“It is important to realize that ALL black markets are dangerous to the public health, damaging to the economy, corrupting to officials, and create a basis for crime”
Bear “Owsley” Stanley
The Grateful Dead were a legendary California band that went from being totally broke and playing for free in San Francisco parks to becoming multi-millionaires and one of the most successful live acts in the history of the music industry. They famously were the ‘house band’ for the early acid tests and were (initially) financially supported by Owsley one of the most well known Underground Chemists of the day.
In many respects they were pioneers of the “San Francisco sound” and the band became synonymous with the whole “hippie ethos” which sprang from the sociological experiment that was the Haight Ashbury in the late sixties. People who were into the alternative culture of that period identified with the band and thought of it as “our” band, the band of that generation of ‘freaks’ who were proud to call themselves ‘Deadheads’. The Grateful Dead played whilst the Deadheads got high. Then acid was made illegal and things got tricky.
A large part of the blame for the hysterical over-reaction of the authorities to LSD and to illicit drugs in general can be laid at the feet of Timothy Leary. Leary was a renegade Harvard professor with a mouth that exceeded the measure of his intellect by a considerable factor. Leary delighted in shocking the mainstream press with sensationalist claims as to the benefits of LSD. His pathetic and simplistic catch cry of “turn on tune in drop out” became the alarm bell that alerted the authorities to the ‘problem’ of drugs and hastened LSD being driven underground. This was to have incalculably negative long-term effects.
The Grateful Dead were always distrustful of the loud-mouthed proselytizing blandishments of anyone who was in favor of the consumption of drugs. The Dead’s own ‘way’ was infinitely more subtle and sophisticated than Leary’s blustering performances. In certain respects, within the Grateful Dead, it was considered in rather poor taste to make direct reference to LSD and it certainly was not the case that anyone in the group publicly propounded widespread consumption as any kind of panacea or solution to anything.
As a group of artists they remained discreet whilst preferring to allude to the substance elliptically and metaphorically through their music and lyrics rather than by direct exhortation. Everyone in their audience knew (for example) what the lyric “ladyfinger dipped in moonlight writing what for across the morning sky” was referring to, and if they didn’t then they darned soon found out and not by reading the newspapers.
With drugs being seen as a mounting problem the authorities dedicated more and more resources to their suppression with all of the law enforcement agencies only too happy to stress the accumulating scale of the problem as a simple means of producing ever accelerating budget levels for their departments. This spiraling self-reinforcing series of events eventually led to the President of the United States declaring an all-out “war on drugs” with thousands of consumers being imprisoned for ever-increasing periods of time. The battle lines were well and truly drawn.
The ‘failure’ of Grateful Dead (the whole gamut of band and supporters who at this stage numbered in the several millions) was to do anything effectively to arrest the development of the continuingly punitive approach to drugs. Very little if anything was said or done to support the notion of a more balanced approach and people generally were so intimidated by the ‘forces of order’ that no-one seemed able or willing to ‘put their head above the parapet’ and call for a more rational approach to the ‘problem’. Indeed, it would have been a brave person that could claim publicly that there simply was NO problem and America and the Western World in general seemed to have no small child willing to stand up and bravely point out that the emperor had no clothes!
What had started out as harmless fun and hedonistic involvement (if not spiritual ritual) became criminalized and a danger to one’s individual liberty. If one consumed drugs, cultivated them, or possessed them the chances were one was going to get busted. Over the years ten and thousands of people were imprisoned, some for savage periods of time, and yet no effectively organized form of resistance was to ever emerge.
The forces of repression remain pre-eminent to this day and towards the end of the Grateful Dead’s artistic life in the 90’s there was serous disquiet in band circles that the Dead were actually making their fans a target for police action by conveniently gathering them all together in the one place where drugs were consumed – their concerts! The activities of the police was certainly not restricted merely to the band’s fan base – Garcia their lead guitarist was busted numerous times.
The most pernicious effect of the whole war on drugs has been the criminalization of the means of production and distribution of illegal narcotics. When there was virtually no legal action taken against drugs (in the early sixties) there was little or no criminal involvement in the drug trade – indeed, a drug trade barely existed with the whole thing being based upon trust and exchange between friends. As the repression increased so the potential for profit increased and as a result criminals saw an opportunity to get involved. They have done this with startling and ruthless efficiency, so that all of the drug trade is now controlled by supra-national criminal gangs and narco-terrorists who are virtually too powerful for law-enforcement agencies to deal with.
Where is all of this to end? The war will not be on the streets of Pakistan and Afghanistan but much closer to home and it is already well under way with over twenty thousand deaths. This is the war for control of the supply of drugs to the major cities of the United States and Canada. This war is currently being waged in Mexico but slowly and surely it is expanding to the mainland of North America. In every major American city South American gangs are already entrenched and when the battle for supremacy has played out in Mexico it will move to the Detroit’s and Chicago’s and other cities.
Local police departments will be unable to match the ferocity and firepower of the criminal cartels (as has happened in Mexico) and the ‘war’ against them will become professionalized. This put simply, means that Federal military resources will inevitably be brought to bear, which (in turn) means full-scale urban warfare with mounting casualties. The extraordinary thing is that all of this can be directly traced back to the initial approach to drugs, their being made illegal, and the virtually supine acceptance by people of my generation of this turn of events. On every level the people of the sixties failed and we are now reaping the ‘benefits’ of that failure.
We now have a President of the United States who is honest enough to admit that he’s smoked pot and sniffed cocaine. This admission didn’t stop him getting elected. It is time for some super-realism to enter the debate about drugs. Come to think of it, it’s time there WAS a debate about drugs, one based upon a realistic assessment of what is happening on the street. It would be wise for this debate to be conducted before the streets of American cities are awash with the blood of decapitated bodies as they are in Mexico.
As the prohibitions on alcohol delivered America into the hands of the Mafia, so the prohibitions on drugs have delivered America into the hands of an even more ruthless enemy. The only possible public policy that will halt the inexorable advance of South American narco-cartels is a policy of decriminalization or outright legalization. This, it seems, is unlikely to happen and the future is bleak. How many deaths will it take before the United States grasps the nettle and realizes that it is in making drugs illegal in the first place that the roots of all the current problems lie?
As the Chinese saying has it: ‘we live in interesting times’.
© sam cutler 2011