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Everything in Moderation

Jacob Sullum vs. drug warriors -- and drug enthusiasts.

By 11.10.03

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With the title Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, you'd think that Jacob Sullum was another hippie trying to get drugs legalized so he could enjoy that big fat joint emblazoned on the book's dust jacket. And you would be oh so wrong. In 284 tightly argued pages, plus notes, Sullum, a senior editor for the libertarian Reason magazine and author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, cuts through the myriad myths of anti-drug arguments to press his case that, for most people, drugs are not mind-snatchers leaving their users a hollowed out shell of who they once were.

The first chapter of Saying Yes (Tarcher/Putnam, 340 pages, $25.95) takes exception to the popular belief, held by Mormons and Muslims, among others, that all "psychoactive substances are so dangerous that they should be avoided altogether." While most secular anti-drug types would agree with this for narcotics, they don't believe this holds true for alcohol, because alcohol use can be controlled.

However, that is a tenuous distinction at best. Sullum asks, How different is the use of alcohol from that of other drugs? Answer: Alcohol is legal, which makes it more socially acceptable. As for the argument that it is more damaging than most illegal substances, he reminds readers that alcohol is a "toxin" that causes

dizziness, headache, vomiting, and blackouts; impairs speech, judgment, coordination, cognition, and memory; and depresses respiration, which can lead to death after a single drinking session. Withdrawal symptoms include rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, chills, fever, chest pain, nausea with recurrent vomiting, abdominal pain, hallucinations, and seizures, sometimes resulting in death. Alcohol users suffer from peptic ulcers, liver failure, pancreatic cysts, high blood pressure, stroke, metabolic abnormalities, malnutrition, lung and urinary tract infections, brain damage, and cancers of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, liver, stomach, colon and breast. Alcohol use is also associated with depression, suicide, unemployment, divorce, domestic violence, assault, homicide, and vehicular accidents.

Put that way, why would anyone want to drink? But they do: Contra the arguments of prohibitionists, there are millions of people that drink everyday in a social manner without becoming belligerent or impaired. And Sullum, armed with a brace of studies, statistics, and anecdotes, demonstrates that millions of Americans smoke marijuana recreationally without it ruining their day to day lives.

The same holds true for several other drugs. Among others, Sullum quotes a CEO with a cocaine habit, as well as the housewife that likes to shoot heroin before she cleans the house (anonymously, of course). What's more, Sullum argues, the CEO and cleaning lady are part of a non-trivial part of the population (as high as 7 percent) who use illegal drugs on a regular basis, and still manage to function more or less normally.

As shocking as parts of this book may be, it's worth noting that Sullum is a moderate on the subject of drugs. He rejected the much more sexy title Just Say Yes because that was not the message that he wanted to convey. Saying Yes very thoroughly details both the positive and negative effects of a whole laundry list of drugs, legal and non-legal, giving readers an opportunity to judge for themselves whether these drugs really are as diabolical as they are often portrayed in the popular press.

Some people are unhappy with this approach, and not only family values defenders. Writing earlier this year in the New York Press, Mark Ames, who admitted to typing while on speed, was driven a little bit nuts by Sullum's "clear, rational, calm style." Ames lashed out against Sullum's willingness to engage Christians (by arguing that the Bible is hardly the teetotalers handbook) and the fact that he doesn't wholeheartedly endorse the drug-addled nihilism that Ames clearly prefers.

"By the time [Sullum] reaches his grand conclusion, in a chapter titled 'Managing Moderation,' you just want to punch him, tell him to get the f--- away because he's bumming your high," wrote Ames in a spasm of self righteous pique.

Mitch Horowitz, Sullum's editor from Tarcher/Penguin, had a devastating reply in the letters page of the next issue of the Press. "Mark Ames' review…" he wrote, "only succeeds in challenging one point of Sullum's book…and by accident: that drug use doesn't impair performance."

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