Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War

by Joe Haldeman


Science fiction classic – check. Hard SF/military SF – check. Rocket ships, laser beams, weird alien races – check. Human lives ruined through time dilation – double check.

The Forever War is about humanity discovering a functional method of interstellar travel, using wormholes; we begin serious space exploration and colonization – until we encounter the aliens. Then we go to war. Haldeman was pretty optimistic, really: the novel was written in the 1970’s, and set (at first) in the late 1990’s; basically he gave us 25 years to discover interplanetary travel that could bring us up close to light speed, which gives us access to the wormholes. Damn – we’re 20 years behind schedule. Better get on that, guys.

The main character is a soldier named William Mandella. He is conscripted into the war, precisely because he is a college student; I’m sure this was used as a twist for the Vietnam-era audience Haldeman wrote this one for. Mandella is drafted out of his graduate physics program and sent to be a space-soldier. The first part of the book is his training, which was interesting; it happens on an ice-planet far out in the solar system, where it is so cold the surface is frozen hydrogen. The recruits, all of them superb specimens of humanity with high intelligence and excellent physical capabilities, are trained there to use the enhanced combat space suits that will be their standard war gear, and to build and maintain a base in even harsher conditions, which will happen when they deploy. The conditions are deadly, the weapons are deadly, a fair number of the recruits die before they even engage the enemy. Then they go into their first mission, and actually battle the aliens, becoming the first humans to actually see one of the aliens in person: the first encounters were all ship-to-ship. Once they get into actual combat, they quickly find that the biggest danger they face isn’t the enemy: it is their superiors.

Once that first battle – and the battle, as well as the lead-up to it, are an excellent example of hard military science fiction – is over, then the major theme of the book comes up: as these soldiers have flown to their mission, they have approached light speed; which means that time has gone slower for them than it has for the rest of the universe. While they have spent a few weeks or months in transit on the way to their battle, the Earth has moved forward twenty or thirty years. So when they rotate back home for leave after the fight, they find a different world than the one they left: and it isn’t a good world. They quickly discover that, though they have the option to leave the military after this, they don’t have any real options for getting a job other than to re-enlist in the military.

Which they do. And they go back into combat, even farther away – which means more time spent in sub-light travel (The trip through the wormhole is instantaneous, like teleportation; but getting to the wormhole’s entrance is the issue.), which means more time dilation. Repeat this experience: combat, where the aliens are rarely the actual threat to the soldiers’ life and limb; then return to a different home than they one they left; then back into combat, because at least they feel like they belong in the military.

This was a pretty good book. Like most hard science fiction, the ideas were fascinating, the science both realistic and interesting; the writing was okay. The blurbs on the back talk about what a wonderful character Mandella is, and sure, he’s fine; but he wasn’t extraordinary to me. He’s an Everyman, which fits the novel well, because he’s essentially a grunt. So the interest in the book wasn’t in watching Mandella go through this, it was watching the crap that – anyone – would have to go through in these circumstances. Point is, the story is good, the science is good, and surprisingly enough, I really liked the ending. If you’re a science fiction fan and you haven’t read this, you should. If you’re not a science fiction fan, then don’t sweat it.

How to Read the Book “How to Write a Sentence”

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One

by Stanley Fish

This was a good book that, for me, just missed being a great book.

I wanted to read this one because I am planning to give my AP Language and Composition class some kind of writing guide next year; I am considering Strunk and White, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; I went to Barnes and Noble looking for those two (Which I used to have, dammit, and I don’t know what I did with – presumably I donated them both at some point. The book-hoarder in me is righteously pissed.) and came up with this one, instead. It’s a slender book, which will appeal to my lazy-ass students, and I really liked the beginning of this, when Fish starts talking about how you have to master the basic building blocks of writing before you can really read well or write well – and the basic building block, he says, is the sentence.

Professor Fish (A title I cannot resist using) goes on to talk about what a sentence is and what a sentence does, and he does it without resorting to grammar, and he does it with some wonderful examples from literature; this was where this book was on its way to being a great book. Reading the first four chapters or so, I was getting more and more excited about giving this one to my students: it is in plain English, and it breaks down the sentence beautifully, talking about form and content both, showing how the rules of English allow for magnificence that is only magnified if you really understand what the author is doing. Professor Fish also recommends a writing exercise that I appreciate (though honestly, I don’t do it enough; I will start) that I learned in my upper-division college composition course, which is imitation of the form of beautiful sentences with original subject matter.

So I was loving it: and then I got to about the fifth or sixth chapter. This is where Professor Fish divides sentences into two basic structures: hypotaxis and parataxis. Hypotaxis is a sentence where the elements are subordinated, put into a definite structure with a basic root element and then other elements that branch off of that basic root. Parataxis is basically (I’m oversimplifying. Poorly.) stream-of-consciousness, where the pieces of the sentence are added without any particular relationship other than an additive one. This is a weird lens to view sentences through, and it isn’t one that my students will get. He spends two chapters on it, one on each structure, and while the hypotaxis (The simpler and more common sentence type, despite the complex definition I have given and failed to clarify) chapter is easy enough to follow, the parataxis one is not. The few chapters right after that don’t get any simpler, and Professor Fish lost me – which means he hasn’t a prayer of keeping my students.

I also have to say: I wish he had branched away from the classic canon of literature in finding his examples. I am not particularly enamored of Jane Austen; I prefer James Baldwin, maybe Edward Abbey, certainly Diane Ackerman. I have more recently been re-reading Douglas Adams, and I have to say: I have found my sentence examples for my students. To wit:

“The dew,” he observed, “has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”

–from Life, the Universe and Everything

Now: with more effort from me, this book will likely be perfect for my students; I’ll need to explain those later chapters for them, and spend some time finding better examples of good sentences. I’m thinking I may just have them read excerpts from this book – and then buy Strunk and White.

This was a good book for me to read, as a writer and teacher of writing. Not sure it’s great for a student of writing, but I will put it to my students, in some way, and then report back.

Book Review: The Enchantress at World’s End

The Enchantress at World’s End

by Lin Carter

Book 2 of the Epic of Gondwane, the tale of Ganelon Silvermane!

What ho, faithful companions! Fetch yourselves nigh to my heaving bosom, my bated breath, my excitement-tautened sinews, as I whisper the thrilling tale of the Construct, brought to quickening by the unfathomable will of the unknowable gods in the mist-shrouded halls of the future! He is Ganelon Silvermane, wielder of the Silver Sword, boon companion of the Illusionist of Nerelon and of Xarda, the Knightrix of Jemmerdy: together they will escape the mad city of Chx, defeat the grotesque Death Dwarves, the anti-life minions of the titular (pun intended) Red Enchantress, whose luxurious and tempting clutches they will slip through – only to find themselves in ever-greater peril! Zounds! What will come next?!

The best thing about this book, and the first one in the series, is that it’s all written pretty much like that. Breathless purple prose, ultimate pulp fiction. I thought there were some moments in this one where Carter slipped a little; he tried to make Xarda speak in even more archaic knight-errant language, but it didn’t really seem any different from his own narration, and so her self-conscious noticing of her own odd speech seemed – well, odd. There were also a few places where he crossed the line between fantasy and modernist fiction: he has a character, an ancient dragon who has existed (and hoarded treasure) since the dawn of time, reference some of the great swords of fantasy books past, including Orcrist and Sting and Anduril, and the twin swords Stormbringer and Mournblade; this was cool in that I know the books those swords came from – and a little weird in that the character in the book I was reading knew the books those came from, which felt off. But then the dragon also references ancient tales like Beowulf and the Ring Cycle, and the Bible’s Garden of Eden, and I thought: well, if the Bible can be part of ancient lore, why not Tolkien and Moorcock? So it wasn’t too bad. But it did jar a bit.

On the plus side: lots of action, lots of swashbuckling and derring-do, lots of bizarre names (Carter’s specialty, I think) and weird creatures and strange societies. Carter had a fertile imagination, and he chucks it all over the place in this book. There is an absolutely hilarious chapter when the Red Enchantress, a buxom seductress of the first order, attempts to tantalize Ganelon with her wiles; unfortunately, while Ganelon has the perfect physique of a god, he has the mentality of a bright 8-year-old, so the Enchantress’s wiles fail entirely to wile him, to her murderous frustration. There are definitely some silly parts – the Bazonga-bird, a goofy idea with a goofy name and a goofy character, springs nimbly to mind, and drags with her parallels to Jar-Jar Binks and, I dunno, Carol Burnett – and some moments of questionable writing; but it’s a fun book, just like the first one. I’ll read the next, too.

(Psst! Hey, want to read another time-traveling-fantasy story? Check out my serial about a 17th century Irish pirate who travels to the modern world! The Adventures of Damnation Kane)

Book Review: Homage to Catalonia

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Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell


In 1937, when he was in his mid-30’s, George Orwell decided he needed to take an active role in the fight against fascism. Orwell was already a published author and fairly well-known critic and journalist; he was even better known as a socialist. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, had been published by a leftist publisher, and in early 1937, he published The Road to Wigan Pier, a book about the living conditions of coal miners in the north of England. Both books describe the terrible conditions faced by the poor and working class, and both are strong indictments of the capitalist system. Orwell, deeply concerned by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, watched closely as the Spanish civil war began and intensified; when General Franco’s fascist forces, backed by Germany and Italy, began to rise to power, Orwell went to Spain to join the other side. He had trouble finding a place that suited him; he was already growing disillusioned with the corruption of Communism in Soviet Russia by Stalin, and the weak way that European socialists knuckled under to Stalin’s will – The Road to Wigan Pier is as much a criticism of English socialists as it is of the mine owners, and the publisher added a disclaimer to the book, hoping to prevent a backlash from the left. Orwell tried to join the English Communist Party – but was refused because he wouldn’t do what he was told. He eventually connected with John Macnair, who was a member of the Independent Labour Party, and who got Orwell a spot in the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, the POUM in Spanish.

This is where Homage to Catalonia, the book that Orwell wrote about his experiences, begins: when he goes to boot camp as a new member of the POUM militia. It covers the next eight or ten months, which was all the time that Orwell spent in the war and in Spain before returning to England, eventually to write Animal Farm and 1984, two of the most effective criticisms of Soviet Communism ever created. This time, these experiences in this war, contributed to his disillusionment with Communism under Stalin’s influence.

Those two themes, the experience of actual warfare and the criticism of European leftists, especially the Communists, are the meat of the book. Orwell turns all of his remarkable ability as a journalist, his ability to describe and explain a scene, and his gift for clear and sharply-drawn imagery, bring the war to life: for half of the book, you could very well be in the trenches with him, or in Barcelona, where he was on leave from the front lines when fighting broke out in the streets between different factions of the Republican forces who opposed Franco’s fascists. Orwell talks about inadequate supplies, the freezing and filthy conditions, and, interestingly enough, the generally plentiful food and wine, and the overly abundant lice, which he experienced as a member of the militia. He was involved in several battles, most of them inconclusive, though he managed to escape the battle that eventually ended the POUM’s militia, a battle for the town of Huesca that killed thousands of militiamen and won nothing at all; Orwell was seriously wounded before that when he was shot through the throat by a sniper while standing in a Republican trench — targeted probably because he was quite a bit taller than most of the Spaniards in the trench with him. The bullet missed his carotid artery by a slim margin and left him unable to speak and in considerable pain.

When he is not describing life at the front, Orwell explains the convoluted situation on the leftist side of the war: Spanish Republicans included labor unions, Communists, socialists of all kinds; they had rebelled against the monarchy when Franco’s coup began, but had also led the successful resistance against the fascist general’s military forces. When Orwell was still in England, and then when he first arrived to join the militia, Spain was apparently the first successful people’s revolution: the bourgeois had fled or been eliminated, the Catholic church had been broken, churches looted and the clergy all but vanished. The POUM had attempted to create a classless militia, where the officers and the enlisted men received the same pay and lived in the same conditions, sharing tents and food and equipment regardless of rank. Members of the militia did not salute their superiors, and orders did not have to be followed if the men did not understand or agree with them; officers could not force compliance, but had to rely on persuasion, explaining to the men why the orders should be followed. (In a rather strange coincidence, the book I read two days after finishing this one, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, talks explicitly about this phenomenon, the POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War, where the men could refuse their superiors’ orders. I wonder if Haldeman read Homage to Catalonia.) But the POUM was a small piece of the Republican forces: much larger and more influential were the Communist Party, a different Spanish socialist party, and the two largest labor unions. And all of these groups soon took their lead from Stalin’s Russia, essentially because the Soviets supplied them with weapons and materiel for continuing their fight.

This does not sit well with Orwell. Several chapters break down the conflicts between the leftist parties, showing clearly which side Orwell himself was on; he meticulously tears apart the reporting of the war by the European Communist papers, particularly the fighting in Barcelona while he was on leave: it was begun when the police tried to take over the telephone exchange which was held by the labor unions, and led to several days of nasty fighting in the streets which eventually left something like 400 dead and over 1000 wounded (Though the numbers are reported by Orwell’s enemies and so seen as basically unreliable). After it was over, however, every major Communist and socialist media outlet blamed – the POUM. At the end of the war, after he is recovered from his wound, the Communists and socialists cracked down on the POUM, jailing hundreds of their leaders, usually without trial or even an accusation of a crime. Orwell, assuming that he would also be on the list for arrest, has to flee the country with his wife, leaving behind his friends and compatriots to die in dank prison cells, or to be shot by police and thrown into mass graves.

This war, these crimes, are what eventually create Napoleon of Animal Farm and O’Brien of Room 101 in 1984. Having read those books – several times – it was fascinating to read this book and see the seeds of what would come, a decade later. There is even a moment when Orwell expresses his visceral hatred of rats; and all I could think was, That’s why O’Brien uses them on Winston Smith.

As a description of a war experience, the book is vivid and interesting. As a political commentary, it is largely obsolete, but still fascinating if one is interested in Orwell’s fiction. This is the truth that is almost – but not quite – stranger than it. And the writing, of course, is brilliant. After all, it’s Orwell.

Book Review: The Devil’s Highway

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The Devil’s Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea


In May, 2001, 26 men tried to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Three of them were paid guides – coyotes; the others were poor workers, mostly from the southern part of Mexico, all looking for work, hoping to make some money. They tried to walk through some of the ugliest, cruelest, deadliest desert in the world.

Twelve of them survived.

This was a rough book to read. Urrea does an incredible job of showing these people for who they were; even the coyotes, who weren’t bad people – they weren’t the heads of the ring, just flunkies; the one who led the trip, who took the wrong turn and got them lost, was a 19-year-old kid who couldn’t make enough money working in a factory that made roofing tiles, so he took on this job, instead. The men who paid for the trip were husbands and fathers; none of them wanted to emigrate, just to get a job, earn some money, and pay for something back home. Mostly they wanted to buy or build a better house for their wives and sweethearts and children and mothers. Urrea explains all of it: how the men (Plenty of these walking trips through the desert include women and children, but this particular group happened to be all men, ranging in age from 16 to 56) got approached by a friendly coyote, a fixer, someone who made all the arrangements, who talked to the poor coffee farmers, the broke factory workers, about how much money they could make in the North. Urrea talks about how Mexico, unlike the US, stretches now east-west, but north-south; El Norte is to the poor of Mexico’s southern states what the western frontier was to Huckleberry Finn and the 49ers: opportunity. But this opportunity costs money – an average of $1700 per person, not counting expenses on the way; how are these dirt-poor men supposed to pay for that? Easy, says the fixer; my boss, the head of the ring, can guarantee a loan to cover the whole amount. You can pay it off out of all that money you’ll make working in the citrus fields of Florida, or the slaughterhouses of Oklahoma. Only 15% interest. No need for collateral: miss a payment – we kill your family.

So these men took a chance. And then their lead guide, the one who really knew the route, took a powder: he vanished the day before the group was supposed to board their final bus, for the last leg before their long walk. No problem: the ring sent two more guides, to back up the second-in-command, the 19-year-old.

And then they took a wrong turn.

They spent four days in the Arizona desert, in an area known as the Devil’s Highway. Complete desolation, stuck between a national park, a reservation, and an enormous military base. Sand, rocks, cacti, unclimbable mountains; nothing else. Not a hundred miles from where I’m sitting, right now, in air-conditioned comfort, which made reading this book a bizarre experience: as Urrea went on and on about the harsh conditions, the terrors of the cacti, the rough, jagged, broken terrain, the unbelievable heat (There was a heat wave when those men went: it hit 108 degrees one day. At night it never got below 85.), I couldn’t fathom that the place where I live could be so deadly. I mean, sure, it’s too hot in the summertime, but – deadly? The book describes others who got stuck out in the desert and succumbed to the heat, tourists and daytrippers; they died in mere hours.

And I walk my dog in that heat. I mean, early in the morning, of course – but still, in July, it’s probably 80-90 when we walk. Thinking about people dying in those conditions was bizarre. Though not as bizarre, I’m sure, as actually going through it.

Urrea brings it to life. He talks extensively about what the heat of the desert does to you, which was a particularly brutal chapter to read, coming as it did in between the stories of the men walking, and then the description of those same men dying. He talks almost as much about the Border Patrol, who they are and what they do; though at first Urrea is not terribly flattering – just honest – by the end, when the story becomes just a rescue attempt, those BP agents become heroes. They saved lives by risking their own, and it was quite inspiring to read.

It’s a good book. The writing is remarkable, and it gives a far better and clearer picture of immigration and the border than anything else I’ve encountered. Highly recommended, even if you don’t live in the desert.


With all of these arguments — and the end of the school year, when students’behavior gets uglier and uglier with each passing day — I haven’t been writing about beauty. I haven’t been writing enough period, and it’s starting to tell on me; fortunately, the school year ends in five days. I feel like I haven’t  been seeing anything beautiful for weeks, now: I feel like I’ve been sinking down to the bottom of the ocean, everything getting darker and heavier and colder. I hit bottom (Somewhere around where my students in my Lit class told me they’d rather do nothing than read for the sake of reading, and that their grades were all that mattered to them), and now I’m coming up, and now, right now, I can see the light playing on the surface  of the water. I couldn’t do that a few days ago, a few heartbeats ago. Now I can. Now I can see something beautiful.

Last week I got up early enough (My desperate times always bring insomnia with them, which for me is waking up early and immediately starting to think about things other than sleeping) to see something extraordinary, something I have never seen before: the sun was rising, the night just breaking up, the sky still dark, and the full moon was in the sky. It was brighter than I have ever seen a moon before, a shining liquid golden color. But the extraordinary thing was that it was actually behind clouds when I first looked out at the sky, while my dog nosed about the ground in the backyard, and as I watched, the clouds parted and the moon slowly grew in the sky, from a sliver to a slice to a disk, over the course of a time that was just long enough to fall in love. Solid gold emerging in a dark grey-black sky. It was amazing, like the moon was creating itself, appearing from nothing, and made of pure solidified sunlight, even in the pre-dawn darkness, the moon as dream-catcher, flying high above and taking in the sun’s rays as they flew above the Earth, above me. The moon brought them to me as a gift, a gift that (early mornings only having the one advantage, the feeling of absolute solitude, the only existence awake in the world) was only for me. I had never seen the moon that way.

It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in quite a while, and coming as it did in the middle of a time without beauty, it was wondrous. The universe, it turns out, can still surprise you.

But then this past Friday, my wife and I went to the graduation at the high school where we both teach. And my wife dressed up for the occasion.

I tried to take a video on my phone of the moon; but it didn’t look like anything but a glowing glob hanging in the sky. Beautiless. Only the moon itself could catch that light, and, luckily, my eyes, as well.

I didn’t even try to take a picture of my wife, because no camera could have caught that light. And there’s nothing I can say to describe how she looked, except to say: she outshone the moon. Golden, extraordinary, appearing out of darkness, made of solid light.

She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and she is a gift just for me, even in a building filled with graduates and families and well-wishers; because she catches all the rays of my love and admiration, and she collects them into herself, and then shines them down on me. Only me. Even in the darkness, she is glowing gold by my side. My love. My light.

My beauty.

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Arguing With Myself

One of the things that makes this argument assignment I’m doing so interesting is it is an opportunity for students to see both sides of an issue, and in many cases, both sides have been argued rationally, cogently, convincingly. They’re able to see that there are in fact two generally reasonable sides to most truly controversial issues, and that, while they may definitely agree with one side only, they should also understand that the other side is not insane, not absurd: they just have a different opinion.

In several cases, I have been able to argue against my own opinion; my students also see that it isn’t easy to do, but that it can be done well.

Here is my latest: one of my students argued very well for the legalization of all drugs; a stance I agree with, for several reasons. But he took my side: so I had to argue the other. His title, by the way, was “Do All the Drugs.”



“Do all the drugs,” he says. It’s a joke, of course. We all know it’s a joke.

But drugs aren’t a joke.

Look: I kid around about them, too. I talk about the Devil’s lettuce, and Scarface’s mountain of cocaine, and being drunk. I watched Breaking Bad. Good show. It’s fiction, though.  

The truth is my grandmother. My grandmother was an alcoholic. My father used to come home from middle school and find his mother passed out on the living room floor; he would have to clean her up before his siblings got home, so they wouldn’t see their mother that way. My Catholic grandfather divorced her, in the 1950’s, despite the stigma attached to that, because she was too destructive to live with. I never met my grandmother, because before I was born, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her own neck. She was drunk.

The truth is that I have lost my other three grandparents, my mother’s father before I ever met him, all because of tobacco: both my grandfathers smoked, and my mother’s father died of a stroke before I was born. His wife and my paternal grandfather both died of tobacco-related lung cancer. I picked up a cigarette when I was sixteen (because I was drunk, and hanging out with friends who smoked), and within six months of that idle, thoughtless experiment, I was smoking a pack a day. I kept that habit, through thick and thin, for the next nineteen years; and I have no doubt that this will eventually be the cause of my death. I just hope I live to my eighties, like my dad’s dad, rather than dying in my sixties like my mom’s dad.

And that’s just tobacco and alcohol: the legal drugs. We know the problems with the legal drugs. We don’t really see the problems with the illegal drugs. Take marijuana, for instance. It is common knowledge that nobody dies of a marijuana overdose. And that’s a good thing, of course. The CDC reported that about 2,200 people died in the U.S. in 2012 from an overdose of alcohol. We wouldn’t have to worry about that with marijuana, which is wonderful.

Except 88,000 people die every year in the U.S. alone from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health. Almost 10,000 people die every year in alcohol related car crashes — 9,967 in 2014 ( Five times as many as the number who died from overdose. There are more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions that alcohol contributes to. The World Health Organization estimated that 139 million life years were lost to alcohol-related conditions and incidents. 139,000,000 years. 3.3 million deaths, worldwide, in 2012. Alcohol misuse is the number one risk factor in premature death and disability among people aged 15-49. It is responsible for one-fourth of the total deaths age 20-39. (

And alcohol can’t compare to what tobacco can do. Cigarette smoking causes 480,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. ( 6 million deaths per year globally. That will increase to 8 million deaths worldwide. Every year.

Why am I talking so much about alcohol and tobacco, instead of methamphetamine and heroin and crack?

Because tobacco and alcohol are legal. Which means they are easier to get. Easier to use. Cheaper. More acceptable. And you can see the results.

Nearly 21 million Americans ages 12 and older had a substance use problem in 2015, according to a new federal estimate.

Among those with a substance use disorder, three out of four people (or about 15.7 million) had a substance use disorder related to alcohol, Kana Enomoto, the principal deputy administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said at a news conference today (Sept. 8).

In addition, 1 in 3 people with a substance use disorder had a disorder related to drug use, and 1 in 8 people had a disorder involving both drugs and alcohol, Enomoto said.

Three-fourths of the substance abuse problems in this country are related to alcohol. Just imagine what would happen if marijuana,and crack, and heroin, and meth were as easy to get as a beer. Look at prescription drugs compared to heroin:

Among those who reported using opioids in the past year, prescription drugs were the most common type used, Enomoto said. An estimated 3.8 million people in the U.S. currently misuse prescription pain relievers, according to the report.

An estimated 830,000 people in the U.S. used heroin in 2015, Enomoto said — more than double the number from 2002. She noted that there was a slight decrease, however, in heroin use from 2014 to 2015, but it was not statistically significant (meaning it could have been due to chance).

Almost five times  as many people misused legal prescription drugs as used heroin. But heroin is cheaper and easier to produce than Oxycontin or Percocet or fentanyl. That’s why the heroin use rate has doubled in the last fifteen years: because people get addicted to legal pain relievers, and then find that heroin is cheaper. And can be bought without a prescription. If we legalize everything, would someone need a prescription to buy heroin? Or would it be even easier to get than it is now, when it is illegal? So what if heroin was legal, and available on the street corner —  inside the Walgreens? Or the Walmart? Or the McDonald’s?

What if the numbers equalized? What if as many people developed drug abuse problems as have alcohol abuse problems? What would happen to this country, to this world, if we had three times the current number of drug addicts? Five times as many heroin addicts? Right now, while they’re illegal and dangerous and hard to get, look at how many overdose deaths there are from drugs:

National Overdose Deaths—Number of Deaths from All Drugs.



See how that rate is going up? That’s because of the legal opioid epidemic. Legal drugs cause overdoses, and lead to illegal drug use that causes even more overdoses. More than 50,000 overdoses in 2015. Alcohol, which has a much lower rate of overdose, has a much higher rate of abuse — three times as  high. What if all of those drugs were legal?

It’s another common argument around this issue to say that people use drugs more when they are illegal, because they enjoy the thrill. It is also common to argue that banning drugs has no effect; just look at Prohibition, which surely didn’t work. And yet, when Colorado made marijuana legal, somehow they managed to earn more than $1 billion in sales. A cannabis industry research firm, ArcView, estimated that legal marijuana sales could top $20 billion by 2020. ( Are those all people who bought all of their drugs illegally until this year? No: the global estimate for profit from illegal sales of marijuana is $75 billion ( Unless a sizeable percentage of those drug users all live in Colorado, then the increase is coming from new users.

Of course it is: ease of access is one of the primary contributors to drug use and addiction. Why do rehabs cut people off from their regular lives, take them from their homes and their social circles? In order to remove the temptation. To limit the access. Another factor is the stigma: if an act is illegal, it sends a strong message that that act is wrong; most people believe that our laws make sense and are correct, and most people therefore obey them. That’s why alcohol abuse is three times as common as drug abuse, because alcohol consumption is more socially acceptable than drug consumption. For every Snoop Dogg, after all, there are thousands upon thousands of people who drink wine with dinner, every night.

What will happen if we make drugs legal? What costs will offset that greater profit that Colorado has seen? The CDC estimates that 16% of all motor vehicle accidents involve drugs other than alcohol. There are 121 million self-reported incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol every year, because we don’t see driving under the influence of alcohol as a serious issue — not if it’s only a little alcohol.

What if it’s a little meth? A little LSD? A little heroin?

One of the most frightening experiences of my life was when one of my best friends dropped acid in high school and hung out at my house. He had a bad trip: and I watched my friend lose his mind. He spent two hours ranting, screaming, throwing things, breaking things; he put his fist through a window. He punched me in the face, kicked me in the groin. He was bleeding; I was bleeding: and he had no idea. No idea what he was doing, or why. They took him away in an ambulance, handcuffed to a gurney, screaming obscenities at us.  He didn’t know where he was, or who he was, until the next day.

And that’s just acid. One of the former students at the school where I taught in Oregon, who became a meth user after high school, committed first-degree murder. She and two other addicts were trying to steal enough money to buy more meth, and they killed their victim. Imagine if that was someone you knew: turned into a murderer by drugs.

Now: all of this is not to say that the way we deal with drugs in this country right now is the right way. The incarceration rate for non-violent drug offenders is obscene. But that doesn’t mean that we should solve that problem by making drugs legal and therefore more prevalent: it means we need to reconsider our incarceration system. Drug users should be in treatment, not prison; but we can only mandate treatment if drugs are illegal — otherwise it is only voluntary. And look how many alcoholics give up their addiction voluntarily, how many cigarette smokers. Drug dealers, at least the minor ones, should be rehabilitated, given an opportunity to find new ways to make a living that don’t involve ruining other people’s lives. Far too many people turn to selling drugs because there is literally no other way for them to earn money for food and rent; but that is not because drugs are illegal, it is because our economy has deep flaws, and we need to deal with the systemic problems in inner cities.

You don’t do that by giving those people weed. Not even if it’s legal weed. The very suggestion is absurd.


I could go on, but I don’t need to. This argument  just becomes repetition. Look up any serious consequence that comes from alcohol abuse, and then look for similar consequences for drug abuse, and you will find that the drugs’ effects are the same, or even worse. The only reason people keep talking about overdose when they talk about marijuana is because it is the one factor that doesn’t apply; this is why nobody talks about impaired driving, an area in which marijuana is certainly not innocent. The idea that marijuana is non-addictive is based on evidence as flimsy as the argument that Prohibition didn’t work: people who use marijuana tend to keep using it, even after serious consequences like memory loss start to show up; what is that if not addiction? Just because someone doesn’t go through physical withdrawal doesn’t mean they aren’t addicted: what would happen if all of you tried to give up your phones? Prohibition unquestionably reduced alcohol consumption, even after it was repealed,to less than half the level of consumption before Prohibition. It wasn’t Prohibition that led to its own repeal, wasn’t the unquenchable thirst of the nation: it was the Great Depression. Prohibition ended an industry,  and a profitable one, as well as taking away a potential comfort for people whose lives were ruined by the state of the nation; that’s why people brought the booze back. They were desperate. They weren’t thinking clearly.

We should not make the same mistake.

There are problems in this country related to the war on drugs. But that means we should change the way we fight; not surrender and hand the nation over to drug abuse. The simple truth is that drugs, without exception, make you stupid, and then they make you dead; and in the meantime, they do unmeasurable damage economically, physically, emotionally, mentally, to the users and everyone around them. Even with most drugs still illegal, the costs are almost unbelievable:

Beyond the negative consequences for the individual that drug abuse and addiction can have for individuals, there is also a significant impact on society at large. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually. This includes approximately $193 billion for illicit drugs, $193 billion for tobacco, and $235 billion for alcohol. As staggering as these numbers are, they do not fully describe the breadth of destructive public health and safety implications of drug abuse and addiction, such as family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, and child abuse (


But I don’t need to tell you that, not all of you. The NIAAA estimates that one in ten minors live with at least one parent with alcohol problems. Count the people in the room.

Do you really think the answer is more drugs?

Neither do I.