Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Debunking the Drug War

The following is an August 9 editorial out of NYTimes. I've reposted it elsewhere (see the link below), but I think I'm just going to post the whole thing here too.

NYTimes: Debunking the Drug War by JOHN TIERNEY
America has a serious drug problem, but it's not the "meth epidemic" getting so much publicity. It's the problem identified by William Bennett, the former national drug czar and gambler.

"Using drugs," he wrote, "is wrong not simply because drugs create medical problems; it is wrong because drugs destroy one's moral sense. People addicted to drugs neglect their duties."

This problem afflicts a small minority of the people who have tried methamphetamines, but most of the law-enforcement officials and politicians who lead the war against drugs. They're so consumed with drugs that they've lost sight of their duties.

Like addicts desperate for a high, they've declared meth the new crack, which was once called the new heroin (that title now belongs to OxyContin). With the help of the press, they're once again frightening the public with tales of a drug so seductive it instantly turns masses of upstanding citizens into addicts who ruin
their health, their lives and their families.

Amphetamines can certainly do harm and are a fad in some places. But there's little evidence of a new national epidemic from patterns of drug arrests or drug use. The percentage of high school seniors using amphetamines has remained fairly constant in the past decade, and actually declined slightly the past two years.

Nor is meth diabolically addictive. If an addict is someone who has used a drug in the previous month (a commonly used, if overly broad, definition), then only 5 percent of Americans who have sampled meth would be called addicts, according to the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

That figure is slightly higher than the addiction rate for people who have sampled heroin (3 percent), but it's lower than for crack (8 percent), painkillers (10 percent), marijuana (15 percent) or cigarettes (37 percent). Among people who have sampled alcohol, 60 percent had a drink the previous month, and 27 percent went on a binge (defined as five drinks on one occasion) during the month.

Drug warriors point to the dangers of home-cooked meth labs, which start fires and create toxic waste. But those labs and the burn victims are a result of the drug war itself.

Amphetamine pills were easily available, sold over the counter until the 1950's, then routinely prescribed by doctors to patients who wanted to lose weight or stay awake. It was only after the authorities cracked down in the 1970's that many people turned to home labs, criminal gangs and more dangerous ways of ingesting the drug.

It's the same pattern observed during Prohibition, when illicit stills would blow up, and there was a rise in deaths from alcohol poisoning. Far from instilling virtue in Americans, Prohibition caused them to switch from beer and wine to hard liquor. Overall consumption of alcohol might even have increased.

Today we tolerate alcohol, even though it causes far more harm than illegal drugs, because we realize a ban would be futile, create more problems than it cured and deprive too many people of something they value.

Amphetamines have benefits, too, which is why Air Force pilots are given them. "Most people took amphetamines responsibly when they were freely available," said Jacob Sullum, the author of "Saying Yes," a book debunking drug scares. "Like most drugs, their benefits outweigh the costs for most people. I'd rather be driving next to a
truck driver on speed than a truck driver who's falling sleep."

Shutting down every meth lab in America wouldn't eliminate meth because most of it is imported, but the police and prosecutors have escalated their efforts anyway and inflicted more collateral damage.

In Georgia they're prosecuting dozens of Indian convenience-store clerks and managers for selling cold medicine and other legal products. As Kate Zernike reported in The Times, some of them spoke little English and seemed to have no idea the medicine was being used to make meth.

The prosecutors seem afflicted by the confused moral thinking that Mr. Bennett blames on narcotics. "Drugs," he wrote, "undermine the necessary virtues of a free society - autonomy, self-reliance and individual responsibility."

If you value individual responsibility, why send a hard-working clerk to jail for not divining that someone else might manufacture a drug? And why spend three decades repeating the errors of Prohibition for a drug that was never as dangerous as alcohol in the first place?


Jenn Onofrio said...

"Today we tolerate alcohol, even though it causes far more harm than illegal drugs..." Oh, but I wish he would have said what he meant by that. It's a fascinating fact that I don't think a whole lot of people realize.

You see, it's true. Alcohol, unlike any illicit drug in the cookbook, can attack, deplete, and destroy every one of the body's major organs (alone or in tandem), while amphetamines are limited to receptor activity in the brain and, at best, depression of the respiratory system. In too large a quantity, of course, it will kill you (there's that depression of the respiratory system thing again), but ask someone who's suffered from alcohol poisoning what THAT feels like, and I'm willing to bet it feels a hell of a lot more awful than slowly drifting out of consciousness due to oxygen depravation...

I think the War on Drugs has strayed so far away from where it originally started that there's little left to do but expect these kinds of actions from our government leaders (persecuting the Big, Bad, Dirty drugs and ignoring the more dangerous, obvious, and prevalent). You might say, even, that the attack on illicits is perpetuated greatly by aesthetic appearances. Look at a meth addict, and then look at an alcoholic. Over time, the former begins to resemble something of a functioning corpse while the latter tends to just look puffy, kind of like Santa Claus. It's easier to construct tales of woe and fear from Night of the Living Dead than it is on Johnny, your alcohol-binging next-door neighbor. Fear is at the core of this battle too, and it’s unfortunate that most of what we know about the War on Drugs is based around what we really don’t know.

For example:

Cocaine was outlawed because it made black men “difficult to control” and more likely to attack white women; heroin is actually one of the least dangerous drugs, medically speaking – it’s how you put it in your body that actually harms you. Alcoholics Anonymous has no grounding in scientific method yet is one of the most readily prescribed treatments for alcoholism; there is no significant, solid research that tells us that drug abuse stems from an addictive personality, thereby entirely ignoring the trend of AA members skipping The Drink and subbing with coffee, nicotine, or exercise. The majority of people who go into rehab cycle at least two or more times; people can still abuse drugs, even if they’re in prison; and opium production is 40,000 hectares greater this year than it’s ever been in Afghanistan.

I’m just spouting off general misconceptions here. More? Lots of people *like* drugs. Lots and lots and lots of people use them. Want to hear really dirty? Check out the July 2005 report from CASA called 'Over the Counter.' It's all about the real epidemic in the world of drugs: prescription abuse. Opioids, like Vicodin and OxyContin, top the list of things teens are currently abusing, standing high above methamphetamines, just below marijuana and inhalants.

I could go on and on about this, and perhaps I might over on my own blog, but suffice it to say that if you attempt to deconstruct the War on Drugs, you'll quickly find that it might just be more complicated and more confusing than what we're doing over in Iraq.

Or maybe they're just equal. Might I be snide and say “pick your poison?”

Theo said...

The "crazy black men" propaganda was used for other drugs as well. It's nuts!

And really I think that some of the drug war is financed by the "legitimate" drug companies who make legal "alternatives." Imagine how many drugs would see a hit in sales if it became easier to prescribe marijuana.

However, at this point the drug war is just a huge sunk cost. The government doesn't want to suddenly stop and say that they were wrong. The government doesn't want to stop and admit that they've wasted so much money pursuing these drug users, building prisons to house them, and jailing them for long expensive periods of time. The drug war is unwinnable and just makes drugs even more dangerous, sure, but they can't imagine the backlash from stopping.

In general we need to be so careful about what gets legislated. Once it's a written law that is actively being enforced, it's going to be so difficult to get rid of it later. It's especially bad when you need to find a way to get rid of a law without acting like you're endorsing whatever the law was against. Dropping the drug war does not endorse drug use.

And what about treatment? Wouldn't a good FIRST step to be treating drug users rather than pushing them into prisons where they can learn to use even more dangerous drugs?

I dunno. The whole thing makes me mad. It's such a waste.

Theo said...

"Pick your poison" was pretty clever, by the way.

Jenn Onofrio said...

"The government doesn't want to suddenly stop and say that they were wrong. The government doesn't want to stop and admit that they've wasted so much money pursuing these drug users, building prisons to house them, and jailing them for long expensive periods of time." I couldn't agree with you more. You totally hit the nail on the head right there, and it IS incredibly frustrating. The only thing one could hope for is perhaps an administration that will take steps in the right direction. Carter, for example, was so close to the legalization of marijuana.

But, alas. We know how that one turned out.

Funny thing you talk about there with the legitimate alternatives. Want hard proof of your statement? Look at methadone. In fact, look at the opioid class of drugs altogether -- it's maddening. I’ll get back to methadone in a second... but just look at the opioids for a minute:

So, people use heroin. It's a semi-synthetic Schedule I drug derived from opium (specifically, from the morphine alkaloid). It's bad! Bad, bad, bad! Oh, but wait -- it helps relieve pain. It makes people feel better. Pharm companies think, maybe we should cook some up of our own! Maybe we can even make it stronger! Yes, by God! That's what we'll do.

Opium 101: opium is comprised of lots of derivatives, but the three primary acting ones are morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Semi-synthetic opioids are made from them (OxyContin, Vicodin, etc.). Almost all of the primary painkillers pushed by pharm companies are derived from thebaine, though, and this needs to be noted. Why? Because of the three alkaloids that primarily behave the same way (though, morphine is the most potent), thebaine is the only one with a STIMULANT component. I'll let you fill in the blanks yourself.

Now, back to that heroin thing. So, we want to make something like it because people DO use it and it feels good. So, heroin is derived from morphine.... why don't we use thebaine, play around with this stimulant factor, and produce a bunch of drugs even stronger than the illicit ones???
We'll make OxyContin in varying doses, some of which will be 50 times the strength of morphine, and then we'll just keep going with things like Vicodin, Percodan, Percocet, Lortab, Norco, and Endocet.

But wait!!! Why stop there?

What if we stopped using opium altogether and started making our drugs entirely synthetic? Could we make them even stronger???

How about Fentanyl? Do you remember reading in the news a few weeks back that a fentanyl patch was being pulled by the FDA because people were dying? Yeah. Fentanyl is 80 times the strength of morphine, and that patch garnered 5 billion dollars in sales last year alone.

Oooo, but there's this other cool thing we can do with synthetics -- we can tinker with them and make up drugs that will help the people that get addicted to them, too. Take methadone. Methadone is an entirely synthetic drug made to act a little bit like heroin, and it's administered to people who are addicts and need to be slowly tapered off their habits. The problem with methadone, though, is it's still an opioid and still addictive, so what this has resulted in is heroin junkies turning into government/pharmaceutical assisted methadone junkies.

Take them off the illegals, hook them on the legals.


Rush Limbaugh and his script sheet? He was worse than almost any heroin junkie I’ve ever known. The doses of OxyContin he was taking pushed him far past any heroin high you could hope to get on the street. I don’t know why people don’t seem to draw that connection.

I got side tracked there for a little bit, didn't I? Maybe I should take some meth or some Adderol. God knows I'd be able to focus a little better.