[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Scott Morgan, Host:
There’s as much to like about this book as there is to despise about the drug war, which makes This is Your Country on Drugs a fascinating read for anyone endeavoring to better understand the origins of the drug policy predicament that continues to captivate and confound American culture. Ryan Grim takes the reader on a fast-paced journey through the history of our nation’s love-hate relationship with drugs, exploring the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of both drug use and the enormous war that seeks to shield us from its consequences.
The modern drug war debate is decidedly lacking in historical perspective, which is unfortunate since, as Grim emphasizes, the truth behind drugs and drug policy is characterized by familiar patterns and pendulum effects that ought to make this a less confusing topic than it tends to be. Grim explains that when the temperance movement began gaining momentum during the 19th century, use of opium and morphine became more widespread and enjoyed a surprising degree of social acceptance as substitutes for alcohol. Then, as those drugs fell out of favor, cocaine and heroin emerged and were initially regarded as promising alternatives to the problems with the other popular drugs of the time. From one generation to the next, the lessons of the past are quickly learned and forgotten again, enabling the same or similar substances to trigger one so-called “epidemic” after another.
Meanwhile, policy-makers struggle to keep up, often drafting new laws amidst fits of hysteria years after the latest drug threat passed its peak. The panic-driven political opportunism that drug policy critics lament today began long before our time, and the tactics of the anti-drug demagogues haven’t changed since. As Grim notes, our first federal drug law, The Harrison Narcotics Act, was immediately followed by the first fraudulent government drug data in the form of false studies claiming that drug use had declined dramatically. Nearly a century later, federal drug warriors can be counted on to mutilate and mischaracterize any and all facts and figures at their disposal, and they do so in pursuit of the same agenda as their predecessors: to boost public morale, secure continued funding, and justify the constant sacrifice of life and liberty that our ongoing anti-drug crusade requires.
Mixed motives abound, however, and the story of drugs in America often finds our government waging war against itself and not just the addicts and suppliers typically identified as the enemy. Grim chronicles the military’s WWII-era collaboration with prominent mafia figures, in which international heroin trafficking was ignored in exchange for military intelligence, as well the better-known story of the CIA/crack cocaine controversy that rattled the American press in the mid-nineties. Today, the ongoing battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan provides another example of the willingness to sacrifice anti-drug alliances in the face of conflicting political agendas. Under the microscope, the war on drugs is far from the straightforward battle of good vs. evil we learned about in our 6th grade DARE class. Heroes and villains can be found on all sides of the drug war battlefield, but as long as there remain billions to be made or wasted under prohibition, the most self-interested players tend to take the upper hand.
Nevertheless, after decades of divisive drug war politics, brutal turf wars and escalating incarceration rates, we find ourselves as surrounded and fascinated by drugs as ever before. One of the book’s great strengths is Grim’s first-person exploration into psychedelic culture, beginning with the event that launched his journalism career: the discovery that LSD vanished almost entirely from the American drug scene in 2001. The revelation that one man had single-handedly produced almost all the acid in the country, and that the feds had quietly achieved one of the most dramatic victories in drug war history by capturing him, clashes with much of what we understand about illicit drug markets. It’s a story as strange and captivating as the substance itself, but it’s one drug war event that probably won’t be repeated anytime soon. Acid is now back on the scene, and those on the supply side tend to learn the lessons of history more readily than their pursuers.
Today, the internet has blown open the floodgates to a more open and accountable discussion of drugs and drug policy in America. With more facts than ever at our fingertips, anyone can become an advocate for reform from the comfort and anonymity of their couch. The political weaponry relied upon for generations by drug war propagandists now struggles to withstand the rising tide of well-informed dissent that first emerged in blogs and social networks before finding favor in the mainstream press. In the short time since This is Your Country hit the shelves, the Drug Czar himself has called for an end to the “drug war” metaphor and the legalization of marijuana appears all but inevitable amidst escalating campaigns, including a November vote in California that could open an important new chapter in American drug war history.
Ryan Grim joins us today to discuss his work at a very interesting time and I’m excited to hear his perspective on both the past and future of drugs and drug policy in America. Let’s get started.