The Nation's Pulse

A Short History of Drugs

The difference between now and then is the acceptance of narcotics.

By 8.27.09

Send to Kindle

I have always felt a fondness for Richard Brautigan's story "A Short History of Oregon," with its Hemingwayesque language and its clever use of nostalgic understatement:

I would do things like that when I was sixteen. I'd hitch-hike fifty miles in the rain to go hunting for the last hours of the day. I'd stand alongside the road with a 30:30 and my thumb out and think nothing of it, expecting to be picked up and I always was.

"Where are you going?"

"Deer hunting."

That meant something in Oregon.

"Get in."

I try to imagine that scene today and in a matter of seconds, some woman is on her cell phone and minutes later the cops show up, service weapons drawn, tackle the sixteen-year-old, and throw him in the back of the cruiser.

It was a different world, but it was already changing, becoming this one, when Brautigan's story appeared in the February 1969 Rolling Stone. There is no shortage of things to blame the changes on: welfare and out of wedlock births, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the waning of organized religion, loss of manners, the Sexual Revolution. A lot of people say it was drugs. I recently read Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men and came across this line of interior dialogue from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell:

I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics. Maybe he did.

In an effort to show the moral decline of public education, politicians like to cite the infamous "School Troubles List," a survey that compares the worst problems in public schools in the 1940s with those of the 1990s. Supposedly, in the 1940s, the worst problems were chewing gum and cutting in line, while today they are murder, rape, and drugs. The list was proved a hoax back in 1994, though it is still frequently cited as fact. McCarthy even references it in No Country For Old Men.

I am probably the wrong one to ask. I did not attend public schools, and I don't have much experience with them beyond what I read. My son attends a top drawer Catholic high school and there seems to be a lot less drug use there than at the Catholic high school I attended in the late 1970s, when Cheech and Chong ruled the box office and the number one song was Styx's "Light Up":

All I need is just one hit to get me by

'cause baby when you're near I'm halfway high

Hoax or no hoax, things have changed. One look at the U.S. Bureau of Justice's drug arrest statistics is enough to see that. In 1970, there were an estimated 415,600 drug arrests. By 2006, that figure had soared to 1,889,800. Same with homicides. In 1950, there were around 7,020 murders. Homicides peaked at 24,703, in 1991, during the height of the drug gang wars, and have settled at 1970 levels, still more than twice what they were at mid-century.

I AM INCLINED TO agree with Sheriff Bell. Most of the problems of modern society can be traced to one source, and that is narcotics. Whether we are talking about poor schools, white flight, high murder rates, single parenting, exploding prison populations, crack-addled babies, prostitution, organized crime, human trafficking -- they all begin with the drug trade.

Yet, many Americans continue to regard drugs as a harmless pastime or a recreational activity. Drug "experimentation" is merely a harmless phase teenagers go through like acne or poor body image. Weeds, a comedy about an adorable suburban drug dealer, was the Showtime network's number one show during its first season. In a Pew Poll from 2001, 53 percent of white males said possessing small amounts of marijuana should not be a crime, and an overwhelming 65 percent of black women agreed. Those polled were unable to connect drug use to what they saw as the two main problems facing the nation: morality and poor schools. The simple process of cause and effect was too much for them. In fact, the idea that buying and using weed or crack somehow promotes drug violence, murders, kidnappings, prostitution, etc., is laughable to many teens and adults alike. How often do we see the same hipsters who whine (or write songs) about the destruction of the ozone layer light up a joint or snort a line of coke with no thought of its effects on others? There could be gunshots going off all round them and they still wouldn't get it.

LAST SUNDAY AFTERNOON my girlfriend and I were working in the backyard of her brick home in south St. Louis when we heard three loud gunshots in succession.

"Were you hit?" I said.

She wasn't hit.

Nobody in the neighborhood even blinked an eye. No one came outdoors and looked around, no one even called the cops. Down the street, 5-year-old children continued playing as normal. As far as the folks living on the street were concerned, it was a normal day. At length my girlfriend went in and called the cops. An SUV drove by carrying three feral teenage boys, completely out of control, cursing and saying something about "being shot at." It may have been drugs or it may have been some other penny-ante dispute. Five minutes later, a cruiser rolled down the alley. It didn't even stop. The female cop looked at us and waved. Hi. Have a nice day.

Okay, so what is to be done? Some call for an end to drug prohibition, by which they mean the legalization of marijuana. But legalizing pot will do nothing to end drug violence or its ruinous consequences. Drug kingpins will simply move more cocaine, heroin, hashish, and methadone. (Amsterdam, famous for legalized pot, has seen a steep rise in drug gang violence in recent years. "Cannabis is a threat to our democracy," says Holland's police commissioner.) Besides, when society sends the message that some drugs -- so-called soft drugs -- are okay, what are we really saying? We would never dream of telling 18-year-olds that low tar or low nicotine cigarettes are okay. And cigarettes only damage the health of individuals, while drugs damage society as a whole.

The alternative is to get Americans as riled up about coca or marijuana as they are about tobacco or the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest. Too many educated adults will not buy coffee from farmers who cut down trees to plant their crops, but they will buy cocaine, even though countless lives may have been destroyed in bringing it from coca farm to Bullet Park.

I can't prove that it was narcotics that brought "the human race to its knees." It might have been a combination of things. All I know is backstreet gunfights and dodging stray bullets is not something I care to get used to.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.