Cohen, Peter (2012), Drug Policy as Freedom from Rationality. The prosecution of the Rototom music festival in Italy. Drugs and Alcohol Today, Volume 12, No 4, pp. 209-212.
© Copyright 2012 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.

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Drug Policy as Freedom from Rationality

The prosecution of the Rototom music festival in Italy

Peter Cohen

This essay is a reaction to the prosecution of the organisers of the Italian 'Rototom Sunsplash' music festival. Each spring around May the festival took place in the magical hills of Friuli in North Italy, close to the ancient fortress- town of Tolmezzo and in sight of the Italian Alps. For three days leading music bands, playing mainly reggae styles from all over the world, thunder inside its vast outdoor podium. The festival organised lectures and exhibitions, supplying a relaxed and varied cultural context that attracts thousands of young Italians. As a visiting lecturer I was able to witness the Festival a few times and appreciate its complex infra structure. In 2011 the Festival was prohibited because 'visitors would smoke cannabis'. The odd news in late 2011 that the organisers of the music festival were to defend themselves on charges of ' facilitating the use of illicit drugs' created a background against which the supportive city of Udine, Capitol of Friuli, offered its solemn City Hall to a variety of speakers.[1] This daylong conference early june 2012 was organised by a drug policy reform group "Fuoriluogo'. The text below is my contribution to the reflections of that day. I used the occasion to go beyond an earlier article in which I explain the deep and medieval irrationality of drug policies (Cohen, 2004).

Drug policy as freedom from rationality

If drug policy is silly and weird, is it also stupid? My answer to this question is what this essay is about, 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 defend this strong verdict I can do nothing better than introduce the reader 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 will discuss a few details about voodoo because it is this information that allows me to show 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 of 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 everything that goes on in them. 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, they are invincible. Only by endorsing and practicing complex rituals can the spirits be kept at 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 vary between different voodoo communities. In other words, voodoo religion has a few general similarities but on the basis of those general or universal characteristics 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 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 develop its own practice, underlying symbolism and lines of causality.

Drug policy, the art to navigate the drugs

This is almost exactly as we approach 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 periods, cultures or 'therapeutic' schools. 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 or existed 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 was believed to destroy 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. And in France cannabis experts have expressed similar ideas although it must have had a different cultural meaning.

They sound strange to British or Dutch readers, where the dangers of cannabinoid emasculation have never been conjured. In the United States the complete opposite was construed: the consumption of cannabis, it was beleived would make a man a sexual monster, even a sex killer, and it would turn women into sex slaves. But 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 exactly 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 the ‘theory’ currently heard in Italy, that cannabis creates holes in the human brain![4] I have never observed this belief anywhere else. How exactly this is achieved 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 it oxyge n or perhaps  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 have not yet been 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 will 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 ordinances, designed to demonstrate the terrible dangers of cannabis is. Police departments that apply these rules have the absolute and undisputable power of high priests. This practice shows that we, modern man, are able to govern these evil cannabis spirits if we contain them by the right type of 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 ad hoc by invoking a kind of dogmatic faith and common good 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 whether 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 over with laughter were government officials to claim that cannabis produces holes in the brain! In the Netherlands, unlike say Italy and perhaps France, this image does not have cultural credibility.

However the Dutch easily believe claims that cannabis harms the development of the brain, just as the Swedes accept claims that cannabis harms the development of the beard. In other areas of policy such freedom of choosing cause - effect relations 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 dealt with differently 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 shamans in voodoo the drug policy authorities have full freedom to elevate magic phantasies of their nominated experts to the level of serious policy. Their only limitation is the cultural plausibility in a given time and place. No rational check is desired, because the only things that count 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 practices 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 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, khat, or opiates. Such drugs are, like the voodoo spirits, invested with enormous powers, a culture based 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 awe. In all polytheistic religions the believer is free to pick his most important one from the theater of gods, just as he is free to pick the priest or shaman that will accompany him in his communication with a chosen deity.[5] Inside the drug war religion any one can choose which of the drugs is most evil or most benign and why. Politicians make their choices according to the values they want to communicate or the fears they consider plausible for their political strategy. Their drug policies are the superstitions of the moment, serving many more ends than drug political ones. Of course fashion and local culture play a role which is the reason that evil drugs – or drug evils - in the 1930's are quite different from those 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 compounds 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 and doping come close).

Baron Samedi and methadone can help

One of 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 the Baron can become a healer and evensaviour! 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 also possible to get them on one's side, as long as they are used by the right people and if they are given their proper name. So if they are named morphine or methadone, the evil can be turned around and the drug will work positively. But if the substance is called heroin or opium, it contains no positive merits. If the drug is called crack or meth it is invincible. These drugs are extremely tricky and can only be mastered when used in the proper context, under the guidance of specialists, and in the proper form. Voodoo religion and drug religion have so many ways of reasoning and magic causality attribution in common that , once noticed, these commonalities impose themselves as powerfully as a van Gogh painting.


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.


  1. See for a short intro into the charges an article (in Italian) by Renato Schinko:
  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 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, 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. The director of the Italian DPA (Dipartimento Antidroga), Giovanni Serpelloni MD is reported to use brain images to show these holes in the brain. See the report of a visit by Serpelloni to a therapeutic community in Genoa by one of its employees Domenico Chionetti: I have been able to trace at least three people who heard Serpelloni and his staff make these observations, but not one written statement to this effect is available. General reporting about severe damage to the cells of the brain caused by cannabis can be found on the DPA website
  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.