Drugs and Mexico and Monkeys

In the past few days, Hillary Clinton and other senior administration members flew down to Mexico to work on “cartels vs. the military part II”. A visit punctuated by 5 days of murders related to cartel violence.

A few years ago the US dedicated 1.3 Billion dollars to fighting the drug war in Mexico and since then, cartel violence has gone through the roof with 5000 deaths in 2008, 6,500 deaths in 2009, and already 2000 this year so far.

Mexico is tragically fucked up, and deeply corrupt. Our support for Calderon seems to have only made things worse, and the military is leading terror campaigns throughout the country in an effort to scare the cartels (which is failing badly).

Clinton more or less admits that the situation is almost hopeless, but we’re going to burn more money anyway to act like we’re doing something because people are dying in border towns. No one in the US wants to acknowledge that the major reason Mexico is so fucked up is because of overwhelming demand for cocaine and pot in the US.

We’re more or less paying off Mexico for bearing the awful burden that prohibition ultimately creates through feeding black markets. By preventing US sources of drugs, you end up importing them from other countries, and exporting a vast majority of the crime and violence to these countries in return.

President Obama has asked congress for $5.6 Billion to reduce domestic demand.

And so we continue this fucking ridiculous drug war. We keep raiding California pot dispensaries, keep incarcerating people for ridiculous amounts of time for small time possession. Awesome.

We have various reasons for justifying the drug war: crime rates, escalation into other criminal behavior, health implications, family well-being, etc. And all of those things are good concerns. They also the outcomes of a very small minority of drug use and drug users. There is a mountain of data around this, and I don’t want to go into a specific analysis of statistics, because that’s largely not what drives decision making around drug policy. It’s been clear for some time that drug policy is almost completely irrational and crafted in spite of the facts. In fact it’s almost impossible to maintain a position of prohibition supported by evidence.

But we bear a tremendous cost for prohibition, and we impose enormous costs on others as well. We have an increasingly militarized police force, over-zealous and over-empowered interstate border security, overflowing and expensive prisons, insane criminal penalties leading to the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, drastically reduced privacy, etc, etc, etc. But we are happy to bear these costs and continually up the ante to appear like we’re doing something about drugs.


And why do we continue to tolerate the use of Alcohol and Tobacco, both of which clearly and unambiguously kill tons of people every day and impose all of the same impacts to public well-being, if not more.

I’ve thought a whole lot about this, and talked to a lot of people about it, and I still have no clear answer. But one thing is very clear: we don’t hate drugs. In fact, we love drugs as demonstrated by our enormous pharmaceutical industry.

What we hate is people getting high.

There’s something deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and in the American mythos as a whole. It may even be some weird collision of American social norms and inherited animal social behavior. Something about our desire for fairness.

There’s an interesting experiment that behavioral economists have done: Give one person 10 dollars, and ask them to split that amount with another participant. If the other participant accepts the split, you both get to keep the money. If they reject it, nobody gets anything. Traditional economics makes the answer very clear – offer the other participant one dollar. Rationally speaking, you both come away from the experience with more money than when you walked in, even if the split isn’t equal.

Turns out that people hate it when other people do that. Offer them the $1 and they will reject it leaving you with nothing. Why? Because, being the social animals that we are, we are driven by a need for fairness. You’ve done nothing to earn that money, you are both equally entitled, thus you should offer half. If you don’t offer half (or something very close to it), people will reject the offer to punish you.

What’s important to note here is that if people don’t feel like they are getting a fair deal, they are willing to hurt themselves to hurt you.

And I think something like that is at work in how we approach drug use.

I think a lot of us perceive drug users as not doing their fair share. When a lot of folks think about the stereotypes that pervade our culture around drug use, we think about opium dens, or about lazy pot smokers, or about snorting coke in the bathroom of some expensive restaurant. There’s a common thread to how we perceive most kinds of drug use: happiness, satiety, excitement, bliss. We understand intellectually that these aspects are short lived and drive addiction. But we know that in that moment, any drug user can escape into a place that is better than where we are.

And I think at some level, for some people, this deeply violates their innate sense of fairness. Deeply rooted in our brains (largely through dopamine regulation) is a connection between action and reward. And most of us have learned that action equals work and it takes a whole lot of work to earn rewards. But if you look at the rewards we seek, as a result of this work, they are often exactly what drugs deliver. There’s a reason for that, which is that the chemicals released in the brain are very similar in both cases. Unfortunately the chemical situation delivered by work is a pale comparison to what drugs deliver.

When it comes right down to it, life is a brutal, painful and miserable experience. Thankfully our brains tend to tone all this down to a sort of long, grey banality with interspersed bursts of joy, happiness, excitement, etc. Most of us are constantly working just to make sure the grey banality doesn’t slip into pain and misery. And even those who actively pursue joy and happiness find it fleeting as our brains really tend to favor the grey banality. Novelty wears off, and we settle back to center.

So the thought of being somehow released from this constant work, seems like a tremendous cheat. Anyone who gets unlimited happiness subject only to the money in their pockets (or what they can grow in their yards), can’t possibly be working as hard as I am, yet they are getting better rewards. So we want to take away that cheat, or we want to punish you for using it, even if it hurts us in the process.

So why do we allow alcohol? It’s a complicated question which has a lot to do with money and politics, but to tie it into my thesis, it would have to not violate our sense of fairness, which I think is in fact the case.

Alcohol along with a handful of prescribed medications like xanax are largely looked upon as crutch drugs. Things that allow us to tolerate the grey. They rarely pull us up out of the grey, and when they do, they are sternly looked down upon. We don’t have the jealous fairness reflex to substances considered crutches.

But interestingly enough, you can see this action in drugs that formerly weren’t considered crutches. Blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication, diet pills, all were looked down upon when we felt certain they weren’t actually necessary. Everyone knew you just had to exercise and eat right. These medications were letting people not work.

And drugs that let people not do the work of pulling themselves out of the grey, drugs that catapult you into happiness, joy, satisfaction, or excitement must be crushed. Cocaine, pot, opioids, hallucinogens, all of them have to be suppressed and their users punished.

It’s long since time that we stopped punishing people for not doing the work. Long since time that we stopped hurting ourselves and others in the process. We simply can’t afford to keep burning dollars, and sacrificing lives to satisfy a primate sense of fairness.

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