(This article provided the notes for a talk Peter delivered at Harvard in 1989 to students in the JFK School of Government)

The most pertinent, but unasked question concerning America's "crack" problem is, "Why do so many Americans want to get stoned?"

There are two parts which may be helpful in framing an answer. The first part lies in simple continuum with what appears to be a common human urge to alter awareness, compounded and made lethal by contemporary chemistry. All cultures own techniques for altering consciousness for a variety of motives, from the spiritually transcendent to the equally universal, but less distinguished impulse to get "off the hook" - the temporary relief of everyday stress. Whether one employs fasting, dance, prayer, meditation, song, or the ingestion of psychoactive substances: cannabis, hashish, nicotine, yage, peyote, ayahuasca, alcohol, opium, epena, caffeine, or countless others, the act is as universal as disparaging the substances other cultures choose for their own pleasures. In North America use of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol is ubiquitous; yet we harbor the view that the universal use of the the coca leaf by Bolivian Indians is somehow a more sinister order of activity.

Whether an act as "social" or "anti-social" depends on prevailing community views. Murder directed toward members of the same society is universally prohibited, but murder directed at members of other societies is called war, and is almost universally condoned. The taking of psychoactive plants at puberty is celebrated as an act of initiation by many peoples in many cultures. By this celebration, elders in those societies absorb the transcendental impulse within the society and commensurately expand the society's menu of acceptable states of consciousness. Young Americans smoking marijuana are "anti-social" only to the degree that their parents resent the children's choice of altered state and draw prohibitory lines. Were the parents to understand that their children are driven by impulses common to the species, the matter could be dealt with in a less alarmist and divisive fashion.

The more pertinent aspect of the "answer" to the crack problem resides in the high it produces. The high itself offers the most distinctive clues of why it is so popular.

Anyone who has ever used cocaine in any form, and I plead guilty to past abuse, will agree on several characteristics of the high: a feeling of lucidity (rarely justified), a sense of engagement and excitement, and feelings of potency. Obviously, people who return to this drug again and again have some special attachment to such feelings. Consequently, it is fair to hypothesize that feelings of disengagement, confusion and social impotence might be common factors among those driven to seek their alternatives.

Variants of these feelings are common and engendered by personal histories which are beyond the scope of this discussion. What interests me however, are ways in which our domestic culture exacerbates such feelings, and consequently enhances or supports the drug problem. Understanding this might offer some direction as to what might be done about them.

  • Disengagement

Disengagement is a social common denominator uniting many classes and professions. Whether one makes the minimum wage flogging burgers at McDonald's, $75,000 a year designing a "better" promotion campaign for underarm deodorant, or $350,000 a year as a game show host, makes less difference than the uniting fact that all may be unfulfilled, unchallenged, and bored by their labors.

  • Confusion

Confusion (the opposite of lucidity) is impossible to avoid when media, politicians and experts, pundits and think-tanks, compete with one another to put the correct "spin " on scandals and conflicts which the man in the street usually perceives quite correctly or could if given available data. It is difficult to fight the status and power of the media and experts; their confidence, expensive reports, and polls and their apparent immunity to consequences. Even though the average person may well understand that pollsters tend to arrive at results their employers seek, after enough bombardment, citizens will retreat to cynicism (disengagement) or confusion (self-doubt) and retire from public debate. I offer the 65% of the voting public which stays home as casual evidence of this assertion.

  • Social Impotence

Social Impotence is the direct result of knowing that the Emperor is naked (or the product defective, or the approved plan absurd) and having no avenues or authority to address the case, or make a contribution towards a solution. This is fate of most employees in America, who contrary to managerial shibboleths, would enjoy feeling good at the end of a day. They labor under archaic management assumptions that assume labor as the "brawn" and management the "brains" of the corporate body. Management is rendered equally impotent by this division because it is denied access to the practical, problem-solving skills of its labor force. Is it any wonder that such stalemates, coupled with meaningless work induces desires to "get out of it"? [ To those who would challenge my assertion that disengagement and social impotence are endemic to the organization of labor and management by asking why aren't all labor and management stoned, my answer is "they damned near are." Why else has drug testing become such an issue for an increasingly broad spectrum of citizens?]

Years ago, I was a cultural policy advisor to the Governor of California, serving on the State Arts Council and Chairing that body for several years. At the beginning of my tenure there, I attended a retreat conducted by John Alexander,Vice-President of the American Management Association. His address was an eye-opening study of the complexities of office systems and an introduction to good management techniques. One aphorism from his opening remarks has stayed with me over the years and seems particularly appropriate to this issue: "If you don't have the authority to solve a problem, it is not your problem."

While this may be unequivocally true for a hierarchical, structured, organization, it is only partially true for society as a whole. The failure of managers to design or allow modes of work which encourage human growth, engagement and development of skills, becomes everyone's problem as consumers seek to save money by buying the highest quality goods elsewhere. Plants close and more and more people are reduced to "service" occupations, or worse, no occupations at all.

The failure of public policy makers and elected officials to discuss cultural and economic assumptions that support alienation, frustration and despair becomes everyone's problem as the ranks of the disenfranchised swell, and the franchised float on swelling seas of homeless, hopeless and desperate people, cushioned by their illusion that they can somehow "survive" in a culture without libraries, buses, enough schools, roads, and social services.

The failure of corporations to invest in their own future and the common environment; failures to save adequately to rebuild decaying plant capacity, and their diversion of money as unrealistic dividends to woo investors has cost the nation its industrial superiority. This is also everyone's problem. While I realize that none of these observations points directly towards a solution, they do indicate a process which might one day produce solutions. Until we begin asking pertinent questions, framing those questions according to our own perceptions rather than those of "experts", and pursuing them wherever they lead, we will have no hope of understanding our growing predicaments and eventually solving them.


  • The Bolivian Problem...

A recent trip to Bolivia offered me a case in point of the way that faulty premises and answering the wrong questions lead the best intentions astray. I've just spent some weeks in the Altiplano of Bolivia, and while this hardly qualifies me as an expert, most of my time there was spent in the company of Indians, talking, studying, the coca trade from their perspective, chewing coca with them, and trying to discover what the drug wars, U.S. coca eradication efforts, and American interventions meant to them, the majority of the population.

Powdered cocaine is made from coca leaves, so it seems logical to our policy planners to eradicate the "source" of the problem, and pressure, seduce, bully, cajole and intimidate foreign governments to eradicate the source of this American dilemma.

The first thing one learns in Bolivia (after being given a cup of coca tea to fight altitude sickness) is that coca leaves, sucked, chewed or brewed as tea, are a ubiquitous cultural staple for the 80% Indian majority. They regard it as a medicine and gift of God, and the perfect antidote to the grueling labor, cold, hunger and high altitude (11,000 -15,000 feet) which is their lot. Coca tea has been served for years at the American Embassy in La Paz, and is acknowledged as the a best "acclimatizer" for visiting Foreign Service personnel.

There are immense differences, psychologically, physiologically and chemically between sucking fifty or sixty coca leaves all day, and reducing kilos of leaves to cocaine by leaching them with kerosene or diesel fuel, bicarbonate of soda and toilet paper, then washing that pulp with chemical bleach to concentrate and distill the active ingredients and multiply their potency by a factor of thousands.

Indians certainly understand this difference. They may be impoverished, undernourished, laden with parasites, over-worked and scorned, but they possess the deep, conservative, time-tested wisdom of ancient people. The Tiwahuacan culture, which sent its apprentices to build spectacular Macchu Pichu in Peru, flourished in Bolivia long before the Incas, as did the Ayamaras, and they know the secret of living in this harsh, unremitting country. They know that coca is a gift from Pacha Mamma, the Earth-Mother, and they acknowledge this routinely by tucking a few coca leaves under a stone for Her when they chew.

There is no slack in the lives of Native peoples to allow the entire culture to hurt intentionally self-destruct by being careless with toxic substances. After discussing the subject with me a while, the man who introduced me to coca leaves, an adobe brick maker in a tiny village above La Paz, took my notebook and wrote the following note to America:

"My name is Walter Fernandez. My Pueblo is Calamarca, in the Province of Orame, Bolivia. People of Calamarca work very hard. We are not Cocaineros like you say. We don't like what you say about us. We are moderate people."

The problem for our government and Indians like Walter, is that coca is not only a medicine for them, but a currency, practically the only currency available to them. Indians don't sell coca directly to the narco-trafficantes. They collect leaves from their yugas in Chulumani, Coripati, Coroico, Caranaici and Asunta and bring them to the "mercado negro" in Calle Max Puedes, where they sell to intermediaries. Most usually they trade the tiny leaves, which look as if they've been plucked from a pale privet hedge, for goods which the intermediaries have smuggled into Bolivia: clothes, shoes, hardware, pens, and toiletries which are then sold at market by the Cholitas in their colorful agoyos (multicolored shawls) and derbies. It is the intermediaries who then double the price and sell to the trafficante processors.

The Bolivian government is quite aggressive about exploiting and marketing timber, tin, gold, gems, copper, diamonds and marble, but none of this money reaches the vast majority of Indians. The Indian problem is how to sell their alpaca, vicuna, rabbit, llama, onions, varieties of potatoes and tubers, citrus, yucca, peppers and peanuts. There is no governmental infrastructure to buy Indian agricultural and woven products for export, so they have no way of turning their ancient skills and knowledge into cash. Is it any wonder that they view our DEA agents ( who up until just a few years ago were not even required to speak Spanish) who come to burn their crops as the enemy. "Who are my friends", they ask me, "those who support me or those who destroy my farm?" Their problems become our problem.

There are some obvious questions we, as a culture, might be addressing if we ever hope to make a dent in either the supply or demand side of the narcotics traffic.

  • If the drive toward transcendence and getting off the hook is universal, what is the best way to "socialize" this desire and insure that its energy is not spent destructively? Which substances will we allow and disallow for this purpose? {My suggestion is drawing the line at chemical mediation:--if a substance grows naturally legalize it, tax it like alcohol and tobacco, and dedicate the proceeds towards fighting chemically altered substances. At least careful discrimination would not force the government into the hopeless (and hypocritical) position of aligning itself in direct opposition to natural forces.}

  • How can American modes of work and production be altered to foster engagement, personal growth and challenge? Other countries have done it, why can't we?m

  • Is open and honest competition regardless of racial distinctions politically feasible in the American future? (Is it even politically possible to answer this question honestly?) If not, what can the future possibly offer disenfranchised populations in America and why should they accept societal norms except under duress? Is the drug problem one of the costs of this duress? Do our assumptions about the underclass create self-fulfilling prophecies? (The cost of keeping one convict in prison exceeds the cost of sending him to the finest private school. Which use of the money would make a greater difference to our collective well-being?)

  • What is the world view of the Bolivian Indians and how does our own world view lead to mutual misunderstandings and mistrust?

  • Can we help the Bolivian government create infrastructures to create markets for indigenous goods and can we sublimate our own protectionist pressures which would keep those goods from our markets? As one U.S. paper asked recently, "Do we want foreign oranges or cocaine in Miami?"

Finally, to pick up the thread that initiated this speculative ramble, "Why do you think so many Americans want to get stoned?"

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]