In an essay in New York magazine titled
“The Poison We Pick,”
Andrew Sullivan observes: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.” We need not only a political revolution capable of ending the War on Drugs in this country, but a moral revolution capable of transforming our relations with one another.
Twenty thousand people died from overdosing on synthetic opioids in 2016. Ending the War on Drugs and treating widespread addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal one is essential. The same should hold with marijuana, arrests for the possession of small quantities of which have filled jails and prisons with nonviolent offenders, disproportionally poor and black, and given them a permanent mark against their records that should be cleared away. But ending the War on Drugs is merely the beginning of what needs to be done.
As Marianne Williamson writes in a related context in
Tears to Triumph:
“The current trend of easy pill popping lest we shed a tear or two is both psychologically and spiritually unhealthy. It amounts to a socially sanctioned avoidance that keeps us infantilized, emotionally immature, and lacking the skills needed to deal effectively with the critical issues of adult life. It obstructs our capacity for discernment, for perspective, and for real understanding. Most importantly, in separating ourselves from our own pain, we desensitize ourselves to the pain of others; for if I become numb to my own pain, then I am more likely to become numb to yours. And that, in turn, will then cause more pain… The ‘me first’ attitude that pervades our society is the source of our epidemic of unhappiness, and collectively changing that attitude is its healing. A society whose entire social and economic system fosters separation from ourselves, from each other, and from the earth on which we live is a society that guarantees suffering. An insane world is telling people who can’t align with it that they are crazy. Yet finding a way for people to become more easily functional within a dysfunctional society is not a healing of our despair; it’s a perverse way of making that despair deeper.”
According to Sullivan, it’s hard to convey the sheer magnitude of what has happened: “Between 2007 and 2012, for example, 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills were delivered to West Virginia, a state with a mere 1.8 million residents. In one town, population 2,900, more than 20 million opioid prescriptions were processed in the past decade. Nationwide, between 1999 and 2011, oxycodone prescriptions increased sixfold. National per capita consumption of oxycodone went from around 10 milligrams in 1995 to almost 250 milligrams by 2012… And so we wait to see what amount of death will be tolerable in America as the price of retaining prohibition. Is it 100,000 deaths a year? More? At what point does a medical emergency actually provoke a government response that takes mass death seriously? Imagine a terror attack that killed over 40,000 people. Imagine a new virus that threatened to kill 52,000 Americans this year. Wouldn’t any government make it the top priority before any other?”
At the heart of my campaign for Congress in the Illinois 5th District has been my faith that we can still build on the moral foundations on which the founders of our country and the framers of our constitution built—that we can join in renewing and improving the moral and political revolution they launched and that so many have sought to more fully realize and improve over the centuries.
As James Wilson wrote of the spirit behind American progress in 1790: “All will receive from each, and each will receive from all, mutual support and assistance: mutually supported and assisted, all may be carried to a degree of perfection hitherto unknown; perhaps, hitherto not believed.” We must rebuild the hope-filled moral consensus on which our country’s progress rests—the consensus that was fought for by James Wilson and Bayard Rustin and Bernie Sanders and countless others—and transform our politics and our economics to serve the common good rather than the 1%.
At a deeper level, we have to address the spiritual vacuum at the heart of our materialistic capitalist society and replace it with mutual recognition that the common good of each is part of the common good of all: that we are all responsible for making attention, comfort, hope, and inspiration available to those who suffer and that, in this world, that means everyone.