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'Twas Ever Thus That Man Chooses His Own Poison

March 11, 2001|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

Cursed be he who cannot raise his pipe without betraying self. If composure be lost in smoke, tis frail man, not the wondrous weed, be judged at fault.

--With apologies to the Bard.


The news, all but buried, that William Shakespeare may have numbered marijuana and/or cocaine among his muses reminds us of the main reason why the war against drugs, or alcohol, never can be won. Drugs often can be both therapeutic and fun. When the 17th century clay pipes preserved at the bard's home were examined by scientists, they determined that whoever smoked them--we'd like to think it was old Will--might have owed his flights of fancy in part to being stoned.

That is the one important idea left out of "Traffic," that puritanical shotgun of a movie that hits every falsehood of the drug wars except the most obvious one--the denial that drugs, legal and not, are for many lucky users a pleasurable experience that ends there, without significant other cost. Heresy, I know, but how else is one to explain the prevalence of use, often by successful participants in thriving civilizations, down through the ages?

Like sex, drugs can also be a source of pain and turmoil; they can be abused and abusive, particularly when one is addicted. But the insistence that all users are addicts and that all illegal drugs are universally destructive is as silly as the assertion that all indulgence in sex, alcohol or legally prescribed narcotics is pathological.

Personally, I cannot handle drugs. After sampling much that was forbidden in my reckless youth, often ostensibly to improve writing or some other performance, I would awake to confront the gibberish residue of the evening's haze and ruefully admit to the mirror that I was no Shakespeare. A more fearsome experience with alcohol led to the same conclusion. And so in the interest of earning a regular paycheck, I regretfully abstain even from a fine cabernet. Regretfully, because my abstinence is a sign of weakness necessitated by my lack of moderation.

However, most people who I have known are quite different; they enjoy their wine or various other hits and nonetheless work hard, pay taxes and have been wonderful parents and spouses. What right do I have to demand that their behavior be legally defined to accommodate my miserable lack of will power?

Indeed, alcohol, my lead demon, has been an antidote to our otherwise historically far-too-uptight culture. Arguably, the now forgotten tradition of the evening cocktail hour brought some couples together more than any other factor. In that seemingly bucolic Ozzie and Harriet period, the man came home from work all frazzled and shed the tension of his workaday with a quick "pop." Typically, the cocktail hour allowed time for the only meaningful family conversation of the day.

In other cultures, the Tom Collins might be replaced with a bit of opium, cocaine or marijuana. Even in our own history, the evidence is overwhelming that the founding fathers grew hemp, and one can assume some of them occasionally partook of the homegrown weed (which was not illegal until well into the 20th century). Less is known as to whether their wives indulged, but it is not farfetched to imagine that Martha or some other founding father's wife occasionally rolled one of those homegrown joints for her harried husband. Is it inconceivable that some of our most important documents, say the Declaration of Independence, were written by authors who were to some degree stoned? After all, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, why not Jefferson?

Which brings one back to the folly of the drug war. The druggie daughter in "Traffic," a top student and model citizen who suddenly degenerates, is atypical. The overachievers who use drugs of one sort or another most often do so to enhance their performance; they eschew anything that gets in the way of that. Some slip along the way, but if we don't concede that the main danger of drugs is their illegality and not their chemical properties, we miss the point.

It is misguided law and the zealous enforcement of it that creates most of the human tragedy associated with banned drugs. Even in "Traffic," the young woman had to go to dangerous neighborhoods to secure her supply, at heavy personal cost. This is little different than the personal carnage associated with the era of alcohol prohibition.

The lessons of prohibition for both alcohol and drugs are the same: A personal indulgence, which for most would normally be quite manageable, is turned into the stuff of chaos and crime because of draconian laws. Yes, as "Traffic" insists, treatment for those who need it is far preferable to jailing people for a crime in which they are the victims. Yes, education and prohibition for minors is necessary to reinforce the dangers of addiction.

But adults should be free to name their own poison, knowing that for many, that is merely a figure of speech.

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