The old-fashioned brass bell dinged as the oak-and-glass door swung open. I stepped from summer heat into the cool, dim light of the store and felt as if I was stepping into the past. A mosaic-tiled floor stretched out at my feet. Tall oak shelves lined the walls, laden with dusky glass apothecary jars.
It took me a moment to notice that the jars were mainly for decoration and that the real wares were much more modern - bandages and cold remedies, nutritional supplements and toothpastes. The store simply felt like someplace time forgot.
That was my first impression of The Hardyville Drug Store, way back when I was new in town.
It reminded me so much of the sort of establishment where nineteenth-century temperance ladies would have bought their dope-laden pills and potions that just to be funny I walked up to the counter and said, "I'd like some tincture of laudanum, please."
"Laudanum," responded the tiny, bespecled gray-haired man behind the counter whose name tag identified him only as Doc. "Laudanum is tincture of opium, Miss. Or is it M'am? Opium in alcohol solution. Is that what you mean? There is also Paregoric, once used to soothe fussy infants. Paregoric is another solution of ..."
"Er ... well, that's nice," I said. "But I'm only kidding."
Doc looked crestfallen. "Such a pity," he said with a mournful shake of his head. "Laudanum. A centuries-old cure for what ails you. And opiates are still the best treatment for dysentery and certain ... oh, excuse me. I fear I'm getting carried away. Perhaps I could interest you in a little Bayer Heroin instead?"
For a second, I naturally thought I'd misheard him. "Aspirin? I don't need any aspirin."
"That's not what I said, M'am," he replied, pulling out an old bottle labled - yep, really -- "Bayer Heroin - Sedative for Coughs." "Bayer synthesized - that is, they invented -- heroin. Back in the 1880s," he explained. "You could at one time buy it over the counter, right alongside Bayer aspirin, which they invented at approximately the same time."
"And you still sell it here?"
"No, no. It's just my little joke," he admitted. "I have this bottle as a curiosity. Bayer went out of the heroin business. And truly, heroin wasn't an ideal cough medicine for many reasons -- addictive properties merely being one reason among many. Actually though, the scientific evidence states that alcohol withdrawal is more dangerous than ... Oh, but there I go again. Please forgive me. I am sometimes overly pedantic.
"However, as it seems you're new to Hardyville, perhaps you'd like to know what other herbals, mood-altering compounds, and pharmaceuticals are available here, either in stock or by special order, and which are available without prescription."
"Uh. Okay. Which ones?"
"All of them."
"All. Of course, I do strongly recommend that you see your allopath or naturopath or herbalist or tribally certified shaman or other medicinal expert before purchasing certain drugs. Or do your own research about any drug's effects. But it's up to you."
"Up to me?" I said, beginning to sound like an echo chamber.
"Of course. It's your body you're going to put the chemicals into, isn't it?"
"Aren't you afraid I'll get addicted or abuse something? Or re-sell some drug on the street or run amuck ...?"
"Why should I be afraid of that, M'am? If you hurt another party, you'll be held fully liable for the hurtful action. If you hurt - or help - only yourself, then that's entirely your own business. Besides, experience tells that when you trust responsible adults to behave as responsible adults ... many more of them actually do so. This fact does not surprise some of us.
"After all, many of the drugs I sell have been available for hundreds, even thousands, of years and I can assure you there was really very little running amuck involved, historically speaking. My goodness, Pope Leo XIII even awarded a medal in recognition of the benefits of one cocaine-containing drink. As recently as 1950, Pan American World Airways gave out benzedrine inhalers along with Kleenex, magazines, and backgammon boards to help make passengers' flight experience more pleasant. I'd say that's much more pleasant than frisking them and taking away their knitting needles, wouldn't you?
"Until the twentieth century, no government believed that people were too foolish to make choices about their own drug use. Don't you find that odd, M'am, that our great-great grandmothers' government thought our great-great grandmothers were wiser than we are?"
"But people do get addicted," I pointed out.
"Yesss," he agreed, with a sardonic twinkle behind his granny glasses. "And of course addiction never happens when the government bans or controls distribution of drugs, does it? When the government controls drugs, everyone is completely obedient and health-conscious and there is no addiction, no abuse, no drug-related violence, and of course no high-profit criminal drug trade. Yes, things are much, much better when the government protects us from our own choices, aren't they?"
He had a point there, I had to concede.
"Still," I sputtered, "If nothing else, aren't you afraid the federal government will come down on you like a ton of Wacos for selling drugs without prescription ... and for selling some of these drugs at all?"
"M'am," he smiled. "You forget. You're in Hardyville now."
And a few minutes later I walked out of the store, carrying a box of muscle relaxants for my sore back and a small, charmingly decorated tin of Ma Lyons' Hardyville Homegrown Cannabis for the rest of me.
And you know what?
There were no crazed drug addicts roaming the streets. No pushers on every corner - or an any corner, for that matter (though nothing would have forbidden them). Why should they be on the streets, peddling what they could buy for a few dollars in such a nice store?
Little Hardyville school children weren't being sold into white slavery after becoming opium addicts. Those little kids were only mildly curious about drugs, because after all, what's the big thrill about stuff anybody can get down at the corner drug store? Anyhow, those little kids had lots of more productive things to do with their lives.
Young Hardyville women weren't running off with decadent and suspiciously ethnic jazz musicians after smoking "demon weed" as the federal propaganda used to say. They only ran off with jazz musicians if they happened to feel like it.
And people were able to treat their own minor ills without paying a hundred bucks for five minutes with a bored and inattentive doctor - and without ending up in a government database. People who needed a temporary pick-me-up or lay-me-down or a little ease for their aches got it for themselves, got over it, then went about their own ways.
Doctors who advised their chronic pain patients to use strong medicine weren't busted or stripped of their government licenses to prescribe. (Anyhow, in Hardyville, there are no licenses to strip. Caveat emptor.)
The only possible addict I saw was the Statue of the Drunken Cowboy. But everybody knew that ol' boy had problems of his own. Ironically, what he was on was "legal" and available without prescription even back in the federal government's outside world.
Of course people still had problems, even in Hardyville. People always have. People always will. And some of them will always have problems with drugs.
But what an amazing thing. The government of Hardyville - what darned little there is of it - trusted people to make their own choices. People made those choices without fuss. And without everybody minding everybody else's business.
I knew that day that I'd found my real home.
Imagine. There used to be a whole country that trusted its people to run their own lives and manage their own bodies. Really. It wasn't a fairy tale. The place truly existed.