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Buzzkill in America 

Prohibition in America is all but over. So why does it feel more sardonic than hedonistic?

Male Heroin Addict
(powerofforever/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES—Don’t harsh my mellow. 

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Say what you will for West Coasters, but they tend to believe their own propaganda. Gavin Newsom, governor of the most heaven-sent cut of land in the mightiest empire in the history of the human breed, is on tour spreading the gospel even as he bleeds parishioners. Absolutely no one outside of the Getty dynasty or perhaps the Golden State’s grass widow set is here for Gavin Newsom. 

But he is apparently unawares. Newsom sees fit to challenge Ron DeSantis, the Sunshine State, and other carmine constituencies on the matter of the good life. Political gamblers are apparently just as naive, rating his 2024 chances well ahead of the first black and female vice president, whose party membership reveres such credentials above all else, and near enough to the sitting president of the United States to make the argument that the platform is being apparently shut down for incompetence, not illegality. 

A shapeshifter, Newsom is somewhere between his business-friendly pedigree and the totalist avant-garde (but isn’t America?). On the hallucinogenic battlefield, the governor is neither the new oxycodone’s best friend, nor the state’s Felipe Calderón.

But the war on drugs is over. Especially out West. 

In an age of coming out, the scraps of “straight” journalists at the Associated Press report, like rumors of Gareth Jones in Koba’s Ukraine, that there might be a few problems in paradise. “Critics: Oregon’s Move to Decriminalize Hard Drugs A Failure” reports a cached AP headline. The intrepid reader learns the good news upon clicking, “After rocky start, hopes up in Oregon drug decriminalization.” Well, thank heavens. Pay no heed to the “fatal overdoses have increased almost 20% over the previous year, with over a thousand dead. Over half of addiction treatment programs in the state lack capacity to meet demand because they don’t have enough staffing and funding” matter in paragraph three.

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“That’s just drug insanity,” Rustin Cohle reports in Nic Pizzolatto’s 2014 Pelican State epic. Presumably, the policymakers twenty-three-hundred miles northwest aren’t high. Maybe they ought to be.

Your writer is no jurat. If anything, he is—a little—torn (perhaps from old libertarian commitments). If the program were “we’re all adults, this is a free society”; “privacy of your own home, who cares”; “these are drugs, we know what they do, there are trade-offs,” then sympathy, even enthusiasm could creep in. Instead, the effective end of prohibition is wrapped in undifferentiated prolax about mental health, “access,” “empathy,” reparations (in Oregon?), etc. 

We all know what this is. Or ought to by now. 

And it is a supremely distinct reality from the one called for in the social-libertarian debates circa the heyday of the Hippies up through the Noughties. 

“Homelessness: It could happen to you” read a sign I saw a few years back along Los Angeles’s femoral artery, Santa Monica Boulevard. It seems end-history melancholy and destinism is now simply state policy. 

In the 2004 Bond-minting film Layer Cake, protagonist-narrator “X” deadpans, “Always remember that one day all this drug monkey business will be legal. They won't leave it to people like me. Not when they finally figure out how much money is to be made.” Correto. Still, the sort of time ahead pictured by Dan Craig’s character was mercenary, not medicinal. 

Similarly, the letdown aspects of a lone-wolf existence are magnified in a world, or much of it, that proved it would accept a thinly justified lockdown. One wonders if X’s heir-in-spirit, Henry Girard, in the sublime 2016 submission War Dogs, had it right. The film version of the man “who sold the Iraqis the rope to hang Saddam Hussein” delivers his verdict: “My flight leaves tomorrow morning at 10:00. I can’t spend more than 48 hours in this dump.” Rejoinder: “That’s what I always say! Vegas is a two-day town.” Response: “I was talking about America.”

It’s similar enough to a chord struck increasingly by outré muckraker and former White House official Darren Beattie, an old friend, who noted in tandem recently to the new journal IM1776

Trump’s election could be interpreted in some ways as a kind of stress test for democracy, properly understood. … leaving aside what one thinks of Trump, I think purely from a political science perspective, the fact that he won despite having all these institutions aligned and opposed to him seems to suggest something very healthy.

And: 

Countries come and go. This notion that people should pledge allegiance and remain in perpetuity loyal and sacrifice all sorts of things to the United States of America as this coherent unit, is a kind of false dichotomy.... Nations and empires come and go and the United States is no exception to that.

Certifiably contraband thinkers would judge that the United States, at its worst, is afflicted with long-prophesied “anarcho-tyranny.” It is the age of mass surveillance and laïcité about the whole crime-and-punishment thing. It’s heroin, fentanyl, dropboxes in park water closets; it’s a Sitting Bull turkey shoot for the last of the cigarettes. 

And is this making anyone happier? 

This scribbler doesn’t share the more despondent forecasts for this country held by many contemporaries. True loyalties aside, which I hold, one need only gaze over to the large-scale alternatives at their worst—routed Russia, post-historical Europe, Aztec LatAm, over-the-hill Iran, contemptible China—and decide to stay in town. But it is hard not to encounter the buzzkill neo-legalization of drugs and not see something profoundly outside of the American style. There are, of course, other cases.

Prohibition is over, and it’s saturnine.

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