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Chronicle Book Review: Quick Fixes

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1209)

Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st-Century Binge by Benjamin Y. Fong (2024, Verso Books, 264 pp., $24.95 HB)

America is a drugged-out society. Uppers, downers, laughers, screamers, weed, 'shrooms, white market pills, black market powders, we're gobbling that stuff down like it's the end times. And at the same time, our perverse, achingly racist and classist war on drugs stumbles on, chewing up communities and spitting out ex-cons and probationers. Drugs—we hate 'em, we love 'em, we can't live without 'em. Why does America have such a bizarre relationship with psychoactive drugs?

In Quick Fixes, Arizona State University professor Benjamin Fong argues that our drug problems are best understood not as caused by drugs and drug prohibition, but as a response to and a tool of the late capitalistic social structure in which they are embedded. From coffee and amphetamine pep pills as work-enhancing substances (and cocaine as the ultimate neoliberal workaholic drug) to anti-depressants and tranquilizers as a means of soothing the anxiety of unstable employment and social atomization, and from the societal winking at middle-class white cocaine sniffing to the mass incarceration that greeted lower-class black cocaine smoking, drugs and the policy responses to them play a role in maintaining the system, Fong asserts.

Fong is witty and elegant and worth quoting at length:

"[When] people aim to control or regulate drugs, they are actually aiming to control or regulate other things about society. The 'drug menace' is ideological cover for the continuing offenses of Big Pharma, the demonization of already oppressed racial groups, the rollback of the welfare state, the enhancement of the security apparatus, and the erosion of civil liberties. It has been one or all of these things since the beginning of the twentieth century, and only secondarily, if at all, sensible policy based on the benefits and dangers that psychoactive drugs pose.

"On both sides of the political spectrum, we nonetheless continue to believe that drugs are essentially what is at stake in drug policy. Conservatives can recognize that the War on Drugs is irrational at times and plainly destructive, but justify this as the cost of eliminating a real danger to society. Liberals tends axiomatically to point to the social costs, but somehow return again and again to drug demystification or obvious policy countermeasures. The first is bound to the idealistic belief that if we just knew the truth about drugs, if we just had the right information, drug paranoia would evaporate at the source. The second suffers from a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: since drug policy has been a leading edge of the growth of the security state, reversing irrational drug policy will in turn address the problems of brutal policing and mass incarceration.

"If only it were that easy. The story of the swelling prison population since the '80s is one of racism, of perverse incentives, and the defeat of the left, but at root, it is one of contraction and the retrenchment of the welfare state. Since drugs have served so prominently as a pretext for hyperincarceration, it's natural that reformers have focused on attempting to repeal civil forfeiture and mandatory minimum laws, legalizing marijuana, and so on. Removing the irrational accretions of a century of prohibition would undoubtedly do some good, but the problem of economic expendability would remain. If we legalized heroin and cocaine today, without providing the kinds of jobs and social protections needed for basic livability in twenty-first-century America, something else would step in to provide the same justificatory function as illicit drugs tomorrow. Drug laws, no less than drugs, tend to treat not causes, but symptoms."

That's some heady, heavy stuff—and it is about what to expect from a publication in left-leaning Verso Book's Jacobin series of publication in collaboration with frankly socialist Jacobin Magine, which feature "short interrogations of politics, economics, and culture from a socialist perspective, as an avenue to radical political practice."

But don't get me wrong. This is not some dour, dogmatic diatribe. Sandwiched between the introduction and the conclusion, where Fong fleshes out his central argument, he spends nine chapters examining nine different drugs—coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, opiates, amphetamines, psychotropics (tranquilizers and anti-depressants), psychedelics, cocaine, and marijuana—and the roles they have taken on in maintaining the system. He does so with verve and humor, providing new insights for even the most jaundiced of drug literature surveyors. 

But in the end, and this should come as no surprise, for Fong, it's not about drugs. We have serious social problems for which drugs and drug prohibition offer only the quick fix, something "that covers over, that allows some resumption of 'normalcy,' that prevents a full reckoning—that's been the stuff for us, for well over a century," as Fong puts it. Instead of dithering about drugs and drug policy, he argues, we need things like universal health care and a federal jobs guarantee. Sounds good to me. To the barricades, comrades!

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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