Octavio Paz and the war on drugs…

End of Autumn


El viento despierta,
barre los pensamientos de mi frente
y me suspende
en la luz que sonríe para nadie:
¡cuánta belleza suelta!
Otoño: entre tus manos frías
el mundo llamea.  Octavio Paz

Here is my translation:


The wind awakes,

sweeps the thoughts from my mind

and I am suspended

in the light that smiles for nobody:

how much beauty released!

Autumn: between your cold hands

the world blazes.  Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz, writer, poet, Nobel prize winner, born in Mexico was a prolific and outspoken voice of social justice. His work encompassed everything from politics to art. I read something by him recently that made me pause. It has to do with the war on drugs  that has been going on for 40 years in this country.
I have never used illegal drugs. I don’t have a hidden agenda. My agenda is social justice. I do however want to make you aware of the result of the policies that have been in force for many, many years. You may have heard of Incarceration Nation, the article in Time magazine from earlier this year. It lays out some very shocking statistics.  The US has the highest incarceration rates in the world. They are driven by drug arrests not violent crime.
$1000000000000 (you won’t believe the visual!) of your tax money has been spent waging this war for the past 40 years. Have we won? Who is getting rich from all this spending? Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and former civil rights attorney, examines this phenomenon, and offers her thoughts on what she believes to be the underlying racial biases that drive the U.S. criminal justice system. Alexander’s lecture  is based on her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
So, back to Octavia Paz. Why is this going on? Mr. Paz gives us some insight in this essay that was written 45 years ago, before the war began, that I think is entirely relevant. Let us not forget the lessons of the Prohibition Era either in thinking about this issue. You can not legislate morality.  Finally just so you are aware, marijuana is considered a hallucinogen and 8 out of 10 highschool students use it. I’m not saying that it’s right but it is reality.
Many psychiatrists think, like Huxley, that these substances [hallucinogens] are neither more nor less dangerous than alcohol. It is not necessary to entirely accept this opinion—although to me it seems to be not far from the truth—in order to recognize that the authorities prohibit these drugs not so much in the name of public health as in the name of public morality. They are a challenge to the ideals of activity, utility, progress, work, and similar notions that justify our daily routine. Alcoholism is an infraction of social rules. Everyone tolerates it because the violation confirms the rules. This case is analogous to prostitution: neither the drunk nor the prostitute and her clientele call into doubt the rules they break. Their acts are a disturbance of order, not a criticism of it. The use of hallucinogens, on the other hand, implies a negation of prevailing social values. … We can now understand the true reason for their condemnation and its severity. The authorities aren’t suppressing a reprehensible practice or a crime. They are suppressing dissidence. … Prohibition is a battle against a contagion of the spirit—against an opinion. The authorities reveal, in their ideological zeal, that they are pursuing a heresy, not a crime.
Alternating Current 1967

6 thoughts on “Octavio Paz and the war on drugs…

  1. Hal marshall 11/28/2012 / 9:33 pm

    So many points, so much true! The highest incarceration rate ia bad enough, but add the trend of for-profit prisons taking over throughout the US…it’s a dangerous trend. These people are politically connected and make money from higher incarceration rates. Seems morally challenged to me.

  2. avidseeker 11/29/2012 / 10:33 am

    Amen and Amen to that, Roger. I am in total accord with you on all those points. The analogy to prohibition always rings true to me. It’s even more horrifying to think some state governors and legislators, including those in Florida, want to privatize the prison system creating a for- profit enterprise that will rely on revenue from yet more incarceration. So far the people employed in the present system and more fair-mined legislators have been able to keep this threat at bay. Thank you for the poem and your beautiful translation of it. It speaks to me for sure.

  3. avidseeker 11/29/2012 / 10:35 am

    Tomorrow your painting arrives! I am so excited about that! Then it will also be my painting. Thank you, Roger.

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