I’m teaching argument right now, to my AP Language and Composition students. And as I always do when I teach persuasion and argument, I have them write an essay about any controversial issue they like, and I help them generate a list of possible issues. It allows me to encourage those who pay attention to the things going on around them — students who are aware, for instance, that the dipstick new governor of Arizona has proposed a budget that cuts education spending rather than increasing it; this in a state that currently scores 48th in the nation in education achievement, and one in which the legislature refused to follow their own laws and increase education spending to match inflation. The state currently owes Arizona public schools $317 million for one year, and might owe over $1.3 billion. It also allows me to push them towards topics that are genuinely controversial — gun control, for instance, rather than “Pollution is bad.”
Yes, I’ve had students write about that.
And whenever I ask teenagers to come up with topics they would like to argue about, they always — ALWAYS — bring up legalization. They usually go for marijuana, though I am fond of hijacking their topic suggestion and making it legalization of ALL drugs; because it is essentially the same argument for heroin, methamphetamine, and LSD as for marijuana. In all cases, there is a legitimate medical use — LSD seems effective in treating addiction (Like alcoholism. Ain’t that a trip?), heroin is essentially a form of morphine, and methamphetamine is an effective upper/energy pill/weight loss drug — and in all cases, crime rates would plummet, saving our jails and police and court systems, not to mention a large proportion of poor and minority people in this country, particularly urban men; and regulation of the quality and supply of the drug would drop overdose cases to almost nothing, thereby saving lives, money, and misery.
My students shy away from the “Legalize EVERYTHING!” argument, but they love arguing for legalized pot. And the reduction or elimination of the drinking age — they love that one, too. And at some point in these conversations, someone is sure to ask me my opinion of the issue; and as a corollary, they are sure to ask me my opinion of the substances.
My opinion of the issue of legalization is what I explained above. I am opposed to the war on drugs, a feeling that grows more intense with the militarization of American police forces and the concurrent breakdowns of our courts — leaving me wondering Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — and the privatization of prisons. I do believe that regulation and taxation of vice would better serve our country, by far. I think that we need to, at long last, get over out Puritan roots, and the belief that fun is sin, that recreation is bad, that pleasure is not a valid reason to do something. And I think that the hypocrisy that allows alcohol to be sold at the rate of $162.2 BILLION per year while imprisoning a woman for twelve years for selling $31 worth of pot (Story’s right here. #2, Patricia Spottedcrow.) is one of the more appalling facts about us as a nation and a culture.
But how do I feel about the drugs?
I admit it, I’ve tried them. They’re fun. But when I think about drugs, I can’t help but think about Layne Staley. I mean, look at him. Listen to him. Just for four and a half minutes.
While you’re at it, you can look at Mike Starr, playing the bass in that same video. Because he used to do heroin with Layne. And now he’s dead, too. With Layne. Who, if I may say, was not only one of the most talented and innovative heavy metal singers, but — damn, that was a pretty man. Just look at him.
Dead. Heroin overdose.
I think of Brad Nowell. Who couldn’t even appear in this video, because by the time this song hit, he was already dead, also of a heroin overdose. Though that is his dog there, looking even sadder than his former bandmates, trying to act like they have the heart to do any of this bullshit after their frontman and songwriter died.
Hell, I think of Elvis Presley. I mean, sure, it was a whole lot of hard living that did him in — but I think we know what the primary cause was. It wasn’t those fried sandwiches. And my God, what a voice that man had.
I think of Heath Ledger. Who I loved from when I saw him in Roar, and who just — I mean, come on. What can I say?
He even makes Christian Bale act well. (Unnecessary dig. Bale’s not bad. But Batman in the movies is boring without the villains — and this is the best one. Bar none. Better than Nicholson in the same role. Nicholson has three Oscars. Ledger’s dead. Because of drugs. )
I believe that the purpose of humanity as a race — as compared to our purpose as individuals, which is most simply put as “Make yourself happy,” a commandment that pushes us to do the things we think are right, as well as prioritizing our limited time and focusing our scattered attention on what really matters, while allowing us to be the free individuals we must always be — our purpose as a race is to do the things that other species cannot do, and that is, in my opinion, to find truth and to create beauty. Artists, along with others, do that. And the sheer number of absolutely wonderful and unique and gifted and visionary — in the best sense of the word: human — artists that have been destroyed by drugs makes me weep.
And I’m not even counting alcohol. Because I’m a writer, and if I start that list, we’ll be here forever.
And so I end up in a terrible position. A paradoxical and ultimately frustrating position, one that I don’t ever want to defend, but have no choice. Drugs should not exist. They should never be taken to excess, they should never be relied upon; they should be avoided. There is too much goodness in life to need an illusion of it. What we should do is support one another, and love one another, so that people don’t need drugs — and then let them use drugs recreationally all they want to.
What I tell my students is this: drugs make you stupid, and then they make you dead. That’s a question of increased usage, not inevitability, but increased usage is common. I do think — in a painfully simplified sense — that it is the lack of support that forces people into that fatal spiral, a lack of human treatment at the hands of our fellow men; when it is not simply bad luck, or fate, or whatever name you want to give to Dame Fortune and her spinning wheel.
And I think that what drugs have taken from us is just heartbreaking.