Modern-day generations can always look back and admire their superiority of past generations in a number of fields. We can deem many practices as “barbaric” and can be thankful that we live in better times. I remember being horrified as a child about the fact that people actually enslaved other people, oblivious to the fact that modern-day slavery unfortunately still exists. I couldn’t believe that women in the United States didn’t have the federal right to vote until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 or that there were separate water fountains for people of color.
While we assume that the most enlightened people of the day would not engage in barbarism, Thomas Jefferson, one of the elite intellectuals of his time, who actually advocated for the abolishment of slavery owned hundreds of slaves himself. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence was thought of as such a strong advocate for the mentally that his likeness is still utilized for the seal of the American Psychiatric Association today, yet he engaged in many crazy medical practices. From The Huffington Post:
In his thriving private practice Dr. Rush doused patients with cold water in the winter, gave them “artificial diarrhea” and bled them-in Mr. D.T.’s case, four gallons.
Rush’s biggest contribution was in the area of psychiatry. Believing mental illness to be caused by bad circulation to the brain, he “twirled” patients from ropes suspended from the ceiling, for hours on end. He also invented the “tranquilizer chair,” employed all over the world. This innovation restrained a patient’s hands and feet, covered his head with a wooden box and had a hole cut in the bottom, for bodily functions.
Believing that pain and suffering were curative, Dr. Rush beat, starved and verbally abused his patients, and poured acid on their backs. He cut them with knives and kept the wounds open for months or years, to facilitate “permanent discharge from the brain.”
Our drug policy will look dated to future generations, because every drug policy always looks dated to the generations that follow. This is inevitable — partly thanks to the nature of scientific research. Some studies will have more alarming results than others, and those studies tend to shape policy. It’s only further study — and often further societal experimentation — before we get an idea of what a drug does to people, and to the civilization they live in. So when we make decisions about drugs based on existing research, we look ignorant because, compared to future generations, we are ignorant. But that, by itself, doesn’t make us seem barbaric.
What makes us seem barbaric is when, despite our ignorance, we dole out harsh penalties. When, during Prohibition, the government started poisoning alcohol to keep people from drinking, it was barbaric, and it did not stop people drinking. When people get twelve-year prison sentences for selling thirty-one dollars worth of marijuana, it’s barbaric and it doesn’t stop people from smoking pot. Meanwhile, tobacco use has steadily declined via taxation and annoyingly self-righteous ad campaigns — neither of which future generations will call barbaric.
Of course the barbaric practice of locking up our fellow humans in cages for utilizing a non-lethal substance like cannabis, should be the first barbaric Drug War policy that we end. But we need to also acknowledge the utter insanity of placing nonviolent people, regardless of their drug of choice, into prisons filled with violent and dangerous prisons; especially when authorities can’t even keep dangerous drugs out of prison.
Our Drug War has led to too many barbaric consequences to fill up numerous history books: from law enforcement officers killing an elderly Atlanta woman and trying to frame her as a drug dealer after unconstitutionally raiding her home; to shooting family pets, again, and again, and again; to kidnapping a medical marijuana patient’s child; to sentencing Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man to die in prison for three nonviolent marijuana offenses and then allowing him to remain in prison even though the law has subsequently been changed so no one else will have to suffer such a draconian punishment. Unfortunately, these barbaric Drug War practices occur everyday in alarming numbers. I have no doubt that future generations will consider the Drug War barbaric and hope that it won’t be too long before future generations wonder why we engaged in such barbarism and am proud to join other civil libertarians and social justice advocates in fighting these barbaric policies.