Kicking the Big One

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So why don't we kick the prohibition habit? Is it high-minded puritanism that holds us back, or political cowardice? Or maybe it's time to admit that we cling to prohibition for the same reason we cling to so many other self- destructive habits: because we like the way they make us feel. Prohibition, for example, tends to make its advocates feel powerfully righteous, and militant righteousness has effects not unlike some demon mix of liquor and amphetamines: the eyes bulge, the veins distend, the voice begins to bray.

But the most seductive thing about prohibition is that it keeps us from having to confront all the other little addictions that get us through the day. It's the NutraSweet in the coffee we use to wash down the chocolate mousse; a dad's "Just say no" commandments borne on martini-scented breath. "Don't do drugs," a Members Only ad advises. "Do clothes." Well, why "do" anything? Why not live more lightly, without compulsions of any kind? Then there's TV, the addiction whose name we can hardly speak -- the poor man's virtual reality, the substance-free citizen's 24-hour-a-day hallucinatory trip. No bleary-eyed tube addict, emerging from weekend-long catatonia, has the right to inveigh against "drugs."

When cornered, the prohibition addict has one last line of defense. We can't surrender in this war, he or she insists, because we'd be sending the "wrong message." But the message we're sending now is this: Look, kids, we know prohibition doesn't work, that it's cruel and costs so much we don't have anything left over with which to fight the social causes of addiction or treat the addicts, but, hey, it feels good, so we're going to keep right on doing it. To which the appropriate response is, of course, heh heh.

We don't have to quit cold turkey. We could start with marijuana, then ease up on cocaine and heroin possession, concentrating law enforcement on the big- time pushers. Take it slowly, see how it feels. One day at a time.

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