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The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 67. Emergence from the drug scene

Even many young drug users who become abstainers–– and there is a growing number of them–– remain in the scene, according to staff members of indigenous institutions. "The community imprisons them here as if in a corral," 1 the director of one free clinic remarks.

The price of readmission to conventional society has been set very high. Young people feel that to reenter they must betray everything they have learned and stand for–– their ideals, their concerns with peace and love and sharing, their life-style, even the way they like to dress and wear their hair. It is hardly surprising that, even among those who have given up drugs, some do not return to the fold.

Even if society were to open the doors of its schools and employment offices to ex-drug users without setting unacceptable conditions, there is little likelihood that they would flock back. Canada's Le Dain Commission has explored the reasons for this, at some depth and with much subtlety, in the course of its year-long dialogue with countless drug users and exusers. The commission's 1970 Interim Report merits quotation on this point at some length.

Many former drug users, the commission first notes, "have stated that the insights gained through drug use have carried over and remained with them, continuing to shape their attitudes and outlook and style of relating when they were not using drugs. In other words, the drug has been a means of discovering a new way to be more relaxed and self-accepting, more accepting and indeed loving, more appreciative of the intensity and value of being human in the moment, less anxious about time and specific goals . . . . 2

"The drug-taking minority of this generation," the Interim Report continues, "cannot be inspired by the goals of their fathers. They do not feel the same urgency to achieve material success and do not seek self-fulfillment that way." 3 Nor do they see the need to achieve success in order to survive. "They envisage a society which will be obliged to assure a sufficient amount of material security to everyone in order to maintain itself politically and economically." 4 And further:

There is ... a strong impression that young people are, as it were, unconsciously adapting or preparing themselves for a time when there will be much less work to go around. The rapid rate of technological change and the pervading threat of work obsolescence makes them very uncertain about their own occupational future. They seem to suspect that a high proportion of them may have to learn to live happily with relatively little work. 5

To many readers, this may sound like laziness; the Le Dain Commission sees it instead as realism. "Those of us who are well-established in work," the Interim Report points out, "tend to talk glibly of a future in which there will be increasing leisure. Little thought or practical effort has been devoted to the problem of how to fill that leisure in constructive and satisfying ways. The exploration of the inner self, the expansion of consciousness, the development of spiritual potential, may well be purposes to which young people are turning–– in anticipation of a life in which they will have to find sustaining interest in the absence of external demands and challenges." 6

In addition to preparing to live with relatively little work, moreover, the young drug users and ex-users with whom the Le Dain Commission talked at length seemed (as noted earlier) to be highly selective about the kind of work they wanted:

Young people speak often of a desire to overcome the division of life into work and play, to achieve a way of life that is less divided, less seemingly schizophrenic, and more unified. They seem to be talking about the increasingly rare privilege of work that one can fully enjoy–– of work that is like one's play. They claim to be prepared to make considerable renunciation or sacrifice of traditional satisfactions like status and material success for work in which they can take pleasure. Indeed, one of their frequent commentaries on the older generation is that it does not seem to enjoy its work, that it does not seem to be happy. This is said sadly, even sympathetically. It is not said contemptuously. The young say, in effect, "Why should we repeat this pattern?" 7

Thus the boundaries of the drug-scene corral are doubly fenced. On the one side, society demands surrender before it will permit emergence. On the other side, would-be emigrants from the corral are seeking a kind of work and a life-style that are exceedingly rare.

The route of emergence most eagerly discussed among young drug users and ex-users themselves in 1970 and 1971 was to move out into the country, establish a rural commune, and support the commune through farming and through handicrafts. Countless young denizens of the country's Haight-Ashburys, like their predecessors in the nineteenth century, dreamed of such a "back-to-the-land" migration. Many rural areas, of course, saw such proposals as an invasion threat. Canada's Minister of Health John Munro, in contrast, saw them as a national opportunity.

"Young people talk of the meaninglessness of most of the work done by people in our society," he told the British Columbia Medical Association in October 1970. "Why not then offer them the opportunity to pursue work that is socially meaningful?" 8 After discussing arts and handicrafts as possibilities, Mr. Munro continued:

Another positive means of reconstituting drug-fractured lives lies in a recent development of youth themselves–– the "return-to-the-soil" movement. Such movements are, of course, historically classic developments among those who either felt themselves persecuted, or believed in the necessity of isolation from the corrupting influences around them. From the Oneida and Amana communities in 19th century America, through the Nouveau Québec colonization movement of the early 20th century, to the establishment of the kibbutzim in Israel, people have sought to revitalize and radically improve society by example, through pioneer collectivist farming.

The commune movement among today's so-called hippies offers the same opportunity. I personally felt this point brought home to me the other day, while flying by helicopter from Cornwall to Ottawa. Passing over the Easter. Ontario farm landscape, I was struck by the advantages that an out-door life of solid work, in an unpolluted rural setting, could mean to drug rehabilitation. Many voting people drift into the drug world through the depersonalizing atmosphere of our cities, combined with easy life-style and plentiful drug access within them. Rural group living could offer them a chance at true closeness to nature, with their own kind of people.

Accordingly I feel that we should consider support for rural farm communes, where through work that is truly their own, voting people can find both peace from that in our society which they reject, as well as a worthwhile alternative to a state of constant intoxication. We should also be thinking of support for cooperative markets to handle the produce of all these enterprises, so that they can eventually become financially independent and truly self-run. 9

This "Munro plan" may or may not make sense in the current Canadian economy. Certainly grave difficulties would have to be overcome to graft such youth communes onto the United States farm economy. But the spirit of the Munro plan–– the honest effort to seek ways of facilitating emergence from Canada's dismal youth slums–– is highly relevant to the dismal United States youth slums as well. Perhaps the time has come for the United States, like Canada, to devote to such practical measures some of the energy that has been devoted to arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning young people for drug offenses.

Chapter 67

1. Personal communication.

2. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, p. 158.

3. Ibid., p. 159.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., pp. 159-160.

7. Ibid., p. 160.

8. John Munro, in Canadian Medical Association Journal, 103 (November 7, 1970): 1100-1102.

9. Ibid.


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