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by James Ostrowski

Reprinted by permission from Jim Ostrowski

Originaly appearing in Liberty magazine

The prospects for drug legalization today are very much like the prospects for ending communism in 1975 or witch-hunts in 1600: terrible in the short run, inevitable in the long run. If that long-run victory is to come as soon as possible, libertarians must learn why it is we are losing the fight for legalization now, and why our final success is inevitable -- and adjust our strategy accordingly.

As Thomas Szasz has observed, the war on drugs is basically a religious war. Though initially skeptical about this assertion, I have seen it demonstrated empirically many times in the course of the legalization debate. Drug warriors systematically lie, distort and ignore the truth. They are impervious to any facts, evidence or logic demonstrating the practical failure of their policy. Just as cost-benefit studies and body counts would not have persuaded Khomeini to end a Holy War against a demonized enemy, the drug warriors cannot be persuaded by such methods to end their Holy War against drugs. When the New York City health commissioner said that no amount of evidence could change his mind about legalizing needles to fight AIDS [the sterile needle exchange program. ed.], he echoed the sentiments of hard-core prohibitionists everywhere. And his was nothing if not a religious statement.

The drug issue is religious in the sense that it involves a conflict over ultimate moral values, values that cannot be proven true or false through generally accepted methods. One's views on drug policy reflect one's basic judgment of how human life is to be lived. On one side are those who believe it morally imperative that human beings pass through life with their "natural" consciousness more or less intact. On the other are those who believe that the pharmacological manipulation of consciousness, while potentially dangerous, is morally unobjectionable.

Those who believe that our consciousness must remain unaltered by drug technology are the theological and ideological descendants of those who held, in the Middle Ages, that our physique must remain unaltered by medical technology. The medievalists believed that life in this world is not our ultimate destiny; rather, our destiny was a spiritual world to be entered after death. They rejected the notion that worldly human success is the highest moral value and did not hesitate to oppose technological advances they believed threatened their spiritual values. Likewise, their contemporary cousins -- the drug warriors -- do not hesitate to forcefully stop us from exploring all the possibilities drug technology can offer. In the process, they trample over the principle of freedom of religion by forcing on others their own version of the good. Notice the asymmetrical relationship between drug warriors and drug legalizers. Prohibitionists impose their vision of the good on legalizers, while legalizers would not force prohibitionists to use drugs, or deprive them of religious freedom in any other way.

Virtual Reality: A Drug?

Those who think it is straining to classify psychoactive drugs as technology should ponder the phenomenon of "virtual reality," an electronic consciousness-altering technology that works by bombarding the senses with electronic visual, auditory and tactile stimuli. Its ability to alter consciousness and take you "out of yourself" is powerful. Virtual reality is basically a non-chemical drug.

The most fundamental moral arguments prohibitionists make against pharmacological drugs can also be made against virtual reality: it allows people to gain satisfaction without engaging in traditional life-enhancing activities; it alienates people from society by allowing them to engage in solitary pleasure-seeking, thereby eroding the moral sensibilities that make social life possible, and so on. In the near future, as the technology of virtual reality becomes more sophisticated, drug warriors will be forced to seek its prohibition because virtual reality will likely be able to produce sensations similar to -- even more intense than -- those produced by drugs. At that time, the thesis that the war on drugs is a war on technological progress will be conclusively proved.

Psychoactive Drugs: An Evolutionary Step

There is another factor in this discussion: evolution. Evolution and change seem to be built into the very structure of the universe; they are certainly built into the structure of living things. Life on earth evolved from non-living matter. Single-celled organisms evolved into more complex ones. Human beings evolved form lower primates. Humanity is still evolving, and the pace of its evolution is faster than ever -- and is being mediated through technology.

It is arguably our evolutionary destiny to have complete command of our environment down to the molecular level. Molecular engineering, or nano-technology, seems inevitable. Although it may be frightening to some, the molecules that make our very consciousness possible will likely be subject to our control. There is built into human beings a desire to improve themselves. Mencken described how this force made the Renaissance possible:

In the course of time, humanity's strong inborn curiosity -- the most familiar manifestation of its basic instinct to preserve life by constant adaptation to its environment -- became overpowering, and brave men with the lust for knowledge raging within them defied the church and its inquisitors.

To paraphrase Aristotle, the aim of life is first to live well and next to live still better.

If life on earth evolved from single-celled organisms and is destined to evolve to the level of beings who engineer their very selves at the molecular level, what must we make of the war on drugs?

In their pure form, potent mind-altering drugs were discovered only in the 19th century. The technologies used then were crude and sometimes even dangerous, the most rudimentary and elementary stage of engineering consciousness. No final resting place by any means, they are analogous to the wheel in the history of transportation. What will come in the future will make them seem trivial. And the future will come, as it came with the Renaissance. Humanity's desire to gain ever greater control of its environment cannot be suppressed; it can only be channeled -- we hope -- in positive directions.

In this historical context, the war on drugs is a counterrevolutionary and counter-evolutionary movement doomed to failure by the overriding human desire for self-perfection.

The war on drugs is a religious war fought by those who oppose the use of technology to alter or engineer consciousness. To alter or engineer consciousness is simply the present stage of human evolution. First, we engineered matter; that is, we made matter conform to the thoughts in our minds. Then, quite recently, we started engineering our physical selves through medical science. We began to conquer the very natural process of disease, decay and death by making our bodies conform to our own mental desires. Now, we have begun to achieve the capacity to make our minds conform to our own choices and desires.

Those who do not want anyone to move along to this next stage of technological evolution are now leading the war on drugs. Their philosophical ancestors led fights against reason, science, technology and medical progress throughout the ages. As Ayn Rand once wrote, the man who discovered how to make fire was probably burned at the stake.

The war on drugs can be viewed as the opening salvo in a war between futurists and reactionaries that will rage throughout the next century, along such battle fronts as drugs, virtual reality, bioengineering and nanotechnology. The reactionaries cannot win this war. They can only postpone the moment of their defeat and thereby rob generations of their potential.

The New Heretics

Like similar mass hysterias -- witch-burnings, Holocausts, Communism -- the war on drugs is a popular endeavor. Indeed, those who oppose such hysterias are considered odd or crazy. Anti-Communists in Russia were put in insane asylums, and opponents of witch-burnings in the Middle Ages were probably denounced as witches themselves and burned at the stake. Here and now, advocates of legalization are regularly denounced as crazy, pro-addiction or anti-children.

But let's be clear about this, even in an atmosphere of social hysteria: the drug warriors are enemies of science, reason, freedom, peace, technology and evolution. They are enemies of the future of humanity.

What can we do about them? Policy tinkering won't work. Cost-benefit analyses won't work. Rather, the war on drugs must be exposed and challenged at its philosophical roots.

We can no longer accept our opponents' premise that any and all present and potential psychoactive substances are evil. We can no longer yield the moral high ground to the opposition -- as most liberal and conservative legalizers do -- and simply plead with them not to use force to achieve their goal. The drug warriors' minds are not subtle enough to grasp the distinction between morality and law, between persuasion and force, between allowing allegedly immoral acts to occur and condoning them. Furthermore, since the war on drugs is a religious war, they simply don't care about the secular rights established by Enlightenment thinkers. They consider their goal of a drug-free society to be more important than protecting rights. Arguing with drug warriors about individual liberty is as useless as having the same argument with a Nazi or an Inquisitor.

The main reason we drug legalizers have a tough time winning debates is that the public views us as advocates for the kinds of drug use now associated with illegal drugs. The war on drugs has prevented rational and responsible people from developing a drug industry and instead placed it in the hands of violent street hoods. When people associate drug legalization not with shooting galleries, but with a modern, scientific, life-extending movement, we will win. Modernity will vanquish neo-medievalism exposed as such.

With this approach, carried out by an effective organization, libertarians in the 1990s can recapture the leadership of the drug legalization movement they lost in the late 1980s. Then, on to victory!

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