Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis. Anti-depressants. Painkillers. You can learn a great deal about a society from looking at which drugs it proscribes, which it prescribes, and which it sells at every grocery store and gas station.

I’m obsessed with this amateur sociological analysis of mine. My favorite history book of the past few years was Blitzed by Norman Ohler, which is an assessment of Nazi Germany through this lens — and man, were the Nazis on drugs! Reading this book as an early-21st-century American, I recognized it as different in emphasis… but not that different in degree.

My society discusses drug use as an “epidemic.” It also wages “war” on it, so it’s a mixed metaphor. The point is, our language treats drugs as really bad, but we use them a lot. Doesn’t seem like a hopeful situation.

There’s a philosophical question that motivates my inquiry: What is the nature of the suffering we’re treating with all these drugs? Taken individually, it seems easy to trace: Caffeine? Exhaustion. Nicotine? Too much caffeine. Alcohol? Too much nicotine and caffeine, plus a bit of sadness about what we spent the energy of those drugs on today.

Painkillers?

Well, that one is tougher than it seems, isn’t it? Is everyone suffering in the opioid epidemic in pain? Maybe not the way doctors mean, but… arguably!

So what kind of pain is everybody in? When you add up all this drug use, the diagnosis looks much more complex. But some things can still be plainly said about it. On a mass scale, people are in unsatisfactory mental states. The easiest ways out make them dependent on drug pushers.

What if there’s another way out, and it’s always available and never runs out?