Peter Cohen 


Ladies and gentleman, today I am reformulating and radicalising a few older remarks of mine, written almost ten years ago in which I tried to show that drug policy is an irrational set of activities[1] . Drug policy is based on primitive prejudice and above all, on a carefully nurtured distance from scientific process of theorizing and testing . I want to illustrate again here in Udine why the bulk of modern drug policies and this prosecution of Rototom is silly and weird .It can much better be compared with primitive forms of exorcism than with modern social engineering.

Rarely in Europe youth and music festivals are prosecuted because some of the visitors consume alcohol, marihuana or possibly other drugs. Youth festivals are about music , creativity,  meeting new people and live some form of cultural intimacy. Drug use is by far not the main topic at any festival although it is virtually universal. So, no problem with the verdict that Rototom and its director do not deserve to be treated so harshly by the Italian state. As if by litteraly cutting out Rototom from the north Italian landscape -in a true voodoo gesture- cannabis would be cut out of Italian culture.  

Drug policy as freedom from rationality

If  drug policy is silly and weird, is it also stupid? My answer to this question is what I will discuss here today, and the conclusion will be that drug policy is not so much stupid, it is much worse. Modern drug policy is backward, it is based on nonsense , magic and superstition. In order to convince you of this verdict I can do nothing better than introduce you into the world of a particular and very important  religion that is called voodoo.[2]

The comparison between voodoo religion and drug policy will illustrate in what dire situation we find ourselves in as far as modern drug policy is concerned. I need to discuss a few things about voodoo because it is only this information that allows me to take you with me into the catastrophic state of mind that drug policy makers are in. 

Voodoo , the art  to navigate the spirits

Remember first that the Voodoo religions do not represent one monolithic entity. Many different versions of voodoo developed, after the most known variety of voodoo was exported with the African slaves from Benin to North and South America in the 17th century. But, as many observers noticed, a few things are universal in  voodoo, like the belief that a multitude spirits are active in the day-to-day world we humans live in. Spirits not only participate in the lives of humans but also determine it for 100%. So, according to voodoo it is not possible to lead your own life without intervention of spirits, one always has to navigate the world of the spirits and to try to get them on your side. Spirits are dangerous and treacherous and if not approached in the right way also invincible. Only by recruiting complex rituals the spirits can be kept a some distance.   Some spirits are able to do good as well as evil, others are mostly evil. However, exactly which of the spirits are evil or good or both may be very different between voodoo communities. In other words, voodoo religion has a few general similarities but on the basis of those general or universal characteristics can exist many important differences in the practical day-to-day execution of the religion. The actual practice of what to do in order to battle the spirits can be rather different between shamans, priests or locations and periods. Does one have to sacrifice a chicken, or does have to make and then destroy a particular doll in order to deal with the power of the spirit? Does one recruit a particular mix of spirits or just one? Does one identify a female ancestor as a source of illness or a male one? Many different  approaches are possible and because something like a scientific test is not part of voodoo religion, every variety of voodoo is free to make its own practice and underlying symbolism.

 Drug policy, the art to navigate the drugs

This is almost exactly as we look at drugs. Which drugs we believe are  evil and exactly what it is that makes them evil can vary between generations, periods  and between cultures.[3] What ritual does one have to perform in order to deal with the power of the drug can also be very different between cultures. Does one have to go to a therapeutic community? Does one have to go to a psychoanalyst? Does one have to go to prison? Does one have to consume  benign counter drugs as if this would neutralize the evil drug? Does one have to make a drug user visit the police station every day? Does one have to send a drug user to a neurosurgeon to take a way a piece of brain so that the evil drug has no longer anywhere to go? All these  practices exist but all in different places, countries, periods or cultures. The same is true with the definition of the kind of evil the drug is assumed to cause. One famous example that I have often used is an old myth about cannabis evil that used to be wide spread in Sweden:   its consumption destroys manhood. It destroys the production of male semen, but it may also destroy a man's capacity to grow a beard. One could say that cannabis destroys the Viking in a Swede. Also in France cannabis experts have expressed such ideas although it must have had a different cultural meaning. In England one never developed such ideas  and neither in the Netherlands . For good reasons I will mention later this type of evil did not become useful in these countries. In the United States of America an idea that is the opposite of the destruction of manhood existed in the 1930's: that is that the consumption of cannabis would make a man a sexual monster, even a sex killer, and it would turn women into sex slaves. Thirty years later cannabis in the USA was seen as a drug that would render men dull and lacking energy . This wide and contradictory variety in the alleged effect of a drug is exactly like in the world of voodoo, where spirits are mostly evil but how they do that is not defined or fixed over time. In our culture drugs are mostly evil, but which ones in particular or what this evil looks like may vary very much. I particularly like a belief that is now being distributed in Italy, that is cannabis creates holes in the human brain! [4] I have never observed this belief anywhere else. How cannabis  can make these holes remains a well kept secret, like the answer to the question what these holes are filled up with after they are made in a human being. Is there liquid in the hole? Or oxygen? Maybe just  air or is it  grape fruit juice? Do these holes remain in the brain forever or just a short time? How come so many people with holes in the brain function as normal Italian citizens? Such questions are till now not answered by Italian experts, and what is more surprising, such questions are not often even asked.

In Holland weird ideas exist as well. Government ruled that cannabis shops have to be 350 meters away from a school and that the mere presence of an image of a leaf of cannabis in a shop could be punished with closing a cannabis shop. A shop cannot have more than 500 gram of cannabis in stock. Not many people can understand why such measures exist, or how benign their alleged effects are. Like in all other countries drug policy is an area where complete freedom exists about what measures to take and why.

Under influence of the Christian democrats Dutch coffee shops are now ruled by a dense system of weird and detailed ordnances, that should show how incredibly dangerous the spirit cannabis is. It also shows that we, modern man, are able to govern these evil cannabis spirits if we apply the right type of shamanic techniques!  Cannabis in the Netherlands has to be chained and kept from evil with a multitude of nonsensical rules. And as  in voodoo , anything goes. Such rules are designed to be locally useful and electorally productive . When such symbols loose their acceptance new symbolic measures are constructed with ease. A rational defense or a minimum investigation  about such measures is not necessary. Their effect is established by a kind of dogmatic faith and ad hoc political intentions. The lack of scientific and rational backing is just as easily accepted as any dogma within a religious system. This means that the question if such measures can scientifically be related to the alleged effects is not needed at all. All that is needed is that the so-called effect of a drug or of a particular policy can be made symbolically plausible for the particular audience of the moment. This is why in one country the practical measures against drugs are completely different than in another. So, in the Netherlands everybody would fall flat with laughter if a high government official would officially claim that cannabis produces holes in the brain! Such an image could never be useful, because it would be considered ridiculous within Dutch culture. This in contrast with Italy and possibly France where the invented image of a hole in the brain is culturally possible. In other areas of policy such freedom does not exist, not even close. Imagine that in Ireland the doctor would say that to heal a broken leg one has to swim in a pool of salt water, and in Greece the doctor says one has to go talk to an oracle. It is unthinkable that a broken leg is treated different in Rome and in The Hague, but not so in dealing with drugs. What is considered sound policy is completely different between periods, cities and countries. Like in voodoo the drug policy authorities have full freedom to elevate their magic phantasies and shamanistic prescriptions to the level of serious policy. Their only limitation is the cultural plausibility in a given time and place. No rational check is needed, the only things needed are faith and proper authority to deal with the drug.

Conclusion: Drug policy is polytheistic religion

So, to conclude, in my view the drug war is not so much 'stupid' as amazingly  'backward'. The drug war is a system of ideas and corresponding praxis that belong to the fields of magic and religion. I consider religion backward, as it attributes power and meaning to any set of phantasy entities, like gods or spirits. Religion can be monotheistic as Judaism or Christianity; it can be poly theistic like voodoo, like most tribal religions in Africa or like Greek and Roman religion in the ancient times. Drug policy with its main construction 'the drug war' is a polytheistic religion because many evil drugs/gods play a role, like cannabis, cocaine, chat, or opiates. Such drugs are, like the voodoo spirits, invested with enormous powers, an attribution for which no scientific proof is needed. Observation and discourse is primitive, often magical in nature. The priests/experts who can deal with these powerful drugs are like wise invested with far-reaching privilege and involvement. In all polytheistic religions the believer is free to pick his most important one from the theater of gods, like he is free to pick the priest or shaman that will accompany him in his communication with the entity.[5] Inside the drug war religion any one can choose which of the drugs is the most evil one, the most benign one and why. Politicians make their choices according to the values they want to communicate or the fears they consider plausible. Their policies are the superstitions of the moment. Of course fashion and local culture play a role which is the reason that evil drugs in the 1930's are mostly quite different than in the 21 first century. The evil drug of choice in Sweden is not the evil drug of choice in Mexico. Some modern priests in this religion dedicate their life to war against tobacco, some against (or in favor of) cannabis, some against drugs used as doping in sports, some to cocaine, etc. In the early 19th century the evil drug of choice was alcohol, with levels of political involvement that alcohol no longer recruits (but in our times tobacco comes close).

One the influential spirits in Haitian voodoo is a deeply evil one, connected to death, alcohol and debauchery, with the name of Baron Samedi. But, if one can get him on his side, saving from death or illness is possible and then the Baron can be used as a  savior!

In the drug religion the bipolar aspect of a spirit/ drug is present as well. Opiates belong to the most evil drugs but it is possible to get the opiates on one's side if they are applied by certain medical personnel and if the have the proper name. So if they are named morphine or methadone, the evil can be turned around and the drug will work positively. If the opiate is called heroin or opium, such positive merit of the drug is impossible. If the drug is called crack the drug is invincible, like wise if the drug is called methamphetamine. These drugs are extremely tricky business and can only be mastered when used in the proper context, with the proper shaman, and in the proper form. Voodoo religion and drug religion have so many ways of thinking and causality attribution in common that , once noticed, these commonalities can no longer be missed.


Peter Cohen

May 10, 2012


[1] Cohen, Peter, (2004), Bewitched, bedevilled, possessed, addicted. Dissecting historic constructions of suffering and exorcism. Presentation held at the London UKHR Conference, 4-5 March 2004. Amsterdam: CEDRO.

[2] "First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity." Rob Corbett,1988.

[3] In the early 1980's ecstasy was considered one of the most dangerous drugs, but barely 30 years later it is seen as quite safe.

[4] Corleone deve fornire titoli

[5] A Greek warrior might prefer to pray to Zeus, or to Hermes, or to any other god from the enormous reservoir of Greek super gods and lower gods.

*  A final version of this speech will be  edited  by a native English translator and will appear end of this year in DRUGS AND ALCOHOL TODAY ,  Emerald Publishing Group UK. "

©2012 MamaCoca. Favor compartir esta información y ayudarnos a divulgarla citando a MamaCoca.