It’s been a troublesome week for politicians who like to get wasted. Flashbacks to Representative Pete Russo’s character in “House of Cards” abound, as we watch public relations catastrophes involving two high profile men and their unsightly public episodes involving intoxication. These stories are rich with drug war ironies: political figures who have supported criminalizing drug users but who also like using drugs themselves; white men with stature getting smacked with public shame but suffering only minor punishment when compared to the poor and people of color; and a silly prohibitionist frenzy that makes such a big deal out of these guys using cocaine, even though both seem to imply that their most problematic relationship is with the legal drug alcohol.
The media can’t be completely blamed for all the sensationalism and knee-slapping (after all, Rob Ford especially has made this all too easy) but it was refreshing to see MSNBC’s Chris Hayes assemble a panel of experts who could actually contextualize the stories and shed light on the ravages of a misguided war on drugs simmering under these “scandals of the week.” Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, New York City Councilmember and vocal advocate for ending “stop and frisk,” Jumanne Williams, and Joy Reid from The Grio joined Hayes on Wednesday night to start a serious conversation about drug policy, the criminal justice system, race, class, compassion and addiction that needs to be had once the public has moved on from its collective gawking, guffawing and finger-wagging.
We love a drug spectacle for the same reason we like a good sex spectacle, however uncomfortable, morally conflicted or in denial we are, everyone does it. Whether it’s a shocking tale of a closet user, inevitable shame of a perpetually troubled character, poor person escapist, rich person escapist, lost youth, lost elder, successful professional, someone who can’t hold a job… there’s a drug user cliché and cautionary tale for every type.
Like it or not, we are a heavily medicated society. Caffeine, alcohol, anti-depressants, marijuana, energy drinks, tobacco… your regular day, more often than not, likely involves some sort of drug. Yet, when someone has an entanglement with drug use or misuse, it’s all too convenient to focus on that person’s missteps , rather than scratch beneath the surface to examine our overall complicated, contradictory, often irrational, judgmental and frequently tragically ineffective national and international relationship with drugs. Kudos to MSNBC and Chris Hayes for getting the importance of that part of the story and offering insightful commentators with the skill to address the bigger picture.
Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of Communications at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo by Toronto Standard.