Against the Demonization of Drugs

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Originally published  on November 7, 2017 on Quillette
Written in collaboration with Sana Al-badri

For most of us, the word ‘drugs’ comes burdened with negative associations. Run a quick mental check: how many positive associations come to mind when you think of the term ‘drugs’? However, a ‘drug’ is simply any substance other than food that causes a physiological change when introduced into the body (inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed, etc). As such, the term ‘drugs’ is so broad that any sweeping generalization about them is likely to be false. Drugs include a whole spectrum of substances ranging from the highly addictive, such as crack cocaine, to the life saving and pain relieving, such as anaesthetics, to the mind enhancing, such as caffeine, to the purely recreational, such as alcohol.

Yet public discourse on the subject is usually limited to the narrow mantra that “drugs are bad.” Where are the people reminding us that “drugs can be good”? There is no doubt that most anti-drug campaigns have good intentions (such as protecting people from addiction), but the simplistic picture they provide makes it difficult to make useful distinctions between dangerous, safe, and life-saving substances. Think of the people afflicted with mental health problems, for example, who might benefit enormously from antidepressant medication, but won’t due to a reflexive fear of drug use.

There is no doubt that some drugs can be dangerous and that their usage should be carefully monitored: heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine are the most obvious examples. But the truth is that drugs are many things. Drugs are able to save lives and ruin them; enhance your mind and numb it; heal your body and destroy it. More important perhaps is that each substance can have different effects on different people and at different doses. In smaller doses, a cough syrup is soothing, while at higher doses it can have hallucinogenic effects. Similarly, Alcohol can be used safely as a recreational social lubricant, but when abused it can have neurotoxic effects.

The problem is that the current anti-drug movement lacks specificity or clarity. The term ‘drugs’ has become so tainted that even considering the positives of drug use has become extremely difficult.

This article aims to promote a more balanced, and scientific, view of drug use. It is our view that modern society desperately needs a more comprehensive, measured, and rational discourse about drugs. A discourse that enables people to understand drugs rather than simply fear them. This would prepare us to deal with drugs in a sensible way, better enabling us to enjoy their benefits, and mitigate their drawbacks and dangers.

The Legal Criteria Are Often Arbitrary

Legally speaking, there is of course room for some nuance. There isn’t a single country that has banned all drugs. After all, many substances are medically necessary and therefore legal. However, the methods by which we classify which substances are legal and which to criminalise are often arbitrary, historically anachronistic, and uninformed by scientific evidence.

It would be nice to believe that world governments had undertaken careful investigations and decided on the legality of substances based on their potential for harm or good; or if they ensured that further research into illegal substances is possible if they show medicinal potential. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Sometimes potentially harmful substances are legal due to popular demand.

A historically noteworthy example of the arbitrary criminalisation of drugs was the era of prohibition in the United States, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. The dangers and alleged immorality of alcohol were the driving forces behind its prohibition in 1919, when the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified making it illegal to buy or consume alcohol throughout the country. However, prohibition of alcohol was overturned, not only because people simply refused to abide by the law, but also because prohibition didn’t appreciably decrease alcohol consumption. As a consequence, today it’s largely left to each individual to be responsible in their consumption of alcohol, notwithstanding restrictions and regulations to ensure safety.

Sometimes safe substances are illegal due to their links to other substances

Coca Leaves

Today, the chewing of coca leaves remains a traditional part of Andean culture and is used to treat all manner of afflictions, from altitude sickness to menstrual pain. Further, they function as a stimulant and produce a buzz not dissimilar to that offered by an espresso. Chewing coca leaveshelps the user to sustain hard work and doesn’t appear to have any discernible side-effects. Arguably, the world could benefit from having access to the nootropic effects of coca. However, it remains illegal in most Western countries because it can be used to manufacture cocaine.

Sometimes life-saving substances are illegal due to arbitrary moral beliefs

Historically, there have been some surprising reactions to medical advances, such as the initial resistance to general anaesthetics. In 1865, the city of Zurich actually outlawed the use of a general anaesthetic, arguing that it was important to experience and endure physical pain, since it was natural and a necessary burden for ‘original sin.’ In the same way, today many are expected to endure the pain of their mental illness, or feel ashamed of taking medication to treat it. Such medications are not illegal, but the irrational stigma attached to their use is analogous to that previously attached to anaesthetics.

Sometimes substances are illegal due to unscientific claims

Today, the legal system justifies drug prohibition by appealing to health hazards and the threat of moral corruption. Such arguments are remarkably similar to those made a century ago. Often, anti-drug campaigners offer a variation on the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy, which holds that people start by using so-called ‘soft-drugs’ and inevitably end up overdosing on heroin (these ‘soft drugs’ never seem to include alcohol, tobacco, or coffee). But, of the tiny minority of  people who experiment with heroin, most do not overdose and remain capable of leading reasonably functional lives.

The data offer scant support for the slippery slope argument. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, recreational drug use remains rare, even though almost half the population has consumed illicit drugs at some point in their lifetime. If anything, research shows that the most common ‘gateway drug’ is alcohol—a drug that large parts of every class in society consume.

Interestingly, most people acknowledge that tobacco and alcohol use entails health risks. But a liberal ‘live and let live’ attitude leaves it up to the individual to manage his or her behavior and limits. Unfortunately, the same logic doesn’t apply in the case of marijuana or Modafinil. Instead, anti-drug campaigners argue that because smoking marijuana or taking Modafinil entails health risks, people should be prohibited from deciding for themselves whether or not to use them.

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