There is variety in the range of drugs. I know that marijuana mostly just makes you like patio furniture, while heroin renders you ethereally indifferent and a little reptilian, and cocaine pumps you up with your own imaginary fabulousness before throwing you down into your own trashiness. And then there's meth, which seems to have the same general effect as rabies, except that the victims crave it desperately.
Whatever their differences, these drugs, when used consistently, constantly, destructively, are all anesthesia from pain. The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing so, and by some estimates about a third to a half of that money goes back to Mexico.
The Price of Numbness
We want not to feel what's happening to us, and then we do stuff that makes worse things happen—to us and others. We pay for it, too, in a million ways, from outright drug-overdose deaths (which now exceed traffic fatalities, and of which the United States has the highest rate of any nation except tiny Iceland, amounting to more than 37,000 deaths here in 2009 alone) to the violence of drug-dealing on the street, the violence of people on some of those drugs, and the violence inflicted on children who are neglected, abandoned, and abused because of them—and that's just for starters. The stuff people do for money when they're desperate for drugs generates more violence and more crazy greed for the money to buy the next round. And drug use is connected to the spread of HIV and various strains of hepatitis.
Then there's our futile "war on drugs" that has created so much pain of its own. It's done so by locking up mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children for insanely long prison sentences and offering no treatment. It does so by costing so much it's warping the economies of states that have huge numbers of nonviolent offenders in prison and not enough money for education or healthcare. It does so by branding as felons and pariahs those who have done time in the drug-war prison complex. It was always aimed most directly at African-Americans, and the toll it's taken would require a week of telling.
No border divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes. It's one big continent of pain—and in the last several years the narcos have begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating new cultures of addiction and misery. (And yes, Mexico, your extravagantly corrupt government, military, and police have everything to do with the drug war now, but file that under greed, as usual, about which your pretty new president is unlikely to do anything much.)
Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply would have to wither away as well. Many talk about legalizing drugs, and there's something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the causes of that suffering?
Some drug use is, of course, purely recreational, but even recreational drug use stimulates these economies of carnage. And then there are the overdoses of the famous and the unsung on prescription and illicit drugs. Tragic, but those dismembered and mutilated bodies the drug gangs deposit around Mexico are not just tragic, they're terrifying.
GNP: Gross National Pain and the Pain Export Economy
Mexico, my near neighbor, I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You could say that air-conditioners don't really cool things down so much as they relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little like that: people in the US are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they're exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.
In economics, we talk about "externalized costs": this means the way that you and I pick up the real cost of oil production with local and global ecological degradation or wars fought on behalf of the oil corporations. Or the way Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up the tab for their food stamps and medical care.
With the drug economy, there are externalized traumas. I imagine them moving in a huge circulatory system, like the Gulf Stream, or old trade routes. We give you money and guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much about.
The drugs are supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much pain elsewhere. There's a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy, and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away. Think of it as another kind of GNP—gross national pain—though I don't know how you'd quantify it.
A friend of mine who's lived in Latin America for large parts of the last decade says that she's appalled to see people doing cocaine at parties she goes to in this country. I mentioned that to an anthropologist who was even bleaker in describing the cocaine migration routes out of the Andes and all the dead babies and exploited women she'd seen along the way.
We've had movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops, grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but no one's thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.
Picture middle-class people here stuffing the blood of campesinos up their noses. Picture poor people injecting the tears of other poor people into their veins. Picture them all smoking children's anguish. And imagine if we called it by name.
America, #1 in Pain
I don't know why my country seems to produce so much misery and so much desire to cover it up under a haze of drugs, but I can imagine a million reasons. A lot of us just never put down roots or adapted to a society that's changing fast under us or got downsized or evicted or foreclosed or rejected or just move around a lot. This country is a place where so many people don't have a place, literally or psychologically. When you don't have anywhere to go with your troubles, you can conveniently go nowhere—into, that is, the limbo of drugs and the dead-end that represents.
But there's something else front and center to our particular brand of misery. We are a nation of miserable optimists. We believe everything is possible and if you don't have it all, from the perfect body to profound wealth, the fault is yours. When people suffer in this country—from, say, foreclosures and bankruptcies due to the destruction of our economy by the forces of greed—the shame is overwhelming. It's seen as a personal failure, not the failure of our institutions. Taking drugs to numb your shame also keeps you from connecting the dots and opposing what's taken you down.
So when you're miserable here, you're miserable twice: once because you actually lost your home/job/savings/spouse/girlish figure and all over again because it's not supposed to be like that (and maybe thrice because our mainstream society doesn't suggest any possibility of changing the circumstances that produced your misery or even how arbitrary those circumstances are). I suspect that all those drugs are particularly about numbing a deep American sense of failure or of smashed expectations.
The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness.
Really, when you think of the rise of crack cocaine during the Reagan era, wasn't it an exact corollary to the fall of African-American opportunity and the disintegration of the social safety net? The government produced failure and insecurity, and crack buffered the results (and proved a boon to a burgeoning prison-industrial complex). Likewise, the drug-taking that exploded in the 1960s helped undermine the radical movements of that era. Drugs aren't a goad to action, but a deadening alternative to it. Maybe all those zombies everywhere in popular culture nowadays are trying to say something about that.
Here in the United States, there's no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you're crazy or sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, and there's always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol, but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing mass decapitations in Mexico.
Roads to Destruction and the Palace of the Dead
When I think about the drug wars and the drug culture here, I think about a young man I knew long ago. He was gay, from Texas, disconnected from his family, talented but not so good at finding a place in the world for that talent or for himself. He was also a fan of the beat novelist and intermittent junkie William Burroughs, and he believed that line about how "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Maybe it was fine when William Blake said it in the 1790s, since Blake wasn't a crackhead. But my friend got from Burroughs—a man with family money and apparently an iron constitution—the idea that derangement of the senses was a great creative strategy.
This was all part of our youth in a culture that constantly reinforced how cool drugs were, though back then another beat writer, the poet David Meltzer, told me methamphetamine was a form of demonic possession. The young man becamepossessed in this way and lost his mind. He became homeless and deranged, gone to someplace he couldn't find his way back from, and I would see him walking our boulevards barefoot and filthy, ranting to himself.
Then I heard he had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He wasn't yet 30; he was just a sweet boy. I could tell four or five more stories like his about people I knew who died young of drugs. The meth that helped him down his road of no return was probably a domestic product then, but now vast quantities of it are made in Mexico for us—15 tons of it were found earlier this year in Guadalajara, enough for 13 million doses, worth about $4 billion retail.
When I think about the drug wars, I also think about my visit to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Mexico City in 2007. A young friend with me there insisted on going. It was perilous for outsiders like us even to travel through Tepito, the black-marketeers' barrio, let alone go to the shrine where imposing, somber men were praying and lighting candles to the skeleton goddess who is the narcotraficantes' patron saint. They worship death; they're intimate with her; they tattoo her on their flesh, and there she was in person—in bones without flesh, surrounded by candles, by gifts, by cigarettes and gold, an Aztec goddess gone commercial.
My companion wanted to take pictures. I wanted to live and managed to convince him that thugs' devotional moments were not for our cameras. When it came time to leave, the warm patroness of the shrine locked up the stand in which she sold votive candles and medallions, took each of us by an arm—as if nothing less than bodily contact with death's caretaker would keep us safe—and walked us to the subway. We survived that little moment of direct contact with the drug war. So many others have not.
Mexico, I am sorry. I want to see it all change, for your sake and ours. I want to call pain by name and numbness by name and fear by name. I want people to connect the dots from the junk in their brain to the bullet holes in others' heads. I want people to find better strategies for responding to pain and sadness. I want them to rebel against those parts of their unhappiness that are political, not metaphysical, and not run in fear from the metaphysical parts either.
I want the narcotraficantes to repent and give their billions to the poor. I want the fear to end. A hundred years ago, your dictatorial president Porfiro Diaz supposedly remarked, "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States," which nowadays could be revised to, "Painful Mexico, so far from peace and so close to the numbness of the United States."
Rebecca Solnit lived through the inner-city crack wars in the 1980s and tried most drugs a very long time ago. A TomDispatch regular, she is the author of thirteen books, including, most recently, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, which maps, among other things, the 99 murders in her city in 2008, most of them of poor young men caught up in the usual, and the lives of undocumented laborers in San Francisco. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.