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There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

clarifying my views on ending the War on Drugs

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

November 23, 2022

wo days ago, I received a Twitter reply that troubled me just a touch. Of course, I'm used to being troubled by the standard replies from Drug Warriors, who seem incapable of recognizing the endless downsides of prohibition, but this reply came from a fan of substance legalization, a position that I myself champion. The reply was surprising to me because it questioned two major assumptions that I hold to be self-evident with regard to wise drug use, namely 1) that education can be useful and effective and 2) that naturally occurring medicines are generally better and safer than synthesized drugs created by Big Pharma, roughly in the same way that natural foods are generally to be preferred over processed products. In this view, chewing of the coca leaf would, at least "in the abstract," be preferable to using crack cocaine as using opium would be preferable to using fentanyl, "preferable" in terms of being both a more sustainable practice and a practice more readily renounced if desired (not through the cold turkey of the Christian Science Drug Warrior, but through a gradual replacement of said substances by a mixture of hitherto demonized substances as prescribed and administered by a pharmacologically knowledgeable shaman, the type that I picture taking over for psychiatrists in a sane post-Drug War future).

I am not writing this to slam this Twitter respondent. To the contrary, I thank him for questioning these premises of mine so that I can be sure that I'm arguing from solid ground when I attack the Drug War. In fact, this essay is really written for myself, so that I can determine precisely what I believe on these topics, for I am like author Joan Didion in that "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." However, if the reader cares to join me as I storm the citadel of my preconceptions, then, please, by all means: grab a musket and get in rank!

1) Education is useful.

This is a mainstay of traditional liberalism, in which I have always believed, the idea that wisdom can set you free and allow you to see through the "systems" by which the status quo can otherwise confuse you and limit your choices. The Twitter respondent maintains, however, that young people in particular do not pay attention to drug-related education. And I readily agree. But then I ask, why is that so? In my view, it is so because America has been explicitly lying about "drugs" since the DEA adopted its mendacious scheduling system in 1973. That's a system that tells us that the kinds of drugs that have inspired entire religions (like coca and psychedelics) have no potential therapeutic uses whatsoever. That is a bold-faced lie, and an anti-religious lie at that, to tell us that drugs that have inspired religions have no positive uses whatsoever: not for me, not for you, not here, not there, not anywhere, in any dose, ever. Even cyanide has positive uses in the right places, at the right times, for the right reasons, in the right dosage. Moreover, the human mind is a resourceful thing. It can find a cure for bacterial infections in a moldy cantaloupe and a cure for diabetes in the urine of a dog. To declare in advance that a substance has no uses whatsoever is therefore both anti-scientific and anti-progress (putting aside here the fact that Mother Nature's bounty is under no obligation to be therapeutic or to meet FDA standards in the first place).

Young people may be poorly educated, but they're not stupid. They know at some level that the government is "full of it," that their declarations about "drugs" are informed by politics, not by science or history (or even the common sense psychology of happiness, for that matter). They know that it's absurd to arrest folks for possessing plant medicine, especially in a country that promotes Big Pharma meds on prime-time television, some of which nostrums report side effects that actually include death. They also see folks using legal Big Pharma drugs every single day of their life, and watch doctors on Oprah shilling for pharmaceutical companies that want us to "keep taking our meds." Young people sense that something's wrong with this picture and that the Drug War is not really designed to get us off of drugs, but rather to get us on "the right drugs" as defined by Big Pharma and Wall Street.

No wonder no one's paying attention to government-sponsored education about drug use! It's never clear where the propaganda ends and the education begins. In fact, the ONDCP's original charter actually forbade it from saying anything positive about criminalized psychoactive medicines. In other words the government has long been on a propaganda campaign about drugs, masquerading as an education campaign. It's thereby destroyed the perceived credibility of any authoritative information about drugs.

But that doesn't mean that education doesn't work. It rather means that we have never really tried education.

But I believe that we can and must move beyond that know-nothing status quo and begin being totally honest about all psychoactive substances. We're already doing that in a small way on sites like Erowid, where all psychoactive substances are discussed honestly, by users who typically have no axe to grind and no vested interest to maintain. Such sites do, in fact, have credibility among "users," and our job should be to encourage the use of such sites as potential users search for options. A non-profit and non-partisan Drug Education Agency could help organize the information of such sites in a literally "user" friendly way, a way that would truly be helpful and informative to those who are contemplating the use of one psychoactive drug or another. I picture a sort of clearinghouse site wherein each psychoactive drug is listed, along with alternative substances that might be deemed to produce a similar effect, subjectively speaking, a site full of Amazon-like reviews of substances along with prominent medical opinions and suggestions for safest possible use.

As Thomas Szasz once said, America needs to "grow up" and learn to live with the fact that psychoactive substances are all around us. The way to grow up, in my view, (after legalizing all psychoactive medicines, that is) is education, not just in websites but in grade schools, where, instead of teaching kids to say no to medicines that have inspired entire religions, we tell them the facts about historical use and subjective and objective effects and advise them that it will be their responsibility as adults to make decisions about use based on their own priorities and values. The Christian Scientist will want to abstain on principle; whereas those of us who live by the Platonic imperative of knowing ourselves and the world around us will demand the freedom to partake of the psychoactive substances that inspired Plato's view of the afterlife and supported the happy and energetic lifestyle of the long-lived Peruvian Indians.

One of the big truths that a CREDIBLE education campaign will promote is the heretofore unmentioned fact that so-called "hard drugs" can be used on a non-addictive basis. The Drug Warrior never bothers telling us that because they would rather use "addicts" as poster children for prohibition than to counsel them honestly about how to refrain from becoming "addicts" in the first place. That said, a country which looks the other way when 1 in 4 of their women are chemically dependent on tranquilizing Big Pharma meds is not a country that should be demonizing folks for the daily use of Mother Nature's psychoactive medicines, especially when the latter medicines can give the user mental focus and some compelling intimations about their true place in the cosmos (effects which I have never noticed in using Big Pharma meds every day of my life for the last 40 years).

To repeat: education hasn't failed. Rather, education hasn't been tried.

2) Naturally occurring psychoactive drugs are generally better than Big Pharma synthetics?

I don't really have a dog in this race. But I am not personally eager to use any more Big Pharma meds, after becoming addicted for life to the brain-numbing Effexor anti-depressant, a drug for which chemical dependence seems to have been a feature rather than a bug. Actually, the SSRIs and SNRIs were not initially intended for long-term use, until doctors discovered that their patients were having a hard time "kicking them," at which point the psychiatrists made a virtue of necessity and told folks like myself that (surprise, surprise) I had a medical duty to take them every day for the rest of my life. (A simple "sorry for addicting you" would have sufficed!)

This topic only really arises here because the Twitter respondent (to whom I'm responding in this essay) got the impression that I wanted to ban synthetic drugs. Although I never said so, I have often stressed the ironic fact that prohibition caused opium and the coca leaf to disappear, while giving rise to the use of what are generally deemed to be far stronger and more habit-forming substances like fentanyl and crack cocaine. I do not mean thereby to demonize those latter drugs, only to point out the utter failure of prohibition in its alleged goal of "saving us" from dangerous substances. On the other hand, I think it's premature to begin cheerleading on behalf of synthetics given the fact that there are many dozen (perhaps hundreds) of psychoactive plant medicines that few if any persons in the west have even heard of yet, let alone used psychoactively to improve their mood or mental state. All I am saying is give Mother Nature's uncensored pharmacopoeia a chance.

There are two other reasons I focus on Mother Nature's bounty as opposed to synthetics: 1) For some of us, the universe does have a purpose, and the fact that Mother Nature has surrounded us with psychoactive medicines suggests to us that we are actually meant to take advantage of those medicines, wisely, of course, given our status as rational and goal-driven human beings, the more so in that God pronounced that bounty "good" in the Book of Genesis. 2) From a strategic point of view, it seems far easier to call for the re-legalization of Mother Nature's medicines alone than of the legalization of all psychoactive medicines synthetic and otherwise. I believe that the case for re-legalizing Mother Nature can be made merely by appealing to the Natural Law upon which America was founded, thanks to which, as John Locke wrote, we have the right as citizens to the use of the earth and all that lies therein. Of course, I completely agree that government has no right to control how and how much we can think and feel in this life -- indeed, that's the ultimate invasive tyranny in my book, limiting, as it does, our very way of seeing the world -- and that therefore no psychoactive substances should be banned, either natural or synthetic. I only think that, as a practical matter, that latter claim, as obvious as it is to myself, might be hard to sell, at least in the short-term, to the demagogue politicians who are used to winning elections today by scapegoating psychoactive substances for every social problem imaginable.

Citadel stormed!


I believe that modern psychiatrists should be replaced by (or morph into) pharmacologically savvy shaman, empathic individuals who possess a deep sociocultural and psychosocial understanding of the many psychoactive plants and fungi that so-called scientific America has long been in the habit of "shunning out of hand" thanks to prohibition and the Drug War ideology of substance demonization. There is a growing body of evidence for the ability of psychoactive medicine to rapidly change folks' "take" on the world and to get them over trauma. The scientific mind would want to systematize this growing world of nostrums, place their effects in a bottle and sell them at the local drug store as one-size-fits all cures for everything that ails us. But the shamanic approach I champion is about human relationships. It would be an art, not a science. Of course, the shaman will have the knowledge necessary to avoid dangerous use, but his or her real role will be as a pharmacological matchmaker, matching unique troubled individuals (or folks who just want to get more out of life) with the substances and substance-fueled therapies that will help them become the person that they wish to be in life, as opposed to the sort of person that Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy would like them to be, namely 'sober' and God-fearing Christians.

But then such an approach could serve the interests of Christians as well. The point is that such future drug-assisted therapy will be about what the client wants, not what racist and pharmacologically clueless politicians believe that they should receive.

Author's Follow-up: November 23, 2022

Of course, we should not really prejudge any psychoactive medicine, synthetic or otherwise, but rather accept it on its own terms. Morphine, for instance, has been used for a lifetime (just like SSRIs) by very successful people, including Dr. William Henry Welch, a founder of John Hopkins University. Edgar Allan Poe also writes how morphine can give the properly inclined individual an intense appreciation of the byzantine complexity of mother nature. That's a real feat that Drug Warriors completely and totally ignore. The Drug Warrior wants all the talk to be about addiction, but why not call it maintenance use, which is, after all, the euphemism that we breezily apply to the use of those anti-depressants upon which 1 in 4 American women are dependent for life?

Besides, how difficult is addiction to "beat"? The fact is that we have no idea, because America has outlawed all the substances that could make withdrawal bearable and help the user slowly shift to a different substance or substances whose use they might find less problematic. And why have we never done this? Because Americans are Christian Scientists without acknowledging it. They believe that the moral thing is for a "user" of illicit substances to become "sober," as that term is hypocritically defined by beer-swilling and pill-popping Drug Warriors. That's why 12-step programs are a violation of religious liberty because they first teach the initiate to consider themselves powerless and thus in need of a "higher power." But WHY is the initiate powerless? Because the game is rigged. The powers-that-be have outlawed all the substances that would have empowered him or her to carry on in life without dancing the 12-step boogaloo of the moralizing Drug Warrior.

Author's Follow-up: November 24, 2022

Before Drug Warriors have a coronary, let's remember that the shamanic empathic confabs that I'm advocating above could involve nothing more than the sipping of coffee or tea during what we call "talk therapy." For at the risk of repeating myself, the pharmacologically savvy shamnism that I champion would be tailored to the client's priorities, not that of the healer. That said, since there are substances out there that can increase aesthetic appreciation, focus the mind, clarify life goals and even help one make one's peace with death, the therapist is really duty bound to advocate for their advised use. But relax. The clients will always be free to reject such treatment on the basic of some unconsciously held Christian Science metaphysic, which tells them that: "drugs bad, sobriety good."

Next essay: Public Service Announcements for the Post-Drug War Era
Previous essay: The Naive Psychology of the Drug War

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You have been reading an article entitled, There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: clarifying my views on ending the War on Drugs, published on November 23, 2022 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)