(sent to Fukuzawa and Friends Mon, 30 Sep 1996)

Fukuzawans, Friends, and Flamers:

About a week back I posted something off-the-cuff called DRUGS IN JAPAN--ANECDOTES, talking about personal experiences with the drug culture in this country. I never anticipated the response I would get. Generally speaking, the first wave of responses was from the families, basically saying "Right On!" (which made me smile); the second was from the sloganizers: "Get a life, dude. Only living things can be abused, not chemicals." (which made me shrug); the third was from the essayists: "This is an issue of personal liberty." (which really made me think about how shallow some arguments must have sounded).

One reason I make contentious posts at times is so I can hear corrections. And when I say something that doesn't meet well with the facts, I make it a personal policy to admit touche to the people who commented, if not to the public. This post is not so much about Japan as it is about the Drugs Issue in general. (Jump back to the informed response that inspired me to write this.)


The main problem was that I didn't know what I was getting into. I thought it was just a passing fancy--a quick-fix Japanese issue. Nope. Imagine my surprise when I started reading two months of Economist back issues, and seeing that US public awareness about drugs is currently very high. Newsweek screams HEROIN ALERT! on its front page. Stats indicate that consumption of most catalogued illegal drugs has gone up under the Clinton Administration. It has become political capital in an election year, and I in Europe this summer remained oblivious to all the arguments developing. Then I came home and started shooting my keyboard off.

Well, oops.

I quite honestly don't know enough about the subject. I don't have the ace-in-the-hole of "Gosh, I got privy information through my language abilities," or "I am a reformed drug addict doing public service announcements", which would give me an advantage in the debate. Others had better information at their disposal, and it showed. I thank them for giving me it.

Don't misunderstand--I'm not really retracting my original assertion that "drugs" ("narcotics"? Don't know what to do with that word.) have ill side effects on a society, especially in the case of children. But I could have presented it better.

The first place I misstepped was by insinuating that it's only the gaijin who do drugs here. I did not mean that at all and know it's not true. I also stated that I support the current set of legal intoxicants (booze and fags) over the illegals; although my position on that has not changed, I admit that all are drugs and have ill side-effects, and those too cannot be ignored nor deemed acceptable.

But let's focus on the main problem with my essay: It was juggling two issues--that of the consequences of two adults imbibing in Japan, and that of keeping the stuff out of the hands of children, and using it to say Japan is doing a good job. Presented in conjunction, the points don't hang together because of square pegs and round holes, i.e. issues of personal liberty and parental (plus government) supervision. I will deal with this below later.

So that's what careless typing wraught. Let's deal with some of the issues raised:


Many people talked about how available drugs are in Japan nowadays already. Some were basically saying, "Hey, where have you been?" That point is well taken (I have been outside of the "gaijin-cliques" and counterculture youth societies for some time now, and by design), but inconclusive. "Availability" doesn't deal with whether or not to condone. Now, while I am NOT saying the following as a criticism of those people who brought it up, this reasoning just relegates the issue to the realm of fait-accompli and cyclical-cynicism ("society's going to the dogs"), without discussing whether or not it is a problem, and if so, how to deal with it.


One gentleman, in the midst of other well-presented points, made a compelling case that the real culprit was Big Business instead of Big Brother. The hemp industry was bankrupted by making marijuana a controlled substance--even in countries where hemp had uses other than recreational. This not only removed competitors from the tobacco and alcohol merchants, but also the paper product markets. Though a little far-fetched, I have no counterargument--as is the nature of the Conspiracy Theory--and I appreciate it being brought to the bonfire.



Others dealt with this by referring to personal rights. Why should people have their privacy (moreover, their mail) invaded by the Powers That Be? In the privacy of one's home, contained, what a person does is their own business. For some that means drugs; if substances were made legal and people were properly informed about the risks involved when taking or toking (as they are with tobacco and alcohol), then problems would be ameliorated. Moreover, because the converse is true (i.e. not legal and not informed), it not only makes the chances for abuse greater, but also becomes an issue of encroachment of personal liberty.

First point, maybe. Second point, oh oh.

Americans love to couch things in terms of liberty, often to absurdity. The con argument for making seatbelt use mandatory was "the right to smash one's face through the windshield". Carrying guns is a liberty guaranteed by the Constitution, and "if we can't have our guns, you can't have your printing presses!" (letter from the NRA to The Economist). Follow an ACLU-style argument: "Where will it end? You arrest people for drugs in their own homes, then whatever goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults becomes arrestable! Sodomy! Porno! Poker! Sugar!" And watch the issue get muddy and ideological camps get set up.

This is a natural tendency in overargumentative societies like America, which often stretch issues to their logical conclusion--setting up the absurd endgame as a counterargument. America is where bumper stickers scream "QUESTION AUTHORITY" and people resort too often in debates to the "slippery slope"; by this I mean that once a government-level policy push succeeds, it is the start of something much bigger and malignant--the emerging pate of Big Brother.

Whatever. My point is that we've been sidetracked from the real issue by American-style grandstanding. Perhaps even unconsciously! It is very difficult for fish (I'm an American fish, myself) to see and analyze the water in which they swim, but after several years in Japan, I have been in a fishbowl of a very different color--in a society which questions less the wisdom of their elders, and prefers order often just for the sake of it. For better or for worse, that's the way Japan is. And it has affected me. I see better the water in America, and now believe that a bit more "order" isn't so bad.

Why? Ii kagen--people generally know "when far enough is far enough" without it having to be explicitly laid out in the law. More to the point, the "slippery slope" seems more and more part of "undergraduate excess" in retrospect--people shouldn't have to give up on drawing lines just because relativism can too easily seep in.

But this is not an argument that some people are going to take seriously, since they are already full of anger for those jailed under a "draconian drug policy" they consider unjust. Fine. Let it go.

Let's deal with the issue I originally raised and feel no contrition about, and present it for the can of worms that it is. That of children and drugs:


When I look back on America and how flip-flopping on disciplinary issues has affected education, I'm beginning to see the need for a bit more order--to have a bigger hand in telling kids what to do. Why? Because kids fall into a different legal category than adults, and always have.

In my class at Cornell on Constitutional Law, I remember one debate very clear between my instructor, a Mr Jeremy Rabkin, and a young, "the ends never justify the means" sorta guy. The student even when so far as to say "it's all relative"--and got treated to a huge verbal assault. "It's not all relative--you have to draw lines! How the hell do you expect to get any laws made!"

Now, for us undergraduate fish swimming in the Western "slippery-slope" sea, this need for "law and order" reeked of authoritarianism. But once we got out in the real world, we saw clearly that life wasn't just a choice between "order and chaos", "laws or libertarianism". Social conventions, say, the need to line up at an ATM, or choosing "due process" instead of Molotov Cocktails, kept things orderly, and for sapient reasons. It's all part of becoming an adult and seeing the merits in the ways things were done in the past, and in the laws on the books that embody them.

Good laws remain, bad laws change over time. That's what happens in legal systems that breathe. Well and good.

Now comes the rub--what about those children?

In legal circles, children have always been treated as a special case. Why is the drinking age 21 and not 18? Why is the voting age 18 and not 21? Why does the definition of statutory rape differ from state to state, country to country? Why are lines drawn so arbitrarily?

Precisely. And it's that arbitrariness that makes the Drugs Issue so thorny when the issue of "personal liberty" meets one's children.


Under the law, historically, children have never been entrusted with their own decisions about their own welfare. They can't, say, vote, have sex, change their names, get a job, get married, divorce their parents, avoid curfews, go to the bathroom without a hallway pass. Hell, they can't even do the recreational drugs their parents do. That is, until a certain age. Now why that certain age? Hey, aren't we discriminating against individual rights here, especially since each child matures differently emotionally and physically? Who is to say that this 16-year-old is less mature than that college student? But lines had to be drawn, say the adults.

Why? Because of the natural tendency for many adults to distrust the decisionmaking power of their own children. With so many pressures on children these days, will children, as vessels bearing inchoate passions and thoughts, not always aware of the future consequences of their actions, take the right path and do the things that have made me a happy adult?

This a toughie in any society. And that's why laws get made to regulate children--after public outcry to stop bad apples and bad influences.

Are children adults, and do they have the same rights as adults? Not in the eyes of the law.

Is that just? It's always been that way and youth are still youth even today.

So what do you do? Deny and be a hypocrite? Or permit and risk seeing your kid get into trouble and hope heroin addiction is only part of the learning curve? It's tough being a parent, and even tougher when people muddy the argument by "slippery-sloping", suggesting that drugs in school are part of an adult's civil liberties.


One reason why issues like this don't lay down and get resolved is because of lack of definition in the argument. Lines seem arbitrary because the crucial issue has not been identified. For example, in the abortion issue, the crux is answering "When does life begin?" Other attempts to couch the issue in terms of "women's rights" or "baby murder" just divide society up into countervailing camps.

Same with drugs. As I noted before, how is a "drug" classified? By effect? By addictive power? And what does regulation seek to do--curtail only abuse or possession in general? And why of one drug and not the other when they have effects in common?

The complicated nature of this problem is that it combines the ambiguities of current science (the study of the brain--the thing that gets addicted--is still nacent) with the labyrinth of liberty (rights of the affected vs the rights of the afflicted), spiced with the lag between the fixed nature of law and the evolving attitudes of society. This makes it all immensely difficult to draw lines.

Fine. As far as I'm concerned, it was silly for someone like me, not trained in the letter of the narcotics law nor in the science of the body, to throw my hat into the ring and expect something to get accomplished. I hope that future feedback would give me more information about the law and chemical addiction.

Now since this is not a Japan-related issue per se, but a rights-issue for societies in general, I would hope that any comments get directed to me personally to avoid clutter. I appreciate the mental workout that was given me by the respondents, and hope that we all continue reaching for the truth through constructive argument.

Dave Aldwinckle

Phew. Toughest essay I've written in a while. I wish I could get the great statesmen of the human condition, like Oliver Wendell Holmes or Abraham Lincoln, to start channelling through me.

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Copyright 1996-2011, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan

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The problem of heroin addiction is a widespread one, affecting countries from the United States all the way to Asian countries like Japan.