Weekend Reads: Rihanna Edition

While Points has no official stance on American drug policy, it is a near certainty that the majority of this site’s readers consider America’s longstanding War on Drugs a failure. It’s also likely that many of our readers feel some investment in the ongoing – and escalating – national debates over the medicalization, decriminalization, and legalization of marijuana. The trend toward legalizing marijuana, and the easing of public prosecutions of drug use in general, has gained enormous traction with politicians, journalists, academics, libertarians, big business right-wingers, and big government left-wingers in the last decade, bringing the country to a drug policy crossroads. Americans live at a distinct moment in time when Presidential candidates speak of their resolute opposition to medical marijuana while state governments in California, WashingtonColoradoHawaii, and elsewhere move resolutely in the opposite direction. To doctors, criminologists, civil libertarians, and drug enthusiasts, the prospect of the Drug War’s demise and the liberalization of marijuana laws are hugely promising indicators. It seems, if nothing else, a move in the direction of common sense, as the idea that occasional recreational or medicinal marijuana use would create some sort of moral crisis in America seems, on its face, preposterous.

The belief that America’s War on Drugs has been a cynical thirty- year boondoggle is by no means, however, a universally-held opinion. It was only last year, according to Gallup, that half of Americans came to support the legalization or medicalization of marijuana. The debate over national drug policy is just now starting in earnest, meaning anti-Drug War advocates are now share a political identity and, in turn, a particular set of responsibilities in furthering their cause. The likely key to winning the national drug debate is capturing America’s political “mushy middle,” the ever-powerful group of “Undecideds” who, aside from deciding every Presidential election, have the political sway to alter drug policy. By their nature, they do not share the view that the American War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure, though they can be convinced.

Those loveable Undecideds...

If one is to take anything from the last three Presidential elections, it should be that Undecideds are an unaligned group of conventional people who, while not “conservative” in any formal sense, are hesitant to enact sweeping political change, lest it challenge God, Country, or the American Way. Those in favor of liberalizing American drug laws, then, are charged with the task of convincing this disorganized amalgam of voters that new drug policies would not inconvenience the life of the mythical “Average American” in any meaningful way. Advocates of looser drug policies can only promote this message, however, combating the long-propagandized idea that more-liberal attitudes toward drug use would lead to the anarchic, hedonistic, and amoral cultural wasteland. In a rush to appeal to the mushy middle, both legalization advocates and Drug Warriors strive to seem as rational, reasonable, fair-minded, and sober as possible. Neither side would benefit from the electorate viewing the debate as being one between burned-out hippies and joyless moral hysterics.

The fight to win Undecideds has resulted in both sides of the debate increasingly representing themselves through the sort of conventional, wealthy, established politicos like George Soros and Mitt Romney, and respectable professional associations like the California Medical Association and the National Football League, with which Americans seem more comfortable. While celebrities often interject themselves into the debate, the young audiences that Hollywood stars have the most traction with are not really the key to crafting new policy. Rather, celebrities are often counterproductive figures within the drug liberalization movement, engaging in drug-related behaviour that lives down to the worst fears of their political opponents. This is where Rihanna comes in. 

The infamous "head drugs." Or cottage cheese.

Rihanna is one of the most successful singers in the world, a platinum-selling belter-outer of pop and dance music who Time Magazine recently named one of the “100 Most Influential People” of 2011. While reasonable people could haggle over the precise definition of “influence,” there is no denying Rihanna’s fame. In fact, Rihanna is famous enough that a small army of paparazzi followed her to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this past week. Unaware of, or unconcerned with, nearby photographers, Rihanna dumped something out onto her bodyguard’s head and partook of it while attending a concert. A paparazzo caught this act on film, blew up the picture, and made a great deal of hay with it, setting in motion a week’s worth of public speculation as to what, exactly, Rihanna was ingesting from her bodyguard’s pate. While a number of wiseacre journalists have speculated she was simply dining on feta cheese, it’s a scosche more likely she was doing drugs.

Rihanna’s drug use is, morally speaking, not at issue in this post. Rather, it was Rihanna’s response to the story, and to the speculation over what she was taking, that drags her into ongoing drug policy debates. In response to speculation over whether she was cutting cocaine or rolling a blunt, Rihanna lashed out at MTV UK – which had posted a short piece on its website about the picture – by tweeting “@MTVUK = PATHETIC CUNTZ.” This reaction, which came off as extraordinarily over-sensitive for someone frequently in the public eye, cued a social media frenzy, which Rihanna only fueled by tweeting “Yikes…I ran out of fucks to give” and “I’m crazy, and I don’t pretend to be anything else.” While Rihanna is entitled to present herself in any way she pleases, this sort of belligerent, entitled response suggests she is not simply a poor ambassador for drug policy liberalization (which she has never claimed to be but would likely be something she’d endorse), but is exactly the sort of exemplar of a nasty, amoral drug user the Drug Warriors might point to.

Rihanna and Sean Combs don't seem to see eye-to-eye on the issue of the black celebrities' role in civic life.

I am certainly not the first person to point out Rihanna’s brusque and immoderate self-presentation. In fact, she may be one of the most oft-criticized role models in America. She acknowledged as much last October when, speaking to British Vogue, she lamented how “people – especially white people – they want me to be a role model just because of the life I lead…they expect it of me and it became more of my job than I wanted it to be.” Fair enough. I may just be too white to understand Rihanna, who seems to believe that black leaders would never take umbrage with cultures of bellicosity and nihilism, nor would they stress the importance of black civic participation or informed political involvement. Then again, maybe she’s off base.

Certainly Rihanna is right to point out that black celebrities are often more closely scrutinized than their white counterparts, being expected to serve as ambassadors for their race. In fact, members of the media often phrase the failures of black celebrities as signs of the failure of black culture itself. This is a lamentable reality, but one that Rihanna cannot simply wish away. As a drug user and a celebrity, Rihanna has had a say in the debate over the liberalization of drug laws foisted upon her. Though she has rejected her power to shape public perception, her expectation of maintaining celebrity while insisting the public not read her actions as endorsements of a particular lifestyle is utterly fruitless. Rihanna is famous and wealthy precisely because people are buying her holistically.

Rihanna to Amy Winehouse: You're weak, I'm not.

Lest it seem that Rihanna is being unfairly singled out – because, of course, there are many celebrities who perpetuate far more worrisome images of drug users – it must also be mentioned that Rihanna has recently been an active hindrance to the cause of responsible drug use. Speaking to the magazine Mondanite last week, Rihanna explained that she will never end up in a drug addiction treatment facility. “’That will never happen to me,” she explained, “I refuse to crack under pressure – in fact I thrive on it.” Mentioning other singers who have had substance abuse problems, she explained, “when I read about Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse…it’s sad. It is easy to criticize them but it happens. You just have to stay focused and keep your feet on the ground.”

Anyone engaged in the current debates regarding drug policy and research should find this sort of statement worrisome. Rihanna is – knowingly or not – promoting the idea that the need for substance abuse treatment is a sign of weakness, a sign of an inability to “keep your feet on the ground.” Amy Winehouse’s untimely demise, to her mind, is not attributable in any way to the physically and emotionally addicting and destructive properties of hard drug use. Rather, it is a result of being dim and feeble. This sort of viewpoint, despite de-emphasizing the potential harmfulness of drug use, is damaging to the drug policy liberalization cause. It is so transparently ignorant and wrongheaded that it only serves to further emphasize how ill-informed and irresponsible many drug users are.

Fair enough, but understand the implications.

It would be easy to brush all of this talk aside by simply noting that nobody of import will look to Rihanna for guidance on drug policy in the first place. Such a comment would be correct to the extent that nobody will look at Rihanna in particular to gauge the state of drug use in America. As much as we would like to believe public opinion is shaped by hard data, informed introspection, and levelheaded debate, however, celebrity behaviour plays a role in defining how the public sees social issues, giving Rihanna and her ilk some importance to this debate. In a world in which Fox gets big ratings for a show in which two charmless millionaires spend nine episodes mocking impoverished mountain people, the cult of celebrity rules. The attitudes of celebrities, therefore, have small but substantial affects on the Undecideds who may see in people like Rihanna (or Charlie Sheen, or whomever) a culture of drug use that promotes incivility and recklessness. Like any political movement, opposition to the Drug War and proponents of marijuana legalization need allies who project sober consideration and meaningful values and, to that extent, Rihanna has been one lousy ally this week.

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Doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Department of History. Part-time Ro-Man.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Reads: Rihanna Edition”

  1. In some ways, I disagree. It’s a smart post. I don’t disagree that celebrities are often terrible examples of drug users. However, while I do think the drug policy reform movement needs a “sober side” to tell Undecideds and policy makers that drug users are not all or even mostly crazy people, I also think the movement needs a sort of publicly anarchic side if it wants more than just for drugs to be legalized for reasons that I’ve never quite been able to articulate. I guess I just don’t want drug users to become squares or something, and I think it should be okay for people to sometimes come a little unhinged (not necessarily Amy Winehouse unhinged, but…Rihanna unhinged maybe?). I don’t want to have to walk around in a suit if (hypothetically, of course) I want to use drugs.

    I’m basically making the argument that gay rights advocates have made about flamboyance in pride parades and in life in general, far less articulately, and substituting drugs for sexualities. I’ve never quite been able to make it work (though I’m sure I’m not the first to make this argument), but I’ll get back to you if I do!

    But interesting post all around, Alex. Was the bodyguard standing up? Because I think Rihanna’s kind of short, and that sounds hard!

    • Amy, if I ever see you smoking pot without your full coat and tails…

      Seriously, though, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate another perspective on this issue and, while I’m not prepared to switch sides, I can see where you’re coming from. It seems to me that we part rather substantially on the basic nature of the debate. Unless I’m mistaken – and I may be – you seem to see drug culture as culturally distinct and promoting certain values that we should strive to keep, even as we lobby very conventional policymakers for legalization. Drug culture is imperfect, but it is also a valuable opportunity for catharsis, and we should try to foster an acceptance of drug culture, warts and all. It’s akin, as you say, to gays declaring “we’re here, we’re Queer, get used to it.”

      For my part, I see the debate as being about formal political rights. To my mind, the battle over the Drug War comes down to dollars and cents, ayes and nays. Because I have absolutely no investment in 420 culture (though I do love Conan O’Brien), I have no trouble positioning this debate in the same way I would in voting for the Dover, Delaware town council – pure political calculus. This makes the battle more like the struggle for gay marriage rights. So, at the risk of sounding pat, agree to disagree?

      And yeah, I’m pretty sure her bodyguard was standing up. She looked to be towering above the rest of the crowd, eating her feta and corn chips with impunity.

      • Damn, I totally thought I’d written something here, but it apparently didn’t post.

        Anyway, yes, thank you for articulating my argument for me, Alex! That’s basically exactly what I mean, though I’m not referring so much to “420 culture” as the sort of hedonistic quality of drug scenes. I wouldn’t want to lose that.

        We do fundamentally disagree on the nature of the debate! I mean, I don’t disagree with you, but I want to see a drug policy reform movement that encompasses both our ideas, I think.

        Just coat and tails? I also like to include a top hat.

  2. I strongly agree with most of this post, except for this bit, “While celebrities often interject themselves into the debate, the young audiences that Hollywood stars have the most traction with are not really the key to crafting new policy.” Being young/influenced by celebrities and being actively engaged in politics aren’t mutually exclusive. President Obama leaned on celebrities to help energize his youth base, and his youth base eventually won him the election . But I completely agree that celebrities can be less than helpful to drug policy reform efforts. Rihanna’s comments were overly defensive and counterproductive.

    I love Russell Brand and his comments about stigmatization and recovery during the youtube versus debate on the drug war . He’s a celebrity using his fame to bring values and thoughtfulness to this issue, and I think he is energizing more young people and undecideds to think critically about it. I wish more celebrities would take his lead, and as you say bring something more meaningful to the table.

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