When Drug Dealers Are Designated As Terrorists

The War On Drugs is a symptomatic approach to the epidemic of drug use in the United States.

I can recall the slogan in school, “Just say no to drugs”. I saw the signs posted in the halls, on the bulletin boards and the commercials on TV. I think it was Nancy Reagan who coined the phrase, “Just say no”. I think I was in high school when I first became aware of a war on drugs, a war that was started by President Nixon in 1971. Considering the size and resilience of the drug trade now, I’m not a bit surprised that nothing much has changed since then.

So it was a surprise to me to see in the news that President Trump is considering the idea of designating the drug cartels as “terrorists”. I thought he was going to drain the swamp. Such a designation would be consistent with our cultural history. The drug cartels are bad guys and it’s up to us to stop them. But what makes the drug cartels tick is the drug users. If Trump is serious about dealing with the drug problem in the United States, then he might want to look at the people who are buying the drugs that finance the drug cartels. According to Vox:

“That label would make it illegal for anyone in the US to knowingly provide support to the drug cartels. It would also allow the US government to sanction anyone who funds them, deport their members from America, and bar any affiliate from entering the US.”

That means that anyone arrested for buying drugs on the street, dealing drugs on the street could be charged with violation of federal anti-terrorism laws. That would make those people more than just drug users and dealers, that would make them terrorists. I guess one way to make people stop using illegal drugs is to make them feel terrible about using drugs. That will almost certainly inspire them to use more drugs to deal with the guilt they have for being addicted in the first place.

I can understand why Trump might want to take this approach. He’s leaning into an election year. He wants to take a stand against a terrible scourge and he wants to appear to be effective. But history has shown us that the war on drugs, for nearly 50 years now, has been largely ineffective. The drug trade is as big as it ever was and shows no sign of abating.

No one wins in a war unless you’re a banker or you make weapons for a living. Everyone else loses. Once the drug cartels are designated as terrorists, the intensity of the war on drugs will only increase. The number of people going to jail will increase because eventually, some novel theory about how drug users are supporting terrorists will be used as an argument to send them to federal prison. And in a war, there is no empathy.

People use drugs to satisfy a need they cannot name. People use drugs to numb themselves of feelings that are very uncomfortable. That could be physical or psychological pain. Physical pain is easy to understand. But the psychological pain, that’s harder and requires more work, more effort to understand. That requires help from other people. And if you’re engaged in a war, it’s hard to help someone that the president has just designated as a terrorist.

I have personal experience with drugs myself. I used to smoke marijuana on a daily basis. It suited me for a time, but I had to give it up because I just could not see myself smoking that stuff for the rest of my life. I could not really function fully and be present for life. I found a reason to stop, but I also needed a support group of other people who wanted to stay sober. So I did therapy and group therapy. Eventually, after being sober for a while, I found other addictions that needed attention. But as my awareness of addiction grew, I also learned that addictions were a symptom of something else.

Addictions are a symptom of an unmet need. A need for love. A need for companionship. A need for fellowship. A need for a sense of industry. A fellow named Abraham Maslow worked out all of the basic human needs in a famous chart called, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Drug addiction is evidence of an unmet need, and until we meet that need, or grieve the time spent without meeting that need, then drug use will seem like a rational solution to the pain of unmet needs.

Some of our needs go unmet because we lack the skills to meet them. So we find substitutes that appear to meet that unmet need, but they never really do. Heroin, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol and pain killers will never meet the needs of love, fellowship, and companionship. But the people who use those drugs have confused their effects with the act of fulfilling a genuine human need. It is only when a person who is addicted to drugs has learned the skills required to meet those unmet needs that he can stop using drugs.

Where do we learn the skills required to meet our own basic human needs? From our parents, our caregivers, our teachers, and mentors. We learn these skills in the home, at school, and by being with others. Our goal then, should not be to raise the stakes and the threat of punishment for people who use drugs. The goal should be to raise awareness of our true needs and to teach the skills required to meet those needs that are not met by drug use.

In my travels through recovery, I have often heard the phrase, “hole in the soul”. Food, sex, work, shopping, and drugs, have all been used to fill that hole in the soul. Many of us have been raised to believe that we can find comfort from addiction. Many of us have suffered unmet needs because we failed to meet the expectations of our parents, our teachers or other important people in our lives. We were punished for failing to meet their expectations rather than taught the skills required to meet those expectations.

You know, an important ingredient for disappointment is 3 cups of expectations. When we have expectations, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. And many people engage in drug use for relief from disappointment. They suffer from a lack of acceptance, a lack of flexibility, a lack of a firm grasp on reality. They learned to be this way from somebody, usually when they were quite young, and that would mean their parents.

This is not an indictment of parents, teachers, and caregivers, for they were doing the best they could with what they had. They are only doing what they know. Once we have awareness of our unmet needs, then we can examine them, see how to meet them, or if that need was not met in childhood, then we must grieve the time spent suffering so that we can move on. So that we can clearly see that drug use is not a human need.

Long ago, I made decision to stop smoking pot in part because of an article I read about famed rocker and lead guitarist for The Who, Pete Townsend. At one point in his life, he was hooked on heroin and he was drinking a fifth of cognac every day. I think we can fairly say that he was not meeting his needs with those drugs. They were making his life miserable and he wanted to stop, he wanted to get off the cycle but didn’t know how to stop.

So he quietly put out the word that he needed help. Along came a company that produced a little black box with two wires attached to it. They told Townsend that the little black box could help. Attach the wires to the temples, and apply a small current at the right frequency, and then the brain would produce the endorphins that were blocked by the heroin and alcohol. And in a few weeks, Townsend was clean.

That was a neat trick. That article taught me that my brain is a 2.5 million-year-old pharmacy. My brain will make all the dope I need to be happy. But I have learned how to do this without a little black box. I have learned how to do this by being human. I don’t have to say no to drugs. I only have to say yes to people.

I find in my life as a husband that living with someone I love, through thick and thin, is a way to meet my needs. I find that being a father and helping my kids grow up is a way to meet my needs. I find that helping other people at work is a way to meet my human needs. And being in fellowship with others is a way to meet my needs.

Just helping others gives me a bit of dopamine. A hug will give me a dose of oxytocin, the bonding endorphin. Exercise will make me high. Hearing my kids tell me, “I got this” is a great way to juice the day. That means I’ve done something right by my kids.

We’re wired for cooperation, assistance and just making each other laugh. Cooperation is baked into our genes, and our brains make us high through cooperation, reaching goals together, living in peace together. And none of that can be accomplished through war, or by designating someone as a terrorist.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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