The current focus on the Vermont drug problem carries the implication that a national epidemic has finally enveloped our little state. There's almost a sense that the fault lies with noxious external forces that invaded a state innocently thought by many to be pristine and immune. We Vermonters often fall prey to a feeling of exceptionalism that, while it may be justified in many instances, can result in a blinding parochialism. Nevertheless, we are all wringing our hands looking for solutions that come in many forms.

There's the punitive approach that over many years has proven absolutely futile. The U. S. leads the industrial world in rates of incarceration - most of it for drug-law violations - with absolutely no stemming effect. Then there's the rehabilitation approach - as expensive as incarceration if done right and effective only in some cases. There's the parental-control approach through communication and role modeling. And there's the legalization approach that would put drug dispensing under government control. This has the advantage of identifying drug users with the hope of possibly treating them, and of destroying the huge and socially destructive criminal drug-trade network.

Strangely, whatever the merits or drawbacks of each, these are all after-the-fact solutions with virtually no attention given to the possible causes of the problem.


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What is going on in our society that drives people to temporarily and artificially alter their mindsets through drug use? What is so profoundly disturbing to them - consciously or unconsciously - that they must habitually escape from it? If drug use was not as universal a problem in my youth many years ago as it is today, what societal ogres have since emerged that so many must flee? This is difficult probing and we can uncover no cause with absolute assurance. But we can certainly detect distressing phenomena that go to the very heart of social functioning today. For one, opportunity for material success has been so compressed in recent years as to discourage even the most capable. According to all statistics, meaningful advancement has become virtually impossible for the poor. And poverty decimates families. Where, then, to go to find surcease - when even college graduates are unemployed or working for minimum wage? For the better off, the pressure of competition for a decent place in the world is so intense that artificially relieving it is almost necessary. And so the drug problem - along with problem drinking - crosses class lines and becomes a universal social malaise. Youth, excluded from the greater and traditional social processes, and with no place to go, turns to substance abuse for comfort.

In addition, the world is experiencing an epochal transition in which human labor is being replaced by technology, ending forever the traditional role of the human being as the instrument of his own survival. This is a wrenching historical moment when the individual must find a new "self" - perhaps a more creative and intellectual one - and the economic system, now clearly faltering, must morph into one that accommodates the new means of production and distribution. Whether we are aware of these changes or not, they are affecting our young people - and they are upsetting, profoundly dislocating, and difficult to contend with. Altering mindsets through drugs becomes the understandable palliative - the "happiness pill" of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." There are no effective answers to be found without the courage, intelligence and integrity to uproot the causes. To view any social problem in isolation - i. e. , as an exclusively "personal" problem outside of the total social context - is to doom any attempt at solution to failure.

Unless the deeper causative issues are faced and resolved, I don't think for one second that any of the proposed "solutions" to the drug problem will make even a dent in one of the great tragedies of our day: crippled and wasted humanity.

Andrew Torre lives in Landgrove.