By Mary Jane Borden
I’d like to introduce a new term into drug policy vernacular: chemical bigotry. We’ve endured the War on Drugs for more than thirty years and seen various threads of injustice weave through it. Until now, no wording has existed to label this injustice.
Webster’s Dictionary defines bigot as one who is “obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” Bigotry is a bigot in action.
What is chemical bigotry? It is the application of obstinate opinions, prejudices, and intolerance to those whose chemical profile appears one way versus those whose chemical profile appears another way. Essentially, drug testing is this chemical profile made physical.
Consider the parallels of chemical bigotry with bigotry based on race, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation. For example, great myths arose around those of different races, these myths transforming into stereotypes. These myths and stereotypes then influenced the passage of Jim Crow laws and segregation.
In a similar vein, great myths grew up surrounding the users of some drugs as if everyone would turn out like Cheech and Chong. Crack babies are a proven myth. Through these myths came stereotypes and from the stereotypes came bad policy. The roots of both racial discrimination and chemical discrimination are the same: bigotry that is born of stereotypes and myths.
Bigotry has a long and costly history. At its worst, bigotry produced slavery and Nazis. Because of some outward factor, groups of people became stigmatized and stereotyped resulting in disastrous social policy that begot war and death. In a similar vein, chemical bigotry as manifest through the War on Drugs has produced disastrous social policy: bloated prisons, crime, police brutality, civil war, loss of rights, and terrorism.
Some might say that chemical bigotry is different than other bigotry – and thus justifiable – because people chose to use drugs and thus alter their chemical profile. Remember, this same argument has been applied time and again to religion and sexual orientation in order to justify legal, social, and cultural sanctions.
Some might argue that a chemical-free human body is pure and virtuous, something worth striving for. The problem here is that we are all by our very nature a chemical composition. We can never be chemically-free. When we look at ourselves as a chemical spectrum, we can begin to see that we are making judgment calls of good or bad based simply on what we add to our baseline body chemistry. Someone who adds marijuana – bad. Someone who adds aspirin – good. It doesn’t matter that, in terms of death rate, aspirin is more dangerous than marijuana. Chemical bigotry is at work.
Some might contend that chemical bigotry is justifiable because drugs themselves cause death and destruction. This might have a slight ring of truth if drug policies were evenly applied. But as a result of chemical bigotry, a substance like marijuana that is comparatively benign is banned while a substance like alcohol that is fairly dangerous is aggressively advertised. Further, since a regulated market approach to the distribution of what are now illegal drugs has never been tried, perhaps much of the death and destruction attributable to drugs actually finds its roots in drug prohibition. Bigotry will always try to prevent the introduction of new social policies.
Some might insist that eliminating chemical bigotry would induce social chaos. Everyone would be running around stoned conducting mayhem. Fearmongers said much the same about freeing the slaves or giving women the right to vote. Whether under the influence of drugs, too little sleep, or manic depression, bad behavior is simply bad behavior. Violence is still violence regardless of whether the perpetrator is black, gay, or Irish. Truly bad behavior which hurts others certainly deserves sanction. But, taking that extra leap to suggest that ingesting certain chemicals and not others engenders terrorism reveals the spirit of a bigot. Bigotry itself introduces far more social chaos than does its elimination.
Lest one sit back and say chemical bigotry doesn’t apply to me, at some level this bigotry applies to all of us. All of us can become its victim. Those who use cannabis for whatever reason know chemical bigotry first hand. Likewise, patients who need more powerful pain relievers feel the stigma of chemical bigotry, as do those trying to kick opiates with methadone and hopes of heroin maintenance. Chemical bigotry extends outward beyond what are now illegal drugs. It demonizes the responsible social drinker and tobacco smoker. It isolates the problem drug or alcohol user forcing them to hide their problem and shun help. It compels users of legal drugs to reveal their private medical history, endure debilitating side effects, and even avoid helpful medications, lest chemical bigotry spotlight them. It touches all these individuals and their families and communities as well. Essentially, we are no longer defined by the content of our character and what we accomplish in life, but by our chemical composition at any particular time.
How do we fight chemical bigotry? Organizations like DrugSense/MAP , the Simon Wiesenthal Center, or the Southern Poverty Law Center , for example, fight bigotry by shedding light on it. DrugSense/MAP, in particular, does this by collecting articles on drug policy, identifying incidences of chemical bigotry, and promoting media activism to bring it out in the open. Essentially, DrugSense/MAP and other organizations focused on drug policy reform are to chemical bigotry what the Simon Wiesenthal Center is to anti-Semitism or the Southern Poverty Law Center is to racism.
Those who have been scarred by chemical bigotry along with those who believe that bigotry-based public policy is wrong form a vibrant and growing drug policy reform community. This community needs to understand that the great struggle in which it is engaged is not a war on the War on Drugs, but an age-old fight against bigotry. In doing so, better strategies and tactics can be developed to enable change. Reformers may also find that they share much in common with others who throughout history have fought in so many ways to remove bigotry’s shackles.
This article was originally published in the March 1, 2002 edition (Issue #240) of the DrugSense Weekly and in the April 10, 2002 edition of the Columbus Free Press. It also appeared as the second article in the 2004 bound compilation, Under the Influence: The Disinformation Guide to Drugs.