Facing the Facts on the War on Drugs

When did the United States begin the war on drugs?  If you think it was during the Reagan administration, you’d be in agreement with most Americans, but you’d be wrong.  The war on drugs, as documented by Johann Hari in “Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), actually began one hundred years ago.  Mr. Hari spent three years researching the subject, and he covers every aspect of the century-old criminalization of drug use from those who are the victims of it to those who benefit from it.  And on every count, Mr. Hari makes the case that the war has been an utter failure to the point of actually increasing drug abuse and the crime that supports it.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, passed in 1914, began the war in the U.S.  But it has spread around the globe, largely, Mr. Hari asserts, through the influence of the United States.  In the early years, it was used as a way to enhance the federal crime-fighting budget, and later it became a method of imprisoning “undesirables,” who were often minorities with left-leaning political views. In more recent years, it has been driven by a moralistic perspective that did develop from the Reagan administration’s attitude on personal responsibility, but it has continued to have the greatest negative impact on members of minority groups (most prominently African-Americans).

Mr. Hari documents the tragic life of the jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who died a federal prisoner as a convicted drug addict.  But Mr. Hari argues that Ms. Holiday was a victim, not a criminal, and that the criminalization of her addiction only enhanced her demise.  That assertion leads to one of the major tenets in the author’s overall thesis.  He claims, supported by studies and statements from psychologists and physicians, that the criminalization of drug use degrades those who become dependent on drugs to relieve the pain or lack of purpose in their lives, thereby making them more susceptible to greater reliance on drugs.

But Mr. Hari’s push for legalization is not just aimed at saving the likes of Billie Holiday.  In fact, much of his argument rests on the proposition that prohibition only serves the criminal element, making the perpetuation of drug criminalization exactly what the major syndicates and heavy drug producers and suppliers thrive on.  In an especially chilling part of his book, he documents the work of the drug cartels in Mexico in sanctioning murders and in terrorizing whole communities.  Thus many more victims of the war on drugs, he asserts, are otherwise wholly innocent individuals and families who lose loved ones to these criminal syndicates.

For the best example of the disastrous consequences of the war in this regard, Mr. Hari points to the period of prohibition in the United States, 1920-1933, when violent crime was at historic highs, and the period following the repeal of Prohibition, when violent crime diminished precipitously.  Prohibition reduced the level of alcohol consumption marginally, but it increased the amount of violent crime significantly.  Once Prohibition was repealed, and alcohol consumption became legal again, the black market for the sale of alcohol largely disappeared and the crime world that had festered and grown around it disappeared, too.

Another point to learn from the Prohibition experience is that incidents of alcoholism were no greater after its repeal than they were during it.  In other words, the need to drink, beyond social drinking, was no greater after Prohibition ended than it had been during it or prior to it.  And that point raises the question of what causes individuals to become dependent on drugs (alcohol included).  Mr. Hari’s answer is that the concept of addiction is largely misunderstood.  It isn’t, he asserts, that the drugs make an individual an addict, but rather that the individual is susceptible to becoming an addict before using the drugs in the first place.

For this reason, he devotes much of his book to the idea that the best way to deal with those dependent on drugs is to make the drugs available legally and to offer meaningful counseling and job training, so that addicts are given hope and support instead of being made into criminals and placed in breeding grounds for greater criminal conduct.  In that regard, he reports on countries like Portugal and Switzerland, where drug addiction is treated as a physical and emotional dependency rather than a crime.  There, drugs are available for those who need them, with the only requirement to their use being that the individual agree to therapy sessions.

Most individuals, Mr. Hari submits, are not potential drug addicts.  Alcoholism only strikes a small percentage of those who drink socially, and many drugs are no more chemically addictive.  Social drug use need not be criminalized, he says, because no one is harmed by the social use of drugs.  To be sure, some drugs are more dangerous (in terms of what they can do to an individual and of what that individual can then do to a community) than others.  But even if the goal should be to keep those drugs away from public use, criminalization of them is not a winning answer.

In “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s film on the drug war, the newly appointed drug “czar,” played by Michael Douglas, is told by a DEA official while he tours the Mexican border that the amount of illegal drugs being confiscated is way up.  “Of course,” Douglas replies, “that probably means the amount that is coming in undetected is way up as well.”  The official nods in grim agreement.

The war on drugs is a lost cause.  Worse still, it is perpetrating the most violent forms of crime to the point of putting legitimate governments at risk and individual communities in the grip of drug lords and cartels.  And it is incarcerating many (and thereby enhancing lives of crime for them) who could be far better served with a policy of decriminalization, if not full legalization.

“Chasing the Scream” is an important book.  It should be required reading for every presidential candidate and every thinking person.

E. Haig’s Review of “Big River” at the Music Circus

“Big River,” the musical version of Mark Twain’s tale of Huck Finn, was revived at the Music Circus (in the Wells Fargo Pavilion theater-in-the-round) last week for the first time since 1994.  The production, directed by Michael Heitzman (first time with the company), featured fine performances and was a significant overall upgrade in quality and attention to detail from the season’s disappointing opening production of “My Fair Lady.”

The story follows closely Twain’s classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” wherein Huck leaves friend Tom Sawyer behind to liberate himself from the strict upbringing he was enduring at the hands of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, shortly thereafter to encounter Jim, the house slave who had just run away himself to seek his freedom.  The musical tracks the “adventures” of the two, thereby closely paralleling the story from the book, to include the lengthy unwilling “partnership” Huck forms with the two vagabonds who dub themselves the King and the Duke.

At its heart, Twain’s classic is an exploration of racism in the post-Civil War south.  Twain’s book was published in 1884, and, remarkably, it is still relevant today, if not for the virulence of the prejudice it depicts, then for the undercurrents of it that remain (albeit the nearly universal abhorrence of the recent mass killing of black parishioners in South Carolina may mark a beginning of a new attitude).  The musical contains much of that theme, but it also has its light moments, largely supplied (in the first act especially) by the King and Duke characters.

“Big River” won seven Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1985.  The book for the musical is by William Hauptman, and the music and lyrics are credited to Roger Miller, whose compositions, ranging from country to gospel, were surprisingly complex and effective.  None of the songs are particularly memorable, but as a whole they stand up well, with several providing highlights in the Music Circus production.

The strong cast was led by Ben Fankhauser in the difficult role of Huck, who serves as both the narrator and the central character.  Mr. Fankhauser was solid in the acting and narrating required of him.  His singing was also fine, although his voice lacked the power to match that of Phillip Boykin (as Jim), whose bass/baritone was overwhelming in their duets.  Mr. Boykin’s voice is a treat to hear (recalling his standout rendition of “Old Man River” in the 2013 Music Circus production of “Showboat”), and he soared on “Free at Last” and in his duets (“Worlds Apart” and “Muddy Water”) with Mr. Fankhauser.

On the subject of standout singers, Jennifer Leigh Warren reprised her role of Alice (from the original Broadway cast), the gospel singer at the funeral in the second act.  Her rendition of “How Blest We Are” was another highlight of the production, garnering the most enthusiastic applause on the night we attended.

Others who gave noteworthy performances included Rich Hebert as Pap (offering a humorous “Guv’ment”), William Parry and King and Jeff Skowron as Duke (joining with Mr. Boykin and Mr. Fankhauser on “When the Sun Goes Down in the South”), and Dennis O’Bannion as Young Fool (doing a nice job with “Arkansas,” which he sang from the aisles as a scene was changed on the stage).  Also in the cast and enlivening the production were Lizzie Klemperer (Mary Jane Wilkes), James Michael Lambert (Tom Sawyer), Mary Jo Mecca (Widow Douglas) and Angelica Sark (Miss Watson).

A ten member ensemble did nice work with AC Ciulla’s choreography, and Andrew Bryan conducted the ten-piece orchestra.  Marcy Froelich designed the costumes, Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf were the scenic designers, Pamila Gray handled the lighting, and Joe Caruso, Jr. and Robert Sereno were responsible for the sound.

In all, this “Big River” was a solid production that was surprisingly timely and meaningful in presenting the issue of racism in the society of the times (then and now).


Contemplating a Different Kind of Armageddon: Will We Lose Our Species to Our Own Robotic Selves?

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

-Stephen Hawking

              Scientific discoveries and breakthroughs have continued to be among the great wonders of human intellect.  Whether it be in the fields of medicine, communication, energy production, or space exploration, the ability of humans to gain greater control over their lives has been immensely enhanced by scientific research and the practical applications resulting therefrom.

And it seems to be engrained in our collective DNA to pursue discoveries and thereby advance the quality of life in each succeeding generation.  As a writer, I marvel at the relative ease with which I can compose a simple essay when compared to the task of composition that faced those engaged in that kind of work even fifty years ago (before the advent of computers), let alone five hundred years ago (when everything had to be hand written with pen and ink).

As a species, we continue to explore and discover, and we are doing so at an exponentially accelerated rate such that predicting what might lie ahead even ten years from now is exceedingly problematic.  Consider, for example, this prediction that I made in a column dated January 7, 2000:

“My guess is that within 10 years, every individual who wants one will have a Web page (much as we now have phone numbers) and that we will soon thereafter contact each other not by phone but by computer.”

Actually smart phones and texting were only the start of the explosion of communication methods that have developed since the turn of the century.  We now have so many ways of “staying in touch” that simple phone calls are becoming as rare as telegrams were in my youth.

Here’s another prediction (one yet to be achieved) I made in that January 2000 column:  “It is entirely probable that at some point in the next 100 years, the entirety of human history will be implantable in everyone’s brain in the form of a computer chip.”  I remember feeling very bold in making that prediction then.  Now, it seems much more likely that such a breakthrough will occur even sooner.

That thought, that possibility, is the subject of Thomas Gibbons’ new play, “Uncanny Valley,” which is now in production as part of a rolling premiere (via the National New Play Network) at Sacramento’s Capital Stage.  In the play (spoiler alert), a robotic creation achieves artificial intelligence via a computer chip that incorporates the entire memory bank of a dying 76 year-old man.  Since the robot is created to have the exact physical appearance of the dying man when he was 34, the robot, once it/he is fully activated, in fact becomes the dying man at the age of 34.  And since the materials used to create the robot are thought to be able to last for 200 years, the “reincarnated” man represents a step towards immortality.

Think about it (or, better yet, see the play and then think about it).  What Gibbons envisions is a way to achieve immortality through robotic creations.  Sound far-fetched?  More than my prediction of the computer chip implantable in everyone’s brain?  Hey, if we can get to the point of reducing all of recorded history to a computer chip, which I think we are pretty close to being able to do, the next step, figuring out how to tie it in to our brain’s neurons and synapses so that it is part of our intellect, can’t be that far behind.  And once we can do that, the “Uncanny Valley” robotic immortality will surely be the next frontier that science seeks to conquer.

In Gibbons’ play the robot who becomes the dying man forty years younger seeks to re-take control of his company.  His son, some nine years older than his “father,” objects.  Is the robot entitled to reclaim his role in the affairs he had controlled in his real life?  Can the robot, being an exact replica of the living entity, be denied that which was his in life?

And those questions are just the tip of the iceberg, for it’s one thing to have a single robot that inhabits and becomes the former living entity it is modeled after.  But what if the science is co-opted by the business world?  What if life-duplicated robots become as ubiquitous as today’s cell phones, so that everyone simply must have one?  What, indeed, if those robots, being far closer to immortal than their human duplicates, seek to replace those human duplicates entirely?  Why shouldn’t they?  They would quickly form their own union and see themselves as superior, if for no other reason than that they would “live” far longer and have far greater abilities to compute and analyze the pros and cons of every issue that confronted them.

In the 1970 film, “The Forbin Project,” computers link together to rule the world.  In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a computer goes berserk and kills the astronauts.  Are these sci-fi imaginings really so far-fetched less than 50 years later?

Science cannot be stopped.  It will march forward, propelled by the human intellect.  And when discoveries such as splitting the atom have led to practical applications like nuclear bombs, humans have found their use all too tempting, given the right circumstances.  At the time, President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was applauded throughout the United States for saving the lives of thousands of soldiers who allegedly would have been lost in forcing Japan to surrender.

Seen in that light, it seems almost inevitable that artificial intelligence will one day be embodied in “living” robots and that those robots will be created to replicate the lives of actual human beings.  From there, the march to a world controlled by robots would be almost irreversible.

It would be, admittedly, a different kind of Armageddon.  But it would still recall Robert Oppenheimer, who said, after successfully creating the atomic bomb: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”


E. Haig’s Review of “Uncanny Valley”

Imagine a robot that is an exact replica of you with the potential to outlive you by 200 years.  That is the premise explored by playwright Thomas Gibbons in his new play, “Uncanny Valley.”  The current Capital Stage production, deftly directed by Producing Artistic Director Jonathan Williams, is the fourth rolling world premiere of the play under the National New Play Network, of which Cap. Stage is a participating theatrical organization.  (The play debuted at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia last year and then premiered in New York City, Philadelphia and San Diego, before its Cap. Stage run began last weekend.)

The play works on several levels, and its overall impact is, in equal measures, profound, moving, and disturbing.  It starts simply enough, with a series of short scenes that introduce the scientist (Claire), whose job it is to “train” the robot in the basic skill-sets of human life.  These lessons begin as the robot is still only a head and arm-less torso.  With each succeeding scene, however, the robot becomes more life-like until it/he emerges in full, with a specific identity that elevates the tone of the play from curiously intriguing to dramatically engrossing.  In the process, the playwright introduces ethical, moral and legal questions that are likely to give rise to conversations that last long after the play has ended.

The cast is limited to two characters, Claire and the robot, whose name ultimately becomes Julian.  The interactions between the two all take place in Claire’s workplace (a single room that contains items reflecting her 40-year career as a neuroscientist specializing in artificial intelligence; Julian, we learn, is not her first.)  As the dialogue between the two progresses, we learn details of her life and background, and, in time, of his as well.  That last point, when it is revealed, gives the play its ultimate gravitas.

The two actors in the current production work well together.  As Claire, Jessica Powell could use a little more gray in her hair and a little more nuanced expression of sorrow in the play’s key scenes, but she conveys well the growing uncertainty of her life’s work in the robot she has brought to life.  And Michael Patrick Wiles is really terrific in the evolving character of the robot that grows into a real person in the course of the play’s 90-minute single act.  He is equally effective in learning how to move his head, raise his eyebrows and smile in the opening scene as he is in gaining an understanding of human emotions in his fully-realized state.

The production is enhanced by the set design (by Stephen C. Jones, who also presumably merits credit for the depiction of the robot before he is fully formed) and the effective use of music (strands of new wave and ethereal segments chosen by Ed Lee).

“Uncanny Valley” is the kind of play Capital Stage exists to produce, and it is not to be missed if you are a fan of sci-fi and/or of contemplations of the human condition as it progresses to non-human form.  Mr. Gibbons envisions a futuristic world that already seems entirely realistic.  And, as his story suggests, the human element in that future may be more problematic than the robotic one.

              Performances of “Uncanny Valley” continue on Wednesday evenings at 7:00, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00, and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 through July 19.  Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J St.), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).