War on white powder

On Drugs
May 10, 1996

In his preface David Lenson tells the reader that he undertook the writing of this book precisely because he was not professionally qualified to do so, having neither an academic nor a medical background in the field of drug studies. This amateur status, he hopes, aids him in avoiding the shortcomings of works in the conventional genres that have dominated the debate on drugs and facilitates his desire to put forward the drug user's viewpoint.

Lenson identifies seven existing genres - clinical studies, pharmacological texts, works on drugs and drug users in past and present social contexts written by historians, social scientists and legal scholars, literary and confessional narratives by drug users and narcotic agents, fictional and artistic accounts of drug use, practical and inspirational texts on recovering from drug problems, and writings of a mystical nature on the hallucinogens - but does not identify his own book with any of them.

Lenson confesses to being a professor of comparative literature but denies that this has any significant bearing on the amateur status of the book. These protestations of textual innocence are unconvincing, for not only are a number of his sources literature in the narrower sense (ie confessional or fictional accounts of drug use such as the works of William Burroughs, Henri Michaux and Baudelaire) but almost all of them are literary texts in the wider sense - a position which Lenson, with his debt to Derrida, could hardly take issue with. Thus, his book is as professionally informed as those works it seeks to emulate.

Professional expertise is by no means as bad a thing as Lenson seems to believe, in fact, in his case, it works to very good effect. He fails to create a new genre for drug literature as he set out to do, but succeeds in combining a sociohistorical approach with one drawing on the experiences of drug users, including himself. Lenson sees Andrew B. Weil's The Natural Mind as an ancestor of On Drugs. While Weil's acclaimed book was an exposition of the potential value of drug-induced altered states of consciousness On Drugs is a study of the negative consequences of political control over such states of mind.

Following a line of thinking initiated by Foucault (whose own experience with LSD in Death Valley is reported to have precipitated a radical shift in his work) Lenson writes that "what crosses the blood-brain barrier is now open to the same surveillance as what crosses international borders. There is a customs in the cranium, a Checkpoint Consciousness".

Lenson begins by rightly calling into question the haphazard history that led to the construction of the opposition between acceptable psychoactive substances (prescription drugs for medical purposes) and their illicit counterparts (street drugs for hedonistic purposes). His brief historical sketch of the United States legal taxonomy of drugs shows the arbitrary and transient nature of such classifications, too often portrayed as edicts written in stone. He sees the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 as the legal prelude to the dismantling of all taxonomy, an approach epitomised in President Richard Nixon's war on drugs slogans "zero tolerance" and "just say no". Furthermore, it is seen as paving the way for the creation in the 1980s of a new monolithic enemy to replace a waning communism, namely all illegal drugs and their users.

Nixon's declaration of the war on drugs in 1973 is described as a campaign of revenge on the US counterculture held partly responsible for the defeat in Vietnam. Lenson gives a convincing exposition of how the tactics and tropes that constituted the anti-communist propaganda of the cold war were transposed to attack the new enemy that was "infecting" the body politic. In the words of the author the new "scapegoat could . . . be both totally Other (Colombian, Peruvian, Panamanian, Bolivian) and at the same time as close as one's own bloodstream" and, in a memorable phrase, "a world as close and distant as Bolshevism, with a needle and pipe instead of the hammer and sickle".

Lenson argues that the dominant US official consciousness is consumerism and that drug use is perceived as a major threat, offering as it does alternative states of consciousness which destabilise adherence to the hegemony of the sober. The addict's consciousness of time differs, centering on the administration of the drug. Once a drug habit is formed the subjective understanding is permanently altered even if the substance is later given up. Lenson acutely observes that totalitarian rehabilitation programmes may seek to reimpose the sobriety of Eden but, once the apple has been tasted, paradise regained does not resemble paradise lost.

The greatest contemporary threat to consumerism comes from the near-perfect commodity cocaine which has the power to rival money itself: "cocaine as money . . . removes the consumer from the macrocosm of consumption into a one-expenditure microcosm whose laws are nonetheless the same", and "cocaine has been consumerism's mirror on the wall, showing its physiognomy in the coldest and most unflattering light". The author predicts that the war on drugs, however concerted and well funded, will not result in a decline in cocaine use since the habit itself is a symptom of the perpetual desire for acquisition endemic to consumerism itself. It is only with a different motivation for life and work that the rampant success of powder cocaine and crack would, in his view, be curtailed.

Could America, having suffered a body blow to its pride with its first ever defeat in Vietnam, be fighting another unwinnable war as Lenson argues? Despite the optimistic tone of the author the very fact that he implies that cocaine abuse can only be defeated by transforming consumerism itself makes it unlikely to be an argument that will sway those orchestrating the war on drugs. His call for the acceptance of the diversity of consciousness that already exists in a society with millions of drug users will resonate with those seeking a way out of the current impasse but, despite the eloquence and insight of his book, the voice of liberality and reason has yet to make itself heard above the crossfire between the cartels and the crusaders of consumerism.

Richard Rudgley, author of The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society, is writing an encyclopedia of psychoactive substances.

On Drugs

Author - David Lenson
ISBN - 0 8166 10 X
Publisher - University of Minnesota Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 240

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