Opinion: What underlies our skepticism about drug use, COVID-19 vaccines?

Saladin Ambar | March 19, 2021 | Opinion
We have a belief-in-government crisis, fueled by endemic racism, classism and a patently unjust criminal justice system
Saladin Ambar

In the three weeks since Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law New Jersey’s legalization of marijuana, other drug-related issues have taken up quite a bit of space in the news. The discussion involves a triumvirate of public-policy considerations, all rife with skepticism from both the left and the right. Each is entirely reasonable in its own right, but they pose dilemmas for how we collectively re-envision life in a post-pandemic world.

All of it comes down to control over our bodies. As G.K. Chesterton wrote about Prohibition 100 years ago during his visit to America: “It is not normal for the State to be perpetually regulating our days with the discipline of a fighting regiment; and it is not normal for the State to be perpetually regulating our diet with the discipline of a famine.”

The first of the three drug-related stories to emerge was on February 22, when Murphy’s signature made New Jersey the 13th state to legalize marijuana. Seen by most New Jerseyans as a policy long overdue, it was implemented in part to reverse a highly discriminatory policy. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey,” the governor said at the bill’s signing, “for low-level drug offenses, is unjust and indefensible.” Skepticism from some on the right had to do with the possibility that decriminalizing weed would lead to early use of the drug by minors. While not an unreasonable concern, the problem has proven moot. As Chesterton argued, “Prohibition never prohibits.” So it seems especially true with marijuana.

The other drug-related news story of note has to do with Columbia University professor Carl Hart’s recent revelations of his personal use of heroin in “helping make me a better person.” Hart’s personal anecdotes of unwinding after the stresses of academic work by doing lines of heroin by the fireplace admittedly escape this author (now compelled to revisit whether my productivity is perhaps far less stress-inducing than I have imagined). But his larger argument is one similarly directed to redressing the historic injustices of America’s failed war on drugs. Some on the left have applauded, many on the right have become apoplectic; a great number of African Americans have been astonished. It seems heroin is, pardon the pun, a line too far to cross. Having witnessed up close the apocalyptic devastation of heroin’s effect on the Black community in the 1970s, I can say, however well-intentioned Hart is on this point, I remain one of those skeptics who find a “grown-up” approach to heroin’s acceptability more than a trifle odious.

This brings me to the third story, which involves the vaccines now promised to be more readily available, per President Joe Biden’s announcement that all Americans will be eligible for vaccination by May 1. That is great news for beating back the coronavirus pandemic that has turned life into a full year of those “regulated days” deplored by Chesterton. But that regulation, however varyingly adhered to, undoubtedly significantly reduced the number of virus-related deaths in this country, albeit to a still far-too-ghastly number. One lone death attributed to the conventional flu over this season, is sufficient evidence to a viral-ignoramus like me that masking, washing hands and staying socially distant, probably worked wonders. Yet, skepticism related to the vaccines now increasingly available, endures. Those doubts are well-earned — especially in the African American community, where medical experimentation on black bodies has been part of this nation’s ghoulish history of white supremacy. I, for one, plan on getting vaccinated (I assure you, my BMI places me at far greater risk than my place in the vaccine queue seems to warrant). Nevertheless, I am often at a loss to share with friends and loved ones precisely why vaccination this time will be colorblind in its benefits, when next to nothing in the Black experience provides evidence of such justice from the state.

Ultimately, whether it comes to the legalization of marijuana, Ivy League exhortations about heroin’s benefits or Dr. Fauci’s reasoned pleas for all to get vaccinated as soon as possible, we have a trust-in-government problem as much as anything in this country. And underlying that problem is endemic racism, classism and a patently unjust criminal justice system.

Perhaps part of the underlying skepticism is the decoupling of personal — dare I say, spiritual attentiveness — from our political ills. The temptation to resolve our woes through drugs — even when they are effective — matches our march toward externalities of pleasure, joy and peace. All the while, we remain infected from a host of inner troubles in great need of attention. I profess no immunity from any of this. But my fireplace tonight will thankfully not be accompanied by an ether contaminated by poison smoke. Settling in with one’s fatigues, anxieties, and woes is unpleasant business. But knowing they are there, we can address them — and in addressing whatever personal ills we are encircled by, we may yet, better manage those produced by a polity that all too often ossifies them.

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