Updated: Aug 30
The belief that America’s War on Drugs has been a cynical thirty- year boondoggle is by no means, however, a universally-held opinion. It was only last year, according to Gallup, that half of Americans came to support the legalization or medicalization of marijuana. The debate over national drug policy is just now starting in earnest, meaning anti-Drug War advocates are now share a political identity and, in turn, a particular set of responsibilities in furthering their cause. The likely key to winning the national drug debate is capturing America’s political “mushy middle,” the ever-powerful group of “Undecideds” who, aside from deciding every Presidential election, have the political sway to alter drug policy. By their nature, they do not share the view that the American War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure, though they can be convinced.
Those loveable Undecideds...
If one is to take anything from the last three Presidential elections, it should be that Undecideds are an unaligned group of conventional people who, while not “conservative” in any formal sense, are hesitant to enact sweeping political change, lest it challenge God, Country, or the American Way. Those in favor of liberalizing American drug laws, then, are charged with the task of convincing this disorganized amalgam of voters that new drug policies would not inconvenience the life of the mythical “Average American” in any meaningful way. Advocates of looser drug policies can only promote this message, however, combating the long-propagandized idea that more-liberal attitudes toward drug use would lead to the anarchic, hedonistic, and amoral cultural wasteland. In a rush to appeal to the mushy middle, both legalization advocates and Drug Warriors strive to seem as rational, reasonable, fair-minded, and sober as possible. Neither side would benefit from the electorate viewing the debate as being one between burned-out hippies and joyless moral hysterics.
The fight to win Undecideds has resulted in both sides of the debate increasingly representing themselves through the sort of conventional, wealthy, established politicos like George Soros and Mitt Romney, and respectable professional associations like the California Medical Association and the National Football League, with which Americans seem more comfortable. While celebrities often interject themselves into the debate, the young audiences that Hollywood stars have the most traction with are not really the key to crafting new policy. Rather, celebrities are often counterproductive figures within the drug liberalization movement, engaging in drug-related behaviour that lives down to the worst fears of their political opponents. This is where Rihanna comes in.
The infamous "head drugs." Or cottage cheese.
Rihanna is one of the most successful singers in the world, a platinum-selling belter-outer of pop and dance music who Time Magazine recently named one of the “100 Most Influential People” of 2011. While reasonable people could haggle over the precise definition of “influence,” there is no denying Rihanna’s fame. In fact, Rihanna is famous enough that a small army of paparazzi followed her to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this past week. Unaware of, or unconcerned with, nearby photographers, Rihanna dumped something out onto her bodyguard’s head and partook of it while attending a concert. A paparazzo caught this act on film, blew up the picture, and made a great deal of hay with it, setting in motion a week’s worth of public speculation as to what, exactly, Rihanna was ingesting from her bodyguard’s pate. While a number of wiseacre journalists have speculated she was simply dining on feta cheese, it’s a scosche more likely she was doing drugs.
Rihanna’s drug use is, morally speaking, not at issue in this post. Rather, it was Rihanna’s response to the story, and to the speculation over what she was taking, that drags her into ongoing drug policy debates. In response to speculation over whether she was cutting cocaine or rolling a blunt, Rihanna lashed out at MTV UK – which had posted a short piece on its website about the picture – by tweeting “@MTVUK = PATHETIC CUNTZ.” This reaction, which came off as extraordinarily over-sensitive for someone frequently in the public eye, cued a social media frenzy, which Rihanna only fueled by tweeting “Yikes…I ran out of fucks to give” and “I’m crazy, and I don’t pretend to be anything else.” While Rihanna is entitled to present herself in any way she pleases, this sort of belligerent, entitled response suggests she is not simply a poor ambassador for drug policy liberalization (which she has never claimed to be but would likely be something she’d endorse), but is exactly the sort of exemplar of a nasty, amoral drug user the Drug Warriors might point to.
Rihanna and Sean Combs don't seem to see eye-to-eye on the issue of the black celebrities' role in civic life.
I am certainly not the first person to point out Rihanna’s brusque and immoderate self-presentation. In fact, she may be one of the most oft-criticized role models in America. She acknowledged as much last October when, speaking to British Vogue, she lamented how “people – especially white people – they want me to be a role model just because of the life I lead…they expect it of me and it became more of my job than I wanted it to be.” Fair enough. I may just be too white to understand Rihanna, who seems to believe that black leaders would never take umbrage with cultures of bellicosity and nihilism, nor would they stress the importance of black civic participation or informed political involvement. Then again, maybe she’s off base.
Certainly Rihanna is right to point out that black celebrities are often more closely scrutinized than their white counterparts, being expected to serve as ambassadors for their race. In fact, members of the media often phrase the failures of black celebrities as signs of the failure of black culture itself. This is a lamentable reality, but one that Rihanna cannot simply wish away. As a drug user and a celebrity, Rihanna has had a say in the debate over the liberalization of drug laws foisted upon her. Though she has rejected her power to shape public perception, her expectation of maintaining celebrity while insisting the public not read her actions as endorsements of a particular lifestyle is utterly fruitless. Rihanna is famous and wealthy precisely because people are buying her holistically.
Rihanna to Amy Winehouse: You're weak, I'm not.
Lest it seem that Rihanna is being unfairly singled out – because, of course, there are many celebrities who perpetuate far more worrisome images of drug users – it must also be mentioned that Rihanna has recently been an active hindrance to the cause of responsible drug use. Speaking to the magazine Mondanite last week, Rihanna explained that she will never end up in a drug addiction treatment facility. “’That will never happen to me,” she explained, “I refuse to crack under pressure – in fact I thrive on it.” Mentioning other singers who have had substance abuse problems, she explained, “when I read about Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse…it’s sad. It is easy to criticize them but it happens. You just have to stay focused and keep your feet on the ground.”
Anyone engaged in the current debates regarding drug policy and research should find this sort of statement worrisome. Rihanna is – knowingly or not – promoting the idea that the need for substance abuse treatment is a sign of weakness, a sign of an inability to “keep your feet on the ground.” Amy Winehouse’s untimely demise, to her mind, is not attributable in any way to the physically and emotionally addicting and destructive properties of hard drug use. Rather, it is a result of being dim and feeble. This sort of viewpoint, despite de-emphasizing the potential harmfulness of drug use, is damaging to the drug policy liberalization cause. It is so transparently ignorant and wrongheaded that it only serves to further emphasize how ill-informed and irresponsible many drug users are.
Fair enough, but understand the implications.
It would be easy to brush all of this talk aside by simply noting that nobody of import will look to Rihanna for guidance on drug policy in the first place. Such a comment would be correct to the extent that nobody will look at Rihanna in particular to gauge the state of drug use in America. As much as we would like to believe public opinion is shaped by hard data, informed introspection, and levelheaded debate, however, celebrity behaviour plays a role in defining how the public sees social issues, giving Rihanna and her ilk some importance to this debate. In a world in which Fox gets big ratings for a show in which two charmless millionaires spend nine episodes mocking impoverished mountain people, the cult of celebrity rules. The attitudes of celebrities, therefore, have small but substantial affects on the Undecideds who may see in people like Rihanna (or Charlie Sheen, or whomever) a culture of drug use that promotes incivility and recklessness. Like any political movement, opposition to the Drug War and proponents of marijuana legalization need allies who project sober consideration and meaningful values and, to that extent, Rihanna has been one lousy ally this week.