Essay date: July 16, 2023

Synthetic Panics

thoughts on the book of that name by Philip Jenkins

thoughts on the book of that name by Philip Jenkins

am trudging through "Synthetic Panics" by Philip Jenkins, not because it is poorly written but because it is so chockful of highly irritating examples of how Drug Warriors twist and spin facts that it alternately maddens and depresses me. I've just arrived at the part where Drug Warriors in the 1980s - with plenty of help from tabloid television - are blaming "designer drugs" for every problem in the world, a craze that resulted in the anti-scientific outlawing of all sorts of potential godsends that might have a similar chemical structure to currently outlawed drugs. (It was this hysteria that has helped keep MDMA out of the hands of soldiers with PTSD now for the last 35 years.)

I wanted to collect my thoughts at this point, however, halfway through this torturous reading assignment, and report the overall philosophical truths that I have learned so far from the work.

If one thing stands out at once, it is the anti-scientific nature of these drug panics.

Consider: If a drug to treat obesity manifested bad side effects at a certain dose in certain patients, we would not conclude that the drug has no potential uses whatsoever. We would rather conclude, scientifically, that this particular use pattern is not ideal.

But if a psychoactive drug manifests (or even SEEMS to manifest) bad side effects in certain users, we do not even INQUIRE what dose they were using. We simply conclude that the drug has no positive uses for anyone, anywhere, at any time, ever, and that all users are abusers and are subject to the same downsides as the worst-case scenario.

This is superstition, not science. In fact, it is Christian Science, the religion of Mary Baker Eddy that tells us that drugs are bad. It is mere ideology, whose goal is to parlay all the negative side effects of psychoactive drugs into a sweeping condemnation of those drugs, rather than to assess the drugs' potentials on a cost-benefit basis. In fact, a cost-benefit analysis is impossible for the Drug Warrior, first because they deny that psychoactive drugs can have any desirable benefits, and second because they know nothing about the goals and desires of the user and therefore cannot assess the amount of pharmacological risk that would be rational for someone to assume who is attempting to achieve such goals and desires, without which, for aught we know, they may not even consider life worth living.

The laws that result from such biases harshly censor scientists, keeping them from developing treatments and cures for everything from Alzheimer's to autism, especially as many of the persecuted drugs in question grow new neurons in the brain. Yet the Drug Warrior fails to realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot with their crackdowns. When they go to their parents' bedside and try to comfort them over their dementia, the Drug Warrior will never realize that they have helped ensure that their parent would suffer the hell that they are experiencing, by their offspring's anti-scientific condemnation of so-called "drugs." Drug warriors like this offspring have outlawed all the drugs that could help their parents, either symptomatically or as potential cures.

Why? Because the Drug Warrior takes the astoundingly anti-scientific position that drugs may be judged by their worst possible use and that the only job of drug researchers is to identify harms. This is why almost all academic papers on drugs on are about misuse and abuse, never about potential positive uses. We know, for example, that morphine can bring about a surreal appreciation of Mother Nature in the properly disposed user (see Poe's story "Tale of the Ragged Mountains") and it is a commonplace that psychedelics can vastly increase one's appreciation of music. But researchers are in no hurry to capitalize on these aspects of the drugs because science is ideological today: its job is to demonize psychoactive drugs, not to present them honestly and thereby encourage (horror of horrors) actual use.

And so Drug Warriors never talk about safe use. Never. They talk instead about complete abstention, as if they envision a day when no one on earth will ever again seek pharmacological self-transcendence. Not only is this never going to happen, but it never should happen. The Vedic-Hindu religion was inspired by the use of psychoactive medicine. Plato's philosophy of the afterlife was inspired by the psychedelic kykeon at Eleusis. William James' ideas about ultimate reality were inspired by his use of laughing gas and related substances. And the Inca and Maya attributed divine status to coca and shrooms respectively. Even Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin enjoyed the metaphysical insights provided by smoking opium.

It is not government's role to see that no such drug-induced inspiration ever occurs again. To the contrary, such action on the part of government represents the worst possible tyranny imaginable, an attempt not just to control our bodies but to control our very thoughts, to control both how and how much we are allowed to think and feel in this life. That is why the 1987 DEA raid on Thomas Jefferson's estate at Monticello is a warning sign for things to come unless America stops politicizing drug use. If the government can confiscate a plant in violation of the natural law upon which Jefferson founded America, then it can do literally anything. It just has to whip up the appropriate amount of panic through TV shows, movies and bible-thumping hyperbole.

This is why I call the Drug War the great philosophical problem of our time, because it does not simply represent a counterproductive social policy, it represents a wrong way of thinking about the world, an anti-scientific, panic-driven approach that causes all of the problems that it purports to solve and then some. It is not drugs that are at fault here but our way of thinking about drugs, our tendency to endow them with supernatural powers of evil in order to justify draconian crackdowns that end up censoring science and denying godsend medicines to the depressed, the anxious, the lonely - and all the other people on earth who want to be all that they can be in life, rather than simply being all that their drug-hating government will allow them to be.

Finally, I have to say a word about PCP. Jenkins tells us how the use of the drug was particularly prevalent (if Drug Warriors are to be believed) in Southeast Washington, D.C. Needless to say, that fact (assuming its veracity) was loudly lamented by Drug Warriors and parlayed into a national campaign to discredit PCP. But it's worth noting that no Drug Warrior is loudly complaining about the fact that Southeast Washington, DC has been a no-go zone for the last 30 years because of the violence that naturally follows prohibition. Every week, more Black teenagers are killed by random bullets from drug gangs, in heartbreaking stories that Americans pretend have nothing to do with prohibition. As Ann Heather Thompson wrote in the Atlantic in 2014:

"Without the War on Drugs, the level of gun violence that plagues so many poor inner-city neighborhoods today simply would not exist."

And these no-go zones have popped up in all major and many minor cities around the United States. But no Drug Warrior is pounding the pavement, trying to instill outrage about the ever-rising death toll of prohibition.

To the contrary, these Drug Warriors are now blaming "drugs" for inner-city deaths. That's the Drug Warrior's MO: blame "drugs" for all the problems caused by prohibition.

And so neo-liberals like Francis Fukuyama (one of the many modern-day pundits who treat the Drug War and prohibition as a natural baseline for a free society) tell us that the answer to no-go zones is more police officers. What? That's kind of like asking the arsonists to come help put out the fire that they themselves have started.

Meanwhile, the mass media (the same media that made such a big stink about PCP use) is utterly silent about the role that prohibition has played in turning inner cities into shooting galleries. Instead, there's been a lot of clueless handwringing about inner-city violence in the op-ed pages of our conglomerate-owned newspapers (whether we're talking about national papers or those faux local papers that are actually owned by out-of-towners). The authors cast about for explanations as varied as climate change and despair over joblessness or income discrepancy - never noticing the once-obvious fact that prohibition incentivizes gun violence - the prohibition that they themselves have been championing for decades with stories designed to instill panic rather than understanding.

As great as it is, "Synthetic Panics" by Philip Jenkins was only tolerated by academia because it did not mention drugs in the title and it contains no explicit opinions about drugs. As a result, many drug law reformers still don't know the book exists.
Next essay: Kevin Sabet can Kiss My Effexor Prescription
Previous essay: Canadian Drug Warrior, I said Get Away

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'Synthetic Panics' by Philip Jenkins

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In 1987, the Monticello Foundation invited the DEA onto the property to confiscate Thomas Jeffersons poppy plants, in violation of the Natural Law upon which the gardening fan had founded America

The Drug War Censors Science - Bumper Sticker

Drive the point home that the Drug War censors scientists -- by outlawing and otherwise discouraging research into the kinds of drugs that have inspired entire religions.

Protest The Dea Bumper Sticker

Millions have needlessly suffered over the last 50 years because the DEA has lied about psychedelics, claiming that they are addictive and have no therapeutic value. Stop the lies, start the research.

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In a former life, I bought this bumper sticker myself. My friends got quite a kick out of it, as I recall!
5% of proceeds from the sale of the above product will go toward getting Brian a decent haircut for once. Honestly. 9% will go toward shoes. 50% will go toward miscellaneous. 9% of the remainder will go toward relaxation, which could encompass anything from a spin around town to an outdoor barbecue at Brian's brother's house in Stanardsville (both gas and the ice-cream cake that Brian usually supplies).

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Thinking of You

Face it, even your friends sometimes tick you off: Show them your true feelings with this novelty gift card -- and don't worry, the inside text reads: PSYCH! Just kidding.

What Would Socrates Do - bumper sticker

What would Socrates do if he drove a BMW? He'd sell it at once to show he wasn't tempted by luxury -- but he'd keep the kewl bumper sticker designed by that came with it.


old time radio playing Drug War comedy sketches

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. Oh, and did I mention that most Drug Warriors these days would never get elected were it not for the Drug War itself, which threw hundreds of thousands of their political opposition in jail? Trump was right for the wrong reasons: elections are being stolen in America, but the number-one example of that fact is his own narrow victory in 2016, which could never have happened without the existence of laws that were specifically written to keep Blacks and minorities from voting. The Drug War, in short, is a cancer on the body politic.

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)

Selected Bibliography

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  • Miller, Richard Lawrence "Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State"1966 Bloomsbury Academic
    • Miller, Richard Louis "Psychedelic Medicine: The Healing Powers of LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca Kindle " 2017 Park Street Press
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    • Noe, Alvin "Out of our Heads" 2010 HiII&Wang,
    • Paley, Dawn "Drug War Capitalism" 2014 AK Press
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    • Pollan, Michael "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence " 2018 Penguin Books
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  • Shulgin, Alexander "PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story"1991 Transform Press
  • Shulgin, Alexander "The Nature of Drugs Vol. 1: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact"2021 Transform Press
    • Slater, Lauren "Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Minds" 2019 Boston
  • Smith, Wolfgang "Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief"0
  • Smith, Wolfgang "Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology"2022
  • St John, Graham "Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT"2021
    • Straussman, Rick "DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences " 2001 Park Street Press
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    • Szasz, Thomas "Ceremonial Chemistry: the ritual persecution of drugs, addicts, and pushers" 1974 Anchor Press/Doubleday
  • Szasz, Thomas "Interview With Thomas Szasz: by Randall C. Wyatt"0
    • Szasz, Thomas "Our Right to Drugs: The case for a free market" 1992 Praeger
    • Tyler, George R. "Billionaire Democracy: The Hijacking of the American Political System" 2016 Pegasus Books
    • Watts, Alan "The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness" 1965 Vintage
  • Wedel, Janine "Unaccountable: How the Establishment Corrupted Our Finances, Freedom and Politics and Created an Outsider Class"2014 Pegasus Books
  • Weil, Andrew "From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs"2004 Open Road Integrated Media
    • Whitaker, Robert "Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America " 2010 Crown
    • Zinn, Howard "A People's History of the United States: 1492 - present" 2009
    • Zuboff , Shoshana "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power" 2019 Public Affairs
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