What do Ken Kesey, an icon in the 1960s American acid scene, and Richard Nixon, who declared the first War on Drugs, have in common? These two cultural figures show us that the real problem with government attempts to control drugs is our culture’s problem with self-control. Our culture appears to increasingly value making up one’s own mind, making punitive measures more and more ineffective.
Temptation and the Need for Legislation
In his article “Dependence and Society”, Robin Room suggests the subjective experience of loss of self control is a cultural phenomenon. In traditional Navajo populations, for instance, drinking problems are seen at face value. There is no conception of lost self control; the explanation lies in simply drinking too much. In other words, “habitual drunkenness does not become alcoholism without a specific pattern of general cultural beliefs and norms.”
Room goes on to argue that 19th century middle-class Americans were having trouble controlling their own desires in the face of increasing temptations. For example, because of economic factors at the time, America became flooded with coffee that was sold at cheaper and cheaper prices. Living in a free society that valued individualism also meant that responsibility had to be put on people to take care of themselves at an individual level.
These cultural views of temptation and responsibility were extended to substance dependence, which became seen as a loss of self control. If we fast forward in American history, Tom Wolfe shows us what American culture taught Kesey as a young teenager about moderation and control. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe describes the drive-in theater scene of Kesey’s adolescence:
… the feeling- out here at night, free, with the motor running and the adrenaline
flowing, cruising in the neon glories of the new American night… dressed in the
haute couture of pink Oxford shirts, sharp pants, snaky half-inch belts, fast shoes,
with all this Straight-6 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead,
which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs,
This picture of big engines, advanced technology, and neon glamour shows how much our culture today values all that is flashy and fast. This image of America stands in stark contrast to that of the 19th century and draws attention to our nation’s trend of increasingly accumulating desires.
In 1969 Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell noted that these young people of Kesey’s generation were being arrested and using drugs at an increasing rate. Nixon argued that not all the blame could be put on these young men and women: “You know, when people think about drugs, they’re just disgusted by it. They just want to lock them up and throw away the key. But it’s more complex than that.” Nixon blamed the drug supply to failures of the government’s legislation and resources. This emphasis on supply implies that Nixon understood that wide availability factors into struggles of self control.
In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which increased funding for research and treatment, deleted strict mandatory minimums for minor drug crimes, and established drug schedules. The idea was that if people could not control themselves, the government may be able to help by providing incentives and bankrolling more treatment. The Nixon era was the only time when more money went towards treatment than law enforcement. The CSA was later amended to make it more punitive in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan complementing his wife Nancy’s “Just Say No Campaign” with a more militaristic effort.
The Impact of Post-Conventionalism on Self Control
Whereas Nixon’s drug policies were philosophically more in line with President Johnson’s domestic War on Poverty, Reagan’s policies more closely mirrored the ongoing Cold War—deterrence and interdiction were the main emphases. This drug war is now widely considered a failure.
But why? Shouldn’t increased severity of punishment cause people to cease buying and selling drugs? There are many reasons why legal punishment fails overall as a deterrent for drug use. Here we will focus on Tapp and Kohlberg’s three typologies of how legislation affects people’s needs for exerting self control: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.
The pre-conventional group of people fears punishment, so will exercise strong self control in the face of temptation. The stricter the punishment for drugs, the more self control must be disciplined. An example that might strike closer to home is someone who will not drive over the speed limit to avoid tickets, no matter how late to work they are.
The conventional group is concerned with maintaining social order and gaining social approval through conformity. Punishment and severity do not matter to this group, only legal status. It is important to recognize that the prizing of law, order, and conformity are deeply rooted in American culture. If our late driver fell in the conventional group, he would most likely stick to the speed limit because the speed limit laws are there to maintain safety and regularity on the roads. If there were no speed limits, the driver would most likely try to just keep up with traffic to avoid conflict and to maintain a steady flow of traffic. Similarly, strong exertion of self control for this group may only be necessary for illegal substances, since legal substances usually don’t carry the same level of stigma. If the decision is made to consume alcohol or cigarettes as a means of conforming, it could be the first step in creating a dependency.
What about the driver who neglects speed limits altogether and goes as fast as he believes is safe? The third group, and the one that creates the biggest problem for government regulation efforts, is the post-conventional level. This group is made up of people who will make up their own mind about an act’s morality and are therefore not affected a great deal by legality or punishment.
This, of course, is the group that would best describe Kesey. Not only did Kesey experiment with a wide variety of illegal drugs, but he also encouraged others to do so. Indeed, he and his Merry Pranksters handed out fliers asking “Can YOU pass the Acid Test?”
We live in an increasingly post-conventional culture in which people are afforded many choices (for more on that, see The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and The Condition of Postmodernity). However, our drug laws still operate under the pre-conventional and conventional assumptions that fear and social order are sufficient to mediate self control.
Ethnobotanist and philosopher Terrence McKenna portrays these conflicting interests vividly:
“We’re playing with half a deck as long as we tolerate that the cardinals of government and science should dictate where human curiosity can legitimately send its attention and where it can not. It’s an essentially preposterous situation. It is essentially a civil rights issue, because what we’re talking about here is the repression of a religious sensibility. In fact, not a religious sensibility, the religious sensibility.” (p.8.)
Post-conventional thinking, however, is not governed solely by curiosity. Our culture emphasizes what might be called a “110% mentality” when it comes to work. Many jobs take place in especially stressful and strenuous contexts with long hours and demanding work, which can lead to discontent and a need for a way to cope (see yesterday’s post on stress and addiction). Many truckers cope with long hours, drained mental alertness, and physical stress by using amphetamines and other stimulants. The government’s goal of shaping behavior by inducing a fear response is negated in favor of short-term economic and coping benefits.
This is not unique to our culture. In Forces of Habit, Courtwright writes:
…the use of drugs to cope with fatigue and obliterate misery is in many ways a by-product of civilization itself. Humans evolved in itinerant band societies. While hunter-gathers prized certain drugs for shamanistic rituals, they rarely relied on them to cope with dawn-to-dusk manual labor. Taking drugs to get through the daily grind (or to treat the intestinal and parasitic diseases attendant to settled life) is peculiar to civilization. Our social circumstances are out of sync with our evolved natures”. (138-139)
This disconnect between our social circumstances and evolved natures provides a significant problem for government enforcement of drug laws. Just because our society largely accepts norms of regulating drug use does not mean that we inherently have the natural will power to exert the large amounts of self control necessary to stifle dependence. This is especially poignant given the extraordinary amount of self control that we are expected to exert in our daily lives.
To make matters even worse, neurobiological research in the past few decades has demonstrated that drug use causes dysregulations in the mesolimbic dopamine system, essentially interfering with reward, memory, and learning systems in the brain. What, then, becomes of a curious and worn out anesthesiologist who finds it easy to divert sufentanil or fentanyl (80 times more potent than morphine) for illicit use and is around it day in and day out? Indeed, anesthesiologists have the highest rates of dependence in the medical field.
As Ken Kesey said, “If society wants me to be an outlaw, then I’ll be an outlaw, and a damned good one. That’s something people need. People at all times need outlaws.” As our society becomes more and more post-conventional with a rising number of drug temptations, it could be the case that it will give rise to more and more post-conventional outlaws.