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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America

Americans really like to get high, and they’ll go out of their way to do so even when the government threatens to punish them.

That’s the theme that comes through strongest in Ryan Grim’s This Is Your Country On Drugs, a look at the relationship among Americans, the drugs they use, and their government.

The author, a relatively young man, isn’t shy about his own history of casually using and enjoying drugs, particularly hallucinogens. He discovered in the early 2000s that LSD was nowhere to be found—not only could he not find any for himself but statistics showed acid use was down in general.

Investigating further, Grim found that several factors had come together to make LSD unavailable. One was a success in the war on drugs: The DEA nabbed a longtime leading supplier, Harvard graduate William Leonard Pickard. Surprisingly (or not), another major factor was the breakdown of the LSD distribution system after the Grateful Dead disbanded, the band Phish stopped touring, and the groups’ concerts could no longer serve as major trading venues.

With LSD mostly gone, Americans didn’t stop seeking mind-altering experiences. They just turned to other substances that weren’t illegal, such as the herb salvia (still legal and readily available in most states), which offered even more intense trips.

Grim shows that this sort of thing has happened many times in U.S. history, both before and after drug prohibition began with the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. One drug goes out, others come in. In the 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration decided to focus on fighting marijuana. That made pot expensive, so people switched to other drugs, including crack—a substance that might never have been invented but for Reagan’s antidrug policies.

The book also shows how government’s attempts to discourage drug use through propaganda often fail.

For example, in one chapter Grim considers the government’s D.A.R.E. program, in which police visit schools to teach students about drugs, and reports (as have others, including the Government Accountability Office and Surgeon General’s office) that the program has been a failure. Children who go through it tend to use drugs more than other children because the education makes them less afraid. Yet the program persists because it’s popular—with police and with parents who are relieved of the burden of talking to their kids about drugs themselves.

Anti-marijuana ad campaigns that have cost taxpayers more than $1.5 billion since 1998 also failed to produce any decline in minors’ drug use. Eventually marijuana use did drop, but not because of the ads; rather, kids began participating in more structured after-school activities and doing more of their socializing online. They didn’t stop using drugs, though. They just started taking illicitly obtained prescription pills instead.

Other chapters consider such topics as the harmful effects of the drug war on people in other countries and the relationship between the drug war and U.S. foreign policy. There are also detailed examinations of Americans’ history of using amphetamines and cocaine. And Grim looks at drug prohibition’s unsavory origins. For example, he shows how DuPont helped push marijuana prohibition to eliminate hemp as a competitor to its synthetic products, and he explores the role of bigotry against blacks and immigrants in the move toward prohibition.

All these chapters don’t really fit together neatly; Grim goes from one topic to the next without much transition. And he doesn’t explicitly push any public policy conclusions.

But his main themes come through clearly. One is, again, that Americans like to get high. Another is that what we’ve been told in propaganda from Reefer Madness to “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” ads isn’t quite true—doing drugs might not be a good idea, but most drug users don’t become crazed addicts. Another theme is that the war on drugs hurts a lot of people, from would-be medical-marijuana users, to poor South American coca growers, to the many young black men in prison.

The book is not a comprehensive guide to the evils of the drug war—things are actually worse than Grim suggests—but for people looking for a highly readable look at America’s relationship with drugs, This Is Your Country On Drugs is a good place to start. That’s true even if, like me (but unlike the author and millions of our fellow Americans), they would never do drugs themselves.