Pubdate: Mon, 14 Oct 2002
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Francisco Examiner
Author: Jonathon Keats


"It is wrong that they do this." -- a Market Street souvenir shop employee, 
watching the San Francisco Police Department confiscate his crack pipes and 
other drug paraphernalia.

Nearly a century before the Summer of Love, San Francisco became the first 
American city to prohibit the use of drugs. Opium was forbidden, although 
not to curb the addiction of Chinese laborers. What concerned politicians, 
rather, was that opium dens were attracting middle-class children, where 
they were mixing with people deemed culturally exceptionable.

Such social engineering, shrewdly passed off as a matter of public health, 
quickly spread to other cities, throughout the country and around the 
world. Over just the last couple decades, spending on the so-called drug 
war has multiplied by a factor of 10. Yet, as historian Richard 
Davenport-Hines argues in "The Pursuit of Oblivion" (Norton; $27.95), "it 
is a war that cannot be won."

Davenport-Hines offers a number of compelling reasons, most of which find 
their origin in the false assumptions of regulators. "(I)t is not a drug 
itself that drives an addict to crime but the need for the drug," he 
writes. "It is not the supply of a drug that turns a user into a criminal 
but the illicitness of that supply. ... (Prohibition) is the policy of 
idealists who cannot appreciate that the use of drugs often reflects other 
sets of human ideals: human perfectibility, the yearning for a perfect 
moment, the peace that comes from oblivion."

Yet, of all the faulty thinking underlying criminalization, by far the most 
flawed is the idea that the future of a society can be guided from on high.

Throughout history, governments have used drugs in every imaginable way to 
exert control over whole populations, their own as well as others. On the 
one hand, Napoleon is said secretly to have fed his soldiers narcotics 
mixed with cayenne pepper to overcome their exhaustion. On the other, 
British fleets sought to balance trade with Chinese merchants by illegally 
shipping in opium; cultivating addiction along the coastal provinces, 
England brilliantly imported supply and demand simultaneously.

In neither case, though, did such policy result in long-term control. 
England and China wound up at war with one another, while France, following 
the surrender of Napoleon and the return of his soldiers, added to its 
opium addiction a lust for other drugs, especially Algerian hashish.

"Hashish is replacing champagne," French art critic and drug aficionado 
Theophile Gautier proclaimed gleefully in 1845. "We believe we have 
conquered Algeria, but Algeria has conquered us." As Davenport-Hines notes, 
consumption of hashish was generally an affectation of the intelligentsia, 
"alluring because of its association with primitive cultures."

The threat it posed to French cultural hegemony ensured that hashish would 
be condemned by the authorities, which in turn only made it more alluring, 
more potent in its symbolism. Simply by indulging his drug habit, Gustave 
Flaubert could set himself in opposition to "civilization, that shriveled 
runt of human aspirations, that bitch, inventor of railways, prisons, enema 
pumps, cream cakes, of royalty and the guillotine."

If anything, the French establishment made itself more vulnerable to 
attack, and susceptible to overthrow, by providing such an easy (and 
enthralling) means of cultural protest.

For all that France may have been shaken up in the 19th century by 
bohemians' embrace of hashish, the situation can scarcely be compared to 
that in America -- a society fundamentally shaped by generations of 
resistance to repressive drug policy. In San Francisco, prohibition of 
opium consumption induced bored Caucasian children to spend time in 
Chinatown. Their natural inclination to rebellion, given such a clearcut 
outlet, put them face-to-face with another race -- otherwise shunned -- 
serving as a basis for cultural plurality.

Or take the case of cocaine a couple decades later in cities such as 
Chicago and New York. Recreational use by children of affluence put them in 
contact with an underworld that their parents wished them to avoid. Laws 
were enacted, and duly resisted, undermining the class distinctions they 
were meant indirectly to protect. Significant differences between rich and 
poor remained, yet the illicit intermingling of youth in every tax bracket 
gradually reduced the stigma of poverty, leading to greater equality of 

Perhaps confiscating crack pipes from Market Street souvenir shops -- doing 
the dirty work of the Convention and Visitors' Bureau to forge the image of 
San Francisco as a "clean" city -- also will result in some perverse 
societal improvement. That the government has brought about so much good by 
making such bad policy is a splendid irony.

But it doesn't serve as a justification any more than slavery was justified 
for having led to emancipation.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom