Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rethinking Drugs

A lot of my non-gaming entries are inspired by writers appearing in the Op-Ed section of the local newspaper, the Oregonian. The common wisdom is that the media in general is biased to the left, although it's pretty clear to me that the entire purpose of a newspaper is to sell advertising space. That's a pretty right-wing idea, the generation of capital, and I find that there is generally a pretty good balance of political thought in the Op-Ed section over time given that the state of Oregon hasn't voted Republican for a president since Reagan. 

This time, it was Susan Nielsen's argument that Reed College should have done more to prevent the two heroin overdoses on it's campus recently. She faults the permissive atmosphere and the failure of the school to publicize the first death for the more recent death. 

First of all, we're looking at the wrong drug, here. How many college kids have their lives changed because of heroin? How many because of alcohol? Which is "tolerated" on campuses? Which is more abused? I don't think there's any question at all - the problem drug in college isn't heroin, or pot (which is apparently pervasive at Reed College), or anything that's illicit. The problem drug in the entire country, not just at the college level, is alcohol. 

And see how well it went when it was outlawed. So well that there are two amendments to our Constitution concerning it. It was called Prohibition, and it was a complete disaster. What most people fail to appreciate is that we still have Prohibition, and it's still a complete disaster.

It's been nearly 20 years since the first George Bush held up a baggie of crack cocaine on television, telling us it had been purchased directly across from the White House. The agents who bought it had to do everything but buy the seller a new car to get him to actually sell them drugs in front of the White House, it wasn't exactly a prime location from the seller's POV, but they did it and made it sound like it was happening every day. And that set the tone for the War on Drugs very effectively - give just enough of the truth to scare people, not enough to make them realize that the people who sell drugs legally really don't want to dilute their market with other products. 

There is an excellent neutral resource for learning about drug use that I recommend you read if you have children, and I also recommend you give copies to your children when you think they are old enough to understand exactly what it says. The book is called "Licit and Illicit Drugs" and was put out by the Consumer's Union a few decades ago. Despite it's age, there is little new research on the subject, mostly because the liquor and tobacco lobbies are very effective in preventing new research. 

This book, which at least a dozen medical doctors in my acquaintance agree is an excellent reference, covers pretty much everything. Including processed sugar and caffeine! Because they are drugs. So if you're drinking a mocha as you read this, you are in fact a drug user, and mixing your drugs to boot. 

There are more topics than I could possibly bring up in a blog entry, but here are just a few of the gems I've kept with me since reading the book 20 years ago...
  • Most illicit drugs are illicit not because of their social cost, but because they were the drug of choice for an "undesirable" element of society. Heroin and other opiates were purchased over the counter by housewives until they were made illegal by the Harrison Act, intended to screw over the Chinese immigrants who had worked on the railroad and had settled on the West Coast when that work was completed.
  • Marijuana was made illegal because of WR Hearst's concerns that his timber holdings in Mexico would be endangered if hemp became the primary source of paper instead of wood pulp. Hemp is considerably easier to produce, renews at a much faster rate than trees, and anyone can do it with a minimum of fuss. 
  • Cocaine and alcohol are roughly equivalent in terms of addiction rates and the damage they do to the human body over time. Heroin and tobacco in a similar sense, although most of the damage that heroin does to your body is due to black market factors such as the cutting of the stock with other materials to stretch it out. Were you a regular heroin user, you could safely ingest huge amounts with little or no physical cost.
  • In the 70's, something like 100,000 people died annually from alcohol abuse. Not counting automobile accidents, this is just from drinking too much. Tobacco caused a quarter million deaths a year annually. Cocaine, by comparison, killed 3000 people annually. 
  • A "heroin-related" death on a medical report meant that you were dead, they weren't terribly sure why, but you had heroin in your system.
  • Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it cannot be used for any purpose, medical or otherwise. Cocaine, heroin, and most other drugs are Schedule 2, meaning they can be prescribed by a doctor. No federal funding for research into the benefits of marijuana is allowed, and since it's schedule 1, you can't even own any. The DEA still harrasses medical marijuana users and sellers despite the fact that several states allow it's use for medical purposes (and got that way through the initiative process - in other words, it was voted in by the populace of the state in question).
  • The name of the organization is "Mothers Against Drunk Drivers". There is no national organization or temperance movement against users of any other drug to control driving habits. This is because alcohol, more than any other drug, impedes judgement. During the Prohibition movement, only alcohol was targeted, and then because it made men violent and stupid. 
It goes on and on like this.

If you are worried about your children, don't worry that they'll smoke pot. Worry that they'll drink, or get in a car with a driver who's been drinking. Alcohol pervades our society, it is our drug of choice and the presence of dry counties do little to affect people's ability to purchase and consume it.  Yet, people every day, in every walk of life, drink alcohol in such a way that it doesn't adversely affect their lives. I drink wine from time to time, especially with a meal, and I am careful not to get into a position where my consumption will engender poor decisions (a given) by making sure someone else who isn't intoxicated can drive. Like many of you, I made some exceedingly poor decisions as a college student with respect to alcohol, considerably more than I made with all other drugs combined over the course of my life. So why is it legal and the other drugs aren't? 

The usual response I get when I have this conversation is that the person I'm speaking with has a relative who has struggled with some illicit substance. There are certainly substances (cocaine, for one) that should clearly be controlled in some fashion. Others, including heroin and other opiates such as morphine, are much less clear - methadone maintenance programs are extremely effective, at least they would be if we didn't have this bone-headed idea that addiction was some sort of moral failing (it's actually a genetic failing). But I have my own sad story, my niece Wendy, who was abused as a child by a stepfather, who ran away at 15 for 18 months, who was a hooker in Vegas before she could legally drive, who was identified when she finally came in from the cold for help as an alcoholic. Thirteen years ago, she decided she couldn't live her life unmedicated and took her own life to end her pain. Had she been able to get methadone (synthetic heroin that doesn't require increasing doses) on a legal and regular basis, she'd still be alive today. 

It's happened before. A founder of Johns Hopkins struggled with cocaine abuse earlier in his life. Even an around the world sailboat trip wasn't enough to keep him clean, he simply needed some sort of drug in his system. It was morphine use, the drug that heroin is a derivative of, that allowed him to kick the coke habit and found one of the most prestigious health organizations in the world. Of course, being a doctor he had access to uncontaminated morphine and the necessary supplies. In that sense, he was fortunate where Wendy was not. 

Have I done drugs? Given the above definition, the answer is an unqualified yes, as it would be for pretty much every man, woman, and child in the US. Processed sugar is without question a drug, just give a bunch to your five year old and see what happens. Have I done illicit drugs (a question that draws what sure seems to be to be an arbitrary line between "good" and "bad" drugs)? Even in a public forum, with the possibility that Federal data mining will send the DEA on a midnight raid to my home, I will state that I have. I admit to nothing since whatever the statute of limitations is, but I have consumed powered cocaine, psylocibin mushrooms, marijuana, and amyl nitrate (supplied in eight grade by someone who said "sniff this"). The coke did nothing for me, the 'shrooms were very cool (but stupid - you risk renal failure if the picker wasn't very aware of what they were doing), and I have a very strong suspicion that the majority of people reading this know what pot does to you. 

What's my point? First, that telling people that "drugs are bad" or "just say no" destroys your cred - any eighth grader knows that pot is fairly harmless, and that the arguments presented by the establishment are straw men for the most part. It doesn't take much to leap from there to the "illegal drugs are bad" argument holds no water as well. If you want your children to be safe, educate them instead of instilling fear. At the point where kids are going to be interested in experimentation, that's when you need to be giving them access to good information, and the book I recommend above does just that. 

Do colleges need to ramp up their zero tolerance policies? I clearly feel the focus should be on alcohol, and I think that most schools do this to some degree. Certainly fraternities no longer have the long leash they once had. Will it stop college drinking? Please. 

I attended University of Portland as an undergraduate during the Reagan years, and aside from my flirtation with a few illicit drugs at the time the clear focus there was on alcohol. From a student standpoint, that was. Compared to other local schools, where kids took bong hits in the hall, there was a distinct social pressure to limit drug use to legal sources. There were a few kids I knew who smoked pot early on, but after that it wasn't anything that I or my friends did (outside of a few rock band acquaintances). I even remember a couple of friends going out to the car to take a bong hit during a party my senior year, but they didn't advertise the fact at all, and it wasn't just because they didn't want to share. It was a marked difference from my high school, which apparently had enough drug use to have a bad reputation with state school fraternities! 

In other words, the thing that will control drug abuse (and by that I do *not* mean using illicit drugs, I mean using drugs in a manner that is detrimental to you and/or those around you) is social pressure. Drinking and driving is an excellent example - while it's still a very large problem, it is nowhere near as epidemic as it was even 20 years ago. At the same time, we have to stop thinking that "illegal" equals "bad". At a time when waterboarding is "legal" (and, for the vast majority of us, "bad"), it should be clear to everyone that laws don't equate with morality. Especially when there is money to be made, and the money is made by people who produce a far greater social cost with their products. 

I'm not saying that you host hookah parties at your home for your kids, far from it. In fact, it would disturb me if you allowed your children to smoke pot in your home, as I saw happen at the house of a guy I played RPGs with for a few sessions. At the same time, I think you have to understand that your kids *are* going to be curious, and they *are* going to have access to a wide variety of drugs *regardless* of what our laws are. Because drugs are clearly filling some need in our society, in fact in every society. Most religions have used drugs as sacrament (wine, peyote, cannabis, the list goes on), and I am unaware of any society on the planet that doesn't have some sort of recreational drug use, although Islam and the Mormons seem to be about as strict as it gets. As such, the only effective defense we have to prevent problems, whether they are from the black market effects, physiological effects, or functional effects, is the truth. The truth that some illegal drugs shouldn't really be illegal. The truth that some legal drugs are the real danger. The truth that you tried this stuff as a kid yourself.

Because "Just Say No" never got the job done, and never will.

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