Everyone knows that alcohol and drugs are dangerous. We hear about the havoc they can wreak on our bodies, the tragedies they can cause, and the crimes committed in their name. We know that they can hurt and maim and kill. We also know that they are everywhere. There are almost no cultures in the world without mind altering substances of some kind.
Brave New World, a novel by Aldous Huxley, depicts a dystopia in which a society’s citizens are absolutely numb to their own oppression and to the horrors committed by the ruling powers. When they feel something undesirable, or begin to doubt or question their surroundings, they take drugs to numb themselves once again.
In North America, as a child, it was assumed that I would grow up to participate in the social rituals of drinking, and I never questioned this notion until years later. In elementary school conversation, my friends and I agreed that it was inevitable that we would engage in the drinking culture in high school. To us, growing up and ‘having fun’ was synonymous with drinking.
The half-hearted attempts of adults to discourage drinking tended to achieve the opposite effect. Drinking to rebel was common: a statement against our parents and our society, it was a popular choice.
But is it a true rebellion? While parents might not expect their own children to drink, society as a whole absolutely expects young people to drink. Ironically, a society numbed by alcohol and drugs is a society less capable of rebellion.
Aside from the obvious benefits to the alcohol industry, there are others who stand to gain from widespread use of alcohol and drugs among young people. This includes anyone with a vested interest in keeping the status quo.
It is incredibly advantageous in a power struggle to be able to numb people to reality, and alcohol and drugs is one way in which this is achieved. A people that is distracted, that engages in forms of non-rebellious escapism, is one that is easy to control.
The mind altering powers of drugs and alcohol, coupled with their addictive nature, makes them a powerful tool of suppression. Even those not addicted to alcohol can feel the pull to drink when sad, to drink when hopeless, to drink when disenchanted with their circumstances. Oftentimes, people find it difficult to stomach reality without a substance of some kind. The teenage culture surrounding alcohol and drugs as I experienced it was not confined to parties, and seemed unconcerned with discretion. Use of marijuana was common on school grounds, and I was even aware of people taking drugs such as Xanax and Adderall recreationally while in class. During my grade 11 geography class field trip, many students were high on edible marijuana products. Though most people I knew drank on occasion, it was those I knew to have difficult home lives or found that the educational system did not work for them who displayed more such problematic habits with regard to alcohol and drugs.
Evidently, there are many people for whom our current education system is not effective, but instead of trying to change the system, people are simply ignoring the issues with the help of alcohol and drugs. This helps to maintain the status quo, and helps our education system to continue to churn out people unused to challenging the societal power structures that place them at a disadvantage.
There are also historical examples of alcohol and drugs being introduced into populations in order to similarly render them docile and numb. When settlers arrived in North America, one of the things they offered the indigenous people in return for their goods was alcohol. The settlers committed countless atrocities against the indigenous peoples in North America, in part thanks to the power of alcohol to subdue populations. It became integral to the colonial power grab in North America. While the settlers acquired goods, land, and power, the First Nations experienced widespread alcoholism, an issue which continues to this day. And colonial power structures, in place now for generations, benefit from the continued suppression of a demographic of North American society with innumerable reasons to rebel against the system.
It is easier to try to forget the roots of our society’s many issues than it is to address them. This can occur on an individual level, but it is also very clearly occurring on a societal level. Poor communities more than anyone else are ravaged by drugs and alcohol. In addition to all the many other factors keeping the poor poor and the rich rich, there is the convenient ‘band-aid’ solution to problems that is too often turned to: drugs and alcohol. In the United States, “almost twice as many people who are unemployed struggle with addiction than those who are full-time workers.” To avoid rather than confront is all too common. And a drugged people, one under the influence of substance and thus kept content with an altered reality, finds it less appealing, and even less necessary, to undertake the difficult task of confronting the issues that they face.
Not only do drugs and alcohol help numb a people to their plight, they also open the door for unfair treatment in justice systems. When they are made illegal, another layer of struggle can be put on the marginalized, who are already more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol: targeting by law enforcement. In the United States, around 1 in 5 inmates are incarcerated on drug charges, and even more commit crimes in order to gain access to drugs.
During the War on Drugs in the United States, poor black communities were decimated by the introduction of crack cocaine and the subsequent mass incarceration of black people. This was not accidental- penalties for crack cocaine were much more severe than those for powder cocaine (favoured by the more wealthy). Officials in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations admitted openly to being aware of the way the policies of the War on Drugs unfairly targeted black Americans. Millions were imprisoned, and continue to be to this day.
Alcohol and drugs do not only present a threat to the individual. It is not only drunk drivers or liver damage that must be looked out for- we must acknowledge and fight the ways in which substances can be used, to devastating effect, as tools of oppression.