The Heterodox

The Heterodox

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Semantic Manipulations of the War on Drugs

September 15, 2010 , , ,

street drugs
Yesterday’s exploration of the euphemisms which are applied within our socio-political and economic systems now leads us into a variety of semantic misuse found in everyday conversation. A misuse that I find is fully intentional in its desire to manipulate societal consensus and cognition for dubious intent. The linguistic manipulation that I wish to elucidate on is found within the proclamations and promulgations made in the service of the so-called war on drugs. This misuse of definition and syntax is most apparent in any conversation that exercises the words drug, medicine, and/or narcotic.

If one examines closely the use of these words within our society’s dialogs (particularly in the media sphere), it will be noticed rather quickly how these words can be used interchangeably or with separate and specific employments. The issue of concern with these word variances is to be found in the way in which scientific and clinical definition is re-engineered to suit political aims with a complete disregard for the actual semantic underpinning and scientific veracity. What is not commonly known is that these word games are fairly recent additions to our vernacular.

Less than a century ago, a drug simply referred to any substance that has a pharmacological use and/or a more general psychosomatic effect, no harm to logic here right? During the era of the new puritanism (that being the early decades of the twentieth century) though, word usage began to alter to suit the changing socio-political consensus on pharmaceuticals and their use. By the 1930’s, there was a definite dyad of drug reference apparent within society. One of those references being the use of drugs in the clinical setting (medicine) and the other being the use of drugs in a non-clinical manner (recreational drugs); the latter convention usually being deemed illegal or morally opprobrious. This dual meaning of the definition of a drug is directly related to the rise of the new puritanism which also initiated the first appearance of anti-drug legislation by the end of the nineteen thirties. By the apex of this new puritanism in the 1950’s, we then encounter the wrenching of the word narcotic from its pharmaceutical usage and clinical definition only to be reapplied as an all inclusive terminological umbrella for illegal drugs. What could be the reason behind this flagrant semantic misuse?

I would hope that it is rather obvious that this semantic manipulation has a political motive behind it, but to fully understand the mentality of this transgression, a psychologists perspective would now be of some use. Dr. Ann Dally wrote a elucidative and erudite essay, Anomalies and Mysteries in the “War on Drugs”, on this very question of drug definition manipulation for political means. In regards to the word narcotic she says, “…The word traditionally refers to drugs named because they aid sleep (though it comes from the Greek narke, meaning stiffness or numbness). Yet in illegal drugs, “narcotics” came to include substances such as amphetamines and cocaine, which are stimulants, have the opposite effect and actually prevent sleep. Even heroin and cannabis are not true narcotics. This has led to confusion. The word “narcotic” acquired pejorative connotations about substances that were illegal or which moralists disapproved. It really came to be used to mean “nasty”, “dangerous”, or simply “illegal”. There are now so many different meanings of the word and few attempts to sort them out (…) Somehow the myth arose that so-called ‘soft’ drugs (whatever those are) are also dangerous. In the term ‘soft’, most people think of cannabis, which is also illegal but about as harmless as a drug can be–for none are totally harmless. It was put about not only that cannabis is dangerous (and all kinds of phoney research was done to ‘prove’ it) but that it leads to ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin and cocaine. This must be one of the most politically astute myths of all because it leads to fear, mostly in parents who know nothing about the subject.” (Drugs and Narcotics in History, Cambridge University Press p203)

This misuse and misunderstanding of the word narcotic is the one I come across the most in conversation. I see it as the most ridiculous malapropism as it is still regarded today as presumptively putative as well as clearly showing the malign cynical intent of the war on drugs . Is this not the best trope to exemplify this war? The hypocrisy of vilifying one drug class with the use of pseudoscience while simultaneously exalting another has become not only unjustifiable but also dangerously socially irresponsible.

With all of the wanton violence in Mexico and the turpitude of the black market within our own society, how can our leaders continue to placate the specious moralists with this absurd and ineffectual war on drugs? We have more than enough European examples to follow in this regard to drugs. If all black market drugs were legalized and the moratorium finally ended, the black market itself would evaporate instantly along with all the anti-social behavior that is associated with illegal drugs; the all-powerful drug cartels would be justly rendered impotent. The drugs can then be controlled and regulated in a more efficient manner and taxes can be raised on their saleability. With this regulation addicts can also be dealt with in a more salubrious and effective mode. There have been a multitude of studies which clearly illustrate that there is an overall decline of addiction (not an increase as the State would have you believe) within any free drug market utilizing proper clinical data and warnings instead of fear and pseudoscience. Does it not make sense that it should be physicians dealing with the issue of drug use and abuse and not the State and law enforcement? In Switzerland for example, it has been shown that legally controlling and administering an addicts’ “fix” through a physician’s office instead of through law enforcement eliminates all of their misanthropic behavior (robbery and theft, etc) as well as lessening their chances of overdosing.

With all of the lessons gleaned in the Prohibition era—an era that fully inculcated the Mafia and black market into our society—along with the self evident failure of the war on drugs, it becomes painfully clear that this is just another example of our species unwillingness to learn from history. The irony here is that the reactionaries of the political Right continue to promote themselves as antithetical to Big Government yet simultaneously insist that the State must control and tell us what we can and can not put into ourselves. It really makes one wonder whether the members of say the John Birch Society or New Republic or National Review etc are even capable of a sense of irony let alone self criticism and reflection on this topic, or is this already a forgone conclusion?

If you are the type of person who is abhorred by the violence along the Mexican border or by the violence on our streets related to the drug prohibition, then you have to wake up, stop allowing the language of the drug conversation to be altered and manipulated and act on the solution that is right in front of your face. Considering all of the vapid feelings most people have towards their memories of the Nixon era, why are we still letting the last foul remnant of his administration hold such sway over our lives–this moldered remnant being the DEA? If all of the questions raised in this article are ones that must be addressed if we ever hope to see an end to the meretricious war on drugs, then our collective indolence towards this cultural project has to Stop Now.

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