnes's cramped framework prevents any fruitful exploration of this complicating nexus. Instead, she follows the herd of pro-prohibition analysts in lumping together all drugs labeled "illegal," regardless of their effects or their surrounding subculture. (For a refreshing departure from this practice, see Against Excess, Harvard University professor Mark A.R. Kleiman's 1992 drug policy opus.) Pot and LSD are thus deemed equivalent to heroin, speed, and cocaine.

Jonnes exonerates ethyl alcohol, that most ubiquitous of American intoxicants, as a social malefactor. Alcohol is not as "reinforcing" as other substances, she states, because it "can only be taken orally, a very inefficient way to reach the brain and induce a high." But in fact booze is an extraordinarily soluble and efficiently delivered drug, as anyone who has downed a martini or two before dinner can well attest. "Unlike an alcoholic," Jonnes adds, "an addict was not only out of it while high, but also tended to be highly preoccupied in between drug sessions with securing his or her next dose or the money to purchase it." Last time I looked, our city streets were thronged with down-and-out drunks scuffling for their next bottle. Were they forced to secure that drink from extortionate gangs, our drunks might be even more "highly preoccupied."

This unwillingness to distinguish between intoxicants save on the basis of over-the-counter availability leads Jonnes down any number of blind alleys. For instance, citing Dharma Lion, Michael Schumacher's 1992 biography of Allen Ginsberg, Jonnes charges the Beat poet, a proponent of cannabis legalization, with "utter hypocrisy" for banning all drugs (including alcohol) at his farm to protect his companion, Peter Orlovsky. But Orlovsky's addiction was to heroin and methamphetamine, and Ginsberg "drew a careful distinction between the use of such addictive drugs as heroin and amphetamines and such nonaddictive drugs as marijuana and LSD," Schumacher more reliably reports. "In fact, a close look at Ginsberg's use of and attitudes toward drugs indicates that he was very consistent over the years."

Other such lapses do not inspire confidence in the rigor of Jonnes's research into an admittedly arcane and complex topic. There is no "peyote mushroom"; mescalines source is cactus. Heroin is not "an essence of morphine"; only one of many semi-synthetic variants of morphine, it is favored by addicts because its superior fat solubility transports it more readily across that pesky blood-brain barrier. Neither is it true that morphine can only be injected, nor, again, that Pakistani and Afghani heroin is "streaming into the United States." Less than 10 percent of our junk originates in Southwest Asia; the vast bulk comes from Southeast Asia, with the balance from Mexico and, increasingly, Colombia.

To her credit, Jonnes is appropriately skeptical of the chest-beating antics of such antidrug hawks as long-time narcotics commissioner Harry J. Anslinger (who declared in the 1950s that "the answer to the problem is simple - get rid of drugs, pushers, and users") and William Bennett, President Bush's first "drug czar" (who endorsed the summary decapitation of drug dealers in the 1980s. Eschewing the fatuously triumphalist drug war rhetoric that rings down from Capitol Hill, she also concedes that "the drug culture always will be with us in some form."

But an insistently blinkered approach and an enthusiastic embrace of the counter-counterculture kulturkampf prevents Jonnes from asking, much less answering, some of the really interesting questions about the cultural tributaries that feed the drug dilemma. No question about it, drugs, especially the potent alkaloids, can cause a world of hurt to those who abuse them, those who love the abusers, and the wider community. Until we surrender all our democratic rights to a barbed-wire-girt police state, drugs will be available. Shouldn't a rational policy therefore seek, above all, a reduction in the hurt that these chemicals can cause? Does the current war on drugs meet that criterion? Or does it use deterrence to merely circumscribe the scope of the problem while profoundly worsening its impact on users by creating a black market?

An objective observer - viewing our present day from some far future, perhaps - could only be astonished by the hysteria fostered in this century by illicit drugs. Even so seemingly level-headed a president as Franklin Roosevelt was moved to suggest that narcotics addiction was "an even more serious offense against society than murder itself, But FDR was the chief executive who oversaw an end to alcohol prohibition. Directly and indirectly, alcohol today causes roughly 100,000 premature deaths every year from among America's 15 million problem drinkers, compared to a toll of about 25,000 exacted by illicit drugs. Tobacco accounts for a whopping 400,000 funerals annually. However unhappily, we seem somehow to cope with the ravages of drunk driving and lung cancer without shredding the Constitution or transforming our cities into armed camps. What prevents us from approaching the ills imposed by addictive use of other drugs with similar calm and steadiness of purpose?

Content to rail again and again against "that tired American romance with outlaws and sociopaths that celebrated outwitting authority of any kind," Jonnes points toward no original or thoughtful answers. The final irony, of course, is that the very repressive drug laws she so fervently endorses guarantee that the outlaws and sociopaths among us will always have a crowded stage upon which to play out this enduring American romance.
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Author:Morrison, David C.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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