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Is Drug Temperance Realistic?

April 03, 2024

The governor of Oregon has just signed a bill rolling back the state’s 2020 decriminalization of drugs. Battered by soaring substance abuse, overdose deaths, and accompanying street chaos since the liberalization, Oregonians made clear they were going to act against drugs through a direct ballot measure if the state’s politicians refused to move. Other government actions to normalize drug use in places like California, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Colorado are likewise facing rising public resistance.

The state of Oregon suffered 610 deaths by drug overdose in the last year before decriminalization (2019). That soared to 1,700 deaths in the last 12 months. Drug deaths quadrupled in the Portland area during those three years. In other locales that backed off drug control, similar destruction occurred. San Francisco, a comparatively small city, now piles up 800 overdose fatalities annually. Washington, D.C., another small city that recently decriminalized drugs, currently buries 630 residents every year due to overdoses.

Drug abuse is now significantly damaging life expectancy in the U.S. as a whole. A million Americans per decade are perishing by overdose, and untold others die in drug-related accidents, crimes, family abuse, and secondary health failures. A million lives is twice what America lost in all of our wars combined over the last 100 years.

Yet, somehow, most of our elites cannot bring themselves to actively disapprove of, much less battle, drug use. Campaigning against mind-altering substances is considered anti-progressive, not to mention gauche.

The folks most afflicted by drug abuse, however, have less dainty feelings. In his new book “Troubled,” author Rob Henderson describes his upbringing that started with an addict-prostitute mother and stretched through eight different foster-home placements. By enlisting in the Air Force and then pursuing higher education, he turned his life around. But he notes that the affluent progressives he encountered at Yale and Cambridge promote policies on drugs, policing, and family life that doom households like his.

“Advocating for sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, or abolishing the police” rarely costs wealthy liberals anything, Henderson writes, but such policies devastate the less well-off and well-connected. Every single one of the foster children he grew up with had drug-abusing parents, he reports. And “If drugs had been legal and easily accessible when I was 15, you wouldn’t be reading this book.”

Survey evidence confirms that it’s the richest Americans who are most supportive of things like drug liberalization and defunding the police. Poor Americans are the most opposed. The rich may think of drugs as “a recreational pastime,” says Henderson, but for the poor, they are “a gateway to pain.”

Activists have encouraged the idea that drug use cannot be curbed, that we must instead “reduce harm” with clean needles, designated safe places” for getting high, and vials of Narcan spray on every corner. Oregonians have dramatically lashed out against those claims. Is a broader return to policies that discourage drug use, reduce trafficking, require treatment of offenders, and support the abstinent a realistic goal? Yes, it is.

We know that because it has been done in the past. Contemporary Americans, with their increasingly weak grasp on history, often imagine they live in uncharted waters, that no one has had to deal with pressing issues like those we face today. That’s grossly mistaken.

I’ve just published a book that chronicles life in America in the first half of the nineteenth century. In those years, our young society was harsh and often dysfunctional. Violent fighting (including practices like eye-gouging) was common. Street riots were a regular occurrence (requiring martial law to be instituted in Manhattan). An estimated 10,000 women in New York were ensnared in prostitution at a time when the city’s entire population was barely over 200,000.

Fueling all of this was epidemic consumption of rotgut liquor. “Americans drink from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn,” observed one British chronicler. Alcohol consumption per capita was three to four times today’s level.

The United States would not have become a thriving, cohesive nation if those trends had continued. But they were halted. A great uprising of civic-religious-educational organizing swept our communities, and a remarkable variety of disorders were banished. A large part of this was a dramatic reduction of alcohol abuse.

How was that accomplished? Through creative persuasion campaigns, voluntary pledges, local groups offering peer support, celebrity endorsements, songs and popular entertainments lauding sobriety, community encouragement, and pressure. Reformers also used law as one tool: Keeping children away from intoxicants, moderating saloon hours, controlling locations, etc. But their main work was buttressing behavior change.

Today’s conventional wisdom insists that this Temperance movement was quixotic or even horribly counterproductive. That’s inaccurate. Decades before the failure of state action via constitutional prohibition, there was a splendidly successful civic drive against drunkenness that produced a mass change of mind among the American public.

On an entirely voluntary basis, citizens were educated about the damage done by substance abuse and offered circles of support if they wanted to mend their lives. New goals and ideals of sobriety and domestic happiness were promulgated, celebrated, and widely embraced. Much of the horsepower for this grassroots movement came from women traumatized by users. Employers damaged by inebriated workers were also active.

The pushback against alcohol was popular and powerful. Millions of addicts were saved. Suffering children and spouses were protected. Urban disorder declined dramatically. Nationwide, per capita consumption of spirit alcohol was cut by 70% during the middle of the nineteenth century.

The historical record is clear: anti-social intoxication and addiction can be defeated. First, however, people must reject foolish and fatalistic propaganda about the harmlessness of drug use. Oregon is trying to claw its way back from darkness. How many other Americans will follow?

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Karl Zinsmeister, a former domestic policy adviser in the White House, is the author of the new historical novel “The Brothers,” which chronicles the nineteenth-century transformation of U.S. society by voluntary groups.

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