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The Problem is Prohibition, not Fentanyl

a response to Maia Szalavitz' op-ed piece in the New York Times

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

February 6, 2024

The following is a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece by Maia Szalavitz entitled How Oregon Became a Linchpin for the Country's Drug Policies, published February 5, 2024, in the New York Times. This response, of course, will never be printed by the Times because even those who challenge the Drug War must do so from a Christian Science point of view -- a rule that Maia, alas, follows all-too-religiously in the following editorial, hence my disagreement with the same.

It's a sign of the befuddled times when an opinion piece like this becomes a big favorite of the Drug Policy Alliance1. The DPA's Brian Pacheco raves that Maia Szalavitz "gets it right!"2 But Maia's essay concedes so many points to the Drug Warrior that one despairs of achieving the wholesale change in drug policy that America truly needs: namely the re-legalization of mother nature and an emphasis on care and education instead of arrest and censorship.

What is Maia's conclusion about the current drug problems in Oregon?

Like any entry-level Drug Warrior, she blames the problem on drugs - but not just any drug, of course: she blames it on today's front-page killer drug called fentanyl, just as her predecessors blamed the "drug crises" of yore on PCP, STP, ice and crack cocaine3. She fails to note why fentanyl took center stage in the first place.

She fails to notice the irony in the fact that America outlawed opium in 1914 and thereby incentivized the sale of drugs like heroin and the modern opioids. To blame the Oregon situation on fentanyl is to ignore the real problem and to play instead a political game of wack-a-mole with drugs - a game that was set up by prohibitionists in order to disguise all social problems (like homelessness) as drug problems, a game which will continue until America finally wakes up to the real problems: namely, our refusal to admit that people want self-transcendence in life, that the world is full of psychoactive substances -- indeed, DMT is an endogenous substance in our very brains4 -- and that the rational approach to dealing with these two realities in a purportedly free country is to teach safe use and to ensure safe supply. The alternative is unbecoming a democratic country for it involves the ruthless suppression of a human behavioral pattern which has been with us since prehistoric times, one that many western individuals and non-western societies alike have claimed to reveal spiritual truths and even hints about the nature of reality, as American psychologist William James believed5.

Moreover, Maia writes from a Christian Science point of view, from the notion that drug use is, indeed, bad, but that we must deal with it more humanely. This would have come as news to the tribal peoples that the west has suppressed, because as ethnobiologist Richard Schultes tells us, all tribal peoples have used drugs to achieve social harmony and obtain what they believed to be spiritual truths6. Seen in this light, the attempts to demonize all psychoactive drugs is merely an attempt to destroy the world view of the people's whom we in the west have already destroyed physically, often by plying them with our drug of choice, liquor, while denying them the use of their own sacramental drugs. And this targeting of tribal drug use continues to this day as the DEA continues to hassle the UDV church with government red tape, despite the fact that the church won its right to use ayahuasca from a unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court. The way the church is required to store and account for the ayahuasca in its possession makes one think that the church is using uranium in its ceremonies rather than plants provided by Mother Nature7.

Finally, Maia claims that the way forward needs to be based on facts. That's all well and good, but what facts, Maia?