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Synthetic Panics

thoughts on the book of that name by Philip Jenkins

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

July 16, 2023

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.

Next essay: How Addiction Scientists Reckon without the Drug War
Previous essay: Canadian Drug Warrior, I said Get Away

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Some Tweets against the hateful war on drugs

Immanuel Kant wrote that scientists are scornful about metaphysics yet they rely on it themselves without realizing it. This is a case in point, for the idea that euphoria and visions are unhelpful in life is a metaphysical viewpoint, not a scientific one.
Folks like Sabet accuse folks like myself of ignoring the "facts." No, it is Sabet who is ignoring the facts -- facts about dangerous horses and free climbing. He's also ignoring all the downsides of prohibition, whose laws lead to the election of tyrants.
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.
We're living in a sci-fi dystopia called "Fahrenheit 452", in which the police burn thought-expanding plants instead of thought-expanding books.
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!"
Materialist puritans do not want to create any drug that elates. So they go on a fool's errand to find reductionist cures for "depression itself," as if the vast array of human sadness could (or should) be treated with a one-size-fits-all readjustment of brain chemicals.
Addiction thrives BECAUSE of prohibition, which outlaws drug alternatives and discourages education about psychoactive substances and how to use them wisely.
I could tell my psychiatrist EXACTLY what would "cure" my depression, even without getting addicted, but everything involved is illegal. It has to be. Otherwise I would have no need of the psychiatrist.
I personally hate beets and I could make a health argument against their legality. Beets can kill for those allergic to them. Sure, it's a rare condition, but since when has that stopped a prohibitionist from screaming bloody murder?
I'm told that science is completely unbiased today. I guess I'll have to go back and reassess my doubts about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
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'Synthetic Panics' by Philip Jenkins

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You have been reading an article entitled, Synthetic Panics: thoughts on the book of that name by Philip Jenkins, published on July 16, 2023 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)