Existential Emptiness and Drug Abuse


Miguel de Unamuno

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One reason the so-called “War on Drugs” will not work is that it applies the criminal justice system to solve a problem that is not primarily a criminal justice matter. The crisis of drug use in the United States is not a crisis of criminality, but a crisis of emptiness. The U. S. was founded on an individualistic creed. As long as individualism was stemmed by families, neighborhoods, churches, and other community organizations, people were able to move outside themselves, love their families, make friends, and have a core set of values that gave meaning to their lives. With traditional religion, which was community-oriented, on the decline in favor of irreligion, or at best, a poorly defined individualistic “spirituality,” the core set of values that gave meaning to the lives of millions of people are no longer accepted. Beliefs in a God to whom people are responsible, a community of faith focused on worshipping that God and reaching out to neighbors, and a life after death that implies our lives do not end in utter annihilation, are fast fading. The United States strives to become more like secular Europe every day. Other institutions, such as the family, have broken down in many places, with little hope for recovery. This leads to neighborhoods of strangers and a world in which people are wedded to their computer screens and rarely get out to actually visit and talk to people.

The result is an existential crisis. People who cannot reach outside themselves either turn to their own selfish desires or are so lonely and empty that they turn to drugs to hide the pain. With no meaning in life and no hope for an afterlife, people seek cheap thrills–and what better cheap thrill than to stay at home getting the high of one’s life. Then the drug’s effect fades, the pain returns, and a person says, “I will seek it yet again.” People pretend to enjoy life , pretend to be happy, but these claims are sometimes belied by the massive abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs–why depend on these false gods if one is truly happy. Now I think marijuana should be legal, not because I support people using it for recreation only (instead of medicinal use) but because it is a waste of time to criminalize a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. Yet I would not want a society of individuals high on pot. Pot is an escape. Alcohol can be an escape. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, DMT, ketamine–all these drugs and many more mask the despair of contemporary man. Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus were right to note this despair, but their atheism led them to support an individual’s pursuit of one’s own freely chosen goal as the ultimate meaning for that person’s life–there is no objective meaning. But if there is no objective meaning, why not escape life by using drugs? Material things offer only a temporary comfort. Relationships, unanchored in community, are relationships of convenience. Religion is rejected outright, or else some neo-Gnostic version of self-fulfillment is tried. All that is left are shells of people, like the woman in Miguel de Unamuno‘s book, Tragic Sense of Life, who raises her hands off her face when she is sitting on a park bench, revealing that she has no face at all. This is the horror of the lonely, empty American seeking one thrill after another and finally trying to maintain a chemical high.

The only way to solve the drug problem is at its source. Community should be restored, transcendent values encouraged, and people encouraged to seek more than their own selfish wants and reach outside themselves to their families, their neighbors, and their God. If we keep on using traditional law enforcement and the legal system to put out the fire of drugs, all that will result is small patches that the fire can easily jump. Hopefully communities will do what they can to restore stable families, encourage friendships, and support religion, if for no other reason than to fill the emptiness of people with the transcendent, something wholly other, something ultimately outside their own narrow self-interest, something that is Love Itself.

The Insane “War on Drugs”

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Medical marijuana neon sign at a dispensary on...

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Sixty percent of the drugs coming into the United States from Mexico consists of marijuana. Twenty thousand people have died in the conflict in Mexico between the government and drug gangs and between rival drug gangs. Could that death toll have been reduced if marijuana were legal?

Many police officers in the United States complain that they are spending so much time enforcing drug laws that they have inadequate time to focus on violent crime. I have been surprised when I have polled police officers on the issue of the legalization of marijuana–most favor its legalization. Some officers favor the legalization of all drugs. Although the latter option may seem extreme, it is far more reasonable than the insane “war on drugs” in the United States.

Americans love to call causes “wars.” From the “war on poverty” to the “war on crime,” to the “war on drugs” to the “war on terrorism,” Americans love to think of themselves as the knights in shining armor crusading against evil, or the lawman from the Old West shooting the bad guys. But ever cause that became a “war” failed. Prohibition failed. The war on poverty failed. The war on terrorism is failing. And the war on drugs has failed. All these wars have done is suck taxpayers’ money into a behemoth government that drains them dray. Such wars have wreaked havoc over constitutional rights. They have made it easy for the government to shift gears to form a police state. They are threats to liberty.

The “war on drugs” is no exception. How many billions of taxpayer dollars every year feed this futile monstrosity? The government seizes property from individuals whom they suspect of dealing drugs, even if the evidence is scanty and even if they have not been convicted. In North Carolina, a woman in her eighties was arrested and convicted of marijuana possession and resale because she had a few marijuana plants in her yard. She spent time in jail–and for what? To keep people from using a natural substance that causes less social harm and fewer health problems than both tobacco cigarettes and alcohol. Sure, someone can refer to studies that link long-term marijuana use with memory loss, but is this any worse than the effects of long-term alcohol or cigarette use? The speciousness of the arguments concerning marijuana’s dangers hark back to the days of the propaganda film Reefer Madness.

Placing marijuana on schedule 1 with hard drugs is another idiotic government move. It does have medicinal uses, which should move it down on the list.

It would be better to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, along with adding stiff penalties for driving while stoned. Most likely the taxes would create more public benefit than the losses due to any dangers of marijuana. Fundamentalist blow-hards and those officials who make money from marijuana may whine, but if the majority of the people, including conservatives, wake up, the market for illegal marijuana could almost be eliminated by its legalization. There might be a black market, just as there are moonshiners today, but it will most likely remain small.

What about hard drugs? Drugs such as cocaine and heroin are extremely dangerous. But the focus should be on treating addiction as a medical/social issue rather than criminalizing drug use. Putting an addict in prison will do no good to help him overcome his addiction. For the most part, Europe recognizes this. It probably should be illegal to sell drugs this dangerous, with a loosening of regulations for other drugs that ease the pain, say, of terminal cancer patients. When they are denied opiates because “they might become drug addicts,” this shows the insanity of current laws–who cares if they are addicts if the drugs relieve their pain. They are, after all, terminally ill patients.

Legitimate scientific studies in psychedelics have been hampered by strong U.S. laws. Grof used LSD in Europe to treat schizophrenic patients with some success, but it is very difficult to get past government regulations and get permission to engage in such experiments. A study with DMT was done in the 1990s, but overall U.S. laws have harmed research on these drugs.

This does not mean I like the use of marijuana–anytime a person smokes something it is bound to have some effect on the lungs. And long-term memory loss with overuse of marijuana is not healthy. Like tobacco, it is a product people should avoid–but that does not imply that their using the product should be illegal. I absolutely oppose using hard drugs except in legitimate scientific experiments. I am not yet ready to go as far as the late William F. Buckley and support total legalization of all drugs. But marijuana, at least, should be legalized, and drug addiction should be treated as a medical (and sometimes as a moral) problem rather than as a criminal problem.