Drug Legalization 1970

Was reading a Gore Vidal polemic (Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace), and ran across a mention of a published New York Times op-ed piece from September 26, 1970. With some trepidation, but a belly full of wine and thus courage in the realm of copyright matters, I reproduce the article in full. 1970 was thirty-eight years ago after all. Please forgive any typos: the New York Times digital archive only goes back as far as the 1980s, previous articles are available only as image scans, and the OCR contained in my copy of Adobe Acrobat is somewhat anemic. Better than typing it myself, but not perfect.

It is possible to stop most drug addiction in the United States within a very short time. Simply make all drugs available and sell them at cost. Label each drug with a precise description of what effect-good and bad-the drug will have on whoever takes it. This will require heroic honesty. Don’t say that marijuana is addictive or dangerous when it is neither, as millions of people know-unlike “speed,” which kills most unpleasantly, or heroin, which is addictive and difficult to kick.

For the record, I have tried-once-most every drug and liked none, disproving the popular Fu Manchu theory that a single whiff of opium will enslave the mind. Nevertheless many drugs are bad for certain people to take and they should be told about them in a sensible way.

Along with exhortation and warning, it might be good for our citizens to recall (or learn for the first time) that the United States was the creation of men who believed that each man has the right to do what he wants with his own life as long as he does not interfere with his neighbor’s pursuit of happiness (that his neighbor’s idea of happiness is persecuting others does confuse matters a bit).

This is a startling notion to the current generation of Americans who reflect on our system of public education which has made the Bill of Rights, literally, unacceptable to a majority of high school graduates (see the annual Purdue reports) who now form the Unsilent majority”-a phrase which that underestimated wit Richard Nixon took from Homer, who used it to describe the dead.

Now one can hear the warning rumble begin: if everyone is allowed to take drugs everyone will and the GNP will decrease, the Commies will stop us from making everyone free, and we shall end up a race of Zombies, passively murmuring “groovie1 to one another. Alarming thought. Yet it seems most unlikely that any reasonably sane person will become a drug addict if he knows in advance what addiction is going to be like.

Is everyone reasonably sane? No. Some people will always become drug addicts Just as some people will always become alcoholics, and it is just too bad. Every man, however, has the power (and should have the right) to kill himself if he chooses. But since most men don’t, they won’t be mainliners either. Nevertheless, forbidding people things they like or think they might enjoy only makes them want those things all the more. This psychological insight is, for some mysterious reason, perennially denied our governors.

It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time-vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday. No one in Washington today recalls what happened during the years alcohol was forbidden to the people by a Congress that thought it had a divine mission to stamp out Demon Rum and so launched the greatest crime wave in the country’s history, caused thousands of deaths from bad alcohol, and created a general (and persisting) contempt for the laws of the United States.

The same thing is happening today. But the government has learned nothing from past attempts at prohibition, not to mention repression.

Last year when the supply of Mexican marijuana was slightly curtailed by the Feds, the pushers got the kids hooked on heroin and deaths increased dramatically, particularly in New York. Whose fault? Evil men like the Mafiosi? Permissive Dr. Spock? Wild eyed Dr. Leary? No.

The Government of the United States was responsible for those deaths. The bureaucratic machine has a vested interest in playing cops and robbers. Both the Bureau of Narcotics and the Mafia want strong laws against the sale and use of drugs because if drugs are sold at cost there would be no money in it for anyone. If there was no money in it for the Mafia, there would be no friendly playground pushers, and addicts would not commit crimes to pay for the next fix. Finally, if there was no money in it, the Bureau of Narcotics would wither away, something they’re not about to do without a struggle.

Will anything sensible be done? Of course not. The American people are as devoted to the idea of sin and its punishment as they are to making money-and fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them. Since the combination of sin and money is irresistible (particularly to the professional politician), the situation will only grow worse.

Gore Vidal, playwright and novelist, is the author of the newly published “Two Sisters.”

“Two Sisters” (Gore Vidal)

The more things change…

Actually, some things have changed, mostly the names of the drugs in question, and the repressiveness of the federal government. Hundreds of thousands of people are still in jail for the crime of using or selling a weed, and the word “groovie” is only used ironically2.

  1. sic – I’ve never seen the word spelled this way, but hey, it was published in the New York Times, so maybe a variant spelling? []
  2. even when spelled groovy, it still is only used ironically []

8 thoughts on “Drug Legalization 1970

  1. Marie says:

    I was a freshman in high school when this came out. People all over have been citing this editorial in bits and pieces since then, and most probably without knowing who the author was or where and when it was published. So, good for you for educating us.

    Sometime I must tell you my business plan for legalized cocaine parlors. (I don’t do cocaine, never have, never will.)

  2. I was not old enough when this was published, but I’ve heard the argument, as you say, in bits in pieces. Still makes sense, even 38 years later.

  3. DdC222 says:

    We all thought Carter would remove the penalties. I remember a full page ad in the NY Times I believe of signatures of celebrities wanting to end this prohibition around 1970ish? Can’t find it online. I do have this and other Life Mags though. So close. Then everyone got mass amnesia I guess through Rayguns Bush and Klintoon then they rub salt in the wound giving us a nazi like Waldo. Ain’t that America in their little pink houses….

    Marijuana: the law vs. 12 million people pg. 25-35

    Life magazine Cover: Oct 31, 1969

    Drug War Heresies By Robert J. MacCoun, Peter Reuter

    Pot Potency? Boomers’ blissfully unfazed by mere facts.

  4. Red Green says:

    I read this article when it was published. The thing makes MORE sense now. Vidal thought it obvious. Prohibition does not work! Except for those who make money from it… politicians,bureaucrats,prisons, police,criminals..etc.

  5. Ahh, thanks for that link.

  6. Franz says:

    “Last year when the supply of Mexican marijuana was slightly curtailed by the Feds…”

    Yup, I remember “last year” (Vidal means summer/fall 1969) as if it were, well, last year.

    There’s a story behind that story.

    Remember the constant rumor that “Vietnam” was really not a war to fight communism, but actually a ruse to gain control over the opium supply of the Golden Triangle? CIA flights during the war support at least part of the rumor, but mostly it’s another dumb conspiracy THEORY, for once.

    But there WAS the business in 1969 that remains fresh in my memory. I was a young sailor stationed at an East Coast supply squadron, going up & down the coast was a blast. Plus, I knew high school classmates then going through places like Columbia University, right there in NYC.

    Paranoia was born right in front of me in the summer of ’69. Grass was scarce and worth its weight in gold, but horse and speed were all over the damn place. I couldn’t figure it out.

    Then I found out who was in charge of the US security state & under WHAT capacity and all the dots just jump up and connected themselves.

    In the end we’ll know what the OWNERS of the US want us to know. But the possibility that the US Security State agencies, in particular the CIA, were starting their own version of the Opium Wars right here in American while Vidal was penning this article is very sobering.

    It’s not as outlandish as it once may have seemed: There is agreement among the wise that the curtailment of American freedom started with the Drug War, so called. The earliest version of the Drug War was started under Dick Nixon during the years of peace, love and baloney, right there between the First Two Dubyas (Woodstock and Watergate.)

    Who knows?

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