As the immense failure and true origins of the war on drugs become more apparent, it’s time to rethink all that we know about mind-altering substances. With prescription painkillers being a driving force behind the deadly opioid epidemic, and marijuana and psychedelics being recognized for their benefits and healing potential, we have entered a whole new paradigm when it comes to drugs and drug use. In a way, we are left with a vacuum in terms of our cultural understanding of substances and the appropriate way to relate to them morally and legally. Are drugs in themselves dangerous, or is human behavior dangerous? Why are prescription drugs killing more people than illegal drugs? And how can we reduce the harms of drug addiction effectively? The answers may surprise you.
1. We are drugs
It was Salvador Dali who first said “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” While he was (accurately) describing the essence of his surreal artwork, he was also pointing to a fundamental fact of human neurochemistry. Mood and mind-altering chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and even DMT are all naturally produced in the body, and taking mind-altering substances is just one way that we influence their activity inside of us. Consciousness alteration can occur as the effect of driving fast cars, having a meal, watching reality TV, playing sports, falling in love, meditating, or going to the opera. We are always altering our consciousness in small and large ways because our minds and bodies are designed for it, naturally producing all of the chemicals needed for a near infinite array of subjective experiences.
2. Drug use has been part of human history since prehistoric times
Understanding that humans have an intrinsic attraction to brain chemistry alteration is an important fact that should be embraced rather than selectively stigmatized. Different societies have integrated certain substances into their culture and ostracized or ignored others, but the idea of a drug-free society is ridiculous because “we are drugs”: we already condone alcohol, sugar, tobacco, caffeine, and prescription drugs like benzodiazepines, stimulants, and opioids. Condemning substance use is as ridiculous as condemning music, dancing or coffee, and harmful because it exchanges facts for propaganda, leading to miseducation and a fundamental distrust of society’s thought leaders. Accepting the truth that substance use is a natural part of humanity and has been for over 5,000 years can help lead us to rational policies that focus on education and harm reduction.
3. The vast majority of illegal substance use is non-problematic
Renowned neuroscientist and drug abuse specialist Dr. Carl Hart has made waves in recent years by pointing out a fact that is very uncomfortable for those attached to the drug war mindset: the vast majority of illegal drug use, even involving substances like heroin and crack cocaine, is non-problematic. Dr. Hart has concluded through decades of research that between 80-90% of people who use illicit substances are not addicted, and are hard-working, bill-paying, productive members of society. He concludes that this insight should lead us to do the following: “Stop exaggerating the harmful effects of drugs, and teach people how to be safe with drugs. Teach people how not to overindulge, just like we do with alcohol.” His reference to alcohol is poignant, because it illustrates how our culture already embraces an addictive and deadly substance posing little to no harm for those who are educated about it and use it responsibly.
4. The “War on Drugs” was actually a war on political opponents
As we covered in depth in a recent article, the truth about the war on drugs has been revealed in recent years to be a smokescreen for a war on progressive activists. The impact of nearly 50 years of anti-drug propaganda has been immense, and even for those of us who have sought and found the facts behind the propaganda, it is still a challenging task to completely shed the deeply embedded fear, shame, and sense of taboo around illegal drugs. Just as with alcohol, cigarettes, or prescription medications, it is always of paramount importance to approach any mind-altering substance from a place of moderation, being well-informed of risks and contraindications. There is no longer any doubt that our selective ostracization of drugs has been based on a lie, and the time has come for a sensible, evidence-based approach that reduces harm rather than exacerbates it.
5. Prescription drugs kill more people than illegal drugs
Contrary to popular belief, prescription drugs kill more people every year than all illegal “street” drugs combined. Beyond that, according to a 2008 government survey an estimated 20% of Americans have abused prescription medications at some point in their lives, a number that is staggering and vastly underreported. The irony and absurdity of our cultural approach to drugs- demonizing substances with immense healing potential like cannabis and psychedelics, while huge portions of the population abuse alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs- is a kind of tragicomedy that would be humorous if not for the millions of lives lost or forever impacted by this backwards understanding. It makes far more sense, for example, to give cannabis to pain patients who would prefer it, rather than sending them home with a jar full of opioids. Thankfully, patients and policy-makers are starting to realize it.
Now that we realize that our cultural take on substances has been obtuse, propagandized, and counterproductive, where do we go from here? The brightest future for drug policy comes from the practice of harm reduction, a non-ideological approach that accepts the fact that drug use occurs and seeks the most effective ways to reduce harmful effects. Addiction to legal and illegal substances is a real problem for millions of people, but there are highly effective treatments on the horizon such as ibogaine-assisted therapy and heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) that show great promise for countries forward-thinking enough to embrace them. If you’d like to support this movement, you can participate by “coming out of the closet” and speaking truthfully about your experiences with psychedelics and other substances, donating to harm reduction and research organizations like MAPS and DanceSafe, and supporting legislation like cannabis legalization and ibogaine pilot programs. If we can, as a culture, choose truth instead of cognitive dissonance and science instead of ideological resistance, we can and will create a new paradigm around substance use that saves countless lives, integrates scientific understanding, and produces real results.