Are America's Anti-Drug Laws Scientific? Or Are They Colonialist and Racist?

American anti-drug laws are inspired by colonialism and racism, not science. They are at odds with our current understanding of addiction and ignore the economic blight of this second gilded age.

Maia Szalavitz:  Our drug policy has really been traditionally based on racism and moralizing.  The reason that the currently illegal drugs are illegal has nothing to do with a scientific evaluation of the relative risks and benefits, otherwise you could never come up with a situation where marijuana is illegal and tobacco is legal.  We cannot make a rational argument for that.  That comes from racism and colonialism.  The drug laws were made in explicitly racist circumstances for explicitly racist reasons.  For example, the first anti-cocaine laws were made because cocaine supposedly made black men impervious to bullets and prone to getting involved with white women.  This is complete nonsense where there is no science to it whatsoever and yet it was published in the New York Times in the early 1900s.  So this is where our laws come from and we have to be honest about that and we have to stop pretending that there is some kind of rational basis for the laws that we currently have.

Then what we need to do is realize that you can't make policy based on I think it's bad for you to have unearned pleasure.  You have to make policy based on does this hurt you?  Does this hurt other people?  And that's where harm reduction comes from.  The basic idea of harm reduction is what policy will most reduce the harm related to drugs?  And once you start to focus on harm you have to look not only at harm associated with drugs but harm associated with drug policy.  And this is why so many harm reduction people rapidly become legalizers because the harm associated with drug prohibition has not produced the results that people would like.  It does not stop addiction.  It does not prevent kids from using drugs.  It makes the kids who use drugs be at higher risk of dying from them.  It doesn't save society's productivity by like keeping people from taking substances that will make them not work; it just doesn't work.  And when you think about it, if addiction is defined as compulsive behavior despite negative consequences and you're trying to use negative consequences in order to stop it, something is seriously wrong there.  So our drug policy has to acknowledge the reality that punishment doesn't fix addiction and that putting drug users in cages does nothing but worsen the problem and it doesn't deter kids.  This idea that like oh if we just really stigmatize this and make everybody hate drug users then kids will never use drugs.  Kids are going to do stupid risky things.  You want to reduce the chances that those things will kill them.  The idea that we can prevent adolescents from having sex or prevent adolescents from doing some kind of risky behavior is just absurd.  This comes out before humans even evolved.

Again, this is where comes back to racism.  Our image of the typical drug user or the typical drug addict is basically the same as our racist stereotype of whichever groups we happen to be targeting, so criminal, lying, manipulative, deceitful, you know, all of these things that we project onto other people and then stigmatize and attack them for we do the same with drug users.  Obviously if you make a behavior that someone feels is essential to their survival illegal, they are going to lie to protect that behavior.  That doesn't mean that they're fundamentally a dishonest person.

The reason that we continue to have these stereotypes about who drug users are is because of the ongoing racism of our society.  And until we acknowledge that like I am the typical drug user if there is such a thing.  I don't look like your stereotype but that doesn't mean that the stereotype is accurate.  So I think that's a really important thing that people really have to learn because for too long the media has enabled the racist view of addiction and has enabled people to sort of say I'm not the typical addict.  And I used to say that and then I realized wow that's like kind of racist.  It comes from images that we shouldn't of ever had.  So, I think that the way to get beyond that and the way to help people with addiction is to understand that people with addiction are not seeking extra pleasure, they are not hedonists who are just out there having so much fun using that you can't stop them unless you put them in jail.

People who get addicted, which are only ten to 20 percent of the people who use drugs like cocaine and heroin and prescription opioids, those people have problems.  The drugs seem like a solution to them.  Until we recognize that those people are speaking reasonably rationally to deal with emotional and psychological problems and sometimes economic problems, we are not going to solve this problem.  And one of the things that I think we're actually in denial about with regard to the opioid epidemic is that while big pharma certainly didn't do anything good here, to say that this is caused by Perdue pharma selling Oxycotton is to miss the fact that the people who are overwhelmingly becoming addicted are people who are either falling out of the middle class or never managed to get into it.  If you actually look at the economics of this problem, it's not that middle-class people certainly don't get addicted and it's not that rich people don't get addicted, it's just that if your life is despair and you feel like it will never get any better, which is often the case when you lose the American dream or you lose the hope for your future, opioids are going to become very attractive.  And the idea that we can solve this by taking away the supply is just ridiculous.

I mean as soon as we started cracking down on the pill mills we started seeing a rise on heroin use.  This is not an unpredictable outcome.  Since we supposedly believe that addiction is a disease why would we think that simply cutting off the supply from some patients like turning over like making a thousand people - if we take this doctor out there's a thousand people in withdraw now we don't provide any help for them, why are we thinking this is going to fix this problem and why are we thinking that an illicit market is not going to immediately grow up to satisfy that demand?  The people who – the other thing that's important economically in this is that drug dealing is a way to make a living.  And if you have a desperate unhappy people without jobs, some of whom want to self medicate and some of whom would just like to actually get some money, you are going to have a drug selling problem and you are not going to solve that problem by putting people in jail. 

American anti-drug laws need serious reevaluation, both because of how they came to be and because of how they affect drug users. Perhaps there is no better authority on the issue than Maia Szalavitz, a journalist fluent in the most recent neuroscientific research and herself a former drug addict. Understanding scientific research as she does, Szalavitz says American drug laws have little to do with science and everything to do with prevailing social attitudes, which have been at times colonialist and, more recently, institutionally racist.

There is no other possible explanation, for example, why marijuana use is more punishable than tobacco use, especially given the well-documented health harms of tobacco. Here, there is both a colonial legacy — southern tobacco farmers once sold their crop back to England — and a racist one, as anti-marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced on people of color. Moralizing justifications, such as marijuana making people lazy and unproductive, are empirically false.

There is also a fundamental paradox in how laws address addiction, defined as "compulsive behavior despite negative consequences," in that current anti-drug laws inflict negative consequences — fines, jail sentences, etc. — as a way to stop drug use. Addicts are not amoral rogues, says Szalavitz. They are people who are more than likely on the short end of society's stick.

At a time when the national economy is leaving behind the middle class, staying the course on national anti-drug policy will harm our fellow citizens more than help them, and the repercussions fall on them — and us.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
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Mixing human + animal DNA and the future of gene editing

"The question is which are okay, which are not okay."

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.