Essay date: November 4, 2022

Mental Illness and the Drug Apartheid of Julian Buchanan

ne of the many totally unrecognized reasons for the Drug War's longevity is the fact that we have been taught to believe that all mental "problems" are illnesses - not simply in the metaphorical sense of that word but in a literal materialist sense as well. Those who believe in this paradigm generally believe that Big Pharma is creating pills for depression that target a chemical imbalance, and so we must visit a prescribing psychiatrist if we wish to treat our depression wisely, that is to say "scientifically." Unfortunately, however, it has long been known that anti-depressants create the actual chemical imbalances that they purport to fix, hence the extreme difficulty that the long-term user encounters when they attempt to "kick" such drugs. In other words, the psychiatric pill mill has far more to do with scientism than with actual science. It remains in place because of financial interests and a steady stream of Big Pharma-sponsored academics making the rounds of the prime-time talk shows to remind us all to "keep taking our meds," and encouraging us to get our children (yes, and even our toddlers) to do so as well: you know, to "scientifically" nip any future potential "mental problems" in the bud. This "illness" paradigm has additional staying power because of the simple psychological fact that psychiatrists (though they may hate the Drug War ever so much) are loath to admit that they have been unnecessarily turning their clients into lifetime patients and wards of the healthcare state for years now by prescribing these drugs in the first place.

But for those who don't believe me (nor the research of Thomas Szasz, Robert Whitaker, Julie Holland and Irving Kirsch), I would merely point out that I have 40 years' worth of experience taking such drugs and they have never "cured" my depression. Indeed, they can never do so, for the simple reason that my definition of "cure" does not coincide with the definition of those who have created these drugs. A "cure" for my depression would help me obtain self-actualization in life, but these drugs (SSRIs, SNRIs, and tricyclics) tranquilize rather than empower me. Indeed, that's why the world keeps telling folks like myself to "keep taking your meds," not so that we "patients" can become empowered, but so that we can become complacent consumers like themselves and stop harassing them with the notion that we want more out of life. If these drugs actually helped us to become assertive, creative and hence unpredictable human beings, nobody would be pestering us to take them. For when we tell a friend these days to "take their meds," we are essentially telling them to "shut the f--- up." "Take your meds so you will stop bothering us and we can get on with business as usual." In other words, "meds" are considered good these days in the same way that lobotomies were considered good in the past: not because they helped "mental patients" but because they made life easier for those who worked and lived around them.

(Yes, I'm coming to Julian Buchanan in a moment, but this backstory is crucial to understanding how the existence of the "drug apartheid" that he describes has bamboozled both scientists and laypeople alike.)

Of course, there's no surprise that such a myth of mental "illness" should have staying power, even putting aside for the moment the enormous windfall that such a paradigm creates for the healthcare industry. As caregivers in a liberal society, we feel that we have only two choices: either we refer to psychosocial problems as mental illness or we blame the problematic behavior on the "patients" themselves. But there is a third way out of this supposed dilemma: to outlaw the discussion of "blame" altogether. We merely need to recognize the once-obvious fact that life is complicated and that people have problems. The question of who is ultimately to "blame" for their problems is a metaphysical one, concerning nature and nurture, free will and determinism, the reigning political zeitgeist, and the rationality (or lack thereof) of current social practices, mores and laws. The only pertinent question for the caregiver is: how do we help the person who is suffering? The discussion of "blame" should be confined to courtrooms, synods and philosophy departments, where the modern ethicists are free to debate until doomsday about who is to blame in some ultimate and final sense, be it society, the individual, one's parents, one's diet, one's friends, (etc. etc. etc.) or some convoluted combination of such factors.

And how does this belief in mental "illness" promote the Drug War?

It does so by implicitly positing two categories of psychoactive substances in the world, what Julian Buchanan calls a system of "drug apartheid." According to this world view, there are "meds" like SSRIs, which are "scientifically" created and which it is our duty to take every day of our lives; and then there are "drugs" like opium, which are generally produced by mother nature and which have no good uses whatsoever: not for any person, at any dose, in any place, for any reason, at any time, ever. This is the "understanding" upon which healthcare is administered today in the States (and, alas, around the world): meds good, drugs bad. It's a modern-day Manichaeism created by politicians in order to privilege drugs like alcohol and nicotine, while demonizing their psychoactive competition.

Of course, the reality is that psychoactive substances are psychoactive substances, whether we're talking nicotine or opium, coffee or cocaine. They are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. Moreover, every "drug" can have potential uses. Even deadly toxins like Botox and cyanide have medical applications. But according to Drug War ideology, once politicians label a substance as a "drug" (rather than a "med"), we are duty bound to ignore any positive uses for said substance. God knows how many treatments for depression, autism, and Alzheimer's we have jettisoned a priori by taking this anti-scientific stand: a stand, incidentally, supported by the self-censorship of scientists themselves -- the same scientists whom Kevin Sabet assures us are objective, impartial and rational arbiters when it comes to the potential usefulness of psychoactive medicine.

The fact that the world accepts this drug apartheid as natural can be seen, not in what is published today, but in what is not published. You will never see an article discussing how therapeutic MDMA could keep hotheads from shooting up grade schools. You will never see an article describing how the carefully staged use of psychedelics could increase music appreciation. You will never see an article describing how the occasional use of morphine in a controlled setting (for the right person, at the right time, etc.) can greatly increase one's appreciation of the natural world around us.

Of course, in the latter case, the proponent of drug apartheid will tell us that morphine is addictive, as if that were a knock-down argument against its use. But the idea that an addictive "drug" has to be used addictively is the principal lie upon which drug apartheid is based and justified. The fact is that even crack cocaine can be used non-addictively if one is educated to do so. One simply "spaces out usage," in the same way that British poets used to take opium "in a series of quarterly carouses." However, Drug Warriors refuse to champion the necessary education to ensure such safe use. And why not? Because they know that to be fully honest about psychoactive medicine would mean being harshly critical of the psychiatric pill mill and the medicalization of mind-related issues in general.

In fact, the paradigm of mental "illness" could not survive without drug apartheid. Once Mother Nature's bounty is re-legalized and education is widespread and thorough, few "patients" would opt for today's "scientific" meds, which fail to bring enlightenment and which require a lifetime commitment of time and money, and which, moreover, turn them into wards of the healthcare state. Instead, they would treat what ails them with "unscientific" but natural "drugs," usually with the help of psychologically savvy empaths (modern-day shamans) who would guide their use while keeping the client's life goals in mind, not the life goals of some Big Pharma drug inventor who assumes a tranquil patient is a "cured" patient. Of course, Americans have been taught to believe that folks will never be smart enough to use "drugs" wisely in this way, but that's just another Big Lie (and self-fulfilling prophecy) promoted by conservatives and libertarians, the same know-nothing politicians whose motto is: "billions for law enforcement, not one cent for schools, teachers, Head Start programs, etc.." These are the same people who taught us a few decades ago that a substance will fry one's brain the moment it is outlawed by pharmacologically clueless politicians like themselves. Their message to Americans is: "Be afraid! Be very afraid!"

Our response should be: "Be educated! Be very educated!" And we should force skinflint Drug Warrior politicians to make that happen by supporting programs that provide unbiased education.

But the future is rosy once we finally end drug apartheid and deal with all psychoactive medicines without regard for political, religious or corporate biases. The very concept of patient would disappear, as we stop pathologizing common psychological distress and treat it instead as a natural part of the human condition, using all the medical godsends that mother nature has supplied for that purpose. With all of these godsends once again at our disposal and unbiased substance education widespread and thorough, the pharmacologically savvy shaman would treat clients (not patients) not simply for problems -- like alcoholism and depression -- but for aspirations as well, as when tin-eared supplicants seek to increase their music appreciation or when those clients who feel "stuck in a rut" are taught to deeply appreciate the bounty of mother nature that surrounds them.

End note in anticipation of dissenting materialists:

Of course, there are some real neurological problems that have a clear physical basis and need to be treated with that in mind. But that's a far cry from pathologizing almost every mental predilection under the sun, as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual attempts to do, with the implication being that each behavior described therein is truly a discrete illness that could be safely excised from the psyche without regard for context.

Author's Follow-up: November 5, 2022

I am not anti-psychiatry, rather I'm anti-Drug War and the pill mill that it has created by outlawing almost all safe and naturally occurring psychoactive medicines. If those pills really are the treatment of choice these days, it is only because we have outlawed all competition. This is a shabby cure, if only because it has turned so many Americans (including 1 in 4 American women) into wards of the healthcare state. As far as the money needed to establish the thorough, unbiased substance education that I champion, that will come from the enormous amount of money that we are currently spending on locking people up and on invading other countries whose residents dare to defy our ban on the natural godsends that grow at our very feet.

By the by: Here's a classic line from 21st-century Drug Warriors: "We have to outlaw drugs now that there are so many available and the list is changing all the time."

Wrong. It's precisely because we live in a drug-full world (thanks, in part, to Mother Nature herself) that we must teach safe use. Otherwise, we are paying law enforcement to play wack-a-mole with every new substance that appears on the black market -- the black market that we ourselves have created. It's not that a war like that can never be won, it's rather that a war like that must never be allowed to win, since its goal is to stop people from seeking self-transcendence in life and from improving their lives.

Seriously. What kind of world best accords with the principles of freedom and democracy: a world in which we find benefits for the use of all medicines (at some dose, for some person, etc.) and teach safe use, or a world in which we declare a priori that certain drugs have no positive uses whatsoever for anybody, ever, and then lock up people who dare to use them despite our anti-scientific edicts?

The latter solution describes an anti-scientific police state, not a democracy: it describes a world wherein the powers-that-be completely ignore the power of education to improve the human mind, laughably insisting that human beings not only have no right to mother nature's medicines, but that they actually have to be actively protected from the same. That is a religious conclusion, the conclusion of stealth Christian Scientists in fact, especially in light of the fact that such godsends have inspired entire religions in the past.

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You have been reading essays by the Drug War Philosopher, Brian Quass, at Brian is the founder of The Drug War Gift Shop, where artists can feature and sell their protest artwork online. He has also written for Sociodelic and is the author of The Drug War Comic Book, which contains 150 political cartoons illustrating some of the seemingly endless problems with the war on drugs -- many of which only Brian seems to have noticed, by the way, judging by the recycled pieties that pass for analysis these days when it comes to "drugs." That's not surprising, considering the fact that the category of "drugs" is a political category, not a medical or scientific one.

A "drug," as the world defines the term today, is "a substance that has no good uses for anyone, ever, at any time, under any circumstances" -- and, of course, there are no substances of that kind: even cyanide and the deadly botox toxin have positive uses: a war on drugs is therefore unscientific at heart, to the point that it truly qualifies as a superstition, one in which we turn inanimate substances into boogie-men and scapegoats for all our social problems.

The Drug War is, in fact, the philosophical problem par excellence of our time, premised as it is on a raft of faulty assumptions (notwithstanding the fact that most philosophers today pretend as if the drug war does not exist). It is a war against the poor, against minorities, against religion, against science, against the elderly, against the depressed, against those in pain, against children in hospice care, and against philosophy itself. It outlaws substances that have inspired entire religions, Nazifies the English language and militarizes police forces nationwide.

It bans the substances that inspired William James' ideas about human consciousness and the nature of ultimate reality. In short, it causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, meanwhile violating the Natural Law upon which Thomas Jefferson founded America. (Surely, Jefferson was rolling over in his grave when Ronald Reagan's DEA stomped onto Monticello in 1987 and confiscated the founding father's poppy plants.)

If you believe in freedom and democracy, in America and around the world, please stay tuned for more philosophically oriented broadsides against the outrageous war on godsend medicines, AKA the war on drugs.

Brian Quass
The Drug War Philosopher

PS The drug war has not failed: to the contrary, it has succeeded, insofar as its ultimate goal was to militarize police forces around the world and help authorities to ruthlessly eliminate those who stand in the way of global capitalism. For more, see Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley.

Rather than apologetically decriminalizing selected plants, we should be demanding the immediate restoration of Natural Law, according to which "The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being." (John Locke)
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