International / Opinion / Theory

Brave New World: Man, the State, and ‘Big Dope’



By Francis W. McLoughlin


Everywhere in the English-speaking world, the tendency is one and the same: the abandonment of our mores of self-restraint in favour of a culture of self-enjoyment. Sex, drugs, and dubstep: these are the fixtures of our Dionysian age; and with its radical chic and flesh-pot barracks, adherents of this changing zeitgeist have never been in short supply (indeed, they are to be found by the campus-load). This tendency, which has a cunning all of its own, quite independent of its vanguard, started out as risqué and rebellious; ultimately, it proved infantilising. It has forcibly antiquated the notions of responsibility and self-denial which bourgeois society fostered in its inhabitants. Long-gone are those mores which made a virtue of self-reliance, rendered palpable the rewards to be had in delayed gratification, and which, taken all in all, comprised that cornerstone of civilised life: ordered liberty. Nietzsche belittled them as the stuff of ‘herd morality’. Freud derided them as psychic repressions. Karl Kraus quipped that, “Sexuality poorly repressed unsettles some families; well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.” The following half-century demonstrated that historical irony savages even the most astute of ironists.

Whatever one wants to call them—these bourgeois mores—it is a fact that modernity brought them to light and, observation altering the thing observed, dissipated them. In their absence, noxious, if superficially ‘freer’ (less reserved), social relations have ushered out the old, and a stronger state has been selected as the instrument by which to mitigate the disorder, increased crime-rates, and frayed sense of community, which have accompanied their rise. The 60s Cultural Revolution replaced our freedoms and traditions with the banal horrors of a cradle-to-grave welfare-state and a culture of corrosive cynicism, amidst which Pope Benedict XVI identified “the dictatorship of relativism.” And since our psycho-sexual notions, our sense of right-and-wrong, our cultural heritage as Westerners, and our sense of place in the world, have all undergone such an upheaval as to be paralysed, reified, and superseded, a new battleground has emerged in ‘the de-criminalisation question’: has the time come to legalise pot, cocaine, heroin, et al.? Are we to abandon what the Nixon administration, all those years ago, introduced to the world as ‘the War on Drugs’?

It is quite possible, in theory, to weigh the question in a rational, objective manner, and bow to the findings of social science or, perhaps, to accept drug-legalisation on the principles of classical liberalism extrapolated into the nether bounds. But ill omens are already among us, and they portend worse. Proponents of drug-legalisation often talk-up the liberating effects their program will have on the populace: no longer will ‘the state’ be able to tell its tax-payers what they can or can’t put in their bodies. This is why the aspirations of right-wing libertarians and left-leaning progressives converge on this issue. I am convinced, however, that the unintended consequences of the current lurch towards legalisation here in the Anglosphere will be enough to chill the marrow of these seditious lobbyists, as they reflect in years to come on the horrible forces they have helped conjure into being. For the truth is that ‘the state’ could honestly not be happier with the new arrangements, with the Cultural Revolution and all that it has brought with it.

Since political culture here in the Anglosphere often begins in the United States and ‘trickles down’ into the rest of the English-speaking world, it is instructive to examine the latest developments in the state of Colorado, where legislation de-criminalising the sale and use of marijuana has just been passed to a great deal of fanfare. As the saying goes, ‘be careful what you wish for’. The talking-points of those who would de-criminalise that rogue’s gallery of illicit substances, in part or in whole, have for time immemorial harped on about how the regulated sale of marijuana, say, would drive down production costs and the retail price. But as Business Week informed its readership in January, however, this theory has not been borne out by the facts:

In Colorado, where authorities have levied a 15 percent wholesale and 10 percent retail tax on marijuana transactions, the price of legal commercial-grade pot has doubled to $400 an ounce since the start of the year, says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. That’s twice the price for medical marijuana at state dispensaries that require a doctor’s prescription. On the black market, high-grade offerings are fetching $156 to $250 an ounce, according to data compiled by Narcotic News.

And one had better dust off one’s copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for—as the above suggests—there is now such a thing called the U.S. ‘National Cannabis Industry Association’, meaning that there is now a huge corporate force out there that one may as well dub ‘Big Dope’ (like ‘Big Tobacco’). And since the Colorado experiment is now being seriously mulled over in Washington state, so-called ‘libertarians’ may wish to take a closer look at Democratic State Senator Bob Hasegawa’s vision of setting up a state-run bank specifically to serve the newly-legal Dope Industry, effecting a symbiosis between Big Government and Big Dope.

The Business Week article concedes that prices may drop as soon as supply increases, but immediately another problem edges its way to the fore: “To optimise profits… enterprising pot retailers will still have an incentive to go high-end, specialising in more potent grades.” John P. Walters imparts the details of what such incentives entail in a piece published in the Weekly Standard last month:

Today’s marijuana has many times the potency (as the dealers and retailers tout regularly) of the weed that Obama and his contemporaries smoked in the 1970s. This … increases … serious risks reported by researchers over the last 10 to 15 years. These include worsening or even triggering serious mental illness (including depression and psychosis) and permanent loss of up to eight IQ points. In addition, there are the well-known risks of short-term memory loss, inhibited concentration, and impaired motor function.

Marijuana, the most widely-used drug in America, sees more people in that country admitted to ‘treatment facilities’ than for any other illegal drug, and the correlation between marijuana use and abnormal brain structure and development, including poor memory and schizophrenia, is well-documented. A recent study from Northwestern University states: “Memory-related structures in their brains appeared to shrink and collapse inward, possibly reflecting a decrease in neurons.” And the American Medical Association tells us: “Heavy cannabis use in adolescence causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ, and use is associated with increased rates of anxiety, mood and psychotic thought disorders.”

Even though the drug is still officially illegal at the federal level, as we saw during the ‘Affordable Care Act’ roll-out, the Obama administration has a penchant for making up the rules as it goes along, according to its own whims, without so much as consulting Congress. Attorney General Eric Holder has recently expressed his desire to see the federal government establish guidelines to allow legal cannabis enterprises to gain access to banks. In the meantime, as the Wall Street Journal reports,

The official rules of Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. prohibit the use of their debit and credit cards for marijuana purchases, but some Colorado merchants let customers use them regardless because the card giants have quietly decided not to enforce their rules, according to people familiar with their strategies. Instead, the people said, the companies are following the lead of the federal government, which has said it won’t challenge state laws that decriminalize the drug.

All of which calls for one response, namely: what ‘War on Drugs’? The U.S. federal government won’t enforce their own policy, its personnel openly declaring, contra the law, that they want banks to fund pot-growing start-ups, and recent reports pointing towards collusion between the DEA and the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. At the same time, creditors won’t enforce their own rules; they want a piece of the action.

The profit motive is not all we have to fear from the powerful forces vying for a lucrative position in the Dope Industry, however. There has been a general shift in the zeitgeist the Anglosphere over, I started by saying, and its debased mores stretch right to ‘the top’. The current leader of the ‘Free World’, as a member of his high-school ‘choom-gang’, spent much of his adolescence vegetating in a car in which he insisted all the windows be rolled up, so that no marijuana smoke could escape. Barack Obama was one of the lucky ones who didn’t end up in a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. Indeed, he aspired for, and reached, the highest office in what is—for now, at least—the world’s most powerful nation. To date, he is perhaps best known for lending his name to a piece of special-interest legislation known colloquially as ‘Obamacare’ which has already conferred a massive bounty of subsidies on health-insurers like Aetna, Cigna and Humana, but which ostensibly sought to ‘reform’ the U.S. health-care system in the interests of the as-yet uninsured. In other words, Obama has, at least to all appearances, arrayed himself before the modish ‘cult of health’ at whose shrine the large majority of his generation prostrates itself. At the same time, this same career-politician, whose attempts at bringing ‘health-care’ to the masses have effectively ‘governmentalised’ one-sixth of the U.S. economy, has made known his displeasure at the current illegal status of marijuana.

In the wake of the Great Colorado Experiment, President Obama offered a scattershot of moral arguments which revealed, more than anything else, the most prominent progressive delusions about illegal drugs. Chief among his concerns was that arrests and incarcerations for pot disproportionately affect minority-groups: “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” This attempt to pluck at our heart-strings would scarcely be grounds for doing away with the illegal status of pot, even if it were true, since one could counter with a bid for an equal-opportunity enforcement of the law, be the offender rich or poor, of darker or lighter skin hue. But, in fact, it’s not true. As Mr. Walters pointed out,

The charge is ludicrous. No one gets “locked up for smoking pot”—federal mandatory minimums don’t even kick in below 220 pounds, and only 9 percent of federal marijuana convictions involve African Americans. No part of law enforcement in America targets pot-smoking kids or simple users of any age. No one is being frisked on the streets for the purpose of finding marijuana users.

Indeed, in a case of evidence-over-interest (for the magazine that gave the world Hunter S. Thompson), Rolling Stone advanced the following titbit in a recent issue: of the 750,000 people who are arrested for marijuana-related offenses every year, less than one percent of them are in for possession alone. There are full-length studies to corroborate this little factoid—indeed, the figure cited was culled from a book-length study titled Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know—but I find this nice and succinct and, clearly, not ‘right-wing propaganda’.

Obama is a product of the Cultural Revolution which began in the 60s, the decade which launched the ‘War on Drugs’, while at the same time giving birth to the lax, uninhibited, rock-n-roll-inspired mores which led to its unravelling. It was the decade of long-hair, sexual liberation, and anti-war protests. At the time, the horizon promised Utopia; in reality, it laid the ground-work for the rise of a new establishment: shortly after the 60s, the social invigilation and total administration much-venerated by Keynesian central-planners, federally-funded ‘Great Society’ do-gooders, and the burgeoning PC thought-police, underwent a merger with a culture of licentiousness and irresponsibility. In effect, it synthesised the worst of both worlds. The denizens of this new political establishment were, at some point, christened aptly and clear-sightedly as ‘bourgeois-bohemians’, a phrase which sums up the whole sordid compromise better than a whole treatise ever could.

And so we saw the rise of certain strange new phenomena. In New York City during the Bloomberg era, mild pleasures like tobacco and donuts were outlawed in public places and eateries, because the bourgeois-bohemian powers-that-be have subscribed to the ‘cult of health’. And yet they have made but one allowance: marijuana, the self-same drug that gained its mass-popularity during the 60s, when the Cultural Revolution which swept away monogamous-marriage, virtuous family life, and individual self-responsibility, took place. It’s interesting that those same brave-hearts—those moneyed interests in the ‘Big Dope’ lobby and their progressive intelligentsia—who would de-criminalise mind-impairing drugs, happen, nine times out of ten, to be the same bourgeois-bohemians who would try to ban cigarettes, super-sized sodas and trans-fats, and wage war on obesity. To their minds, a world in which mind-altering drugs are dispensed by massive PR campaigns and special state-run banks is a-okay, nothing at which to bat one’s eyelids. But try lighting up a cigarette in a restaurant; see the liberal jack-boot come down on you.

I have little use for Slavoj Žižek, that Slovenian purveyor of discursions, but amidst the usual laudations of low-culture and half-joking attempts to rehabilitate Stalin that mar his collected works, the philosopher stumbled upon a searing insight into contemporary political culture here in the Anglosphere when, in his essay ‘A Cup of Decaf Reality’, he wrote that

In today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… And the list goes on: …the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics. … Is this not the attitude of today’s hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, but [only if it is] deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous. Today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint—it is no longer the old notion of the “right measure” between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine.

I found that something of the same ethos permeated a recent dispatch from the Wall Street Journal, which informed its readers that a portfolio company of Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based private-equity firm focusing on cannabis companies, offered a website and mobile app called Leafly, “where users can review strains of cannabis and rate dispensaries.” The Journal quoted one of Privateer’s co-founders as saying, “We liked the fact that it was a clean, mainstream site that was approachable and smart. There are no pot leaves all over the site. None of the clichés.”

Indeed, none of the trashy clichés, but perfectly in keeping with the corporatisation of the past-time of getting high on marijuana. This process is, in turn, perfectly consistent with the air-brushing, PG-13-ifying tendencies of our Decaf Reality, which slips a prophylactic over the underlying reality of ‘Big Dope’. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein, the Harvard Law School professor who coined the Orwellian term ‘libertarian paternalism’, has influenced a great many functionaries in the Obama administration, who are wild for the idea of ‘nudging’ citizens into making decisions that improve the ‘health, wealth, and happiness’ of the nation. The book’s influence has even spread to the circle around David Cameron in the UK. Big Government knows best. It knows that, while there are many things out there that are ‘bad’ for you, state-bank-funded narcotics are not on that list. The Wall Street Journal summed up the process in a net-shell:

…a growing number of entrepreneurs… are trying to turn cannabis into big business. Many are driven by a missionary zeal about the drug’s medical benefits or a passion for its recreational use. But others see it as simply a great business opportunity—betting that demand in the legal market will rise and the stigma will shrink.

In a day and age where children of six idolise Snoop Dogg, how hard can it possibly be to ‘nudge’ the rest of that fast-vanishing stigma away? Then the libertarians and progressives—or ‘libertarian paternalists’—can celebrate their victory: a Brave New World, of their own creation, in which ‘Big Dope’ is a force to be reckoned with.


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