Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power

Drugs Unlimited is an excellent companion to Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, since both are about the madness of the laws that forbid or restrict mind-altering substances. But Drugs Unlimited shares a flaw and strength with Last Call, too: both books are repetitive, with tons of minute historical detail that feels easy to skip. Unless you wish to become an expert in the subject both are better checked out of libraries than bought.

Drugs Unlimited follows a pattern and cites many, many examples of that pattern: Chemist or enthusiast comes up with a novel drug or drug variation; people try and like it; governments eventually ban it (there are chapters devoted to “LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s”). The process then repeats, though we’re now in a stage in which it’s difficult for governments to ban or regulate every conceivable substance, leading to an online free-for-all.

Drugs_unlimitedShould you wish to enter the free-for-all Drugs Unlimited provides an introduction and useful guidance. Drugs have become more widely available than ever in the last ten years, and perhaps the most interesting thing about their availability has been their lack of impact on society, which continues to function. Nonetheless we get a chronicle of the new drug world: “Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online.” That I’ve never heard of mephedrone makes me feel uncool.

It’s appropriate that I’m discussing this book on a blog, since Power writes:

Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

He doesn’t cite Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters but he might as well: one could take out the word “drug” and replace it with “readers” or “listeners” or any number of other verbs. Still, there is a persistent feeling that “the unmediated voices of users” are better informed than the highly mediated voices of the media, or of academics.

Drugs Unlimited is also a media critique: “Saunders also detailed [Ecstasy’s] darker, more negative sides in an honest appraisal that was sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.” Or: “My responses to [Ecstasy] and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them.” Or: “hysterical media coverage of the perceive threats of new drugs and corresponding knee-jerk government action seem to be [. . .] guaranteed.”

Power likes drugs: he’s taken them, and he writes sensuously of the way “drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination.” He should perhaps more strongly emphasize the dangers of mixing different drugs, since that along with poorly manufactured drugs is how people die. The extent to which schools, the “responsible” media, and other authority figures systematically lie about drugs is shocking. Although “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?” came out after Drugs Unlimited, it would fit into Power’s narrative.

Drugs Unlimited is lightly technical, and you’ll find sentences like these: “PIHKAL reveals in practical detail the chemical synthesis and human dosage of hundreds of psychoactive substances, each of which are in the phenethylamine class.” The book is neither well nor poorly written. It would not surprise me, however, were copies to travel to many unexpected places and inspired many unexpected people. Perhaps you’re one.

Hypocrisy as enabled by wealth: a lesson from Daniel Okrent’s Last Call

In Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he writes: “As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporate.”

One can extract a larger point from this passage relating the Great Depression’s effects on Prohibition: hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money. The same basic dynamic is playing out in California with weed: the state is broke; willing buyers buy from willing sellers; the cost of enforcement and imprisonment is pointless; and the tax revenue increases the temptations of legalization.

The Economist has recently reported on this dynamic regarding California: “Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned because of marijuana.”

Societies can afford to become more hypocritical as they become wealthier. But when we have to confront the trade-offs that pointless policing of personal behavior entails, the costs of various kinds of prohibition become relatively higher and no longer look as appealing as they once did. Drug prohibition is a salient example.

Hypocrisy as enabled by wealth: a lesson from Daniel Okrent's Last Call

In Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he writes: “As businesses came apart, as banks folded, as massive unemployment and homelessness scoured the cities and much of the countryside, any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporate.”

One can extract a larger point from this passage relating the Great Depression’s effects on Prohibition: hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money. The same basic dynamic is playing out in California with weed: the state is broke; willing buyers buy from willing sellers; the cost of enforcement and imprisonment is pointless; and the tax revenue increases the temptations of legalization.

The Economist has recently reported on this dynamic regarding California: “Another big topic in a state with a $19 billion budget hole is the fiscal impact of legalisation. Some studies have estimated savings of nearly $1.9 billion as people are no longer arrested and imprisoned because of marijuana.”

A lesson Last Call offers is that societies can afford to become more hypocritical as they become wealthier. But when we have to confront the trade-offs that pointless policing of personal behavior entails, the costs of various kinds of prohibition become relatively higher and no longer look as appealing as they once did.

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