In the waning decades of the 19th century, Western societies experienced a wave of panic over the idea that various intoxicating substances offered pleasures so exquisite and seductive as to overcome the will and corrupt and enslave their users. One intoxicant after another became the target for prohibition efforts by ameliorist do-gooders.
All forms of prohibition make whatever is banned more desirable, and result in black markets. Black markets provide an opportunity for large profits by criminals, and typically lead to violence as rival gangsters fight over territories. The association of large profits with victimless forms of crime commonly results in the corruption of law enforcement.
Theodore Dalrymple draws on his medical experience as usual, in today’s Wall Street Journal, to debunk opiate addiction.
In 1822, Thomas De Quincey published a short book, “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” The nature of addiction to opiates has been misunderstood ever since.
De Quincey took opiates in the form of laudanum, which was tincture of opium in alcohol. He claimed that special philosophical insights and emotional states were available to opium-eaters, as they were then called, that were not available to abstainers; but he also claimed that the effort to stop taking opium involved a titanic struggle of almost superhuman misery. Thus, those who wanted to know the heights had also to plumb the depths.
This romantic nonsense has been accepted wholesale by doctors and litterateurs for nearly two centuries. It has given rise to an orthodoxy about opiate addiction, including heroin addiction, that the general public likewise takes for granted: To wit, a person takes a little of a drug, and is hooked; the drug renders him incapable of work, but since withdrawal from the drug is such a terrible experience, and since the drug is expensive, the addict is virtually forced into criminal activity to fund his habit. He cannot abandon the habit except under medical supervision, often by means of a substitute drug.
In each and every particular, this picture is not only mistaken, but obviously mistaken. It actually takes some considerable effort to addict oneself to opiates: The average heroin addict has been taking it for a year before he develops an addiction. Like many people who are able to take opiates intermittently, De Quincey took opium every week for several years before becoming habituated to it. William Burroughs, who lied about many things, admitted truthfully that you may take heroin many times, and for quite a long period, before becoming addicted…
Why has the orthodox view swept all before it? First, the literary tradition sustains it: Works that deal with the subject continue to disregard pharmacological reality, from De Quincey and Coleridge through Baudelaire, Aleister Crowley, Bulgakov, Cocteau, Nelson Algren, Burroughs and others. Second, addicts and therapists have a vested interest in the orthodox view. Addicts want to place the responsibility for their plight elsewhere, and the orthodox view is the very raison d’être of the therapists. Finally, as a society, we are always on the lookout for a category of victims upon whom to expend our virtuous, which is to say conspicuous, compassion.
The myth of addiction has a powerful appeal to the human imagination, and is enormously useful in exculpating personal misbehavior. But a society which holds more than a million people in prison for victimless crimes is paying a terrible price in order to cling to its illusions.