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As the opioid crisis continues, policymakers debate the best response to high overdose rates. Some want to ramp up law enforcement and increase border security. Others prefer addressing how doctors prescribe pain medications, or looking at underlying social and economic conditions that might cause people to turn to drugs.

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To quote a fictional addict from another era of opioid addiction, “what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not f*cking stupid. At least, we’re not that f*cking stupid.”

Pat O’Malley and Stephen Mugford attempted to rectify this mistake in a 1991 paper for Social Justice. They argue that some of the critical questions about drug use center on pleasure.

First, O’Malley and Mugford note that people in all known human cultures, and even members of other species, use intoxicants. But they also write that social contexts shape the drugs people use and the way they use them.

In the modern Western world, they write, drug use often fits very well into economies that divide our days into disciplined, production-oriented “clock time,” and leisure time devoted to commodity consumption. Drawing on other scholars’ work, O’Malley and Mugford suggest that consumerism involves a constant search for “new wants.” At the same time, the routines of rationalized work drive us to look for a contrasting excitement and spontaneity in our free time. The upshot is that we tend to seek out exhilarating, novel experiences, from international tourism to skydiving.

“In such a cultural milieu,” O’Malley and Mugford write, “illicit and even dangerous drug taking as a leisure activity appears as an intelligible form of the normatively sanctioned search for the extraordinary—rather than as a bizarre product of pathological minds, social malfunctions, corrupt regimes, or rapacious entrepreneurs.”

At the same time, the demands of the rational working world can also encourage the use of stimulants on the job.

Of course, even if all this is true, it doesn’t change the fact that opioid overdoses (not to mention illnesses related to alcohol and tobacco) are a huge source of misery and death. But O’Malley and Mugford argue that prohibition can make things worse, for example by encouraging needle sharing and promoting violence by traffickers. On the other hand, they also say total legalization and commercial marketing can be harmful, as in the case of cigarettes.

Ultimately, they suggest that the best way to address the real problems of drug use focuses on harm reduction. That could mean making coca tea more readily available than crack cocaine, making it easier to smoke opium than inject morphine, and decriminalizing some drugs without allowing their sale to become a large-scale commercial enterprise.

When it comes to opioids, though, we’ve done almost the exact opposite of that. Potent forms of the drugs are a profitable commodity for pharmaceutical companies, while the possession of weaker versions like opium remain illegal and subject to severe penalties.


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Social Justice, Vol. 18, No. 4 (46), The War on Drugs: Commentary & Critique (Winter 1991), pp. 49-75
Social Justice/Global Options