Politicians and law enforcement have used many tactics to fight the war on drugs, but they have been frustrated at every turn. Arresting users doesn’t stop people from using drugs. Eradicating crops and labs doesn’t end the supply. DARE campaigns don’t persuade kids to stay away from drugs in the first place.
So far, the war on drugs is a massive, frustrating, expensive flop.
But there is a weapon more persuasive than any DARE campaign, more devastating than any crop-eradication program, more of a deterrent than even the most fearsome prison. It’s the powerful psychological weapon of making drugs boring, and it could win the war on drugs overnight.
Here’s how it can happen, in five simple steps.
1. Make It Impossible For Outlaws and Rebels to Show Off With Drugs.
This is the Easy Rider argument, also known as the Young Jeezy argument. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Riderpersonified an outlaw spirit, in part because they weresmuggling drugs in the gas tanks of their motorcylces. Drugs, because they were illegal and part of a lawless underworld, were a great way for Hopper and Fonda to express their rebellious nature. Similarly, Young Jeezy has had a massive hit with his record “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation” in part because of his claim to be the “snowman” — i.e., a cocaine dealer. Just like Hopper and Fonda, Young Jeezy draws cultural cachet from the opportunity to side with the outlaws through references to drugs.
How do you make all these cool drug references boring? By decriminalizing drugs. Once that happens, it stops being funand interesting to smuggle drugs in your gas tank or to refer to them cryptically in your lyrics. That’s why nobody boasts about being a Tylenol dealer, why nobody develops secret slang words to talk about flouride rinse or cholesterol medication. Ifanybody can have access to drugs, then drugs just aren’t very cool. In fact, they’re boring.
2. Acknowledge and Exploit the Commercial Medical Potential of Drugs.
Picture a rebellious teenage guy saying to himself “I really want to take some glaucoma medication!” Picture a rock star singing the following line in a song: “I want to take medicine that helps me deal with terminal colon cancer.” It’s tough to do, because these applications of marijuana and ecstasy, respectively, are boring. They may be enormously valuable to individuals suffering from serious illness, but helping sick people is not cool and rebellious. Or even if it’s sort of cool when it’s done in the context of a medical marijuana collective, it really just would not be cool if it took place in an actual hospital. There is nothing cool about hospitals or sick people, which is why Young Jeezy does not rap about them and why Easy Rider was not about a pair of wild and crazy oncologists.
A Cancer Patient. Boring.
3. Package Drugs in a Dorky Box Covered With Legal Mumbo Jumbo and Warnings from the Surgeon General.
This one is guaranteed to ruin at least half the fun for most drug users. Rather than getting their drugs delivered in exciting scented FedEx packages, dime bags, crack vials and human intestines, force people to buy drugs on the open market, which will quickly gravitate to the type of boring packaging used for every other product in the world. In most cases, drugs will have to come in a tedious little box that will be covered with tiny legal disclaimers. The packaging will have to have an irritating child-proof cap and warnings from the surgeon general that the users will ignore. In short, people who are using recreational drugs to self-medicate and get through the day will be forced to confront the rather sad reality of what they are actually doing, and people who are trying to have a wild and crazy time will be frustrated by how totally non-experimental the whole experience is. It just won’t be nearly as cool.
Crack Vials. Cool.
Brick of Hash. Cool.
Child Proof Cap. Totally Boring.
4. Tell People What Will Actually Happen If They Take Drugs
Would you sit through a whole football game or an episode of American Idol if you already knew how it was going to come out? Well, some people might if they had a big bag of chips to eat, but a lot of people would find that really boring. The drama is deflated when you know the outcome in advance. It can work the same way with drugs, which will ruin most of the fun. If mysterious, metaphorical ad campaigns that compared drug use to scrambling an egg were replaced by detailed descriptions of what effects drugs actually produce, how long their effects last, possible health risks, and so forth, it would be a heck of a lot harder to have any kind of drug adventure at all. You would know what was going to happen before you even started, which is not interesting. And if drugs were produced in a way that kept their quality and potency uniform over time, taking a regular dose of some now-exotic drug like cocaine or methamphetamine might not be so risky. It might be like drinking a six pack of Miller Lite, which is not sexy or chic. Miller Lite is boring.
Anti-Methamphetamine Advertisement. Spooky + Juvenile + Intriguing = Cool.
Pfizer Web Page Describing Possible Xanax Side Effects. Informative + Non-Scary = Boring.
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5. Two Words: Lawsuits and Taxes
There is no more powerful system in the world for making products boring than the American system of civil litigation. Our lawsuits have helped us win the war against lawn darts and the war against the Ford Pinto, not to mention the wars against spontaneity, innovation and risk. And as tough as the drug menace may seem, lawsuits can help us win the war against that too. Civil liability will ensure that the companies that get into the business of manufacturing recreational drugs will have to be just as timid as the cigarette companies that have been forced to launch expensive ad campaigns to persuade people not to use their products and the alcohol companies that are constantly trying to make sure they don’t make alcohol seem like too much fun. Lawsuits will force drug dealers to grapple with the same tedious financial realities, like insurance, that burden the rest of the business world and will promote comprehensive boringness in every aspect of the way drugs are produced, advertised and sold. Taxing drug dealers will also work wonders in converting their carefree lifestyles into the type of sedate, fiscally responsible behavior that we expect out of upstanding citizens. Once they start worrying more about depreciation and amortization than about getting killed by their competitors, their general vibe of rebelliousness will be very difficult to maintain.
Taxes for Dummies: Boring
In short, America is missing out on an a golden opportunity to capitalize on the power of boredom. We have been losing the war on drugs for far too long because many of the tactics we use have the perverse effect of making drugs seem really interesting, rebellious and unusual, thereby increasing their appeal to precisely the audience that is most likely to want to use drugs in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Drugs don’t have to be fun. They can be boring as hell. We can make them that way. All it takes is a little American ingenuity and know-how, and a whole lot of regulation.
Update: Even though the tone of this piece is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, the “make drugs boring” strategy is actually working to change attitudes toward heroin use in Switzerlandand has helped to cut heroin use dramatically in that country.
Update 2: This post is the jumping-off point for some other posts that explore the same ideas in more detail. A post on the possibilities for “recreational use” drug labels is here, and a discussion of imposing tort liability on negligent manufacturers of illegal drugs is here. California’s move to tax sales of medical marijuana is noted here, and some proposals for what it might mean to run a “boring” medical marijuana dispensary are here.