Beyond "The War on Drugs": A New Approach
Drugs as an "Everything Problem"
Is there a long-term answer to “the war on drugs”?
This article is going to propose one.
It will be brief and broad.
The aim here is to point in a general direction. It won’t get into nitty-gritty details of policy. It will roughly sketch out a basic strategy that often seems to get ignored.
The basic direction is drugs as an “Everything Problem.”
Of course, the entire topic is controversial.
Some are “pro”-drugs, others “anti,” others neutral.
That said, there are some areas where all sides agree. Deaths by overdose, ruined relationships and lives, violence, gangs, organized crime, and so on – all of which surround the entire scene – aren’t good things. There’s nothing here against what some see as the harmless, the helpful, the life-enhancing. It isn’t about mistakenly guilt-tripping some individuals while elevating others.
The focus here is on the ugly side of the matter, where everyone basically agrees.
The basic dynamic is fairly simple.
Drugs can make a person feel good for a little while. That’s the bait.
The bigger picture means also taking into account everything that happens before and after.
It means accounting for the longer-term effects on a person, for example, beyond the initial rush. It means factoring in opportunity costs – what other things a person could be doing with their time and energy, for example. And so on.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because some individuals narrowly focus only on one side of things, such as the positive effects of drugs. Others focus exclusively on the negative. This can lead to unnecessary miscommunication and misunderstanding. There are both “prudish” ("Drugs are bad!") and “libertine” ("Drugs are good!") views of the overall drug topic. Narrow approaches on both sides tend to antagonize the other. The approach outlined below aims beyond that, primarily at what both sides agree on.
So, how has the “war on drugs” been working out so far?
Let’s look at some data.
Clearly, the lines are all rising, and they have been for quite a while.
This has taken place while spending billions of dollars on the problem.
In a nutshell: the “war on drugs” so far has mostly been an expensive failure.
This isn’t a controversial statement.
A few highlights taken from a brief overview here: “The War on Drugs is often called a policy failure.” A recent book on the topic was entitled A War That Can’t Be Won. Others say that the drug wars themselves will never end, only the players will change. And so on.
There clearly seem to be reasons justifying pessimism.
The results seem clear: what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. While it might be a bit too strong to say that we’ve reached a “dead end,” efforts to solve the problem seems stale, weary, and in need of an upgrade.
So, is there a better approach?
What should we do instead? Any fresh ideas here?
Some answers are already in the air. All-out war against drug cartels, for example. Some advocate legalizing drugs. Others recommend harsher sentences for dealers, sellers, or users. Still others are at a loss, and just plan to keep at it, stick to the status quo, and hope something changes eventually.
None of what is proposed below should conflict with anything that’s actually working now. The below should be fully compatible with anything that’s effective in the current approaches.
That said, many of the approaches mentioned above go after reducing the supply, but not the demand. They work on solving the problem after it has come about, but not preventing it from arising in the first place. Most of them focus on direct, linear, one-stage thinking, but not indirect, non-linear, multiple-stage systems approaches. Some make superficial efforts in realms that require depth.
The crux of the matter here was encapsulated clearly in a line of movie dialogue. (Why? It's well-written, and says a lot with a few words, unlike much of what's written about all this.)
From the movie Sicario:
“Until someone finds a way
to stop 20 percent of America from putting this shit up their nose,
order is the best we can hope for.”
(Sicario, Dir by Denis Villeneuve, Written by Taylor Sheridan. Title image also from film.)
With that as a starting point, we can ask: is there a way to approach the problem from this side?
It involves reframing the matter almost entirely.
Drugs are an “Everything Problem.”
An Everything Problem, as described here, is a difficult problem that’s connected to other difficult problems.
Some problems can’t be solved, only prevented.
Current efforts to “solve” drug problems (and other difficult problems) often involve a direct and frontal assault on the problem. It involves linear causal relationships as the shortest route between A and B. The “problem” is targeted in isolation, while the complicating factors are treated as distractions.
But to solve an Everything Problem means embracing the other difficult problems that are interconnected.
Pulling on one strand of a web affects all the other strands. When we’re trying to just isolate one strand and deal with it by itself, as an isolated element this dynamic – one problem pulling many others along with it – can be frustrating.
But if we deliberately keep the entire web in mind, this can start working for us, instead of against us.
To actually apply this, let’s take a short quiz.
Walker Percy boiled it down well.
“Why do so many teenagers, and younger people, turn to drugs?
(a) Because of peer-group pressure, failure of communication, psychological dysfunction, rebellion against parents, and decline of religious values.
(b) because life is difficult, boring, disappointing, and unhappy, and drugs make you feel good.”
- from Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
If Percy is right, then what we’re up against isn’t really a war against drugs.
It’s a war against the human condition.
So, how do you “win” against “the human condition”?
Here is where the definition of Everything Problems gets expanded a bit. It isn’t merely about difficult problems being interconnected with other difficult problems. Once you start pulling that thread, the entire sweater unravels. We soon find ourselves facing The Big Questions of life. What’s it all about? What’s the point? Who am I? Why are we here? And so on.
With this in mind, we can focus on one small part of human nature.
In our normal condition, we want to escape ourselves.
We often do this in small ways that are harmless, restful, and life-enhancing. We sleep, for example. We read books and watch movies. Even conversations, sports, and music can be ways to “escape ourselves.”
But drugs offer us ways to escape ourselves, for very short periods of time, in ways that are harmful, deeply unsettling, destructive, and that sometimes come at a serious price.
The choice is often portrayed as a dilemma.
The only solution is sometimes seen as between either 1) escaping ourselves, or 2) resigning ourselves to a miserable life.
Drugs offer a highly potent version of #1.
The approach offered here deconstructs #2.
That is to say, the “Everything Problem” approach delves into the “resigning ourselves to a miserable life” option, faces it, explores it, and sifts out the reality lying beneath its surface appearance. And it’s true: life can be hell. But a closer look at the problem can also expose some hidden assumptions that don’t always hold up under scrutiny. It’s a false dilemma.
The alternative to “escaping” isn’t “misery,” and the only answer to misery isn’t merely escaping in a narrowly defined way. There are good ways to “escape,” and not-so-good. Escaping in the wrong way can lead to misery. Escaping in the right way can lead to something much better.
The better alternative exists on a personal level – not merely in revving the method of escaping, but also in working to make regular life less miserable.
This alternative way out isn’t by escaping ourselves, but by going through and beyond ourselves.
Of course, this is easy to say, and hard to do. And it probably sounds more than a little abstract and professorial, which doesn’t reflect the reality of it.
So let’s look at this a little more closely.
With Everything Problems, difficult problems are interconnected with other difficult problems.
And all of them ultimately connect up with the Big Questions of life.
Drugs are connected with the problem of happiness, for example. The problem of happiness is connected to the problem of unhappiness, also known as suffering. This is part of how life can be hell. Enduring unhappiness and suffering is connected to the problem of meaning in life, the twin brother of which is the problem of meaninglessness (which leads to nihilism, as DeadPool flirts with.) All of this connects up with angst, or perhaps a lower-grade form of angst known as “boredom.” (Some folks try drugs out of nothing more than boredom, and from there, it’s game-on.) Angst is what we can experience when we aren’t on the route to making use of our “human potential” (perhaps in the way that battery acid – something otherwise powerful and beneficial, in the right context – if not spent properly, can corrode, start leaking, and cause damage.) All of this happens within a broader overall view of human nature, including all our various parts and how they fit together and develop. All of this also connects with our personal history, including such aspects as anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse, and dysfunctional relationships, our philosophy of life, our answers to the Existential Riddles life throws at us, and so on.
Let’s imagine someone who is doing very well along the lines of the above.
We can imagine this hypothetical person as someone who is genuinely “happy.”
Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah would be someone who has a good answer to “the meaning problem” in life. She would be aware of the possibility of meaninglessness, but wouldn’t really suffer from it to any significant extent. She’s be aware of angst and boredom, but also wouldn’t really suffer from it all that much. Which is to say, she would understand that life is full of a certain amount of inevitable suffering and pain. But that understanding would also be counterbalanced by an awareness of the “why” of it – how it can be overcome when possible, or endured when it’s inevitable.
Sarah’s relationships are functional, sane, and life-enhancing. Any anxiety or depression beyond the normal ups and downs of life would take place within a greater context of psychological health and inner strength.
Sarah would also know a great deal about drugs. Not as a user, but objectively, as someone who is fully educated about them. She would be aware of the effects of drugs – how they work, why people are attracted to them, and what happens as a result. She would understand how addiction works, and how lives can spiral out of control as a result.
This isn’t a huge mystery.
Certain drugs can make things feel good for minutes or hours – but often, at a cost of feeling bad for weeks, months, or years, or longer. This can be like making a deal: a few minutes of pleasure in exchange for a few years of pain, perhaps. All to say, this person isn’t ignorant or naïve on the matter. On the contrary, they’re thoroughly educated on how the entire process works.
And on a deeper level, in a nutshell, as strange as it might sound to say, Sarah would understand a lot about life.
This isn’t something we hear a lot about these days. That said, some individuals clearly understand more things about life than others. Some are more confused and naïve about life than others. Our hypothetical Sarah, then, would have a relatively clear understanding of human nature. She’d be grounded in reality. She isn’t naïve, in denial, or Pollyannic. She’s able to face life – including it’s horrors – squarely, and see them relatively clearly. Yet in the greater context of things, she’d see them for what they are, within the greater perspective of everything else.
Sarah is an imaginary, idealized person dreamed up for this example. The realities of our actual lives, of course, are a lot messier. That said, in a nutshell, since we’re sketching out caricatures of ideals, we can give it an easy label.
We could describe Sarah as someone who is “existentially fit.”
With that in mind, here’s the basic premise.
Someone who is existentially fit is much less likely to use drugs.
That’s pretty much it.
An approach to upgrading our efforts in the drug war, then, involves each of us, in whatever way we can, working to become more existentially fit.
So, the “radical idea” is something like the following.
If we’ve sketched Sarah out correctly, the chances of her “experimenting” with heroin for kicks is practically nil.
(Using the word “experiment,” by the way, is a bit generous. It also isn’t much of an experiment if the outcome is fairly certain and predictable.)
This approach – promoting more existential fitness – points toward a deliberate effort to foster greater psychological, philosophical, and spiritual literacy. It involves a conscious and deliberate effort to seek out clarity and a higher level of education in these areas.
The basic formula is simple: the more awareness there is of The Big Picture, and the higher-caliber the answers are to The Big Questions, the less the likelihood there is of trying heroin as a cure for boredom.
One long-term option for solving our problems with the drug war, then, is to rev up our existential fitness.
This might strike many as just plain common sense.
It might strike others as wild, bizarre, or hopelessly naïve.
Most likely, hardened veterans of the drug war might see this approach as tossing a glass of water at an inferno. Armchair philosophy and Sunday School platitudes are no match for the very tangible experience of a genuine and quite visceral rush.
But there are reasons why this might not be as naïve as it seems.
We can go through just a few reasons here.
First of all, this builds on what is already working in these areas, and points toward doing more of it.
For those who successfully overcome addictions, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological intelligence – and a deliberate development of that intelligence, by way of education – typically plays an essential role in the matter.
“Spiritual, philosophical, and psychological intelligence” are probably the wrong words to use here. “Practical wisdom” might not be much better. Words are difficult here. These make it sound boring, abstract, and pretentious. But it isn’t. The reality of the matter is something closer to Morpheus, Aslan, or Yoda. (We’re obviously reaching for well-known references here.) Point being, this doesn’t refer to mere touchy-feely platitudes or toothless philosophies. If it’s heroin verses Hegel, heroin would win every time. And not just win, but utterly dominate (especially the way Hegel is often portrayed these days.) This points, instead, to something much closer to tough, no-nonsense, hard-won street-smarts. Instead of merely understanding “the streets,” though, it’s more a matter of understanding life.
Then there’s the matter of how much misunderstanding there is.
On a second note, skeptics – with good reason – underestimate how poor the communication and information on the spiritual, philosophical psychological scene often is during our “Misinformation Age.”
It’s the Wild West out there.
Bad ideas run rampant, while good ones are often ignored. It usually isn’t about what’s true, good, or even useful, but what is flashy, entertaining, or shocking.
This can be discouraging. But from a more silver-lining angle, it points toward the existence of a vast potential for improvement. Things can be much better.
Third, this approach is often indirect, multi-tiered, and systems-oriented.
It’s an “Everything Solution.”
There’s a metaphor that might sound a bit strange, but fits.
With some exceptions aside, serious drug habits can be compared to a kind of plant that only thrives in a specific environment.
This “environment,” metaphorically speaking, is one that is cold and dark.
“Cold and dark” in this sense means an atmosphere of psychological, philosophical, and spiritual illiteracy.
Ideally, there would be better words that sounded less judgy than “ignorance” or “lack of intelligence.” We all start out not knowing much, or even full of bad ideas. We’ve all been there, but it’s one thing to surrender to it, and another to struggle against it. The cliché of those who have been through the ringer and talk about it after: “I was young and dumb, and I made lots of bad choices.”
But there can be a conscious effort to wise up while we’re still young enough to enjoy it.
There’s virtue in not having to learn the hard way. “Reinventing the wheel” is often the norm when it comes to life lessons. But if wheels have already been invented, starting from that point, and building from there, can save a lot of trouble.
Raising the caliber of psychological and spiritual literacy means generating more light and heat. This creates an environment where addictions are weaker, and have a tougher time taking hold of a person. Mold doesn’t grow well in bright sunlight. An environment where individuals are conscious makes it harder to remain unconscious. It can be hard to sleep when everyone around you is awake.
Hopefully, all of this conveys that this approach isn’t just abstract naval-gazing or G-rated Sunday School platitudes. There’s genuine development that can happen here. There can be real and tangible progress in these areas. The general direction is toward a directed experiential spirituality, which can involve upgrading a life philosophy. It’s a conscious struggle to genuinely “know oneself” by way of “Inner Work” which results in a kind of maturity that, when all goes well, can result in a certain form of “antifragile happiness.”
So really, this can be explained more simply.
Drugs can be seen as one answer to “the problem of happiness.”
By several measures, it’s a bad answer. Which is to say, there are much better ones.
“The problem of happiness” is just one existential riddle we all face.
We all-too-often confront this riddle nowadays (and others) completely alone, with little to no help, armed only with a mental hard drive full of pop culture.
But there’s a different route to all this. In a nutshell, it involves working to harness the collective practical wisdom of the best minds and hearts across many centuries. It’s the general thrust of the classical spiritual, philosophical, psychological traditions that have been at work for thousands of years. There have been successes and failures through all of this, and this approach involves sorting through it all, taking what has proven effective, learning what’s proven ineffective, and leaving the rest. It’s something like adopting The Perennial Philosophy as a guide to life, and The Perennial Psychology as a user manual of human nature.
These two answers are generally incompatible.
The “way of drugs” (referring to the hard ones) is one route to happiness. The “way of perennial street-wisdom” is another. These are two different horses. You can’t really ride both at the same time.
And it shouldn’t really be all that hard to choose between these. Based on all available evidence, one of these horses heads for a cliff, fairly often and predictably. The other usually makes you stronger, smarter, and happier.
When the problem is framed in that way, the choice isn’t really all that hard.
Again: this is easy to say, hard to do. The real trick is in the doing.
But in order to do, first we need to say. And hardly anyone, it seems, is really saying it all that often. So for now, we’re starting here.
To be clear: this isn’t a quick-fix.
This approach is long-term.
This isn’t a short-term, Band-Aid solution to the war on drugs.
Those have already been tried, and have failed, repeatedly. They’ve usually been full of good intentions. But they’ve also, in some cases, been superficial. They don’t get down to the roots of the problem.
Yet even if every drug cartel was magically demolished tomorrow, scores of individuals would still be looking for a way to “escape themselves” by nearly any means possible. And most people are fairly resourceful. When they’re fully determined to find something, they usually find it, for better or worse. All of this points to drug abuse as a spiritual problem – or in different language, it’s a matter of depth psychology.
The genuine solution to the problem, then, has to address things on that level. That is where many of the real causes of all this live. And if the causes are removed, many of the effects will resolve themselves naturally.
This approach addresses things on that level. It’s non-violent, non-invasive, relatively inexpensive, and relatively natural. It doesn’t rely on force or coercion. It’s fully compatible with everything else that’s already working today.
It can also learn from what happened before, and build on that. With Prohibition, for example, we learned that using mere force to reduce supply without reducing demand is an uphill battle that relies on continuous, exhausting struggle. A top-down approach by mere edict is repressive and psychologically unsophisticated. Failure, in cases like these, becomes inevitable.
But a non-coercive, natural, psychologically sophisticated approach avoids that struggle. This points toward a personal battle that each individual fights for themselves. The trick, then, is for each of us to arm with the tools, weapons and defenses to win.
The basic direction here lies in revving up our existential intelligence.
If the best way to solve certain problems is to bypass them, this works in that direction.
Drugs today are supposedly more addictive than they were years ago. They’ve essentially been weaponized.
If this is an arms race, then, it seems to be the case that only one side is gearing up. The other might well be the slowest draw in the West. In some ways, it might not even understand that it’s in a race at all.
But if that’s the case – well, better late than never.
So, is this approach impossible, or inevitable?
Hopelessly naïve, or ruthlessly realistic?
Simple-minded cornball, or hard, gritty truth?
Let’s find out.