Merle Haggard and the drug war

The lyrics of “Okie from Muskogee” tell us all we need to know about the social psychology of the drug warriors and their political sponsors.

I think drug abuse is a problem that calls for public intervention, and that prohibition is probably the least bad way to regulate some drugs. Of course, prohibition, or for that matter any substantial level of taxation and regulation, is almost certain to generate an illicit market, with all the accompanying problems, and drug enforcement is going to generate a substantial amount of suffering. So the problem is to try to craft laws and programs that would minimize the total damage done by drugs, drug distribution, and drug regulation and enforcement (counting the lost benefits drug use for the majority of users who do not get into trouble among the costs of regulation).

Obviously, that’s not the set of drug policies we have now. We’re absurdly too loose on alcohol and horrifyingly too severe in the punishments associated with illicit drugs. It often seems that the point of drug policy is not to protect people from the consequences of forming bad habits around drug-taking but to inflict as much misery as possible on those who enjoy intoxicants other than alcohol.

That raises a question for political scientists, social psychologists, and anthropologists: Why? What accounts for the undercurrent of hatred for “the drug culture” that runs through our political discourse, and the insistence on keeping cannabis illegal (as opposed, for example, to forbidding its sale but allowing its cultivation for personal use)?

It seems to me that Merle Haggard gave us a good hint toward the right answer in “Okie from Muskogee“:

OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;

We don’t take our trips on LSD

We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street;

We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,

A place where even squares can have a ball

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,

And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all

We don’t make a party out of lovin’;

We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo;

We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy,

Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,

A place where even squares can have a ball.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,

And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;

Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen.

Football’s still the roughest thing on campus,

And the kids here still respect the college dean.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,

In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.

The theme is resentment. “Okie” is a term of derogation, and the singer embraces that term and claims pride in it based on the awful things that non-Okies do: smoke pot, take LSD, burn their draft cards, and engage in group sex. Hating and despising those who behave that way is a balm for deep social wounds: San Francisco may be wealthy and fashionable, but Muskogee is decent.

And the choice of intoxicants is the central symbol: “white lightening” (moonshine, corn liquor)represents tradition and virtue, while marijuana and LSD represent innovation and vice. Haggard’s voice wasn’t at all idiosyncratic; Spiro Agnew summed up the issues for the midterm election of 1970 as ” acid, amnesty, and abortion” (where “amnesty” referred to Vietnam draft resisters rather than illegal aliens).

The drug war was among the first manifestations of the larger culture wars. The conflation of cannabis and the hallucinogens with the much more damaging trio of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine made the drug warriors’ argument substantially more persuasive, and the embrace by their opponents of the chimera of blanket drug legalization helped seal the deal.

“Drugs” is probably the issue on which the right-wing culture warriors enjoy the greatest public support, though religion and the flag must be close behind. By mobilizing the poor whites of the Red states (and Red areas of Blue states) against cultural threats is an excellent way to make them ignore their economic grievances. To understand the drug policies we actually have, and indeed much of the agenda of the cultural right, we need to listen to Merle Haggard.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com