Drug Transactions and Their Metaphors


Ignoring the so-called moral and "health" claims regarding illegal psychoactive drugs (hereafter IPD, to distinguish them from legal psychoactive drugs--LPDs--such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol), the passage of drugs from farmer, to processor, to wholesaler, to retailer, to user is a series of economic transactions. Seen in this light, IPD transactions exhibit free market capitalism. However, this capitalistic enterprise is not created by classic supply and demand, but by legislative fiat that renders IPDs illegal. Contrary to Colombian President Barco's claim (parroting the Bush administration position) that users' demand creates the astronomical profits to be had from IPDs, the price is ultimately set by American legislators, whose irrational distinction between IPDs and LPDs effectively creates an economic environment in which drug transactors' enormous losses in money, confiscated IPDs and lives are merely a part of doing the most profitable business in the world. The line from arbitrarily making certain psychoactive drugs illegal, to creating enormous profits for those who ignore their illegal status and engage in IPD transactions, to robbery and violent crimes against persons in our neighborhoods is clear.

The current measures taken by our, and other governments display nothing short of a collective American neurosis backed by an army, a police force and a group of reelection-hungry legislators (who, after all is for "drugs?"). Given that little chance exists that our government will take the rational course and legalize IPDs, thus once and for all destroying the drug transactors by destroying their profits, it may be interesting instead to focus on the rhetoric of drug transactions. The estimable Susan Sontag has written a book, Illness as Metaphor, and a "postscript," AIDS and its Metaphors. In both books she examines how illness is portrayed in public discourse, and how the irresponsible application of metaphors to disease can result in dangerously misleading characterizations of both the disease and its victims. Correlatively, we can look at how IPDs are portrayed by politicians, news media, and profit-oriented fringe professionals such as for-profit drug treatment clinics, drug education programs, and one of the fastest growing (and therefore profitable) college training programs, certifying drug professionals, particularly drug counselors.

Basically, the metaphoric constellations cluster around four images in IPD discourse: the aristocrat, the plague, the curse, and the militarist. In each case, the metaphors are inappropriate, and in each case, the metaphors obscure our understanding of what is at issue when we discuss IPDs. Let's use cocaine as the IPD for our discussion, but keep in mind that these metaphors could apply equally to the euphorants marijuana and hashish, opium and its derivatives (morphine and heroin), psychedelic drugs, and the "designer drugs" (note the metaphor) such as Ecstasy and other MDA- related substances.

The aristocratic. The major individuals involved in IPD transactions are the wholesalers, the key link between the actual producers of IPDs (for example, the coca farmers, and coca refiners) and the middlemen/retailers (for example, American salespeople and their customers). The wholesalers make the most money of anyone involved in the transactions, so much, in the case of cocaine, that they have more than they can use. They transform this unusable cash into objects, most of which they cannot ever hope to use: zoos full of exotic animals, scores of helicopters and airplanes, houses with golden fixtures--the cataloging of this excess ultimately grows as boring as the Sadean cataloging of sexual possibilities.

The media use two terms to refer to the wholesalers: "drug lords" or "drug barons." The terms "lord" and "baron" have historically been conferred by the supreme political figure in a country, usually a king, and the distinction originated from skill in war, or the conquering of property through warfare resulting in acquiring large land holdings. However, instead of kings, Dan Rather now confers the title of lord or baron on these wholesalers. To what extent are they "lords" or "barons?" They have distinguished themselves in illegal commerce, but little else. In fact, a more appropriate appellation would be "drug Philistines," since they have a Trump-like ability to assess value solely on a monetary basis. Hence, while they aren't the actual Philistines who we read about in the Bible, they do equate all values with monetary values. We're granting them too much to call them "lords" or "barons."

Drugs as a plague. Two related metaphors to describe IPDs are drugs as a plague and drugs as a curse. Let's look at the first term. A plague is a virally or bacterially borne contagion that results in the seemingly (and sometimes actually) random deaths of innocent people. The Black Death was such a plague, borne by the fleas of brown rats. However, IPDs cannot be transmitted from one person to another, nor can they be "unconsciously" used (except for the usually apocryphal "spiking" of a drink with a psychoactive substance). Using the plague metaphor to describe IPDs displays the non-IPD user's sense of helplessness when faced with perceived rising drug use. If anything were more properly described as a "plague," however, it would be the LPDs, since their use is abetted by international corporations, who engage in capitalist transactions kept churning by huge advertising budgets that promise an increase in everything from wealth to sexual potency when using their product (for example, Moet & Chandon, Liggett & Meyers, Maxwell House). However, whether one speaks of LPDs or IPDs, there is no need to feel helpless. By nature humans want to get high. A large number of them will periodically get high, using either LPDs or IPDs. Choosing IPDs over LPDs doesn't make them plague victims.

Drugs as a curse. The second related metaphor for IPDs is drugs as a curse. A curse is a ritualized imprecation or activity, originated by a single agent or a group acting in concert, directed at an individual or group for a harmful purpose. The concept of the curse has its origins in primitive religion or superstition, and is used to explain the cause of an event that cannot be explained by conventional means, and sometimes suggests a moral flaw in the cursed person that brought about the harmful event. Religious Medieval Europeans at times thought plague victims were being punished by God, but the universality of the plague led them to a more general explanation, that an entire way of life was being punished.

We see both the individual and group notions of curse operating as a metaphor to explain IPD use. For example, the rising athlete was cursed by drugs (IPDs). Or IPDs are a curse on the ghettoized Black community (interestingly, the underclass is generally described as being cursed, seldom an economically successful class). Just as in the metaphor of the disease, an voluntary act cannot be seen properly as being a curse, regardless of the scientific validity of the concept of being "cursed." Of course, if we want to look to a group, acting in concert, directing its activity toward a group for a harmful purpose, we need look no farther than the United States Congress, whose laws have "cursed" not only this country, but those countries that produce IPDs.

The war on drugs. Finally, the most ubiquitous metaphor is that of the "war" on drugs, which is sometimes used metaphorically, but recently has moved frighteningly far into the realm of physical description, as the United States now diverts its military forces into meddling in other countries' affairs. However, a war is an openly declared conflict between two hostile and sovereign agents. The war on drugs (IPDs) is a war seen only from the eyes of the invading army, who also has control of the media. One might argue that the metaphor is appropriate in that the troops the wholesalers use are not men, but IPDs, which act similarly to enemy soldiers by debilitating Our Boys. However, if that were correct, Our Boys would be guilty of treason, by inviting the troops into their homes.

The drug wholesalers in Colombia have recently begun a bombing campaign throughout the country. However, these acts don't represent the drug wholesalers "declaring war" on the Colombian government. Such acts are terroristic, not warlike, and it's immensely important to distinguish an act of war from an act of terror. Terror, like warfare, is diplomacy by other means, but terror and war are two distinctly different human activities.

Obviously, we use the "war" metaphor in other inappropriate contexts: a trade war, a war on poverty, a war on inflation, etc. However, the problem with using the metaphor with regard to destroying or penalizing the suppliers and users of IPDs is twofold: it makes it much easier for the justice system to suspend the Constitutional rights of IPD users (for example, drug testing, which violates the right of unwarranted search and seizure, and the customary right of probable cause), and it identifies stopping the wholesalers and their customers as a patriotic cause. Oppose the "war on drugs" and you are somehow unAmerican. Like those who opposed the Vietnam war on moral or Constitutional grounds, those who oppose the drug war on what might be called logical grounds find their patriotism called into question, owing to the prevalence of the metaphor of the war on drugs.

The selling and buying of drugs, whether they be cigarettes, marijuana, whiskey, or cocaine, is an economic transaction. The IPD wholesalers aren't barons, they're wholesalers. IPDs aren't a plague, they are a means of altering consciousness. IPDs aren't a curse, since the person who ingests them (or LPDs, for that matter) does so voluntarily. The measures our government takes (aided by its police forces, intelligence forces, and military) cannot be a war, but is instead a police/military action in which zealousness too often succeeds in violating the rights of individuals and nations while the amount and availability of IPDs grows daily.

There may well be good arguments to support the claim that American citizens should reduce or cease their use of IPDs and/or LPDs. However, using these metaphors when describing drug wholesalers, drug use, and measures against IPD use obscures what the real issues are with respect to psychoactive drug use. Keep in mind that the most successful campaign against a psychoactive drug in American history is now reaching its zenith, and its remarkable success has been achieved without arresting a single American citizen or denying anyone the right to consume their psychoactive drug of choice. I refer, of course, to the decades-long campaign against the most deadly and addictive drug in America, nicotine.

We can't solve the perceived "drug problem" in this country by capturing the barons, curing the plague, removing the curse, or going to war. The real solution is thinking clearly about the problem.


Steven E. Alford