The Pharmacological Crusade: A Historical Summary [1]

English - Spanish

At the end of the 80`s, a visit to the Dominican Republic, familiarized me with the peculiar situation of  countries neither developed, nor very underdeveloped. I was surprised there to read some declarations by the Archbishop of Santa Domingo, lamenting "excessive clemency" in drug cases. In the same page of the newspaper appeared the notification that a certain man had been sentenced to 20 years for possession of a gram and a half of cocaine. In December of 2007, when I returned to the country, I could assess that the tone had not harshened, but the arbitrariness remains prominent. A distracted Spanish tourist was caught with a small matchbox of marijuana, and has a pending sentence of five years for "attempting to exit  the country in  possession of narcotics". However, in the Dominican Republic, strictly speaking, this drug is almost exotic and cocaine continues to be the habitual one, as according to the local expression "everybody sniffs, even the priests”.

More illustrative was a sabbatical in Southeast Asia, where countries punish illicit drug trafficking with capital punishment (except for Singapore,which applies life imprisonment) when possession exceeds ten grams of any powder, or one hundred grams of marijuana. As I have already described the experiences of that year [2], I confine myself to some brush strokes. The common people of the entire area,  consume excessively  -nearly always for working- what they call iabba, or ice, which is in fact, dexamphetamine. The famous white heroin, as well as very abundant marijuana, are products normally destined for the upper social strata, tourists and export. Opium, their traditional medicine, has become a rarity.Thailand, the least underdeveloped country in the region, broadcasts live transmissions of executions of traffickers and couriers, often Burmese or Laotians as well as locals; In the year 2000, there were somewhat more than 2000 hangings.

This war without quarter inspires a logical terror in the visitor, even though the prohibited substances are in fact so ubiquitous, that during his first day he will receive various offers, and after staying for a week he will have made reliable contacts for whatever. Of course, this does not rule out the possibility of a personal enemy or bad luck, which could practically cost you your life. Nevertheless, during a year of dealing with Westerners or locals, nobody ever mentioned any acquaintances that had been caught when buying. In the former Indochina, the absolute rigor in drug matters is parallel -as in other equally inflexible countries of Africa and Latin America- with policemen who receive a symbolic salary, supplemented by irregular bonuses in cash or kind, and searches can be avoided usually paying bribes, cheap o not.

By far the most unexpected was discovering that Thailand and even Vietnam were regular venues for multitudinous raves. A phenomenon whose invention is disputed between London and Ibiza, raves are outdoor gatherings of people who share MDMA (ecstasy) in idyllic surroundings, accompanied by ad hoc music, from the early hours of the evening til dawn. In the mid 90`s, such summer festivals began to spread in Canada, Brazil and Europe, from where they jumped to Australia, Bali and Goa. In August 2000, when I took up domicile on Koh Samui, a Thai island in the Gulf of Siam, the neighboring island of Koh Phangan celebrated the full moon every month, with thousands of people from the West, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, and also some natives (essentially young natives). In August of 2001,MDMA stocks were sufficient for the raves to also occur under the guise of the new moon,waxing, and waning. The Bangkok Times had long suggested that the gift of tourism was supported by ecstasy dealers, paid in heroin.


In a globalized world, new trends emerge as quickly as they disappear, and the pharmacological situation of Southeast Asia may well have  suffered notable changes between 1989 and 2008. Having been fascinated for some time by the relationship between politics and religion, and returning for a moment to the subject of drugs (in reality a sub-variant of that relationship), I can see to what point writing allows us to forget an object without losing it. When attention is re focused, it continues to be there but as the memory of a memory, and the abundance of details isn't so overwhelming. Conditioned by the immediacy of things as they were then, and of changes produced over time, what would I highlight from the research, and what have I left pending? For one thing, distance allows me to sum up the development of the pharmacological crusade drastically.

This “moral experiment” broke out when the United States became conscious of its future as a superpower, thoroughly instructed by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which contemplated a regeneration within the nation itself as well as in the rest of the world. Focused on that Destiny, in 1914 -while Europe broke in the First World War- the US Congress ratified a series of bills that included: A) restricting access to opium, morphine and cocaine to physicians and pharmacists; B) illegalizing the production and consumption of all alcoholic beverages, except Eucharistic wine; C) extending the prohibition on the use of tobacco in public spaces, established already in twenty-eight states, to the entire country. Spearheaded by the Prohibition Party, then a powerful element in the Senate, the new laws also counted on support from two germinal entities: the American Medical Association and the American Pharmaceutical Association, both motivated by licenses to continue prescribing small quantities of cognac and whiskey for medicinal purposes, and above all, in order to wield a definitive blow to unlicensed competitors ("quacks"). Then US Representative Herbert C. Hoover -who was later elected president- defined the new laws as "the greatest moral experiment in History".

Controlled or prohibited substances represented a notable source of tax revenue, and as the revenue collection was soon to contract by one-fourth, Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, allowing the federal government to tax personal and corporate income. Prohibition would later be repealed in 1933; and tobacco successfully resisted its detractors until clashing with them again at the end of the last century. But those three controlled (though originally pharmacy-dispensed) substances would ultimately become dozens, later hundreds and finally countless other mood-altering substances, some available by prescription only and others excluded from the pharmacopeia. Unaware of the original source of change, the therapeutic community continued consuming and dispensing morphine and cocaine liberally, until the police, impersonated as addicts or simple users, started showing up in clinics and pharmacies, and by 1921 some 70.000 US doctors, dentists, and pharmacists had been or were in prision for "unlawful conduct". In that same year the Journal of the American Medical Association denounced a "conspiracy to deprive medicine of its traditional rights and responsibilities".

These new measures placed the United States in a set of complex consequences, that included contraband, institutional corruption, organized crime, disregard for the law, and the first generation of so-called "junkies". But it is important to remember that the rest of the world did not participate. There was a substantial difference in the US, easily appreciated when we remember the words of Senator J. Volstead (Prohibition's law were called the Volstead Act) when his project went into effect: "All men will once again walk upright; all women will smile; and children will laugh; the gates of Hell will be closed forever". Europe and the rest of the world undertook a much less ambitious policy, that in time came to be known as harm reduction.

Between assuming that certain drugs were limited to medical/scientific uses, and denying those uses, as US crusaders proposed, the rest of the world's doctors preferred the former attitude.

On the other hand, advances in synthetic chemistry were rendering the traditional arsenal of intoxicants obsolete, and it was easy to out-maneuver restrictions on opium, morphine and cocaine by using other substances. In the US morphine ended up being returned to the medical establishment without undue restrictions, and an easing-up of things was seen once the sale of alcoholic beverages was no longer prosecuted. There was a whole galaxy of new analgesic, sedatives, stimulants and sleeping aids, sold pure, cheap and over-the-counter in pharmacies, and hardly anybody misses cocaine when more potent, cheaper and purer stimulants are available. The same thing happened to opium and morphine, once heroin and sometime later demerol or palfium were available, soon joined by benzodiazepines for use as tranquilizers and sleep aids.

Some will remember Optalidon, a remedy especially embraced by housewives around the world since the 1950's, whose secret was a combination of amphetamine and barbiturates. In Europe, lax control measures were supported by positive results in practice, and pharmacies were even allowed to dispense hallucinogens such as mescaline. Note that it was older, upstanding individuals that availed themselves of these products, and that they did so in no scandalous fashion. But with the end of the World War II, the United States, now the unquestioned superpower, once again reverberated with a sense of Manifest Destiny, and a new generation of crusaders denounced drug makers and pharmacies for surreptitiously fusing cabaret vices with those of an opium den. This permissiveness should be extirpated, and US funding created a network of international organizations, committed to promoting prohibition. Before the end of the 1950's, the UN had launched its first five-year plan for a "drug-free world".

At the heart of the project was US delegate H.J. Anslinger, a former prohibition agent who was used as a behind-the-scenes organizer and ideologue for decades. The UN Bulletin on Narcotics, a monthly publication where he presented his ideas on dangerous drugs and unseemly minorities, was also his initiative. We can read there, for example, how opium was linked to child abuse among the Chinese in San Francisco and New York; cocaine with immorality on the part of Irish and Jews; and marijuana with episodes of maniac dementia among Mexican immigrants or Malaysians literally running amok.

This precarious balance between normal life and a drug-free world collapsed at the end of the Sixties, a period of insurrectional apotheosis that reclaimed drugs and sex with slogans like "it's prohibited to prohibit". Under the aegis of its triumph in matters of aesthetics and tastes, May 1968, Woodstock and analogous phenomena also marked the beginning of an explosion of recreational drug use. A brotherhood of the needle (founded by William S. Burroughs within the world of certain sordid US conditions), or Timothy Leary's antics -endowing LSD with the ability to conjure up 100 orgasms, or even improve the US economy- were among the most outrageous. An even greater stupor provoked a "back-to-the-land" pilgrimage among numerous young people, which some interpreted as a shift from the System to Nature. A French version, involving worshipers of Mao and Che, was soon opting for heroin and terrorism. The Anglo-Saxon tendency, that officially sought only peace, rejected the fixed menu offered in pubs and pharmacies for an a la carte plan where marijuana and other hallucinogens were the preferred fare.

With the horror of Vietnam War as a background, the institutional response was a war without quarter, declared by President Nixon on drugs old and new. The US's sponsorship of UN prohibition organizations, up to that point insufficient for getting the West and the East to join together in an officially declared crusade, proved fruitful when those organizations proposed an accord demanding just such an effort: the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. International Legislation, once limited to narcotics and addictive drugs, was now broadened to include any sort of substance with psychotropic effects (psychotropic being a neologism created by the Convention), in an understanding that "all member states ought to look out for the citizens state of mind" (art. 1). Up to that point, only US legislation had punished the consumption or even mere possession of controlled or prohibited drugs; now it was the UN that was acting against them. Furthermore, it pressured all states to created specific narcotics task forces, toughening previously existing penalties for trafficking and possession. Where such laws were not already instated -as was the case in India, Iran or Afghanistan- the convention urged they be created.

"Pharmacological disobedience," the nation's number-one enemy, Nixon declared, was a plague comparable to the black death of the Middle Ages. The world was then still embroiled in the Cold War, divided into friends and enemies of business; yet for once, communists, capitalists and developing nations were in agreement, and the list of nations that punished the drug rebel with death went from almost none to nearly forty. The remaining countries -a conglomerate from which Spain was the exception, since its judiciary refused to criminalize simple consumption- joined without hesitation in support of the Convention's only cogent point. Specifically, that laboratories and pharmacies scale back production substantially, thereby handing over monopolistic conditions to the black market.

The new international law changed each country's then existing paradigm in favor of one that dismissed improvisation and local particularities, but did not prevent the introduction of a new, spontaneous order that further widened the gap between intentions and results. For example, it was at this point that young people began to be the principal consumers of drugs; and that the "brotherhood of the needle" began to engage in prostitution
, steal and mug to get their fix, as US reformers had feared -though unfoundedly so- early on in 1914. Something that was once problematic only for marginalized indigents had become generalized throughout all socioeconomic sectors. Demand for cocaine and heroin went up as their pharmacy-bought analogues grew scarce; cannabis and recently illegalized LSD became the favorites of the counterculture, which denounced the crusade as a pseudo-scientific initiative, whose solutions did nothing but aggravate drug-related illness.



Some thirty years of total war passed, during which us directives against old and new drugs was ever more widely imitated by the nternational community, with the exception of the Netherlands and Switzerland, since all or some of their municipalities favored a policy of harm reduction (thought this did not prevent them from being signatories to international conventions). 60's radicalism did not survive much more than a generation, and a fair number of those who'd once shouted "it's prohibited to prohibit" had OD'd on purpose, or, more commonly, had been killed by adulterated substances. But in the meantime, innumerable individuals from every part of the world had come to disobey prohibitions, and involvement in drugs had come to be the number-one cause of arrest and convictions across the planet, as well as the source of a parallel increase in crimes against property and persons, perpetrated by addicts or those who claimed addiction as an alibi.

The United States, the only country with previous experience regarding this new kind of criminal, soon achieved a prison inmate population of one million. Other nations confronted this exponential growth in repressors and the repressed by means of different responses, among them, corruption. At the end of the 80's, the UN, through its International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), declared that Colombia, Burma, Afghanistan, Morocco and 21 other countries, mass produced or distributed illicit drugs, fostering a business of roughly a half trillion dollars annually, whose laundering involved worldwide banking. The INCB failed to point out that the common denominator uniting these corrupt states was that they complied to the letter with the INCB's own directives, punishing trafficking with the death penalty or life in prison. In practice, the punitive inflexibility favoured monopolies distributed between the military and the police.

Few months after, a Narcotics Division created with thirteen inspectors became the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the only US government organization with more employees than the CIA, whose director amended the previous policy of eliminating supply in favor of defensive war, or war of attrition: the goal would now be to make drugs impossibly expensive and adulterated. Nevertheless, not having competitors meant that the black market would end up being competitive, and that its products ended up being the most immune to price increases. At the same time, policing, punishing and promoting abstinence created a revenue stream that before long became comparable to the stream produced by illegal traffic. When some millions were already employed along the globe in promoting abstinence or punishing the opposite, illegal traffickers took advantage of growing demand to introduce an innovation known as "design".

A memorable moment in this process occurred during the spring of 1985, when a UN blue-ribbon panel convened to decide what to do with the emergent drug known as MDMA, or ecstasy. The agenda featured testimony on the part of psychiatrists and pharmacologists who favored adding the drug to List II or List IV, along with products like codeine and valium. Not one technical report in opposition was presented during the entire session. The substance was about to be scheduled for a regime of legal manufacture and controlled distribution, but at the eleventh hour the Experts decided to place it on List I (drugs lacking any legitimate medicinal use, like heroin, LSD, cannabis, etc.). As a response to the corpus of reports suggesting many therapeutical uses, an additional declaration stated that the "Committee recommends member states [...] to facilitate further research into this interesting and intriguing substance."  

Nevertheless, research with List I drugs is strictly forbidden, and the dismay of the professionals who had assembled for this 22nd session was summed up by no less influential an observer than the then director of the DEA, Frank Sapienza, who explained to the press that "a drug doesn't get banned because it's dangerous; but because apparently a lot of people want to take it". Certainly, a lot of people wanted to try it, and they were going to, but not under the supervision of psychologists and family counselors as the participants at the 22nd session had envisioned. Illegal trafficking therefore added the most popular drug in recent decades to its menu, to be consumed by young adults (and those even younger) whether it was on the beach in Bali, Thailand or Vietnam -or in discos and at home in temperate or colder climes. Expensive and pure at first, later cheap and adulterated, it was the most effective alternative to the recreational model represented by the alcohol and cocaine combo. Illegalization  of ecstasy changed nothing.

As ecstasy began to thrill youth circles, prohibition found itself battling chemical innovation and invention, a formidable adversary motivated by profit and rebellion. The black market adapted to that change, and since then has offered merchandise that fit into every possible space in contemporary life, through alternatives to traditional products that simultaneously satisfy the market's interests as well as those of the consumer. This is the locus of “design”, that includes Moroccan hashish, crack, rock, a wide variety of pills, and special K among its discoveries, as well as fentanyl, so called liquid ecstasy and hydroponic cannabis. Furthermore, I'm certainly forgetting the illegal imagination's latest discoveries. What these substances have in common is that they're not the old original ones, whose absence may be felt with varying degrees of nostalgia, and that they better adapt themselves to user groups and subgroups, specific time zones and even transitory spaces.

Their self-taught "chefs", in some cases renowned chemists such as Alexander Shulgin, offer up their discoveries and suddenly a sedative called "hashish gum" appears, at the same time as do thousands of phenethylamines and tryptamines, more or less distant cousins to MDMA. The highly technical work of launching a new drug goes hand in hand with prosaic adaptations of existing drugs, and the creation of new uses, such as taking a dissociative anesthetic to wind down at an after-hours club or multiplying the THC in cannabis by means of advanced agronomy. THC causes a "bad trip" for many, so to serve this market the principle is transformed cannabinol (CB) by simply sun-drying the marijuana, and this offers a hashish that doesn't "kick in" like the classic varieties, but at the same time provides the same "choreographic" effects and offers an analogue to sedatives.

The designer drug era also brought normalization and standardization into the world of the prohibited, which insensibly became a part of youthful rites of passage. The habit of "partying hard" every Friday and Saturday, unconceivable a generation earlier, might have been considered the height of frivolity, had it not also become a notable focus of economic activity, and an avenue of socialization for a growing purchasing power. Contemporary societies are now the antithesis of asceticism, and the fact that partying is always ceremonial exerts a magnet-like attraction to any drug that affords intensity or endurance. Alcohol's powers for removing inhibitions have traditionally exerted a central role in celebrations, but as such occasions multiplied, grew more prolonged and diverse, their undesirable side effects have allowed for infiltration by an ever wider array of supplements and alternatives.

Cocaine, for example, disguises alcohol-induced intoxication with a certain amount of muscular coordination, and so a notable cohort at the disco favors such a mix. Another party subset consumes only pills and water. A third sector practices an even more heroic variation with hallucinogens. A fourth starts with pills and if it can't find special K, liquid ecstasy or something analogous to bring down the party, falls back on cocaine and booze. A fifth sector drinks little, smokes a little cannabis and maybe takes an opiate. The sixth ... All these millions upon millions of people are neither gangsters nor their molls -but rather something akin to a crowd afflicted by some sort of St. Vitu's dance. Nevertheless, this manifest abuse was not producing such a huge amount of deaths and acute intoxications as anticipated, and contemplating this puzzle –as well as the spiraling consumption- at the end of the 80's a considerable part of policemen and judges started to be dissapointed with Prohibition.

It was at that point that an ongoing vogue for televised debates on drugs ended up demonstrating that a reformist position might overturn the traditional prohibitionist one -perhaps even by wide margins- if the question were left to local and national referendum. On the other hand, contemporaneous surveys indicated that drugs were the number-one cause of public alarm, and no government was willing to risk the political costs of intervening in something where special interests, prosecutional  zeal and near-maniacal passions had converged to form an inextricably tangled ball of yarn. The fashion for discussion of drugs led to televised debates on sundry other subjects -with an identical format wherein the audience applauds or boos a panel of guests whose numbers make it impossible to examine any issue properly. But at about the time these programs fell out of favor, it also became impossible to claim, without being quite hypocritical, that in Spain and in much of Europe institutions were still operating in state of pharmacological war.

Rather on the contrary, when the quantity and variety of products demanded a hardening of hostilities, repression mechanisms began to provide funds for educational campaigns, in support of studies on the dangers of this or that illicit substance, therapeutic bureaucracies and rehabilitation's teams. Teenagers would be subject to fines or inspection on the part of local police, but detectives and judges no longer felt the hate/pity they had in other times for occasional users and addicts, which was equivalent to seeing the crusade as an ultimately pointless expenditure.

Before anyone could even propose it, the crusade began to contract right when it needed to expand, and -ignoring UN recommendations- began to be content with merely keeping up appearances. Nor was there any other way to react in the face of absurdities ranging from organizational budgets to the fact that points-of-sale for drugs were multiplying without a corresponding uptick in overdose rates. That was one among numerous indications that those given to drug-induced euphoria were developing autonomous learning mechanisms, and becoming less conflictive. As the spiral of offer and demand grew, jailing just a small percentage was exposed as discriminatory. Judiciaries began insisting on the prosecution of large-scale traffickers only, even though this left local nets intact, and at the same time ignored that large-scale trafficking only exists in conjuction with police facilitation. In fact, every important arrest comes at the price of impunity granted to others. So the “underground empire” continued to grow and consolidate power, demonstrating once more that the vitality of unconscious and auto-organized orders always exceeds the resources put in their way by any particular and deliberate scheme.

Variables as divergent as the ability to "cook" and cultivate in any house; increases in spending power on the part of teens and young adults; a collapse in the social stigma surrounding illicit substances, and a growing sense of impotence on the part of those charged with achieving a drug-free world could be added to that overarching root-cause. By the mid 1990's in Spain and throughout the EU -except in Ireland- illicit drugs were cheaper and in some cases purer than they had been in two decades. Some, because they could be made at home (marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, and every other kind of plant), others because their synthesis, with the right equipment, was not difficult (ecstasy and its hundreds of cousins, for example, plus LSD and speed), and still others because demand outweighed the cost of elaborate exportation schemes from Latin America or Asia (e.g., heroin and cocaine).

On a parallel path to these changes was the fact that users and addicts civil disobedience advanced hand in hand with pharmacological education, using "psycho-nautics" (Jünger) as a response to drug-related self-destructiveness and marginalization that peaked in the 70's and 80's. Magazines with readership comparable to equivalent journals on motorcycles, fishing and political gossip, as well as conferences, associations and specialty stores, complemented the emergence of consumers who adopted observant attitudes, as might an entomologist or an astronomer, something closer to a wine connoisseur as opposed to a drunk. Although "psychonauts" are by no means immune to subjective follies, the horizons of drug use include also persons closer to the old Greco-Roman principle of sober inebriation (sobria ebrietas).

Even Dr, Frankenstein's pharmacological monster, the junkie, changed more than a decade ago, willingly shifting from needles to alternative, less risky administration methods. The addicts that would hold up pharmacies or even passers-by with a supposedly sero-positive syringe have disappeared, and even though there are more users of illegal substances, overdoses have steadily become less frequent. On somewhat closer inspection, the abatement of these most problematic cases has depended on settlements in Spain run by gypsies that have emerged on the margins of cities.

To visit one such community -like Madrid's Bar
ranquillas neighborhood, recently pushed out to the Cañada Real area- displays a combination of discreet realpolitik and harm reduction. To the Dickensian horrors of a population essentially toothless and in rags, we witness also a stream of buyers who seem no different from normal citizens. Police patrols monitor entrances and exits; a city-sponsored IV drug-use unit gives away needles and syringes, and a methadone-dispensing mobile health unit takes pity on those with no money. Day and night, the board that serves as a table in every modest, low-slung dwelling supports three plastic bags and as many scales for the dispensing of heroin, cocaine and crack. The salesperson, male or female, insisting on silence within the house, only wants to know how much, and of what, from clients. After visiting more than one dwelling we notice that social fringes really weren't the major buyers. Normal-looking customers are attracted to the fact that rivalry between dealing families tends to insure the cheapest and least adulterated product in every city.



Unnerved by the stink of a toilet-free shantytown, we breath a real sigh of relief leaving behind this penultimate metamorphosis in the drama -a "supermarket" that evokes a medieval leper colony at that at the same time fulfills complex functions. "Under-control" users have their access to drugs that would otherwise be more tightly controlled by the black-market monopoly. "Out-of-control" users have an area where they can spend the day surrounded by equals, and even rent a campaing tent for a week. They are an offense to the senses, but city hall knows in every case up to what point they can displace these settlements without their disappearing, and that their existence perceptibly reduces collateral crime and street sales. Unseemly as it may be, it's the only option as long as pharmacies and other legal dispensaries have no access to salable alternatives.

In 2007, Andalusian authorities published the conclusions of a five-year-long observation of two control groups, one supported on methadone and the other on pharmaceutical heroin. The report showed that those who received the drug considered the most nefarious were undisputably healthier, and more willing to work, than those who received the supposed antidote,a far from unforeseable conclusion. In effect, methadone is a more toxic compound, devoid of euphoric properties- just highly addictive. Anyone attempting to use it for a long term adds Valium, alcohol, cocaine, liters of coffee and heroin, naturally, to the mix, while the straight heroin addict is satisfied with just his drug. Heroin happens to be more compassionate for addicts, and better as a support for social reinsertion. For the time being, however, program participants must get the drug intravenously, an anachronism for most junkies today, because sniffing the product or inhaling the smoke produced by heating, are not considered appropriate delivery methods by medical protocols.

Even though it has met resistance since the beginning, the Crusade has achieved much of what it set out to do in its original country, and in the rest of the world, exhibiting an impressive display of energy. Like Che Guevara's revolutionary cause, charged with "constant struggle until victory", under its surface of a scientific enterprise lies an amalgam of politics and religion impervious to doubt or discouragement. It has managed to maintain an unchanging stance through situations so divergent as the initial one -a planet guided by lax, highly idiosyncratic rules- and the current one, where a highly strict order reigns formally, and the underground empire grows at will. We should not forget also that facing an alarm as this, the danger ascribed to others is also a measure of each person's fear of himself. What sense does it make to reflect on the long and medium-term consequences of this or that attitude, when the artificial paradise tempts even the crusaders?

Just as in the crusade against witchcraft, free-thinking, sexual mores and other sublime, coercive undertakings, will governs intelligence to the degree of presenting setbacks as an impetus for more action, and objections as desertion. As the other crusades, this particular one is equally prepared to cry in the desert as to guide everyone's behavior with an iron fist, and most probably the only way to influence its decisions is social change, a shift from the nuclear anguish/frustration adscribed to psychoactive substances to other causes of alarm. Rational arguments convince those who can think without fear, but do not touch those who see "Drugs" as an epidemic.

Nevertheless, the state of quarantine diminishes as the threatening enemy becomes not only ubiquitous but capable of infiltration through contact, by osmosis. After decades of prohibitionist enthusiasm, right now the UN Committee of Experts on Dangerous Drugs is not studying new strategies of attrition, but bombarded instead by direct and indirect reports on the tragedy of medicine being dragged into a war against chemical imagination, while legions of rebels defy each of their recommendations. They, as most politicians and senior officers in charge of law enforcement, simply know for sure that the war on drugs cannot be won. In fact,the whole experiment seems to be entering into a phase of silent armistice, as all previous crusades, for none of them has ended with a “sorry, it was a mistake” (to persecute witches, political o sexual deviance, etc.).

The novelty in this field is tobacco -the only addictive drug undisturbed in recent times- that is kicking off a light crusade, probing up to what point liberal democracies can be adapted to the fundamentals of the Clinical State, in the Thomas Szasz expression. Only time will tell if makers and users will continue to accept that their belongings be covered in slogans and images printed there without their consent or indemnification, or will tolerate the discrimination that provides a third of all adults one-twentieth of public space, or simply nothing whatsoever.

When I began to accumulate research materials on the history of drugs, I was in my mid-forties. Now I'm nearing 70, and maybe readers will wonder if the passage of time moved me to switch positions on this or that matter. Naturally if I wrote it all again, I'd remove a certain amount of poorly (or properly) contained indignation, since putting in too much that's obvious weighs down expositive rigor. Other than that, all type of crusades still appear to me as explosions of collective paranoia, ending always in a strategy of scapegoating on behalf of sundry pretexts, that multiply dangers and rebellion instead of curing them. Our mind's most primitive, reptilian substrata sustains this omission of a responsible liberty as the prerequisite of civilized existence.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the arsenal of psychoactive substances will have benefits superior to their potential damage, unless we relate to them with at least as much care, self esteem, art and respect for others as is required in other spheres of conduct. Nor does it mean that the future will be fundamentally bright and not need attending to.

The fact that I'm the father of seven children, six of whom are between the ages of 15 and 40, and that I'm proud of them all, doesn't mean that a phone call in the wee hours of a weekend night -when statistics for highway incidents peak- doesn't still shake me up. With spending power they never had before, young people prolong something analogous to partying at Prohibition's funeral, as if some sort of generic mutation allowed them to ingest amounts and varieties of drugs that would have been able to temporarily or permanently incapacitate a good many in my generation. This comes with familiarity, but life has become increasingly onerous, and stretching the limits of safety -the proportions between active and lethal dose- hasn't moved the limits of social acceptance one millimeter. Society is more implacable than ever when it comes time to punish someone who wastes his time, or thinks he can intoxicate himself without paying the corresponding bill.

Within a normally gregarious mentality, the Netherlands stands out as an oasis of sanity. By distinguishing cannabis from other drugs in the 70's, it avoided losing the trust of its young people, in contrast to what governments do when they lump any drug except alcohol, tobacco and what you buy at the pharmacy into one diabolical bin. Later on the Netherlands rolled out mobile laboratories to detect adulteration in drugs distributed in nightclubs, at after-hours parties and at raves, following its policy of realistic harm reduction. Its municipalities were also pioneers -along with some cities in Switzerland- in the distribution of heroin as a substitute for methadone, and in the controlled availability of LSD. There is no country with a wider array of drugs available, yet none has fewer of the addicts classified as "incorrigible". The same cannabis that in Malaysia and other countries calls for a hanging is turned here into a peaceful business that supports innumerable families, being a source of tourism that everyone can benefit from. Curiously enough, thousands of Dutch "coffee shops" (where marijuana is legally sold), keep domestic consumption at a notably lower level than that of Spain, or even Italy and England.

Perhaps technical progress is inseparable from the expansion of "psychonautics", which by stretching interior space makes up for a steady shrinking of the external. It's also likely that drugs not yet discovered will become "de rigeur" in certain circumstances, as seat-belts and third-party liability insurance are now. In any case, our children are ignoring the Prohibitionist sermon, whose very presence is counterproductive. If we discuss prevention without sabotage, it will be to offer instruction manuals, not rules of abstinence. Inebriation, with this or that, is still not forced on anyone, and steering clear of avoidable misfortunes means building knowledge, instead of prejudices. The current challenge is to apply harm reduction policies not only to minorities punished by economic or psychological marginalization, but also to those individuals who for one reason or another, deviate from the official pharmacological menu.

Maintaining certain substances out of the quality controls that exist for pharmacies, dispensaries and supermarkets multiplies their dangers, because they are at least as easy to buy as before their prohibition, and they are the only things in the world where sola dosis facit venenum. It is also certain that after such a long war, designed to redeem souls held hostage by diabolical drugs, imagining that an enormous black market could revert to transparency without intermediate steps is as unrealistic as a drug-free planet. Only history will solve the riddle of the future, but in the meantime a compassionate attitude could add observational intelligence, unburdened by myth and fable, to the Crusade's experiment in eugenics. The disturbing part of it all is that we will be damned if –as in the case of professional competence- we don't learn ourselves, and become capable of teaching others, how to behave sensibly.

The prohibitionist experiment has not managed to dissuade users, limit points-of-sale or even make the illicit more expensive. But it has managed to thicken the fog around the substance's composition, and for that reason has ended up being the principal ally of its formal opponent: the callous, reckless drug traffickers.



1 - This text was written as an appendix to the eighth hard-cover edition of Escohotado's classic study: Historia general de las drogas (1557 pp.), originally published in 1989.


2 - Sixty Weeks in the Tropics, Anagrama, Barcelona, 2003.

© Antonio Escohotado
The Pharmacological Crusade: A Historical Summary.

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