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Judging Drugs

The Great American Pastime

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

June 23, 2024

recently read a tweet on my Twitter feed stating that certain drugs cannot be used wisely for recreational purposes.

This is the kind of pushback that I sometimes get after citing positive uses for demonized drugs. It's like people want to believe me, but they have their own list of substances that they believe are completely without merit. It's almost like they would not mind the Drug War if it would only concentrate on the correct list of presumably "useless" drugs, at least from the point of view of a recreational user.

This is why the Drug War stays around so long. You can get people to believe that outlawing marijuana was wrong, and you might even persuade them that we should not be outlawing psychedelics. But they will still say: "Yes, but you've got to admit that drugs like opium and cocaine are still pure evil!" This was essentially Terence McKenna's condescending take on non-psychedelic drugs1. It was also how Andrew Weil saw matters2. And I'm talking here about people that are presumably friendly toward the idea of decriminalization, if not legalization.

The problem is, none of them really "get it." The whole problem with the Drug War is that it tells us we can reliably make these kind of emotional snap judgments about individual psychoactive drugs, like in this case, that there are drugs that cannot be used wisely on a recreational basis and that we could perhaps even name them if we had to.

I personally can think of no drugs that cannot be used wisely, at least in theory. Carl Hart tells us how he himself has used fentanyl and crack cocaine wisely, and not in theory but in practice3. Of course, I'm not a pharmacist and I'm talking here about the drugs that are generally available on the streets. But it's hard to see how any drug can be classed as irredeemably bad, at least when we consider the variable of dosage. A killer at one dose might be a lifesaver at a lesser dose.

As a thought experiment, one can imagine a drug that makes one biophysically dependent after the very first use, but that drug could still be used at a lower dose or in combination with other drugs or in sociocultural situations in which expectations vary, as do the biophysical and genetic makeup of the user. When we consider the sheer number of such variables, we see that it is presumptuous to say that any particular drug has no good uses, even for recreational purposes. How would we know? Have we considered every possible usage in every possible culture at every possible dose and in every possible combination? All we dare say is that we do not know of anyone who has found a safe use yet for a given drug, but that's quite a different statement from the proposition with which I commenced this essay. Perhaps the drug of which we are personally skeptical will someday be combined with another substance to make a new improved ayahuasca.

I used to have this flawed viewpoint myself. I used to look at tobacco and say, "Well, at least we can all agree that tobacco is horrible." But it turns out that it's not so simple. The ancient cultures of Central and South America have used tobacco shamanically for ages4. When we Americans say that tobacco is bad, we are really saying something like this: "This particular strain of tobacco is bad when consumed in this fashion at this dosage for American people living an American lifestyle and eating an American diet and harboring merely materialist expectations with respect to their drug use." Nor is opium a drug that cannot be used wisely. To the contrary, all the great doctors (Paracelsus, Galen, Avicenna) have considered it to be a panacea. Nor has it killed millions of Chinese, despite the Big Lie of American missionaries in the 19th century5.

But I get it. The scheduling system has geared us to think in terms of the relative danger of given drugs6. But the scheduling system should not exist for a variety of reasons.

First, it should not be up to bureaucrats to decide what is dangerous in this life - especially when their jobs depend on there being as many "dangerous" substances in the world as possible.

Second: the scheduling system does not take into account the danger of having a drug outlawed: the mass arrests, the overcrowded prisons, the pain patients who go without adequate medication, the inner cities that are devastated by gang violence, and the civil wars that are generated overseas. In reality, cocaine is probably the most dangerous drug in the world right now, but that is not because of any of its inherent qualities: it is the most dangerous drug for the simple reason that it is outlawed.

Of course, many people will scoff at the DEA's scheduling system, but instead of hoping to abolish it altogether, they just want to change the ranking of the drugs. They think they could do a much better job of it than the DEA. But they do not understand. The problem is this desire to rank these perceived dangers in the first place. Such rankings will always be misleading, and not just for the reasons already stated above but because the DEA is committed to the absurd proposition that the use of these substances provides no benefits whatsoever, which is simply another Big Lie. How can the DEA do a cost/benefit analysis about drugs while refusing to acknowledge any of their benefits?

Finally, I am suspicious of the term "recreational use." I sometimes think that "recreational use" just means: "drug use by the kind of people that we despise."7

Imagine a guy that you consider to be a slacker who takes some MDMA in order to have a good time with his mates at a rave. Recreational drug use, right? But then we have a goody-two-shoes of the same age who has been prescribed MDMA for anxiety by his expensive psychiatrist. Medicinal use, right? Well, actually, both uses are for the same purpose: so that the users can go places in the world and interact more freely with the people around them. But the slacker embarrasses the Puritan in us by saying things like, "We are gonna party tonight!" We want to justify our prudishness by slandering the guy's drug use as "recreational." We are much more comfortable with the pedantic nerd who merely tells us in an apologetic voice that, "I am going to interact more maturely with my fellow human beings tonight." "Good man," we respond. "And as always, thank you for taking your meds!"

Remember, I am talking about an ideal world here. Certain drugs may indeed be difficult to use wisely, but that is because of the Drug War itself, which refuses to educate, meanwhile limiting the user's supply to a handful of drugs of which the quality is always suspect. The problem here is not with the drugs, it is with the Drug War which keeps us ignorant and surrounded by a niggardly and contaminated pharmacopoeia. We must recognize this latter distinction; otherwise the Drug War will live forever as the Drug Warrior continues to blame drugs for all the problems that are actually caused by prohibition.

Author's Follow-up: June 23, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up

Okay, you say, "It's common sense that opium is a hard drug and very dangerous." I say, "What's even more dangerous, though, is outlawing a healer like that and giving government the power to dole out pain relief."

So you see, there are philosophical assumptions behind your judgment of opium. You do not see all the dangers relevant to a discussion of opium's legality, only the ones that you are focusing on: the upfront dangers to white young people. I, on the other hand, think that personal liberty and access to mother nature are more valuable than saving the world from dangerous activities like using drugs -- just as it's better to let people occasionally die from horseback riding than to outlaw the sport. You, on the other hand, say that it's better to outlaw personal freedom viz. the plant world and pain relief.

You see then, this matter of judging drugs is not an objective game: it is subjective and depends on what one ultimately values in life and what one believes would behoove the purportedly free nation in which one lives.


Sorry to pull you over like this, but I had to tell you something before you left. I just thought of some drugs that probably cannot be used wisely by anybody: Big Pharma antidepressants. Of course, I'm biased: I'm a disgruntled lifetime user who is now being told that these drugs have a 95% recidivism rate for those who try to "kick" them. Click the footnote to see how these drugs have turned me into an eternal patient.8 I'd much rather be using opium and be dependent on a drug dealer who does not ask me how I'm sleeping at night and if I've considered suicide in the last three months. Anyway, my answer to that latter question is always: "Only when I think how antidepressants have turned me into a ward of the healthcare state."

Oh, and I also think that your left rear tail light is out.


1 Quass, Brian, What Terence McKenna Got Wrong About Drugs, 2023 (up)
2 Quass, Brian, What Andrew Weil Got Wrong, 2022 (up)
3 Hart, Carl, Drug Use for Grownups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, (up)
4 Deere, Bobi Hill, Set, Setting, and Sacra: Eastern North America’s Tobacco Shamans and the New World Narcotic Complex,, 2023 (up)
5 Quass, Brian, The Truth About Opium by William H. Brereton, 2023 (up)
6 Quass, Brian, The DEA Scheduling System is Based on Lies, 2022 (up)
7 I am not ready to throw out the term 'recreational use' entirely. I think it may be justifiably employed as a pejorative epithet for those who use sacred indigenous medicines flippantly and in public, as for instance flippantly using the sacred mushroom in San Jose del Pacifico. (up)
8 Quass, Brian, How Psychiatry and the Drug War turned me into an eternal patient, 2021 (up)

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Previous essay: Five wrong ways to think about drugs

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Some Tweets against the hateful war on drugs

There are plenty of "prima facie" reasons for believing that we could eliminate most problems with drug and alcohol withdrawal by chemically aided sleep cures combined with using "drugs" to fight "drugs." But drug warriors don't want a fix, they WANT drug use to be a problem.
There are no recreational drugs. Even laughing gas has rational uses because it gives us a break from morbid introspection. There are recreational USES of drugs, but the term "recreational" is often used to express our disdain for users who go outside the healthcare system.
It's an enigma: If I beat my depression by smoking opium nightly, I am a drug scumbag subject to immediate arrest. But if I do NOT "take my meds" every day of my life, I am a bad patient.
If I want to use the kind of drugs that have inspired entire religions, fight depression, or follow up on the research of William James into altered states, I should not have to live in fear of the DEA crashing down my door and shouting: "GO! GO! GO!"
Imagine if we held sports to the same safety standard as drugs. There would be no sports at all. And yet even free climbing is legal. Why? Because with sports, we recognize the benefits and not just the downsides.
Ketamine is like any other drug. It has good uses for certain people in certain situations. Nowadays, people insist that a drug be okay in every situation for everybody (especially American teens) before they will say that it's okay. That's crazy and anti-scientific.
Unfortunately, the prohibitionist motto is: "Billions for arrest, not one cent for education." To the contrary, drug warriors are ideologically committed to withholding the truth about drugs from users.
If there is an epidemic of "self-harm," prohibitionists never think of outlawing razor blades. They ask: "Why the self-harm?" But if there is an epidemic of drug use which they CLAIM is self-harm, they never ask "Why the self-harm?" They say: "Let's prohibit and punish!"
Opium is a godsend, as folks like Galen, Avicenna and Paracelsus knew. The drug war has facilitated a nightmare by outlawing peaceable use at home and making safe use almost impossible.
If drug war logic made sense, we would outlaw endless things in addition to drugs. Because the drug war says that it's all worth it if we can save just one life -- which is generally the life of a white suburban young person, btw.
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You have been reading an article entitled, Judging Drugs: The Great American Pastime, published on June 23, 2024 on For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)