This is my new year's resolution, and quite frankly I'm angry about it. I believe a moderate intake of psychoactive chemicals is good for the soul. The key is moderation, of course, because the potential for abuse is ever-present. But abstinence is as immoderate as debauchery, and it goes against my grain.
So why swear off? Strange as it may seem, I'm doing this for my dad. No, he's not an alcoholic in need of moral support. Quite the opposite. My father (though naive about illicit drugs) has always seemed to be the picture of moderation where alcohol is concerned. From him I learned that more is not always better; that a single glass of wine at dinner promotes conviviality; that one beer is often better than two.
But over time, Dad's ideas have changed, and so have I. My father and I have grown apart over the years, as many fathers and sons do. We've become strangers, in the most literal sense of the word; he seems mighty strange to me! And I know I seem strange to him. And one of the strangest things, to my mind, is my father's new ideology, which he has expressed in the following epigram:
In keeping with this new philosophy, my father has forsworn alcohol, tobacco and all illicit drugs for 1997. Of course, he has never indulged in illicit drugs, so this is not exactly a matter of great drama. He is giving up that notorious licit drug, alcohol, but as noted above, he was never a heavy drinker. Ho hum, you say; ho hum say I as well. But, in fact, this has become a matter of some personal significance for me, because I am joining my father on the straight and narrow.
My motivation is oblique. Total abstinence is not important to me -- not directly -- but it is very important to my father. Because it's important to my father, it's important to me, by the twisted chain of family logic.
It's all come to a head now because I want to bridge the gap between us. I want to know my father, and I want him to know me as well. By understanding my father I'll come to a better understanding of myself. But the issue of drugs is a stumbling block, a point of contention so fierce that it fouls up the whole process. We can't even agree to disagree, as one would hope all civil adults could do.
My father believes that drugs are ruining my life. I believe that his ideology is ruining our relationship. Either way, the drug issue is a pain in the neck. We could ram heads over this conflict until both our skulls bust open and still not resolve anything.
Best to get drugs out of the picture entirely. Thus my resolution. Swearing off seems to be the only way to get my father to talk about other things besides drugs! And there's plenty else to talk about.
But I'm still angry about it. I resent denying myself a beer in the evening just to prove a point to my father. I resent passing up the occasional puff on a cigar just to satisfy my old man's whim. These are small avenues of pleasure, to be sure, but their barricade annoys me. After all, what right does my father have to tell me how to live my life?
But ultimately, it's a matter of priorities. It's a shame that it has to come to this, but it's not a hard choice. It's one of the clearest and easiest decisions in my life. My relationship with my father seems to be at risk. If playing it straight is the only way to salvage that relationship, then I'll play it straight. No sweat.
After all, I love sobriety. Inebriation would make no sense without it! I love clarity of thought, a virtue we associate with sobriety. In the spirit of reason and fairness, I offer a second resolution as a complement to my first: to keep an open mind. I want to explore sobriety over the next year, to sing its praises and bemoan its shortfalls, and report it here.
My father is joining me in my first resolution; I can only hope he will join me in the second.
Happy Birthday to Bart
oh 30 years old
oh man Bart
welcome to the world of being thirty
those aches and pains will take longer to go away
everything's downhill and worse
you're dying man
you're dying now
the grave yawns before you
happy birthday man
It was my father-in-law. Thanks for the inspiration, Dad.
That night, we had a birthday party at Jenny B's house. Jenny has a drum kit set up in her living room. Christy and Jenny and Jaylene played a few songs in my honor. Later on my friend and business partner, Joe Nickell, sang a song for me. Here are the lyrics:
Thirty years old!
I can't believe that you're
Thirty years old!
You ain't a kid no more!
Thirty...it's twenty more than twelve
When we were undergrads,
In the dorm.
We met in Anthro class; and you
Asked me to be in a video about
Those were the days when
You got busted,
I always thought that
You were pretentious,
Then one day,
After we'd left the dorms,
I got drunk
And passed out on your floor.
That was the beginning of our
Long and meaningful friendship.
Ever since then,
We've had a special bond:
We get drunk
And videotape our bongs.
But now...you've told your dad you've gone
I see that you want
To be friends with
Just don't expect me
To give up my
You're thirty years old today!
I dunno what else to say...except
Thank you, for being my good friend,
Even when you're sober.
Everyone was laughing and smoking and drinking and having a good time. Except for me. Well, I laughed and had a good time, but I didn't drink or smoke. I never thought I'd be stone cold sober on my 30th birthday! Life is strange.
My sister called and I spent a long time on the phone with her, back in Jenny's bedroom. She told me she'd gotten a letter from our parents, a letter which they had sent out to all the relatives in the extended family. It explained that Dad and I are in counseling together, "struggling with different social and political views." It also explained the drug-free 1997 idea. It ended with a request to "help us... by not asking about Bart's situation."
Needless to say I found this disturbing, but at the same time so absurd that I just had to laugh. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism to keep from crying. The pain and the shame that my parents felt were so nakedly obvious, and I knew I had some share of responsibility in that.
I resolved to call my relatives the next day and reassure them, to let them know that I was all right and that the counseling was a positive experience, and to keep the lines of communication open.
Last nite I went to a party at a friend's house. The theme for this party was unique: my friend was celebrating his billionth second on earth. (He calculated that my billionth second would occur in late September of next year.) That's an American billion -- 1,000,000,000 -- which would be referred to as "one thousand million" in Britain, or so my friend tells me. Either way, you have to admit it's a pretty impressive number.
Guests were invited to bring a one and nine zeroes in any form. And so they did. There were donuts, of course, as well as Cheerios and other circular snacks. There was a "100 Grand" candy bar and some "Zero" bars as well. Joe brought a cigar and some coasters. Another person brought nine pennies and one dollar bill. I presented a URL, because my offerings were on the web, which is comprised entirely of ones and zeroes, after all.
This party reminded me of why I love Bloomington. Where else would somebody celebrate their one billionth second? The crowd was a mix of such unusual and interesting people that I would have been content just to sit back and watch the interactions unfold.
There was plenty of beer there, and plenty of beer-drinkers. But there were also plenty of people who were not drinking, and who do not drink as a rule. If anyone (besides me) noticed this, they didn't mention it. The teetotalers didn't begrudge the drinkers their pleasure, and the drinkers didn't foist their poison upon the teetotalers. Though I would very much have enjoyed a beer, I didn't need one to relax, mix with the crowd and have a good time.
One particularly attractive woman had, perhaps, a little too much to drink. But I didn't mind at all. Ordinarily demure, she became a little more forward under the influence of the booze, a little more touchy-feely. As she whispered some piece of gossip in my ear, her bosom pressed against my chest, her warm hand on my thigh, I thought to myself -- quite soberly -- "I love alcohol."
Then I went to the fridge and helped myself to another ginger ale. I stood for a while in the kitchen, watching the drinkers and the non-drinkers socialize freely. Two women were fashioning an empty cola can into a makeshift pipe; when it was ready, they stepped out into the backyard together. I'm sure they enjoyed the February air.
Users and teetotalers in harmony... Is it wishful thinking on my part? With the highly charged rhetoric surrounding drugs in our society, is it even possible?
A Christian friend confessed the other day that he feels peer pressure in our circle of mutual friends, pressure such as he's never felt before, even in high school. Part of that pressure to conform involves drugs. He would never do drugs just to fit in, but he feels as though users regard him with suspicion and disdain.
My friend says he doesn't judge other people for their use of drugs, even though he chooses not to indulge or experiment himself. It's an admirable attitude. How many people are really so open-minded?
I've had a sore throat, so I've been gargling with salt water for the last two nights. It's supposed to prevent throat infections. Today I took some ascorbic acid that Christy bought at a local health food store. It's a white crystalline powder form of vitamin C, and it's supposed to ward off colds and flu.
I was especially pleased to see that the store now sold the powder in tiny one-dose baggies. Just dump the contents of the baggie in the water, stir well, and viola! I made several preparations this way and drank them throughout the course of the day.
By early afternoon I was feeling pretty queasy, but I wrote it off to the evil virus that was storming the ramparts of my immune system. By late afternoon the pains in my intestines were so bad that I couldn't even stand up. When Christy came home she was naturally concerned about my condition and asked what I'd been doing to take care of myself. I mentioned the ascorbic acid and her eyes grew wide.
"You took a whole baggie?"
"Well, yeah -- several, actually. Was that too much?"
It was way too much. As it turned out, each baggie contained about six doses or so. My intestines were object strenuously, not to the predications of invading bacteria, but to a self-inflicted case of vitamin C poisoning. I was suffering from a drug overdose!
But wait -- is ascorbic acid a drug? What exactly is a drug anyway? The incident got me thinking, and as I spent a lot of time on the toilet over the next few hours, I tried to sort out the various meanings of the word "drug." It's a slippery word, hard to pin down.
One definition is that a drug is a medicine. Prozac is a drug. So are antihistamines and antibiotics. So is aspirin. But this definition would exclude many substances (such as cocaine, for example) which are commonly considered to be drugs but which are not commonly used as medicine.
We might have better luck if we say that a drug is any chemical substance which affects the human physiology or psychology. The substance may be habit-forming, perhaps addictive, but this is not crucial.
By this definition, caffeine is a drug. It's a chemical substance, a crystalline alkaloid to be more specific, with the structure C8 H10 N4 O2. It stimulates the heart and the central nervous system. And yes, it's definitely habit-forming.
That means that coffee and Coca-Cola are DRUGS! If you drink them you are a DRUG USER! Great oogly-boogly!
If you smoke cigarettes you're consuming nicotine. That's a drug. If you drink beer you're consuming alcohol. That's a drug. If you eat a candy bar you're consuming sugar. Wait a minute -- sugar? Could refined sugar also be a drug? Anybody who has ever experienced a "sugar rush" knows that it affects the consciousness. And certainly sugar can be habit-forming. Obviously it is a chemical substance. Yes, according to our working definition, sugar would seem to be a drug.
If that seems outlandish to you, consider that my friends who adhere to a strict macrobiotic diet believe refined sugar to be a poison, and wouldn't dream of letting their kids touch the stuff.
Does this mean that people who eat candy are dangerous, wicked, a threat to our society? Of course not. They're just drug users like the rest of us. Or perhaps I should say, "like the rest of you," because of course I am drug-free for the year of 1997.
But isn't that a half-truth, if not a blatant falsehood? After all, I continue to ingest 400 mg of Dilantin, the drug I take for my epilepsy, every morning. I continue to drink coffee everyday with alarming regularity -- I seem to be addicted to it! I continue to ingest immoderate quantities of refined sugar and chocolate. (My dad gave my wife a box of Valentine's Day candies, but somehow I managed to steal most of it away from her.) And, as mentioned above, I even have the occasional drug overdose.
Which brings me back to the question: Is vitamin C a drug?
According to my dictionary, vitamin C is a sugar. Uh-oh. To be precise, it's a water-soluble, acid-hexose sugar with the molecular composition C6 H8 O6. But my dictionary also points out that it is essential to the building of intercellular material. A deficiency of vitamin C causes scurvy. Can a substance which is so vital to good health be considered a drug?
Perhaps it can, in certain circumstances. Perhaps a drug is best defined as a substance used in a certain way, in a certain context, with a certain intent. I was using the ascorbic acid medicinally -- that should qualify it as a drug.
I don't know, maybe I'm too hung up on words and meanings. But I can't help it; it's the way I am. Certainly I'm more confused now than I was when I started thinking about the subject. Sobriety is no guarantee of clarity, that's for sure.
But one thing's for certain. It's very easy to make excuses and allowances for the things we know, from personal experience, to be relatively benign. We don't consider our coffee habit to be a drug habit, even though it clearly is. Is this hypocrisy? Or is it just sloppy thinking?
And how can I continue saying that I'm "drug free" now that I've realized I'm not?
"Sure, I taste it," I said. I took a sip and swished it around in my mouth. Indeed it was delicious.
Then I left the table and found my way to the restroom and spit the wine out in the sink. I realize my last entry may have made it sound as if my resolve was weakening, but it has not. I'm just asking some questions.
We had a fine meal.
Next morning I went to the library for VITAL training. VITAL stands for Volunteers In Training Adult Literacy. It seems like it might be a good way to contribute something positive to the community.
During a break in the training I wandered over to the reference section. It struck me that my recent quandary over the meaning of the term "drug" might be a case of dictionary-itis. Perhaps "drug" is more of an encyclopedia word, if you get my meaning.
My eyes alit on that revered and oh-so-respectable repository of knowledge, the Encyclopedia Britannica. In Volume 13 of the Macropedia (15th edition) I found an article titled "Alcohol and Drug Consumption," which contains the following passage: "There is nothing intrinsic to the substances themselves that sets one active substance apart from other active substances; its attribute as a drug is imparted to it by use." The article also notes that "almost any substance can be considered a drug..."
The article also contains a wealth of other interesting information, covering topics such as the functions of psychotropic drugs, the nature of drug addiction and dependence, the history of drug control, social and ethical issues, the varieties of psychotropic drugs, and even pharmacological cults!
Here's another thought-provoking statement: "The United States is perhaps the nation most preoccupied with drug control, and it is largely the 'Americanized' countries that have made narcotics regulation a matter of public policy with the consequent network of laws, criminal detection agencies, and derived social effects."
What really turns me on is that this is from the Encyclopedia Britannica, a practically unimpeachable source. I Xeroxed a copy of the article for my dad. We seem to have trouble communicating on this topic, but it occurs to me that this objective and factual treatment of the subject might provide some common ground for us to share.
I suppose it's only natural that my father and I should go to such lengths. We are Americans, after all.
But now that we're two months into it, I've had ample opportunity to think it over, and I've come to the conclusion that this year is an experiment. It is an experiment in thought and behavior. In the spirit of open-mindedness, I've put the ideological convictions of my past behind me, and I am attempting to re-evaluate my opinions and ideas about drugs and drug-use. My father and I are seeking to discover whatever truths we can together. I'm getting to know myself, my father and drugs all over again.
Any good experiment should seek to prove (or disprove) a hypothesis. Our hypothesis is the MAD Thesis. As originally formulated by my father, the MAD Thesis states that
In particular, we need to define some terms. We have only a rather vague assertion of relative value: X is better than Y. But better in what way? There are many kinds of value. What is meant here? Is X morally better than Y? Or is X aesthetically better than Y? I don't know the answer to this question, but it gets at some important issues.
Then there's the term "drugs" itself. As I've already discovered, this is a difficult term to define. It would seem logical to refer back to my New Year's resolution, in which I vowed to abstain from "alcohol, tobacco and all illicit drugs." But this definition is unsatisfactory on a number of counts.
Therefore I propose that my father and I take it one drug at a time. Like so:
I think we should start with these three drugs because we are both familiar with them. We have both used them. If we can come to some agreement about these statements, perhaps we can move on to an equally enlightening discussion of other drugs.
I'm forced to conclude that drugs are more interesting than sobriety. I think my father would agree with that. Of course, it might be said that in some ways, war is more interesting than peace. That doesn't mean that war is good or that drugs are good or that the War on Drugs is good. It just means that drugs are interesting.
In light of this fact, my father and I have agreed to organize our ramblings according to the drugs that interest us the most. So I'm declaring May the "Month of Caffeine." I'm inviting my father and you, the reader, to join me as we explore our relationship to this drug. Let's share our perspectives, opinions and experiences together. At the end of the month, we can all take stock and see if we've learned anything.
I started this habit during my senior year in high school, buying tiny cups of truly horrible coffee from a machine in the lounge. There was no warning label on this machine alerting me to the possibilities of addiction. But I like the buzz, even though it tasted like shit. In a caffeinated reverie I fantasized that the school janitor emptied the vacuum cleaner bags into the machine at night. That would have accounted for the flavor.
I've been swilling caffeinated beverages on a regular basis ever since then. That's 13 years of almost uninterrupted drug use. I drank tea when I was living in Sweden, but for the most part I've been drinking coffee. In college I sat up late many a night, studying Latin at Waffle House, where unlimited quantities of coffee cost mere pennies.
But my hard-core God-honest addiction to coffee did not really begin until I graduated from college and got a job in Corporate America. That was back in '90. They brewed the java strong on the evening shift, so strong that one of my co-workers described it as a "spiritual experience." One cup altered your outlook on life. Isn't that what drug use is all about?
Things really got serious when I switched to the morning shift. There's something especially powerful about drinking in the morning. Soon I found I had cravings for coffee every day, whether I went to the office or not.
I started frequenting the local coffeeshops.
Another milestone occurred when my mother helped me get my first coffee machine, a promotional freebie from Gevalia, the Swedish coffee company. (Hmmm... I wonder why a coffee company would want to give away coffee paraphernalia?) With my own little drug lab set up in my kitchen, I could brew up a dose whenever I felt like copping a buzz. Which was just about every day. And I've been doing so ever since.
I drink coffee becuz I like the way it makes me feel, and over time I've learned to appreciate the taste. But I also drink coffee becuz I'm addicted to it, and if I don't get my daily dose, I'll suffer withdrawal. More about that at later date.
How much do I drink these days? It's hard to be exact. I usually have three mugs at the office, but I use an oversize Bigfoot mug that holds an awful lot. As a rule I don't drink coffee after I leave the office in the early afternoon. On the weekends or on the occasional day off, I brew my own coffee and drink four cups -- that's four standard measure cups. But I brew my coffee at European strength, so it may be twice as strong as what I'm sucking down at the office. Plus, even if you always use beans bought from the same source and brew 'em in the same machine, you'll inevitably find that the caffeine strength of your beverages varies from day to day. Obviously it's hard to calculate my caffeine intake with precision. But that's OK. This is not a scientific inquiry. Besides, I trust what my senses tell me. I would say that I probably get more buzzed on the weekends than I do at work. But is this "drinking problem" really problematic?
Here's a diagram of the caffeine molecule that I found on the Web.
CH3 | N / \ N----C C==O || || | || || | CH C N--CH3 \ / \ / N C | || CH3 O
I like the ritual, and I like the buzz. Coffee doesn't just wake me up, it also gets me high. And all around the world people are doing the same thing every day, and presumably feeling the same buzz that I do. I suppose I share a fellowship of experience with this multitude, in some vague sense. I relish that thought, just as I enjoy being aware of coffee's long strange history.
I've even learned to like the flavor of coffee. I can tell good coffee from bad. I'll drink whatever I can get, but I appreciate the good stuff when I get it.
Coffee regulates my bowel. It stimulates my mind. It elevates my mood. These are the things I like about coffee. But each one of these things has a dark side. There are unpleasant aspects of my coffee habit that I don't like.
There's a kind of existential conservation of energy which might be stated like this: "For every high, there's a low." Sure, a cup of coffee makes me feel good now, but how do I feel an hour from now? A bit listless, perhaps. Not so energetic. I feel tired, maybe cranky, kind of like I need something... like another cup of coffee! Yes, and that's the cloth from which addictions are tailored. I'm addicted to coffee, and I know it. I use coffee compulsively, my tolerance for it has certainly increased over the years, and if I don't get my daily dose, I suffer the aches and pains of withdrawal. Sometimes I feel like a dog on a short leash. That's not good.
But this bad aspect of coffee is simply the other side of the coin. After all, part of the pleasure of drinking coffee is found in staving off withdrawal, in appeasing my addicted body. If I wasn't addicted I wouldn't enjoy coffee so much. Or hate it so much, either.
Sometimes coffee gives me the shits. It dehydrates me. It makes my muscles ache. My stomach gets upset. My thoughts become scattered. I get nervous and irritable. Sometimes coffee doesn't wake me up at all; it just makes me more tired. Sometimes it keeps me from sleeping at night. These are some of the things I dislike.
I won't even get into the troublesome politics and economics of the international coffee trade. Suffice it to say that this is a mixed bag of beans.
All this thinking about caffeine has convinced me that I should get off the sauce, at least for a while. I can't really take my pronouncements on the subject seriously as long as I'm addicted to the subject matter. I'm not invalidating my previous journal entries; in fact I think it's good to have written about the drug while on the drug. But now, hopefully, it will be interesting to write about the drug while sober. I'm not sure what this will reveal -- it may reveal nothing -- but I feel as if this were a personal challenge, and I can't resist that.
So I'm gonna kick the habit. I've done it cold turkey many times before, and the symptoms of withdrawal are unpleasant. So this time I'm gonna try to gradually decrease my daily dosage. My goal is to be caffeine free by the end of the month.
I wanted to start yesterday, but I had a lunch date with my mother. As she hasn't spoken to me for half a year, I was just a little bit nervous. So for that reason (excuse?) I went ahead and drank the same amount of coffee as I usually do.
So today my effort begins in earnest. I had planned to limit myself to one large cup, but after I drank it, my resolve weakened. I was having a pretty miserable morning at the office. I didn't want to be there. But I knew that if I left I might lose my job. So I felt trapped. I knew that a second cup of coffee could take me away. So I indulged myself. Sure enough, my mental prison melted away, and soon I was superficially cheerful, smiling and dialing, a happy little worker once more.
But, starting tomorrow, I'm really going to cut down. I mean it!
Coffee may be associated with heart disease and the hardening of the arteries. Furthermore, it is now known that drinking more than five cups of coffee per day increases your chances of suffering a heart attack, and drinking even a single cup raises blood pressure.
I'm not trying to suggest that coffee is terribly dangerous. Alcohol and rat poison are far riskier. But coffee's not harmless
Of course, there are some doctors who give coffee a clean bill of health. But the obvious question is: how many of these pro-joe authorities are wacky on the java? I'll bet they all are.
Trying to kick caffeine would be a true challenge, but maybe that's not what this year is about. I think this is about two men who think they know what's what, each trying to teach the other a lesson.
That's a minor revelation for me. Up 'til now I'd thought myself completely cynical. I've seen this year is a hoop I'm jumping through to please my father -- or just to keep my father talking to me. I resent jumping through hoops because it's degrading, but I'll do it. Why? Because it may just give me the chance to teach my father a thing or two. I want to show him that he can respect me. I want him to realize that he doesn't have to be ashamed of me. And I think I've already proven to him that I'm not dependent on drugs.
Except for caffeine, of course. It's a common bond we share. We're united in our chemical dependency. Perhaps I should cherish this addiction.
I can't know my father's thoughts, but presumably he is less cynical than I am. After all, this year of abstinence was his idea. So why would he omit coffee from the list? He drinks coffee regularly. He cops a caffeine buzz three times per day. He's a self-confessed java junkie. Could these facts have anything to do with it?
It's easy to swear off tobacco -- when you don't smoke. Easy to swear off heroin, too, when you've never even seen the stuff. LSD, cocaine, barbiturates, dimethyl triptamine, you name it -- quitting is easy if you never started. It's the easiest thing in the world, as a matter of fact. And it's easy to make exceptions for habits you don't really feel like breaking.
It's easy to take the easy way. I'm reminded of Conrad's "flabby devil" in the Heart of Darkness. It's the flabby devil that scares me, far more than the dangers of any drug.
Certainly this is true at my office, where a vibrant drug culture thrives around the coffee urn. I just learned that my branch manager spends $60 per week on coffee and related supplies. You would have to be acquainted with the stinginess of this corporation to understand how extraordinary this expenditure really is.
Generally speaking, coffee fuels the kind of bright-eyed, go-get-em ambition that Corporate America loves. My father spent a good chunk of his life in the corporate "womb," as he calls it. Now that he's retired, I have heard him remark on the "mind-numbing conformity" of corporate life. I suppose it's only natural that he would internalize many corporate values over the years. Perhaps that's why he seems to have blinders on as far as coffee is concerned.
But Corporate America doesn't have exclusive rights to the caffeine buzz. Artists, intellectuals and literary types have thrived for decades in bohemian coffeehouses. My father and I visited such a place here in Bloomington once: the Runcible Spoon. It's comfortable to me, but it's a little effete and a bit dilapidated. I was sure that it would offend my father's bourgeois sensibilities. But I was wrong. He loved it. I don't think he'd ever been to a genuine coffeehouse before and it was a minor revelation. Here was a whole establishment dedicated to his favorite drug. He began to rave about driving down to Bloomington occasionally, just to have a cup (or two) and hang out at the Spoon.
Never happened, of course. Such is the folly of our caffeinated flights of fancy.
Mormons think it's wrong. Or perhaps I should say that orthodox Mormons think it's wrong, because there are plenty of unorthodox Mormons out there who use caffeine everyday. Myself, I'm not a Mormon. But I respect their right to make that choice against caffeine, especially if it is a sincere personal choice and not a slavish conformity to church doctrine. In fact, I applaud anybody who develops a genuine sense of morality and lives by it. Hooray for the hypothetical Mormon!
There's a limit to my enthusiasm, of course. Personal morality is just that: personal. To continue my argument by example, imagine our hypothetical Mormon (or any person with anti-caffeine convictions) campaigning for the legal prohibition of coffee. Now we've moved out of the personal realm and into the public. And that's quite a different proposition. I could not applaud such an effort -- quite the opposite. Boo to this misguided do-gooder.
I uphold the freedom of the individual to make a personal choice. But prohibition is an attempt to take that freedom away. This impedes the development of genuine morality. Prohibition of coffee probably wouldn't work anyway, but that's beside the point. It's not just bad public policy; it's downright immoral. Therefore I think coffee should remain legal.
But I still have my own personal relationship with caffeine with which to contend, and as we've seen, that's a complicated issue. Caffeine is without doubt my most difficult drug.
By the same token, I can't recommend caffeine without reservation. Some people develop an unhealthy relationship with the drug. They may ingest too much and suffer adverse health consequences. They may become addicted, and that limits personal freedom. I'm probably a good example -- I'm still a slave to the bean. Oh well.
My father, however, is a caffeine advocate. He believes that a life with caffeine is actually better than a life of abstinence. Thou shalt drink coffee! I think that's unconscionable. People can and do die from caffeine overdose. If my father's "green light" leads even one young, impressionable person to a life of caffeine addiction... well, I don't want anyone calling my old man a killer.
But so what if my father has made a moral error? Don't we all from time to time? I don't feel ashamed of him. I don't feel the need to repudiate him or twist his arm to get him to change his views. I won't try to bribe or coerce him into recanting. Instead, I offer the following comment for consideration:
The wise encourage wisdom in others. That means "thinking for yourself." Blanket recommendations or condemnations do not encourage this sort of decision-oriented thinking. They inevitably result in over-simplification. There will always be a younger generation looking for role models among their elders, and in that regard, our behavior presents a more profound testimony than our pronouncements ever will. There is a time and place for pronouncements, of course, but when we attempt to dictate moral law we alienate those who need guidance most. Morality and values cannot be dictated from above; they must come from within. Commandments and statements of absolute value tend to deaden the critical thinking skills which are essential for true moral development.
I never really encountered tobacco as something I could use until my senior year in high school. For a few months I palled around with the class clown. JJ was everything I was not: popular, athletic, extroverted, worldly, violent, physically imposing, anti-intellectual. He fancied himself a rogue who always did what people least expected. Certainly no one would have expected the two of us to hang out together, me the geek and he the jock, but it humored JJ to take me under his wing. He endeavored to school me in the ways of the world.
For example, one evening JJ shared with me the following "secret formula" for success:
I took these lessons to heart.
One day JJ got it in his head that I should try chewing tobacco, a habit which he enjoyed. He was on the verge of holding me down and forcing a plug of Copenhagen into my mouth -- and he would have done it, too -- but then he came up with a better idea. We would visit a female friend of JJ's and ask her opinion. We went to a nearby tanning salon where P---- worked as a receptionist. JJ put the question to her.
"Wouldn't you say that guys who chew are cooler than guys who don't?"
"No," I countered. "The real question is -- who would you rather kiss: a guy who chews or a guy who doesn't?"
She answered the way you'd expect any sane woman to respond, and so I escaped.
Cut to my freshman year in college. I still remember my first cigarette. I had just bought my first pack of Camels (unfiltered, of course) at the Village Pantry. I was with a group of new-found friends from the dorm -- smokers, all. I felt very cool indeed as I lit up in the middle of 12th Street. I was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, a white T-shirt, blue jeans and converse high-tops. With a cigarette dangling from my lip I felt like a rebel, kinda James Dean.
Of course I also enjoyed the nicotine buzz. I don't remember getting sick like a lot of first-time smokers apparently do.
So I started smoking as a kick, just for the hell of it. I didn't realize how hard it would be to quit. Keep in mind that I had been drilled with anti-smoking propaganda all my life. But I picked up the habit anyway. Given the current public concern over smoking, I think this deserves further unpacking. I'll come back to this in the days ahead.
I started smoking a few cigarettes a day, eventually seven or so a day, sometimes as many as ten. Doesn't sound like much, right? But remember, I didn't smoke filtered cigarettes. If a fellow smoker gave me one, I'd rip the filter off. "No point in smoking them filter cigarettes," I liked to say. "Just like suckin' on a pencil."
I quit when I moved home for the summer. But I picked up the habit again when the school year started. Soon I noticed that I was wheezing after a long flight of steps. I tried to quit. But I kept on smoking!
Again the summer came, again I succeeded in kicking the habit; again I picked it up again in the fall. And so on. Until finally I graduated. Finally I quit for good. And that was seven years ago.
But that was not the end of nicotine in my life. I still have enjoyed the occasional cigar over the years. Sometimes I'll smoke a cigar at a special occasion, like New Year's Eve or to celebrate a birth. And sometimes I'll just treat myself to a cigar for the hell of it.
Cigarettes regulated my life, breaking the day up into a series of smoke breaks and the periods in between. Like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant; like coffee, it stimulated my mind and elevated my mood. Unlike coffee, cigarettes are smoked, so the drug enters the bloodstream by way of the lungs, not the stomach. This means that the action comes on much more quickly, and so smokers experience a heady "rush" that coffee drinkers don't get. The rush is enjoyable in and of itself.
These are some of the things I liked about tobacco. But each one of these good things has a dark side. There were unpleasant aspects of my cigarette habit that I didn't like. "For every high, there's a low." The existential conservation of energy is at work here, too. Sure, a cigarette makes you feel good now, but how do you feel an hour from now? A bit listless, perhaps. Maybe you're not so energetic anymore. You might feel as if you need something... like another cigarette! And if you make that choice often enough, you may become addicted.
They say nicotine is the most addicting substance in the world, with an addiction rate which I've heard may be as high as 90%! I was addicted to cigarettes, and I knew it. I smoked compulsively, my tolerance for nicotine increased with time, and if I don't get my regular dose, I suffered the pangs of withdrawal. (But to be honest, my "nic fits" were not as bothersome as my caffeine withdrawal.) Most of the time I was smoking, I was trying to quit. I felt like a dog on a short leash. Not good, not good at all.
But this bad aspect of tobacco is simply the other side of the coin. After all, part of the pleasure of smoking is found in staving off withdrawal, in appeasing the demands of the addicted body. If I hadn't been addicted, I wouldn't have enjoyed cigarettes so much. Or hated them so much, either.
Tobacco smoke stinks. Smoking made me stink, hands, hair, clothes and mouth. I even wrote a poem about it. Sometimes cigarettes made me feel just plain awful. Sometimes the nicotine over-stimulated me. My thoughts became scattered. I got nervous and irritable. Sometimes nicotine didn't stimulate me at all; it just made me more tired. Sometimes it kept me from sleeping at night. These are some of the things I disliked.
The worst, though, was undoubtedly the damage to my lungs. I could tell what my heavy smoking habit was doing to my respiratory system every time I ran up the stairs to my dorm room on the fourth floor.
I won't even get into the troublesome politics and economics of the corporate tobacco giants. Suffice it to say that ultimately the bad outweighed the good in my mind, and so I'm glad I quit.
I suppose I should a word or two about my cigar-smoking habits of the past few years. My relationship with cigars has been substantially different from my relationship with cigarettes, the main difference being that I have never become addicted to cigars. Of course, cigars contain nicotine. There's enough nicotine in one cigar to kill a man, so I hear. But since cigar smokers do not, as a rule, draw the smoke into their lungs, little of this nicotine actually makes its way into the bloodstream. Whatever amount does enter the blood comes through the mucous membranes of the lips and mouth, not by way of the lungs.
Still, people can and do become addicted to the nicotine in cigars. Sigmund Freud is the most famous example. So why have I been able to avoid addiction? It's actually quite elementary. Being possessed of an adequate amount of self-control, I have simply chosen not to let myself become addicted. I've experienced nicotine addiction with cigarettes, and I learned plenty from that experience. I know what nicotine addiction is now, and I know how to avoid it. If you don't want to get addicted to nicotine, the simplest way is to just not smoke, ever, period. But if you want to smoke, take it seriously. Realize that you're juggling with flaming torches. Don't smoke frequently; moderate yourself. That's the key to avoiding addiction.
In any event, not being addicted made all the difference for me. With cigars I was able to get the best out of my nicotine experience while minimizing the things that I dislike. That's what I call success.
Little by little time slips away
First the hour and then the day
Small at first the loss appears
But soon it will amount to years
That verse come from a gravestone I saw once, somewhere. It comes to mind now because I associate tobacco with death, but also because I've not been keeping up with this journal. It seems that life itself keeps taking priority over the recording of life.
I've had a morbid streak for as long as I can remember. I've always been fascinated by death, by the idea of death, by the symbols and trappings of death. Like the gravestone quotation, I've often felt that life is slipping away, and that it could end suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically.
Since my apostasy I've become more acutely aware of the finality of death, and it elicits a dual response. On the one hand I want to "play it safe," and so extend my life as long as possible. But on the other hand, I want to "live life to the fullest," and that entails taking some risks. I want to strike a balance; I want to be brave but not foolhardy, prudent but not timid. The difficulty lies in weighing risk versus reward. Which risks are worth taking? This is a basic question everybody faces in life.
In this task, we rely on different sources of information: school, peers, parents, the media. Who can we trust? When I was 19 I trusted no one. I was very suspicious and very skeptical of just about everything. I had cut loose from everything I had known -- or at least I was trying. I was convinced that the most profound things I had been taught were wrong, e.g., the nature of the universe and my place in it. Everything would have to be re-examined, I thought. I would have to unlearn plenty. I scoffed at all received wisdom. I was on my own, making up my own rules.
I never really doubted that smoking was bad for you -- nor did I dismiss the power of addiction. But I doubted the wisdom of the moral edict: Thou Shalt Not Smoke. In an absurd universe devoid of meaning, ruled not by a benevolent God but by unthinking chaos, who cared about wisdom? The only wisdom that I acknowledged, the only truth which made any real sense to me, was the immediate poetry of being. I think, I feel, I have sensory awareness -- therefore, I exist. The future was hazy, with only one certainty ahead: death, which would last forever.
Cigarette smoking is the perfect activity to while away this sort of existential crisis. And by exposing myself to the risk of cancer I was flouting death. Why do dare-devils dare the devil? They are proving to themselves and to the world that they do not fear death. Or so they think. That's one theory. Furthermore, cigarettes had and continue to have a certain mystique. I'm not referring to the glamorous images of smokers on billboards and in magazine ads; I always recognized those images for the superficial Madison Avenue shuck which they are. I'm referring to the "lure of the warning," as I've heard it called. It is the appeal of the forbidden fruit. The more cigarettes are condemned, the stronger this attraction becomes. That's why the lure of the warning is so much more problematic than the lure of advertising.
It's a profound thing, this attraction to what is forbidden. According to the Judaeo-Christian mythos, human history began with this sort of transgression against authority in the Garden of Eden. Eve doubted God's word, ate the apple, gained knowledge, lost innocence. Many people have had this same experience in life. They question authority, they break the rules, they benefit and suffer for this.
As part of my coming-of-age, I realized that my authority figures were not as trustworthy as I believed. In rejecting hypocrisy I rejected all received wisdom. This was liberating but it also led to some mistakes. Cigarettes are a case in point. I threw the baby out with the bath water. Just because information comes from a suspect source doesn't necessarily mean that it's wrong. Remember that, kiddies! A little lesson from Uncle Bart.
Surely I'm not the only person who got screwed up this way. Look how kids tend to get into things their parents are sure to hate, like satanic heavy metal or gangsta rap. Since these kids are probably at higher risk of becoming smokers, anyone who cares about keeping kids away from cigarettes better take the lure of the warning seriously.
That's why it's so important to me that authority figures be scrupulously honest. Yet so often they are not. Contemplate for a moment the oft-repeated aphorism: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Or: "Abuse of Power comes as no surprise." I'm eternally suspicious of authority. I think everybody should be.
It seems that smokers of low-tar cigarettes die from lung cancer just as much as smokers of other cigarettes. How can this be?
The most potent carcinogenic tar in cigarettes is benzopyrene. Yet benzopyrene is only present in quantities sufficient to account for about 1% of the lung cancer cases that occur from smoking. What does this mean?
Tar may not be the culprit in cigarettes after all. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of tobacco -- or at least, tobacco produced by most U.S. corporations -- is probably radioactivity.
Radioactivity? In cigarettes? No, I haven't lost my mind. Here's some information that Big Tobacco and Big Government would rather you didn't know...
U.S. law requires tobacco growers to user certain phosphate fertilizers which contain uranium. The tobacco leaves and roots absorb radioactive elements from these fertilizers. Scientific studies show that all American cigarettes (and the smoke from these cigarettes) contain significant levels of polonium-210. That's the same sort of radioactive stuff given off by plutonium in atom bombs.
Is this stuff good for you? You bet it's not! I have it on good authority, from none less than the former Surgeon General of these United States, Dr. C. Everette Koop, that at least 90% of all tobacco-related cancer is caused by radioactivity, not tar.
Of course, as is usual in the field of scientific inquiry, there is no final and definitive word on this matter. That 90% figure is not graven in stone. Other researchers put the figure as low as 50%; some place it as high as 95%.
And there are other health risks associated with nicotine, nevermind the radioactivity. Nicotine may harden arteries. Nicotine breaks down into "N Nitrosamines" when burned, and these chemicals promote cancer. Nicotine paralyzes the tiny hairs called "cilia" which line the lung passages and work to clear the lungs of dirt and smoke and other debris. This means that whatever harmful materials are contained in tobacco smoke stay in the lungs longer.
People die from smoking. But people also die in car wrecks, and I still drive a car.
I'd like to assess the comparitive risks. If I found that smoking one cigar a year was riskier than driving around town every day, then I'd ditch that cigar without a second thought.
But you can't find information like that. Or at least I can't. So we're left to make our own guesses.
Actually there was little guesswork involved with my cigarette habit. As I mentioned previously, I could tell that it was having a deleterious effect on my lungs. I didn't need expert analysis. I could tell. So I quit.
But as you can imagine, I haven't noticed any bad effects from smoking one or two cigars per year. It's hard for me to imagine that kind of dosage being very dangerous. Surely getting behind the wheel of a car represents a greater risk than that. I'm confident that my occasional cigar isn't gonna kill me; at the very least, it represents a risk commensurate with many other risks which I take on a daily basis without thinking twice.
And it is enjoyable.
A recent television campaign depicts a young woman smoking a cigarette and vomiting worms as a result! This kind of anti-smoking propaganda may be well-intentioned, but I wonder if it might just intensify that "lure of the warning."
I applaud anyone who educates the populace. Will the truth set us free? If people know more about cigarettes, will they smoke them less? Maybe not, but it's our best hope. No one seems to be suggesting that we ban cigarettes altogether, and I think that's wise. There seems to be an implicit understanding that such a ban would create a huge black market, which would turn into a huge law enforcement problem, and ultimately into a black hole for tax money. Meanwhile, people would continue to die from lung cancer, only now they would be smoking in a closet, for fear of being arrested!
I uphold the freedom of the individual to make a personal choice, even a bad one, so long as it doesn't impinge upon the freedom of others. Prohibition is an attempt to take freedom away. This impedes the development of genuine morality. Therefore I think tobacco, like coffee, should remain legal.
By the same token, I can't recommend nicotine to anyone. Most people who use it become slaves to it. They may suffer adverse health consequences. Many become addicted, and that limits personal freedom.
I'm glad I quit smoking cigarettes when I did. That's a powerful statement. But I feel that my cigar habit is different; it's not even frequent or regular enough to justify the label of a "habit." I don't have a problem with my occasional cigar. That's a powerful statement as well.
The important thing for anyone to learn is how to recognize if they have a problem, and how to kick the habit if they do. As a society, we're still coming to terms with these issues. Currently the topic of tobacco (and, really, any drug) is so politically volatile that rational discourse is well-nigh impossible. Believe me, I know. Surely this hurts everybody. We don't need more preachers condemning tobacco from the pulpit, and I refuse to play that role. We need teachers, not preachers. Teachers help people learn the truth. Teachers help people help themselves.
Of course, I have to say that, don't I?
Even if I was an everyday stoner, it wouldn't be wise for me to admit that publicly. It might attract the attention of the authorities. They might decide to "make an example" of me. I might be arrested, fined, jailed.
And even if the cops left me in peace, my reputation would be blackened. Many people despise criminals and cannabis smokers. And all cannabis smokers are criminals, after all -- at least under our current laws.
So if I value my reputation and my freedom, I must say that I do not use cannabis, whether that is true or false.
If I did smoke cannabis -- but I don't -- I could choose to remain silent about it. That way I could avoid lying and still preserve my good name. But in the context of this journal, silence would amount to a tacit admission of guilt. It is Marijuana Month, after all, and in the previous two months I've established a precedent. I've been very forthcoming about my habits and relationships with caffeine and nicotine, detailing the history of my use. To break this precedent now would be the equivalent of saying that I have something to hide. It would suggest that I use cannabis.
So of course I must say that I do not use cannabis. But here's the quandry: Can you believe me? After all, if I did smoke cannabis, I would have several good reasons to lie about it. How do you know whether or not to trust me? Furthermore, if you tell me that you don't use cannabis, can I trust you? Can we trust anybody on this topic? My father says he doesn't use marijauna, but of course he would say that, wouldn't he? It's the only smart thing to say.
If you think I'm being silly, ask yourself this question: How many people do you think lie about their cannabis use? The answer: almost all of them.
It seems evident that we live in a climate of suspicion, where true and honest dialogue is impossible. It's easy to blame the laws for this "chilling effect," but it's important to remember that there is also a societal prejudice against cannabis. The laws may reflect this prejudice; they may also exacerbate it. But it cannot be denied that this prejudice also inhibits freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas and information.
It might be said that there is a "societal prejudice" against all criminal activity, but this is misleading. Crimes of theft or violence are universally reviled; consensual crimes like cannabis use are not. This is a profound distinction that points to separate historical roots. The censure of crimes against property or people is humanistic and secular in origin. The prejudice against so-called "vices" (like smoking and drinking and casual sex) is religious in origin. One need not be a puritan to support prohibition, of course, but to deny the puritanical roots of the prohibition movement is folly.
Like most Americans, I cherish the First Amendment and the assurance it gives to freedom of speech. At the same time, I recognize that this freedom is an ideal that is never fully realized, but only approximated. It is our duty to approximate it as fully as we can. That is one reason why I abhor the current climate of prejudice and paranoia regarding the issue of drugs and drug use. People are not free to speak their minds, and that hurts us all.
If I ever did smoke marijauna, I would probably like the ritual and the buzz.
The ritual is easy for me to imagine. It would be an act of communion and fellowship, a sharing between friends and nature. But the buzz is harder to imagine. From what I've read, cannabis is pretty much unique among drugs. It's said to expand the mind and enhance creativity. It's said to heighten the senses. It's said to inspire bizarre trains of thought, mental tangents that lead to unexpected revelations.
I don't know any of this from personal experience, of course. But it does make a feller curious. Do I really want to go to my grave without even trying it, not even once? Maybe someday, if the right situation presents itself, I would give it a try. I am a curious person, after all, inclined to experiment and try new things. And I have no moral or religious objections to cannabis.
I'm sure cannabis produces some negative reactions as well. I know some people have tried it and just don't like it. Others go through a phase where they use it a lot and then seemingly "grow" out of it. And certainly there are instances of overindulgence, which reportedly can lead to stupefaction and listlessness. That doesn't sound fun
I know for a fact that there some people develop an unhealthy relationship with cannabis. If I ever tried cannabis, I would be cautious. I wouldn't want to get hooked like I did to tobacco. Fortunately, cannabis does not contain nicotine, which is what makes tobacco addictive. The active ingredient in cannabis is THC, which is not addictive. Still, I would be cautious with any drug.
The worst thing about cannabis is not really about cannabis itself. It's about the delivery method for getting the THC out of the herb and into the bloodstream of the user. The easiest and most common way to do this is by igniting the harb and inhaling the fumes. This is commonly known as "smoking." But inhaling burning fumes into your lungs is probably not very good for you.
That's why so many marijauna users like to use water-pipes or "bongs." These devices filter and cool the smoke, with the aim of protecting the lungs. How effective are these devices? We may never know, because, of course, it's illegal to smoke cannabis, and in some states it's illegal even to own a bong. Yet moralists condemn bongs as "super pot machines" which "intensify the thrill of drug use."
Truly ingenious cannabis users build vaporizers. These machines cook the cannabis at a temperature high enough to release the THC but not high enough to produce combustion. Since the cannabis never burns, there is never any smoke. Users inhale a cool vapor of pure THC. No tars are inhaled, no carcinogenic contact occurs. But most people don't have the know-how to build a simple vaporizer. Most people probably don't even know it's possible. They could be mass-produced and sold through the same network of merchants who supply bongs and water-pipes, to the benefit of society as a whole, but unfortunately vaporizers are illegal.
I guess it's the same argument that certain fundamentalists make against distributing condoms in the schools. They don't want to put ideas in people's heads. Never mind that people already have the idea and are acting on it anyway.
Of course people can cook with cannabis too. But what about all those people who do, in fact, smoke it. What risk are they running? I'll answer this question tomorrow.
If cannabis contains ten times the tar of tobacco (I've rounded up for convenience) does that mean that cannabis is ten times as dangerous as tobacco?
And are cannabis smokers (those who eschew water-pipe) running a tenfold risk of cancer?
First, let's remember that it's the radioactivity in cigarettes, not the tar, that is responsible for most lung cancer in cigarette smokers. The former Surgeon General of the U.S., Dr. C. Everette Koop, says that at least 90% smoking-related lung cancer is caused by radioactivity -- not tar. (See my June 23rd entry, above, for more details.)
Further, let's recall that many of the health risks associated with smoking tobacco are related to its primary psychoactive substance. Nicotine breaks down into carcinogenic "N Nitrosamines" when burned. Nicotine also paralyzes the cilia. And of course, nicotine is very addictive.
By contrast, cannabis does not contain any nicotine. The primary psychoactive substance found in cannabis is THC. This substance cannot ever break doen into "N Nitrosamines" -- it's chemically impossible. And far from paralyzing the cilia, THC is actually a bronchial dilator. It opens up the lungs and helps clear the passages more quickly, which is why some people with asthma like to smoke cannabis. Nicotine has exactly the opposite effect.
Furthermore, THC is not addictive. Prohibitionists hate this fact! They often resort to saying that THC is "psychologically" addictive. Of course, anything and everything can be "psychologically" addictive: drugs, sex, television, biting your fingernails, etc. So saying that cannabis is "psychologically" addictive is a mere rhetorical device, designed to advance a political agenda. It has no place in a legitimate debate over the morality of cannabis use or the efficacy of cannabis policy.
A recent experiment by the National Center for Toxicological Research involved 64 rhesus monkeys that were exposed to daily or weekly doses of cannabis smoke for a year. At year's end the monkeys were slaughtered and autopsies were performed. No lung cancer was discovered.
But here's the kicker. Users of cannabis smoke significantly less than users of tobacco. The typical tobacco smoker consumes upwards of 20 cigarettes per day. The typical cannabis user consumes less than one joint per week! Even if we round up to a full joint every week, we're still looking at a ratio of 140 to one. If we accept that cannabis has ten times the tar of tobacco (although it doesn't, but we're rounding up, remember?) then the ratio of tar is fourteen to one, with tobacco still in the lead.
So even if we disregard all the facts about radioactivity and nicotine and addiction, we still face the reality that cannabis users consume significantly less tar than tobacco users. I repeat: less tar, not more.
If more tar equals more danger, then less tar equals less danger. That's elementary logic. If cannabis users consume less tar than tobacco users, then cannabis users incur less risk than tobacco users.
This is why many people feel that if tobacco is legal, cannabis should be too.
By definition, abuse means "harmful use." Those who abuse cannabis bring harm to themselves. All drugs can be abused, of course. Understanding where benign use ends and harmful use (or abuse) begins is one of the most important lessons a person can learn with regard to cannabis, tobacco, coffee, alcohol, or any drug. Learning this lesson is the key to reducing drug abuse.
But this lesson isn't being taught, and that's my point. The health risks associated with cannabis use are often greatly exaggerated. To read some of the scare literature on the topic, you'd think that benign use is absolutely impossible. This is a dangerous bit of misinformation, a simplistic notion that flies in the face of the kind of understanding we so desperately need.
What kind of lessons are we teaching, then?
Take the famous Partnership for a Drug-Free America, for example. In 1987 they aired a commercial which purported to show a normal human brain wave compared to the brain wave of an adolescent on marijuana. The second brain wave was practically flat. "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Get the picture?"
Did my father see this commercial? I don't know. But many fathers did, and also many mothers, and I'm sure most of them were terrified.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: The second brain wave was actually taken from a coma patient. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America lied about the data at first, but ultimately had to pull the commercial when researchers complained to the networks. Something of an embarrassment.
Until recently, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America did not target tobacco and alcohol, which kill so many people every year. Why would the Partnership ignore these most popular of American drugs?
Could it have anything to do with the fact that between 1988-1991 the Partnership has taken more than $150,000 each from Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and RJR Reynolds? What about that $100,000 from American Brands (Jim Beam and Lucky Strike)?
Maybe that's just a coincidence.
Or maybe the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is nothing but a shuck, a slick marketing ploy, a money-magnet that sucks dollars out of the pockets of concerned but naive citizens. Maybe it's just a way for some savvy salesmen to earn a living, playing upon the fears of the American parent.
Cannabis has been used as a medicinal herb for about 5000 years. Between 1840 and 1900, European and American medical journals published more than 100 articles on its therapeutic uses. But cannabis was only one of hundreds of traditional herbal remedies. As science advanced in the 20th century, doctors turned away from folk medicine. Enthusiasm for injectable opiates (like heroin and morphine and the like) and then synthetic drugs (like aspirin) left traditional wisdom in the dustbin.
People have been "rediscovering" herbal remedies for a few decades now, but cannabis occupies a special place in the pharmacopia because it was made illegal in the "reefer madness" of the 1930s. It's a fascinating story, parallelling the prohibition of alcohol, but I won't get into the details here. Suffice to say people often forget that cannabis is an herb, like sage or hops or garlic, and like these herbs it has many traditional uses as a folk medicine.
Recently medical science has re-affirmed the value of some (but certainly not all) folk medicines. Cannabis has been resoundingly vindicated, but this information is routinely suppressed by the mainstream media, and so many people remain in the dark. Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning.
In 1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration's own administrative law judge, Francis L. Young, declared that cannabis is "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." Pretty good recommendation, eh?
In 1995 the National Nurses Society on Addictions concluded that cannabis is effective in treating a variety of ailments. They emphasized the fact that it is "remarkably non-toxic" and "virtually impossible to overdose with this drug," and they also ventured the opinion that the potential for abuse is "relatively minor." It goes without saying (almost) that addictions nurses are trained specifically to help people deal with substance abuse problems, and that they are well aware of the dangers of abuse. Their organization is dedicated to the "prevention, intervention and treatment of addictive disorders."
There are plenty of other organizations that have endorsed the use of cannabis as medicine. A short list includes:
OK, enough hype. What does cannabis do that's so good anyway?
Cannabis reduces nausea and vomiting. It lowers pressure inside the eyeball for patients with glaucoma. It's an anticonvulsant, a muscle relaxant, and an appetite stimulant, and of course it makes you feel good, which is why some doctors would like to prescribe it for AIDS and chemotherapy patients. Cannabis relieves menstrual cramps -- Queen Victoria used it for this purpose, at the recommendation of her personal physician. It also provides relief from migraines. I have a friends who swear that smoking cannabis is good for her asthma.
According to an article published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 1991, 44% of oncologists have suggested to their chemotherapy patients that they try smoking cannabis. Unfortunately (for the patients) this means breaking the law! If cannabis was a Schedule II substance doctors could prescribe it for their patients if they deemed it appropriate. I wonder how many more oncologists might have recommended cannabis if its use were actually permitted. Perhaps 50%? Perhaps 75%? But since cannabis is a Schedule I substance, even this limited use is illegal.
By the way, I got all the information for this entry from an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Strangely enough, you won't learn any of this stuff from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America!
Although I don't use cannabis myself, I know people who do. There are some friends and relatives -- people very close to my heart -- who use cannabis. Some use it recreationally. Some use it medicinally. A few may abuse it, but most use it in moderation.
Supporters of prohibition are saying, in essence, "I think your friends and relatives should be put in jail." Think about how you would feel in my situation. Would you be angry? Would you get defensive? How would you react if somebody said, "Your wife should go to jail" or "Your son should go to jail"? What would you say?
Lest ye think that I'm exaggerating, you should be aware, as I am, of the increasingly stiff legal penalties that have been established over the recent years, as we desperately attempt to win the so-called War on Drugs. For example, anyone caught growing a cannabis plant within three blocks of a university is subject to a one-year mandatory minimum prison sentence! More than 35,000 marijuana prisoners are under lock and key right now.
Even if smoking cannabis was morally wrong and completely detrimental to the health, I would still oppose prohibition. I don't think punishing people is a smart way for society to deal with the problem of drug abuse. But there's more to it than that. I oppose prohibition on principle. I still believe freedom is a great American value. That includes the freedom to smoke cannabis.
I believe the majority of Americans agree with me. A recent survey indicates that 53% of our citizens view drug abuse as a public health best handled by treatment and prevention, as opposed to 34% who view it as a crime problem best handled by law enforcement. But clearly that 34% represents a significant minority. What are they thinking?
Surely the main objection to re-legalizing cannabis is that it would "send the wrong message." According to the DEA's AntiLegalization Forum, "when drugs are more widely available--as they certainly would be if they were legalized -- rates of use and addiction would increase. Legalizing drugs sends a message that drug use (like tobacco and alcohol) is acceptable, and encourages drug use among people who currently do not use drugs."
This is an understandable objection, worthy of consideration. I will address it more fully when I spell out my tenative ideas about how the re-legalization process should proceed. For now I would merely ask, how many people do we have to incarcerate to "send the right message"? Our current strategy just doesn't seem to be working.
And of course, the DEA's statement that tobacco and alcohol use are "acceptable" smacks of hypocrisy. I think our current anti-tobacco campaigns prove that just because something's legal doesn't give it the stamp of approval.
The DEA goes on to say that "when the social taboos about premarital sex were removed, the nation's illegitimate birthrate soared. And we are paying dearly for it."
Would the DEA then propose that we throw people in prison for having sex out of wedlock? Of course not; the idea is patently ridiculous. But there was a time, not too long ago, when this was the law. My point is that there are other ways to discourage behavior deemed harmful to society. Outlawing something is not always the best way of dealing with it.
As far as I can understand, the prohibition movement traces its roots back to the Puritans and other moralizing religious types. But the modern-day prohibitionist need not be Christian. In fact, I know one atheist, a person very close to me, who has passionately supposrted cannabis prohibition. I'm not sure where he stands today, exactly, but I have spent quite a bit of time and energy trying to understand where he's coming from.
Or take my dad as an example. His objections to cannabis are not religious in nature. In fact, they seem to be centered exclusively on health issues. I've tried to outline these health issues in my previous entries; I hope I have demonstarted that cannabis is not "five times more harmful than tobacco," as my father believes. He also thinks that cannabis "slows down speech and thinking." All I can say is that this is dosage dependent, and that I have observed that cannabis in moderate doses stimulates speech and thinking as often as not, in much the same manner as coffee or cigarettes. As to the allegation that cannabis causes people to "lose track of time," well, my experience has been that anything fun causes me to lose track of time. I generally regard this as a good thing.
But now I must account for my father's beliefs. How did he come to such different conclusions than I?
Of course my father is not alone in his views. Just as there are many who share my views, there are many who share his. For the purposes of this journal, my father and I might be said to symbolize the two sides of this issue. In attempting to understand my father, I am in fact attempting to understand the position he represents, and thus the prohibition movement as a whole. I will address these questions when next I write.
This may be a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole picture. It alone is not sufficient to explain what's going on here. After all, I've never smoked cannabis, and I'm obviously not frightened by it; I have some friends who can make the same claim. Converely, there are parents who smoked cannabis in their hippie days who now oppose re-legalization and don't want their kids to try it. They obviously can't claim ignorance as an excuse.
The second possibilty that I think of revolves around misinformation. There are plenty of organizations like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America who make it their mission to disseminate inaccurate and one-sided information about cannabis. This anti-drug propaganda is very profitable, but of course it is also very biased. Health benefits of cannabis are never acknowledged, while health risks are greatly exaggerated.
But these propaganda campaigns don't spring out of the void fully formed. If they are popular and profitable, it's for a reason. They are both playing upon and exacerbating fears that already exist in the public mind. Once again, this explanation alone is not sufficient.
The third possibility has to do with the government. Cannabis is already against the law. There are few people alive today who remember when it was legal. Many people uncritically accept the laws of our government as right without question. The government reinforces its policies through its own propaganda. Since so much of law enforcement budgets are devoted to fighting the so-called War on Drugs, officials are naturally very interested in keeping drugs illegal; their jobs literally depend on it.
This is a very tempting explanation, but again it alone is not sufficient. After all, we live in a democracy. Politicians do their best to curry the favor of the public that elects them. They may shape public opinion but they are also shaped by it. Like the previous explanation, their is some circular action at work here. The government is not the sole cause of anti-drug sentiment.
But if no single explanation is sufficient, perhaps they should be lumped together. Fear of the unknown, in combination with misinformation in the private and public sectors, as well as a self-perpetuating legal system -- it all starts to add up. Throw in a dash of good old stay-the-course conservatism, and you have a pretty good explanation of where the prohibitionists are coming from.
Or do you? I still have to wonder why this is such a hotly contested issue in the first place. Surely the religious origin of the prohibitionist movement provides another piece of the puzzle. But many people, including my athiest friend, have forgotten about these roots and no longer recognize them.
This leads me to think that there may be an irrational element at work here as well. I will not go so far as to say that my father is irrational, but I do believe that he has been swept up in a sort of public hysteria. It seems that society must always have its witches to hunt. We need demons to cast out. We still persecute people based on their skin color or sexual preference, even though that makes no "sense" at all. At its core this kind of irrational hatred and fear can't be explained away through logic -- only through psychology. The world is a scary place, after all, and we need a focus and an outlet for our anxieties. Drugs are only one of the more convenient scapegoats. Can anyone say they are truly free from this sort of prejudice?
Simply this. I am open to hearing the other side of the issue. In fact, I actively seek it out. I routinely read literature that challenges my views. I want to see what the other side of the argument is, and give it due consideration.
Why? Because I care about an elusive idea called "the truth." It may seem naive to some of my more cynical readers, but I believe in the truth. In fact, I think it is our doom as thinking creatures to seek the truth always. It is an eternal search. But I'm veering from the point....
What exactly would it take to change my mind about cannabis? Not much, really. I'll spell it out for you:
That's all. Oh, and I suppose it would help if someone could tell me why that DEA judge said that cannabis is "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."
This is not really my realm of experrtise, but I'll make a stab at it. First, we need to articulate what we want out to avoid. I think it's pretty easy to realize that if cannabis were simply made legal tomorrow, we'd see a rash of abuse across the nation. Furthermore, organized crime, which already has a stake in international drug trafficking, would be poised to take control of a newly legitimate market. Big Tobacco might also see this as an opportunity to diversify. Imagine a nation where everybody's high all the time, where images of cartoon stoners (Joe Cannabis?) leer from billboards, where corporations bend multi-million dollar budgets toward developing the most potent hybrids possible, where cannabis cigarettes are secretlt laced with nicotine to ensure "customer retention," where Mafia dons and CEOs pocket obscenely large paychecks while the small-time cannabis growers eke out a meager living and finally go bankrupt....
This is the nightmare we want to avoid.
How? First of all, by taking small steps. We might begin by making cannabis legal for doctors to prescribe, if they see fit. Next, we could decriminalize possession of small amounts -- say an ounce or less. At this stage it would still be illegal to traffic in large quantities. We could make it legal to grow a certain number of cannabis plants on your private property. This would encourage people to "grow their own" rather than give their money to a dealer. It would also strengthen the local networks of small-time, just-friends, not-for-profit sharing that cannabis already enjoys. At the same time, it would weaken the international organized crime network.
Second suggestion: education. It's absolutely essential that we begin teaching the truth about cannabis. As kids become teenagers and then adults, they'd better learn to distinguish use from abuse. Our current system of zero tolerance teaches the exact opposite, dooming many children to lives of substance abuse. This has got to be turned around.
My third idea is kind of radical. I've never heard this proposed by anyone before, but maybe that just demonstrates my own ignorance. In any event, I think it's a good idea. We should keep the buying and selling of cannabis illegal for a long while, in large quantities at least. Exceptions would have to be made for medical use and industrial hemp, of course, and buying cannabis seed should be legal too.
This would effectively kill the profit motive, or at least put a big dent in it. If people want to smoke the herb for fun, let them grow their own. Let them share it with their friends if they want. Why would anyone want to illegally purchase cannabis, paying inflated prices on the black market and risking time in jail, when they can get it free and legal?
That's the best way I can think of to make the transition. There would be the inevitable abuses, of course. But it is my sincere conviction that this would be far better than our current system.
These views are unpopular in certain sectors. I'm sure Weld has had to fight for respect and legitimacy. Obviously he's succeeded to some extent -- he made it to the governor's mansion, after all. Now these views may cost him the ambassadorship. His confrontational response to Helms hasn't helped his chances any; some say Weld has his eye on a higher office, like the presidency.
But I wonder if Weld had to wrangle with his father like I have. "I don't want anyone calling my son a killer." It's frustrating at times, but if my father's entry of July 13 is any indication, we have made a teeny bit of progress. I didn't know where this endeavor would lead us when I started, and I still don't. But at a bare minimum, I knew I wanted my father to at least recognize the legitimacy of my views. We've accomplished some of that.
I wonder if Weld has had similar experiences. I suppose that being governor of Massachusetts wouldn't have hurt my case...
The goal of re-legalizing cannabis should not be to reduce its use in America, but rather to reduce its abuse. Benign use doesn't hurt anybody, but harmful use (or abuse) is a problem. Legalizing would not only promote responsible use, but it would eliminate vast and expensive law enforcement problems. Our prisons wouldn't be so crowded either. Reducing the total cost to society is an excellent reason to support decriminalization, cited by many conservatives.
But there are other reasons. Some people just want to get high without feeling like a criminal. As long as they're not creating problems, why hassle these people?
Different people have different motivations. My main motivation is freedom. Other people buy into the cost-benefit theory. Still others want to be able to use cannabis as medicine. Your motive may vary. But the idea of re-legalizing should be judged on its own merits.
By the same token, I can't recommend cannabis to anyone. Some people develop an unhealthy relationship with cannabis. They may smoke too much and suffer adverse health consequences. They may become dependent on cannabis, and then I'd feel bad.
The important thing to learn is how to recognize if you have a problem, and how to cope if you do. As a society, we're still coming to terms with these issues. Currently the topic of cannabis is so volatile that friendly dialogue is practically impossible. This hurts everybody, but it hurts those who really need help the most.
Everybody laughed, my father included.
Then, as my father again attempted to take a sip of brew, I repeated my performance. "Stop it, Dad, you're gonna get drunk!"
General laughter again, perhaps a trifle less hearty now.
I stopped my father from drinking for a third time. Now I had definitely crossed the line from comedian to nuisance. Dad explained to me, "It may have been funny at first, but now it's getting old." And he drank his beer.
I'm sure many a child has had to learn this lesson. What interests me is that I have no memories of my father ever getting drunk. I don't remember my mother or my aunts or uncles or grandparents getting drunk either. In fact, I have no childhood memories of anyone getting drunk or even tipsy. I'm sure that some tipsiness must have occured, but it was never something I was aware of as a child.
So where did I get the idea for my joke?
I confess I didn't like the taste so much at first, but I wanted to try new things, and wine seemed very appealing. I was also titillatedby the knowledge that this was an illicit activity. I was, after all, a teenager and therefore not strictly legal. This might be a good place to clear up a popular misconception. Many people think it's OK to let their 20 year old son or daughter indulge in a thimbleful of wine cooler behind closed doors, under strict parental supervision. Not so! It's against the law, at least in the state of Indiana. I think that's just plain silly. In any event, I enjoyed breaking the law with my parents.
I loved the way wine made me feel. I knew enough about basic biology and chemistry to understand what was happening. The alcohol in the wine was absorbed through my stomach and into my bloodstream. My blood carried the alcohol to my brain, where it affected my cognitive process and induced euphoria. In other words, I copped a buzz. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "Wow, this feels great." I ran up and down the stairs and did some calisthenics to speed up my heart rate. I figured this would increase the flow of my blood and get more alcohol into my brain more quickly. I don't know if that really works, but it gives an indication of how much I liked the way wine made me feel. Ah, youth.
My First PartyGood Lord, do I ever have a lot to tell. After school Friday, Joe J---- and Jonathan S---- and I went to McDonald's and then to Joe's house. We decided to see a movie, then Joe would come and spend the night at my house. Joe wanted me to help him study for the S.A.T., which we were scheduled to take the next morning. But after the movie, he said he wanted to go to the basketball game (Greenwood vs. Franklin). I was against it, but Joe convinced me. So the three of us went.
Joe knew there was a party at Steve D-----'s house that night; he said he wasn't going to go because he wanted to study for the S.A.T. But at the game he changed his mind. He'd go, but he wouldn't drink. Jonathan was all for it, so we went.
Now I wouldn't be surprised if my parents read this.... But I'm gonna relay things as they actually happened.
This was quite a party. Nice, big house; lots of people, lots of booze. I had four big cups of beer... and two or three sips of vodka. Not bad for first time out, huh? Considering I didn't pass out or throw up. I must not have been completely and thoroughly blitzed, though, cuz it seemed there was a part of my mind that never got drunk, and I could see how stupid I was acting and what assholes all the other drunk guys were. Most guys got violent; a few (like me) got mellow.
I called home and told Mom I was spending the night at Joe's. At 5 A.M. I went to sleep. Joe couldn't make it for the S.A.T. when the alarm clock went off, so we slept in. I got home at 10 A.M. and slept 'til 4 in the afternoon.
Steve D------ had a second party the following evening -- thank god Joe and I didn't go. Becuz it was busted big time. They had to bring a school bus to haul everyone away. It even made the Daily Journal headline: 66 Nabbed at Party.
A Private PartyThis is what happened:
I had paid Kim S---- $30 to obtain a large amount of alcohol. We were to exchange the wine, beer and vodka Friday morning. However, Vic and I couldn't track her down all day. So Friday nite we went out with Kevin to Hook's Drug Store, and I bought a twelve-pack of Budweiser and a fifth of 80 proof Dark Eyes vodka. I had altered my driver's license with some chalk dust and a pencil so that my birthdate was no longer 1/17/67 but 1/17/62, making me 23 years old.
Mom and Dad were gone for the weekend, so we went to my house and sat around the dining room table. We began mixing the vodka, each with our favorite carbonated soda, and sipping at the drinks with eager anticipation. It was our mutual intention to get very drunk.
But halfway through the first round, Kevin got impatient. "I say we just split the whole bottle three ways and drink it straight up -- right now!" And so we did. We finished the bottle in under ten minutes. Extremely stupid of me. I lost my head. And then I drank four or five beers. At least, I think I did. Anyway, I don't remember a whole lot more, except that Phil M--------- and Aaron H---- came over for few minutes and stole the rest of the beer.
I had wanted to get drunk to the point of oblivion. I succeeded. Saturday morning, I couldn't remember much of anything. I woke up on my sister's bed. Vic woke up in the bathtub. Kevin had passed out on the couch after watching a Jane Fonda aerobics video in fast motion.
I felt like shit, and the house was a wreck. I had vomited on the stairs and in my sister's room. Vic had shit his pants and slept in it. Someone, apparently me, had broken a drinking glass in the kitchen. Kevin had sliced up a good Teflon pan while trying to make a frozen pizza. The dog's water dish was filled with beer. My eyeglasses had been smashed to pieces.
Vic felt as hungover as I did. He'd never been drunk before; I had, but not like this. Kevin felt fine. The three of us cleaned up 'til about noon. Then we beat it to Kevin's house.
You see, I had planned a big BYOB party that nite. I'd invited quite a few people. But now I certainly did feel up to it. Nor did Vic. Nor did we feel the house could take it. So we decided to spend the nite at Kevin's. In hiding, as it were.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn't. I felt very sick and very weak. It was utmost misery. Vic had planned to stay 'til Sunday, but he got homesick and drove home to Belleville that afternoon.
Finally, at about 7 PM, I slept. At 10 PM I got up, ate, then went back to sleep. I woke again at 5 AM, Sunday. Easter Sunday. Our church has an early Easter service at 7 AM, and I had to be there to usher. I rose quietly and left. I couldn't find my shoes, but I didn't want to wake anyone, so I ran home in my stocking feet. It was raining lightly, and the streets were streaming with cold water. By the time I got home, my feet were freezing hot.
But the church service was good. So was the breakfast they served afterward, and the Sunday School class after that. But more about God in a later entry. After I went home, the day looked to be a miserable one. I still felt ill, I couldn't see (no glasses), and there was a lot of cleaning to be done. So I did some.
Then Steph called.
I had Easter lunch at their house (delicious) and she came over afterward and helped clean, for which I am very, very grateful. She gave me quite a lift when I was really down...
Alcohol is widely reputed to be a poison. That's quite literally true. Drink enough and you'll die. I don't mean eventually, from long-term health complications. I mean that you can die from drinking too much alcohol in a single sitting.
If you don't die from alcohol overdose, you will probably be very sick. I think my previous entry makes that pretty clear.
But in small doses, alcohol makes you feel good. I suppose that makes it even more dangerous. After all, if something is good in small quantities, then it must be even better in big quantities, right? That's pretty standard thinking. Throw in the fact that alcohol can make it hard to think clearly, and you're looking at a very dangerous drug.
Indeed, alcohol is the most toxic drug there is. Consider the term "intoxication." Think about it: inTOXICation. Alcohol is very hard on the body, especially the liver and the central nervous system. I won't go into more detail because this is pretty well-known and pretty widely accepted.
Furthermore, consider that a huge percentage of crimes and accidents are associated with alcohol.
And don't forget that some 10% of drinkers become alcoholics.
When you put it all together, it's clear that alcohol is the deadliest, most dangerous drug there is. If there was any drug that should be outlawed, if there was any drug that a person just plain ought to avoid, it would seem to be alcohol.
Clearly some people should not drink. And yet, I don't think we should bring back prohibition. I believe the great majority of people are capable of drinking resonsibly and moderately. I'm sure that at year's end, I'll celebrate with a glass (or two) of this deadly poisonous stuff.
Because a little poison can be a wonderful thing.
Smart people may choose to drink, but if so, they drink smart. That means they imbibe in moderation, and they keep on eye on their drinking habits over time. They're aware of the effects of intoxication and the dangers of alcohol dependence. They're not ashamed to seek help if they develop a problem, but if they really play it smart they won't have serious problems.
Smart people are aware of their own weaknesses and limitations. If a person has a family history of alcohol abuse, they may have a learned or even genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. Their bodies may actually process alcohol differently. Smart people who have this condition are especially cautious with alcohol.
And of course, many smart people choose not to drink. It's a totally valid choice.
But many people are really not very smart. Many people do not drink smart. They are unaware of the effects of intoxication and the dangers of alcohol dependence. They're ashamed to seek help if they develop a problem. They may drive when under the influence, endangering themselves and everybody else too.
And there are many teetotalers who are not that smart either. They choose to abstain from alcohol not because they've made a well-considered decision, but because their preacher or their parents or somebody in authority told them not to drink. Obviously these people don't endanger others like drunk drivers do. But they do pose a real threat when they legislate their morality on the general population. This is what happened during Prohibition. The experiment failed, but the fundamentalist attitude still pervades our national consciousness. Ironically, this type of black-and-white thinking promotes alcohol abuse, and we all pay the price.
And that's not smart at all.
I'm only 30 years old, but if somebody were to ask me for advice about alcohol, I'd have to draw on what little wisdom I have and give them the best answer I could. I would have to say, "Alcohol is the most dangerous drug there is. Yet 90% of drinkers can enjoy it without serious consequences to their health or happiness. Like almost everything in life, drinking involves some risk and some rewards. I can't recommend that you drink, but I can't condemn drinking either. It's not smart to drink; it's not smart to abstain. The smart thing is to make smart choices, whatever you do. Know the dangers. Know yourself."
As I see it, there are two basic approaches one can take to this issue. One is relativistic, the other is absolutist. The relativistic approach says, "Be informed; figure it out; only you can make the choices that will be best for you." The absolutist approach says, "You don't need to be informed; there's nothing to figure out; there's only one choice that's best for you and we know what it is." This absolutist view is the norm in our society, unfortunately.
My father and Bob Knight and David Toma say, "Just don't drink, period." They're trying to offer their best advice, but let's face it -- kids are gonna try alcohol no matter what me or my dad or the General might say. And these kids are at the greatest risk, because they are novices. They haven't learned to drink responsibly.
Consider my ex-girlfriend's cousin. On his 19th birthday, he got drunk. Of course, this was illegal. His elders told him, "Drinking isn't smart." His preacher said, "Demon rum is the root of all evil." His teachers said, "Just Say No." The law said, "You can't drink at all because you're not old enough." But that didn't stop him. He drank a lot.
After a while, he didn't feel so good. He went to lie down. He never got back up. He died from alcohol overdose.
Some of the blame has to go to the victim here, I suppose. It was stupid to drink that much. But hey, he was only a kid. Kids do stupid things, not because they're stupid, but because they're young and inexperienced.
I lay most of the blame on society. We keep our kids ignorant of how to drink responsibly because we don't want to put ideas in their heads. But this boy died because he didn't have enough ideas in his head: ideas about how to actually drink safely.
To put it bluntly, I blame the moral absolutists for this boy's death. And more people are dying every day. We're setting our kids up to fail, to die even, with our rigid moralizing about alcohol and drugs. We tell them not to drink, but they don't listen. They never have, and they never will. What they need desperately is to be taught how to drink.
The idea of teaching kids "how to drink" sounds pretty radical, doesn't it? But it's not so wild. In fact, it only makes sense. We teach kids how to do other dangerous things so that they won't be so dangerous. For example, we teach kids how to drive defensively and how to have safe sex. Some moralists still oppose sex education, but I think it's essential.
How to teach kids about drinking? By example, for one. My father taught me that drinking just one glass of wine at dinner can be enjoyable. Thank you, Dad! If only he'd taught me how to handle hard liquor, maybe I wouldn't have had such a nasty experience with it. But at least I didn't die. I was lucky. Can we afford to leave such things up to luck.
If I have a child some day, I will do my best to impart to that child all the practical knowledge I have at my command about how to use alcohol. I want my child fully equipped for make responsible choices if he or she drinks at all.
A poster I saw on campus yesterday provided a good message. It showed a guy, probably under 21, chugging Jack Daniels, straight from the bottle, while his friends cheered. The caption said, "Chugging can kill you."
I think this is may be a very effective approach. Note the lack of preaching. It implicitly acknowledges that, yes, underage people do drink! And it imparts a valuable nugget of information. It might save some lives.
Now that's smart.
A year ago my father and I were barely on speaking terms. Now we're closer than we've ever been. There's still plenty of disparity in our perspectives; we remain two very different people. The contention that motivated this journal is still present, still unresolved, but it no longer seems to be a barrier between us. For that reason, it doesn't seem so important anymore.
One of my favorite literary devices is the hidden theme, in which an ostensible subject is played against an actual one. I believe the actual subject of this journal has been the relationship between father and son; the ostensible topic has been, of course, drugs.
I have had a lot of opportunity to think about recreational drug use over the past year, and I've built up a small library on the subject. I suppose you could say I've changed my mind a little. I used to think that heroin and cocaine were the most dangerous drugs in existence. Now I believe alcohol is the most dangerous. I used to think legalization of some drugs might be a good idea. Now I'm convinced that legalization of all drugs is the only solution to our nation's drug problem. However, I'm also doubtful that I will ever see this solution enacted in my lifetime. I also think the death penalty is wrong and that free health care is a universal human right. I'm a dreamer.
I'd compare recreational drug use to mountain climbing. If that seems odd, think about it a little, and I think you'll find it strangely appropriate. Mountain climbers run certain risks for intangible rewards. The same is true of the recreational drug user. You don't have to take a drug to enjoy life. But people always have and always will, because like a mountain, "it's there."
As for my relationship with my father, I'm not sure where the turning point occurred. I don't think I can specify a given moment. All I know is that we stuck to the idea that we could do better, we kept talking, and eventually, after many long and sometimes painful months, things somehow improved. I think we benefitted immensely from our counseling sessions at IU's Center for Human Growth. I would recommend counseling to anyone in a heartbeat. We could all use more.
A sad smile comes to my face when I read my father's final note about "the most lasting legacy" he can give me. I'm touched because I know that my father's concern for me is real; a year ago I would have been skeptical. I'm amused because it strikes me as an unneccessary wish; after all, I'm already way more introspective than the average bear. I've always kept an eye on myself and my habits. That's why I gave up cigarettes but not beer. But most of all, I feel that my father is selling himself short. This little nugget of commonsense, his legacy? Bosh! My father has already given me so much else that is so much more significant.
I consider myself a humanist, tolerant of others and their differences in our pluralistic society. I was able to stick by those convictions through the crisis in our relationship only because they're deeply ingrained. The credit goes to my father and mother.
This might seem odd, considering my father's (former) intolerance of my views. In his defense, I would say that my father may seem like a Puritan, but he is actually a humanist in Puritan's clothing. Whereas the true Puritan opposes pleasure out of moral principle, my father is concerned with practical matters of health and safety.
On a deeper and more personal level, I believe I represent a fuller and freer embodiment of the principles to which my father subscribes. I stand on his shoulders, economically, socially and philosophically. If my father has shed the puritan Philosophy, I've shed the Puritan trappings as well. That's a challenging thing to confront in one's progeny.
On the occasion of my 30th birthday, my father said something to me that I will never forget. He thanked me for not giving up on him, during a time when that would have been the "easy" thing to do.
Easy? In a way. But ultimately I didn't feel that giving up was a viable choice. Our reconciliation confirms it; we share an essential conviction: that life is worth living, and love is worth the effort.
That's my father's real legacy.