Updated: Aug 30
Originally this post was going to summarize the arguments of two of the most prominent mid-century American intellectual historians and how they regarded changing notions of juvenile behavior as it involved the use of illegal drugs. But then I received something rather incredible in the mail that changed my idea for this post completely.
My husband’s parents live in northern New Jersey, and my mother-in-law was kind enough to send me an issue of their local newspaper, the Two River Times. In the May 23 edition, the letters to the editor section featured two very interesting, and two very oppositional, points of view vis-à-vis drugs and drug use. The letters, which dealt with marijuana legalization and the use of Narcan, an opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of an overdose, respectively, were indicative of how far the social dialogue over drug use has come, as well as evidence of how pervasive certain myths remain.
But first, before we get into the letters, a review of how those historians viewed drug use in the past:
– Paul Goodman, the novelist, playwright and social critic, considered drug use as a factor when he wrote about juvenile delinquency in his 1960 classic, Growing Up Absurd. But, unlike many other social commentators at the time, Goodman avoided the easy stereotype that drug-using hoodlums were stealing ladies’ purses to fuel their kicks. Instead, he suggested that “root causes” – such as poverty, a lack of education, and a lack of employment opportunities – created both the troublemaker and the trouble itself (drug use being only one of the more obvious signs of society’s abandonment of the poor). Young people, Goodman feared, were being mistreated in a system that denied them their very sense of humanity, and which pushed them into a corporate, “organized” society – assuming the system didn’t leave them completely behind, as Goodman noted it did for residents of non-white urban areas.
For a drug like marijuana, Goodman felt that its illegality did nothing to stop people from using it. Instead, Goodman warned, it did place users more directly in harm’s way. “The illegality of marijuana increases [juveniles’] contact with the pushers of addictive drugs,” Goodman wrote, “and the intransigent attitude toward heroin as a criminal rather than socio-medical problem guarantees worse consequences still.” For Goodman, marijuana and its effects (little known at the time, but still frightening for a society fearful of delinquent youth) were significantly less harmful than heroin use or marijuana smokers’ increased interaction with heroin dealers. This made Goodman one of the first social critics to point to the reasons why people use drugs, rather than the drug use itself, as the basis by which drug users should be judged. Additionally, his belief that heroin addiction was a “socio-medical problem” and not just an issue of criminal activity was quite prescient, as the 1960s and ‘70s would be a period of increased social interest in rehabilitating addicts rather than simply incarcerating them.
– If Goodman was a leader of the American Left, Christopher Lasch, another social critic and historian, cut a more controversial figure, aligning completely with neither the right nor the left. In his 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch declared that marijuana smoking and other drug use was symptomatic of the nation’s larger inward turn, and proof that the nation was enamored with a self-preoccupation that signified a retreat from public life and civil commitments. “After the turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations,” Lasch wrote. “People today hunger for not for personal salvation, let alone the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal wellbeing, health and psychic security… Neither drugs nor fantasies of destruction… appease the hunger from which they spring.”
For Lasch, drug use reaffirmed and enabled the obsessive navel-gazing of the era and provided a platform for the baseless sense of self that needed constant attention and reaffirmation. For pot-smoking children, the greatest threat this incessant self-preoccupation posed was not run-ins with heroin dealers, as Goodman had feared, but a deeper and potentially more disastrous feeling: the “erosion of any strong concern for posterity.” The youth who sought to dull their existential pain with drugs threatened future generations because “[living] for the moment is the prevailing passion – to live for yourself, not for predecessors or posterity.” This spiritual crisis, which saw youth experiencing “a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past,” would, Lasch feared, result in a generation unmotivated to work for the common good, to mature or evolve in a traditional manner, or to participate in any of the activities which had, for centuries, been seen as the demarcations of successful adulthood.
What Goodman and Lasch represent are two poles of the drug abuse spectrum, each posing very different questions and coming up with very different ideas. Goodman saw society itself as responsible for pushing individuals into drug use, whereas Lasch saw drug users as potentially destroying society, favoring their own narcissistic needs over the nation’s collective good. In this sense, the two letters printed in the Two River Times last May represent a continuation of both lines of thought, updating and perpetuating Lasch and Goodman’s themes.
The first comes from Gerry Sharfenberger, Ph.D., who noted that he is a longtime member of the Middletown Municipal Drug and Alcohol Alliance. In his letter, “Taking a Stance Against Marijuana Legalization,” Sharfenberger applauded New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for “taking a firm stance against the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.” New Jersey passed its medical marijuana bill in 2010 with large majorities in both the state House and Senate approving it, but Sharfenberger makes no mention of medical pot. Instead, he focuses on recreational marijuana use and the “damage that can and will occur” if the state ever follows in the footsteps of Colorado, where Sharfenberger sees little more than “chaos” ensuing.
Most prominently, Sharfenberger sees in recreational marijuana use a very Lasch-ian set of problems for young smokers. Besides resulting in “significant brain abnormalities” and pushing young smokers into harder drugs because “marijuana has been proven to be a gateway drug to such horrifically addictive and deadly drugs as heroin, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine and countless others,” Sharfenberger sees the drug’s greatest threat residing in how it makes users feel (or not feel). “On a larger scale, the United States cannot afford to create an unmotivated and less productive populace and expect to remain competitive as a nation on the world stage,” Sharfenberger writes, proving that amotivational syndrome, an argument against adolescent marijuana use prominent since the mid-1970s, remains alive and well. Ultimately, however, the result of any widespread legalization program would result in the dangerous combination of “lost productivity, increased DUIs and other crimes, increased medical costs, skyrocketing addiction rates, higher accident rates and increased government dependency.”
Directly below Sharfenberger’s letter was one from Howard Meyer, president of the New Jersey State First Aid Council. Meyer’s letter also praises Gov. Christie, but for a very different reason than Sharfenberger. Meyer thanks Christie for “signing a waiver to allow EMTs to administer Narcan to help reverse the potentially fatal effects of opioid intoxication.” Like Paul Goodman, Meyer recognizes that the larger drug problems facing society are from the use and abuse of drugs like heroin, and that saving people from overdoses is a necessary action during a period of heightened opiate use. Meyer notes that he and his organization “commend” Gov. Christie because, “with news outlets reporting daily about New Jersey’s escalating heroin epidemic and resulting increase in overdose deaths,” Christie gave EMTs something they could work with, a drug that, if administered immediately, could help prevent devastating brain injuries or death. “With such a tremendous need for early intervention during this state’s heroin crisis,” Meyer writes, “we can’t afford to wait.”
One can’t be sure if the editors of the Two River Times realized they were creating such a strange juxtaposition by placing Sharfenberger’s and Meyer’s letters immediately next to each other. (The other letters, none of them drug related, warn readers to not keep animals in parked cars in hot weather and urge readers to help join the fight against Alzheimer’s.) Sharfenberger commends Christie for standing strong and not “caving into pressure from ill-advised advocacy groups” on the matter of recreational marijuana. He believes that all marijuana use is harmful in and of itself, and that increasing the drug’s availability will only escalate problems with youthful amotivation, swelling numbers of those dependent on government aid. (In this sense, Sharfenberger’s position is akin to that of the parent movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, who also feared amotivational syndrome and that an entire generation of children would turn into nonfunctional “semi-zombies.”)
But on a different end of the spectrum, Meyer thanks Gov. Christie for recognizing the drug-related needs of both EMTs (and the residents of New Jersey) by allowing EMTs to come prepared with drugs like Narcan when responding to calls during a heroin epidemic. Meyer does not mention Christie’s views on any other drugs or even drug use itself, but instead praises the governor for responding to an escalating danger by allowing EMTs the ability to save more lives. In sum, Meyer, like Goodman, talks around drug use and focuses on mitigating the effects of addiction, whereas Sharfenberger, like Lasch, blames social problems on a form of drug use that, as of the moment, isn’t even allowed in New Jersey yet. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, non?
In this sense, the May 23 edition of the Two River Times shows how the ideas of great intellectual historians like Paul Goodman and Christopher Lasch remain alive and well in an era of increasing heroin abuse and legalized recreational weed. Both letters show how far we have come – that Meyer can recommend Narcan is proof of enormous developments in overdose treatment, and Sharfenberger’s letter shows that Colorado’s recent legalization efforts have widespread influence for good and ill – but they also show how continually mired we are in the same debates about drug abuse that we’ve been having for the past sixty years. For this reason, if no others, we can see the continued importance of studying drug history and keeping the chronology of these ideas clear, both to place letters like Meyer’s and Sharfenberger’s in context, as well as to map where we are in the evolving questions about drug use in the United States.