“Doing” vs. “taking” drugs, with policy implications

One of the benefits of having smart friends is that you can do each other’s thinking from time to time. Last week I heard a speaker* at a seminar say “I don’t take drugs” instead of saying “I don’t do drugs”, and when I tweeted about it two of my friends had an exchange that I missed until an hour or so had passed. What they determined, and I agree completely, is that people who view drugs as something one takes view them as a corrective to a somehow “off” condition, and that people who view drugs as something one does don’t think of the doer as “off” but rather as interested in recreation. Consuming LSD causes a “trip” for just this reason, unless my folk etymology is grossly wrong. Of course, a person who views himself as normally in balance and does drugs for recreation may still take drugs for medical conditions.

This may be a trivial semantic distinction, but I believe it does reveal something about the attitudes of the speaker, or at least the attitudes of the speaker’s relatively narrow speech community. If one views drugs as something you take (for correction), a generation of college kids and hippies in the 1960s who don’t have anything obviously wrong with them in the first place** consuming vast amounts of drugs must be shocking and appear socially destructive on its face. If one views drugs as something you do (for recreation), the same phenomenon might appear fun and socially liberating, if also perhaps irresponsible. Yes, abuse is clearly possible, but in the first formulation all recreational use is abuse. This is a theme I’ve treated here before, and I think the empirical evidence is undeniable that this view is completely wrong. Certainly there are many people who abuse drugs, but equally certainly to say that all use is abuse is wrong.

As the reader will no doubt have noticed, the average man on the street all too commonly makes the leap from “X is wrong” to “there oughta be a law about X” without much consideration. If recreational drug use is ipso facto wrong, then there should be laws enforced against it. I don’t share this view, as the reader will also have noticed. For certain problems, the cure might be worse than the disease. I’ve written on this theme before as well.

As far as I have been able to observe, “do” is now the most common spoken verb in this context. The more neutral verb “use” sounds normal in writing but just slightly odd in speech. This brings us to another point. Attitudes about drugs, or at least about drug laws, have been growing more accepting for many years, and my guess is that the increasing preference for “do” over “take” reflects a broader shift in attitude, in part due to demographic changes and in part to increasing experience with drugs.

In my opinion the main explanation for the current prohibition is public choice issues; the various interest groups that benefit from prohibition are vastly better funded, organized, and influential than everybody else. However, it isn’t as though public opinion has no effect. In the states that have made marijuana legal in varying degrees, it is much harder for a politician to proclaim that marijuana is a serious issue to be attacked with the full force of the law and not be run out of town. In other states this still flies with voters, but if my thoughts on this linguistic division and the increasing dominance of one side approximate the truth in at least some meaningful way, it is now only a matter of time. This should be good news for most people once they realize the social and economic devastation the drug war has wrought on the world, which to me seems very obviously to outweigh the downsides of drug use.

I mean, come on, is this the America you hoped for?

* The speaker was Camille Paglia, although getting more into that would rightly be its own post so I won’t do it here.
** Feel free to insert hippie joke here since I know you’re going to do it anyway.


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