The opioid epidemic in the USA is not a good argument against drug legalisation

I have written about drug legalisation in the past. As a life-long anti-drug person, my recent conversion to a pro-drug attitude came about through massive exposure to compelling evidence against the status-quo opinion on drugs and their relative harms. I won’t rehash that all here, read my previous articles, they make a pretty strong case:

So when I encountered an article by German Lopez titled “I used to support legalizing all drugs. Then the opioid epidemic happened.” I was very interested in seeing the arguments presented. Changing my mind when I can improve my beliefs is a favourite hobby of mine, so I try to exposure myself to the opportunity as much as possible.

Sadly, German’s case did need appear at all compelling to me.

The entire argument seemed to rest on the premise that legal accessibility of pharmaceutical opioids has lead to a massive epidemic of opioid addiction (and overdose death), and that this therefore reveals to us the risk of legalising all other drugs. That given a little bit of freedom, companies will market aggressively and lobby for reduced regulations, and people will pay the price in the form of addiction and overdose deaths.

German fairly acknowledges that this may just be an American problem. That they USA has a history of free-market excesses and inability to reliably restrict/regulate dangerous things. This is important to keep in mind, since much of the rest of the world has not encountered the same opioid problem the US is encountering right now – which is very very much linked to their overly corporate and profit based medical system (rather than the more ‘care’ based system the rest of the world seems to have embraced.)

That aside, there are several massive problems with this argument.

It’s all about the Infrastructure around the legalisation

First, drug legalisation is never really about the legalisation of drugs. It is about everything which goes with that legalisation. The reliable purity and dose of the drugs. The ability to measure and research community usage rates and habits, and react to that knowledge. The ability to tax drug sales and pay for increased mental health care facilities, medical care for drug abuse victims, education of drug harm minimisation, and overall poverty reduction. The end of the multi-billion dollar drug black market, and all of the violent crime which accompanies it.

The current opioid epidemic is a direct consequence of corporate profiteering on the back of new compounds (oxycontin in particular) which they claimed were safer, but weren’t at all. To claim that this unique circumstance is an argument against legalisation is absurd. If anything, it’s an argument against corporate profiteering on the suffering of people. It is an argument that congress needs to do a better job of resisting lobbying efforts and protect the people. It is an argument that evidence based policy is needed more than ever.

This move was not a drug legalisation move – it was a money grab which abused a broken medical system.

Heroin is the worst

Second, it is revealing that of all of the illegal drugs out there, opioids, the class of drugs most widely renowned for their addictiveness and risk of death by overdose is the one which somehow managed to be the one to slip through and become the ad-hoc experiment in legalisation. It makes sense. Alcohol and tobacco are already way up the list of the most dangerous of the drugs, so why not make the other top contender for most dangerous also publicly accessible while many other far safer drugs continue to carry strong prison sentences?

Opioids are the worst drug ever to go through withdrawals from. After alcohol of course, which can kill you from the withdrawals, unlike opioids. Opioid withdrawal just feels terrible. Opioids are also the most addictive drug there is. After nicotine of course. It is well documented that opioid and nicotine addicts all agree – giving up smoking is infinitely harder than giving up opioids.

Not only are they near the top of the list for addictiveness, they are also at the top of the list for risk of overdose. That is, the difference between a good high and a deadly dose is just a small error of measurement, or a simple mistake of re-dosing too soon, or getting a more pure batch than usual etc. Death is unfortunately easy.  And this is the drug which we, as a society, get to use as an experiment on (poorly executed) drug legalisation?

Do you know what the overdose threshold is for LSD? The big scary drug which everyone knows is going to steal your sanity from you? We’d love to know. No one has found it yet. It is hypothesized to be about 10,000x the usual dose. If you ever get your hands 10,000 doses of acid, let me know.

I’ll resist getting bogged down in the long list of examples like this, but just know that virtually every other drug out there is significantly less addictive than opioids, significantly harder to overdose on, and far less harmful across the board. Except for alcohol and nicotine, of course.

So why the fuck would we look at the opioid epidemic in the USA as anything at all informative about what drug legalisation would look like? It tells us nothing other than some of the difficulties we will need to prepare for with that one specific troublesome drug.

But luckily, legalising all drugs will even help with that! Which brings me to my third point….

Some drugs reduce drug abuse

Other drugs help reduce opioid addictions and overdoses. States with legal marijuana have lowered rates of opioid dependence. Marijuana is often used to control pain just as effectively as opioids, and it doesn’t have the same addictive problems nor overdose risks. Psychedelics have shown incredibly promising results in the area of breaking addiction. Drugs like Ibogaine in particular not only help addicts to change their perception of themselves and their addiction, but actually change their neurochemistry, breaking their dependence on the opioid chemicals. But of course, all of this is currently illegal, so not only is this sort of treatment essentially unavailable to all of the opioid addicts, but it is also nearly impossible to meaningfully research and establish true efficacy and rigorous treatment protocols. So even if you are sceptical of the claims that psychedelics can help cure addicts of their addictions, good for you! Legalise the fucking things so we can do the science finally and establish the fact one way or the other.

Drug abuse is a symptom, not a cause

Fourth, and possibly the most important failure of this article, is that fact that it completely failed to mention the real cause of addiction. Drugs aren’t the cause, they are the symptom. They are the easy out when people want out. They are reliable, cheap, and they make life bearable when life isn’t bearable.

The problem behind the opioid epidemic isn’t opioids, it is a growing population of people who hate their lives. OK, I am putting that harshly, but the point is what matters here. Addiction happens because people are escaping from something in their life. Or perhaps more often, they are looking to add something to their life which they feel is missing. They feel alone. They feel worthless. They are in pain!

Every individual is different, but you can be pretty sure none of them set out with the intention of getting addicted to opioids. No one chooses to do this. But something does keep you coming back.

Johann Hari’s fantastic book and Ted talk, and animated summary covers it very well. Humans need connection. If we lack that, we will connect with other things which give us the same sort of feeling. Drugs do that on the neurochemical level, and so are easy to lean on when we feel alone. Our modern world is creating a generation of lonely, isolated desperate people who end up depending on drugs to feel whole again.

Maybe the problem with the opioid epidemic isn’t the legalisation of opioids, but the complete failure of modern america to support healthy communities of connected happy individuals?

The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.

What does the opioid epidemic teach us about drug legalisation?

It teaches us that anything can be poorly executed, and that society has a heap of problems far far worse than drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction.

It teaches us that drug legalisation is really irrelevant in the scheme of things, because our world is pretty messed up already, so maybe there are more important things for us to be doing with our time, resources and money than hunting down victims of those circumstances and throwing them in prison for the chemicals they choose to put in their bodies.

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The Stoned Ape Hypothesis and the Original Memetic Cambrian Explosion

A thought struck me after attending Burning Seed over the weekend (Burning Man for Australia) about the value of psychadelics in human prehistory.

Terence McKenna and the Stoned Ape Hypothesis

Alex Grey Artwork Psychedelics and creativityI’d heard of the Stoned Ape Hypothesis in the past, but have never done much research into its exact claims. Skimming the Wikipedia entry on it and a few other overviews and comments on it, it seems that the main claim is that psilocybin (the active molecule in magic mushrooms) lead to increased fitness in the humans who consumed it through greater hunting ability, greater sexual activity and enhanced religious and creative expression, and as a consequence, that lead to increased selective pressure for brain size growths.

I’m not really here to comment on that particular hypothesis at all. It does sound like a bit of a stretch to me to think that mushrooms may have actively directed our biological evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. I don’t discount it entirely though.

Memetics and Cultural Evolution

That said, I do think that there is a very good reason to suspect that entheogens (any naturally occurring psychedelic plant/organism) may have played a very real and significant role in the advancement of human cultural evolution ever since we evolved the ability to form advance cultural concepts (language, art, advanced tools, etc.).

It is no secret that human brains are copying machines. We learn by watching others do things, then seeing the positive outcomes of those actions, we copy them and attempt to recreate the positive results.

In the wider context of a tribe, it seems like we tend to codify certain activities into traditions. There is a certain way that activities must be done in order to work. If you don’t follow the ritual correctly, then you will probably mess up the meal, or fail in your hunt, or build a shelter which leaks, or whatever. So creativity in implementing well established cultural traditions ends up being quite strongly selected against.

And this is where entheogens may have a particularly strong value.

With the way that they affect our neurobiology to confuse neural pathways and thus enable ‘lateral thinking’ by simply allowing us to follow not-well-established neural pathways, creativity is very strongly enhanced(1) under the effects of psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, etc.

They also tend to somewhat reduce our ‘care factor’ while under the effects. This may be equally as significant since cultural traditions are often quite strongly enforced in a social sense, and people acting out of line with them may be chastised, ostracised or even physically punished. But as we all know from the cliché stoner stereotype, no one under the influence of any psychedelic seems to really give much of a shit about anything, much less what you think of them.

These two psychological aspects combine to create an amazing potential for humans to step outside of what might be incredibly rigid social constructs and even rules, to create something almost entirely brand new. Whether it be the first art, or a new form of art, or a new method of cooking, or a new way to hunt, or even just a minor improvement to an established system…. It seems like psychedelics may have actually had a significant role in forcing forwards human cultural evolution.

To clarify:  the selective pressure on human cultural evolution would remain the same (Does it work? Do people like it? Does it make life easier? etc), but the psychedelics would have increased the amount of variety of cultural units (memes, ideas, concepts, whatever) which could be selected, and thus increase the opportunity for human culture to discover new things and improve our ability to survive and thrive.

The Cambrian Explosion of Memes

I worry as I write this that I am saying something incredibly obvious.

This phenomenon has been observed repeatedly in modern society already. Whether it be from comedians, a few famous change makers themselves, or even scientific studies which show the power of LSD in research. It is just that I had never before personally applied this notion to the limited cultural experience of humans in our earliest stages of ‘humanity’. The stages at which our experiences of cultural units – ideas, or memes – would have been so extremely limited on account of the newness of our ability to create them. And with that limited exposure to new and novel ideas, so to, I believe, our ability to be creative would also have been limited.

Perhaps psychedelics pushed the envelope and artificially created diversity of ideas where there was otherwise almost none, and in doing so, was a powerful stepping stone, potentially bringing about the first ‘Cambrian explosion’ of cultural ideas?

Do psychedelics artificially increase the mutation rates of successful memes?

Footnotes

  1. This article states that the scientific research on whether psychedelics increase creativity is inconclusive – though it is largely on account of the fact that research has been stalled for the last 40 years thanks to the unjust war on drugs (my words, obviously) – and the research techniques used back then were not as rigorous as we use these days. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence and not-exactly-perfect research results seems quite strong to me.
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Turning the war on drugs into a form of political protest

The war on drugs is an unmitigated global disaster. This is a widely established fact and can be defended on many different levels – financially, outcome based, or morally for instance.

Vice ran a story the other day about a small town in Southern California which ran a sting in a high school which involved manipulating students into ‘selling’ drugs to an undercover police officer. They arrested 22 students, many of whom were simply trying to help out a ‘friend’ who pestered them every day to get drugs for him. It is an horrendous story and highlights the horrific nature of the war on drugs and the way the laws are used to manipulate and control populations, often simply for financial gains – of law enforcement agencies, of prison systems, or any other number of individuals, organisations and corporations.

This story got me wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to use the war on drugs itself as a form of political protest?

It is possible these days to log on to marketplaces over TOR which allow people to purchase drugs with crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. With anonymous connections, and anonymous financial transactions, purchasing the drugs is completely untraceable. Receiving the drugs though… that is not so straight forward.

What if the very people who continue to promote the war on drugs, and continue to stop reformation of the laws, and continue to incarcerate people who have hurt no one etc started to receive illegal drugs, of a quantity which would result in jail time perhaps, into their personal homes, offices, and other places directly associated with them? How would law enforcement react? I wonder if they would even respond to an anonymous tip off?

Actually, there is a good reason to fear this idea being used in reverse, because I expect that if a kg of cocaine got sent to a respectable politicians house (in many many small envelopes that is), the police would go over there and help him get to the bottom of whoever is harassing him in this way! But if someone sent a kg of cocaine to a poorer black man’s house – that poor guy would be in prison before he even had a chance to speak. And this is precisely the problem with the war on drugs. The arbitrary choices involved in who they prosecute and who they support.

Anyway – it was just a pondering. Could ‘Anonymous’ start sending drugs to politicians as a form of political protest?

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If I were in charge… (Part 1)

If I were in charge of a country, I would change 3 significant things:

  1. I would legalise and monopolise all illegal drugs
  2. I would implement a universal basic income
  3. I would rigorously secularise society

Put the cartels out of business legalise drugs

Part 1. The War on Drugs has Failed

This is no secret. It is well documented now, in all sorts of ways. It costs many billions each year, it causes more harm than good, costs lives, creates crime, and completely fails to deliver on its one objective. Drugs are more accessible, cheaper, and more numerous than at any other point in history.

We need a new approach.

Portugal has been the only country to really give decriminalisation a serious go. And it has worked remarkably well for them. But decriminilisation is a weird halfway sort of solution. Sure, it isn’t ‘criminal’ any more, but it still isn’t legal. It becomes more like speeding.

If I were in charge, pending rigorous expert consultation and comprehensive review, I would immediately take steps to create a centralised government drug production and wholesale distribution system.

Dare to legalise drugs

Initial Education

While the infrastructure was being set up, I would ensure adequate educational material was made available and regularly presented to kids of all ages, at least once a year throughout all of high school warning of the side effects and risks of drugs (in all forms), ensuring that everyone in society grows up with a valid understanding of drugs, not a fear based one. TV commercials, paper, radio, and mail-drops of informational pamphlets would also be done at this early stage to inform the public of the changes, and provide them with access to a website where more information and drug facts could be accessed.

With the warnings and education in place, the drugs would start being produced, and retail outlets would be licensed. Either directly through pharmacists, or similar to how liquor outlets are currently handled in Australia. Either way, the government would handle the production and wholesale distribution to private, highly regulated, thoroughly trained and licensed retail outlets. Every shipment of every type of drug would have information sheets which go with each batch, providing crucial information relevant to the dosage, side effects, risks, interactions etc that should be known before taking that drug.

Retail Scenario

The retail outlets would be responsible for ensuring the customer meets age restrictions (most likely 21+ for most drugs, but definitely based on scientific rigour rather than ideology), limiting the quantity purchased per customer, providing cursory verbal information, warnings and queries to ensure the customer understands the risks (as pharmacists currently do for prescription drugs), and of course, giving information pamphlets/booklets with the purchased drugs.

User Consequences

Now, all drug users have a clean reliable source of known quantities of drugs. This will significantly reduce risk of poisoning and overdose. Plus all users have readily accessible information about risks, rather than trusting ‘friends’ and random strangers to advise them. This too will have a significant impact on overdoses, overuse, addictions, bad interactions and many other risks typically assumed to be the fault of the drugs, rather than the fault of ignorance.Remember prohibition it still doesn't work legalise drugs

Crime Results

With a reliable government source, drug dealers will all be rapidly put out of business.

All of the drugs will be sold with a high tax rate and commercial mark up, so drug dealers might be able to keep lower prices. However, people will tend to prefer the certainty of knowing they are getting pure quality of known concentrations from reliable outlets over slightly lower prices. The profitability of large drug running organisations and organised crime groups will simply disappear, and with it, those groups will die a quick death. Most organised crime will simply disappear because most of them depend on their drug sales to maintain cash flow.

With the death of most organised crime groups, violence will decline. Turf wars, inter-gang rivalry, and violence to intimidate and maintain control will disappear with them. This fact is already being demonstrated with marijuana legalisation in Colorado, with violent crime declining by 5.2% in the first 6 months. Legalise all drugs, and it will be much more significant.

Revenue and Expenses

The biggest positive will be the significant new income source taken from crime syndicates and given to the government for the benefit of the public.

The costs of policing drug crime are significant, and these will nearly completely be eradicated over the course of a couple of years. The savings there alone will be immense, but they will be nothing compared to the revenue generated by the sale of the drugs, and the tax revenue generated from the retail outlets.  If there is one thing we have learned over the last 50+ years of drug prohibition, it is that druglords make more money than just about anyone else in society

Some of that revenue would be lost to the initial costs – creation of the farms, laboratories and distribution networks. Ongoing staff costs, maintenance etc will be easily covered by the revenue of sale. The significant profits and the taxation from retail sales would then need to be all used for specialised drug-related concerns in society.

Investment into Education

First, there would be the education side. Some of the money would need to be put into ensuring schools can adequately teach children about the drugs, so that no one is left ignorant of their risks and dangers. So a certain amount would be invested into schools every year and specific teachers, teacher trainings, materials, and other overheads associated with this.

Medical Expenses and Drug Abuse Support

Secondly, most of the money would need to go into ‘medical’ support. This would consist of counselling, addiction treatment, rehab and outright medical expenses generated as a consequence of drug abuse. As part of the constant exposure to drug information provided under this system, constant reminders about counselling, psychological support, and medical assistance would be forever pushed on all drug users, so that no one is ever left feeling isolated, vulnerable and trapped by their drug use. This fact alone will save more lives than any other measure in my opinion (and cut medical costs by helping people avoid the devastating outcomes of untreated abuse).

One of the biggest problems created by the war on drugs is the labelling of drug abuse victims as criminals, forcing them to feel trapped by their situation, pushing them deeper into desperation, crime, isolation, mental illness etc. By breaking that stigma alone, lives will be saved, people will be helped back to functional productive members of society, and everyone will benefit.

Scientific Investment

If money remains, or after a few years of keeping enough money in buffer to compensate for fluctuating incomes and expenses, a fund should be generated for scientific research. By having easy access to all known drugs on the planet, scientific research should be delved into with rigour. Medical applications, long term consequences on individuals, society as a whole, psychology, physiology, etc. The ability to finally get some real research done on these most remarkable of chemicals will yield amazing commercial prospects for the country as new medical applications and treatments will be pioneered there exclusively.

Related to this is the fact that by controlling virtually all drug production, wholesale sales, and regulation of retail sales of drugs, it would finally be possible to get actually reliable statistics on the usage rate of drugs. Governments would be able to monitor just how much of each drug is consumed, and the track that against adverse health affects, long term outcomes etc. Rather than just polling people, and roughly guessing. It would even be possible to recruit far more people into long term health studies of specific drugs, rather than trying to infer the outcomes indirectly.

Invest in Children

One final investment option for the new drug based revenue stream, if there is the money available for it, is to invest in parental support.

This is a bit of a wildcard, but it seems to me like most drug abuse doesn’t come from drug addiction nearly so much as it comes from feeling trapped and useless (see the rat park research). One half of that equation is being unable to fend for oneself – unemployable, destitute, desperate poverty etc. We will deal with this issue in step 2 of this piece.

But the other half of the equation (or at least, another aspect of it) is growing up in an abusive or dysfunctional household.

As a society we already try to prevent children suffering through abusive upbringings. And this is great, but no doubt most of them slip through the cracks because abuse and maltreatment isn’t always obvious. It also isn’t always intentional. Often parents just find themselves overwhelmed. Unsure of themselves. Potentially even inadequate (surprise! Just giving birth to a human doesn’t make you a great parent!).

So the wildcard idea here is to invest in family support initiatives. Definitely keep providing strong support to abused and maltreated children, but also start extending support to parents who just wish they had more help with caring for and raising their children. The idea here is something of a government initiative Super Nanny program. Nannies who come and visit for one work day per week (mornings, middays or bedtimes) or more if required, to help advise parents on how to deal with troubled children, structure and support. Lighten the load and inject alternative unbiased professional experience into the household, and hopefully the children will have better lives for it.

My intention with this idea is to help reduce the number of people who grow up harbouring psychological trauma, mild as it may be, at the hands of misguided parents. I don’t mean to over-generalise here, but like it or not, parents have the biggest impact on our lives, and if you are unlucky enough to get one who repeatedly tells you you are useless, or ugly or a failure at life, or the cause of all of their problems….etc then there is a good chance that these sorts of psychological traumas will follow you for your life, and for some people, these traumas can cause them to seek escape into drugs.

Like I said – wildcard idea, and far from validated. Just an idea at this stage, which I am happy to receive feedback on.

Ultimate Outcome

So in summary, the government produces and wholesales all (currently illegal) drugs to highly regulated retail outlets who sell to very well informed customers who have significant psychological and medical support provided to them should they need it. Drug cartels would be put out of business, reducing violent crime significantly as crime syndicates lose their main source of funding. Policing can focus on actually protecting people rather than arresting drug users, the government has more money all round, and scientific research will undoubtedly find innumerable medical applications for most of the drugs, selling the technology/knowledge/application/treatment globally, creating even more revenue for the nation.

legalise regulate educate medicateCost?

I really don’t see one.

I know, I know: More people will have access to drugs, and drugs are dangerous!

Access will be there, but most people, even if offered heroin for free at a party, would still decline. Hell, alcohol is ever present in our society and I turn that down all the time! Just because something is available does not automatically mean people will start doing it. There has to be a desire to do it.  Just ask a Dutch person whether they smoke marijuana and take mushrooms or not – most don’t.

Secondly, if people want drugs, they can already get them! This is the current situation! The difference is that when you have problems, you have no real support. And your chances of having problems are significantly increased because of the unreliable source, the materials the drugs are cut with, and the lack of education around the drug usage. The only ‘education’ we currently have is “Don’t do it.”

Abstinence only sex education causes more pregnancies than real sex education, and abstinence only drug education causes more death and harms than real drug education.

So, when we get over this automatic assumption that ‘doing drugs’ is the bad thing, and start to think in terms of actual harms – overdoses, adverse health affects, psychological illnesses etc – then we can start to assess which system causes more harm. Does the current system which provides no support and proper education and reliable sources cause less harm than the system outlined here?

I doubt it very much.

Not only do we have easy comparisons between the USA and the Netherlands showing that the country with legal access to drugs actually has LOWER usage, but we have the obvious fact that support and education create better outcomes than ignorance, violence and unreliable sources.

So again.. I can’t see an actual negative.

End the war on drugs. Legalise and monopolise drug production and lets make the world a better, more inclusive and supportive place.

 

Part 2 to follow soon.

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What Is Skepticism For? The Case for Skeptic Activism against The War on Drugs.

I’ve never been much of a drinker. I didn’t do it at all until late into my 20s, and since then only very rarely have I bothered. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. Drug taking has been almost completely non-existent in my entire life and I spent the first 30 or so years outright denouncing them.

I tell you all of this because I am about to make an argument in defense of drugs and drug users, and it has become standard practice to minimise anyone who defends drugs as a ‘pot head’ or a ‘junkie’ or some other ad hominem attack to save the effort of actually engaging with the arguments. I am no pot head. And I am definitely no junkie.

With that out of the way, I think the War on Drugs, and with it, public perception of drugs + public policy on drugs + media representation of drugs (which is a whirlpool of feedback loops) is just about one of the most harmful things our society does to itself. And I believe that the Skeptic community should take a more active role in fighting against this harm.

Why The Skeptic Community?

It is true that many organisations already exist which are fighting for legalisation, deciminalisation and other reforms on the drug law front, but they are usually fighting on the political level and are also usually ignored by the mainstream (both the media and the public) because “…you know… potheads.” The skeptic community has the advantage of NOT being about drugs, but being about good science. That is what makes this proposition so powerful for undoing this harmful set of laws.

rock fishing is one of the most dangerous sports there isBut why should the skeptic community care? Because my understanding of what the skeptic movement is really about – at its roots – is correcting false beliefs to reduce harms. The objective is to make the world a better place by saving people from themselves. To save people from using useless medical treatments, or to save people from wasting money on useless rituals, treatments or activities.

Skepticism is about destroying false beliefs. And social perception of drugs, thanks to decades of propaganda and manipulation by governments and the media, is so out of line with reality that we are perpetuating incredibly harmful policies out of fear and ignorance when we should be basing our policies on science, knowledge and rationality.

This is what skeptics fight for, and I see no reason why this fight should be any different to any of the others skeptics pick.

Why Drugs? Why Should Skeptics Care About Drug Law?

Skeptics should care about drug laws exactly the same way that skeptics care about vaccination.

Imagine a world where 50 years ago some extreme political party got into power in the USA and decided that vaccination was a dangerous act, and needed to be made illegal. They start massive advertising and propaganda campaigns and convince the majority of the population that vaccination is a dangerous activity for which there is no possible benefit. They highlight every adverse reaction, twist evidence to suit their agenda, and gain a popular support of outlawing vaccination.

vaccination and drugsImagine a modern world where people have to get vaccinated in secret, with vaccines they can’t be sure are what they are meant to be, and with needles which might be reused. Imagine the media covered every single adverse reaction which ever occurred, and talked about people dying and contracting blood born diseases from shared needles, despite the fact that these problems only exist because vaccines are illegal (ie: not a product of the vaccines themselves). While the media is covering every negative aspect of vaccination it is of course only covering 1 in 200 of the complications experienced with alternative medicines. The public is justifiably convinced that alternative medicines like homeopathy and acupuncture are perfectly safe, while vaccination is a high risk treatment which doesn’t offer any benefit to the receiver.

And then someone suggests that maybe the skeptic community – so concerned with saving people from misinformation and scientific manipulations – might want to perhaps argue for the legalisation of vaccination again.

  • “But we don’t deal with that. Lets stick to what we know…”
  • “That is an issue for lawyers and politicians. We are just concerned with pseudoscience and the paranormal”
  • “I just don’t understand why vaccination is something we should care about?”
  • “Research has shown how harmful having backroom vaccinations can be. It is clearly dangerous, you shouldn’t do it, and there is very little science supporting the value of vaccinations! And your conspiratorial talk of government controlling research makes you sound like a nut job.”

This is what I see when I suggest skeptics care about drug laws. Willful avoidance of engagement with the issue, and dismissal of the fact that governments have very clearly controlled the substances (halting scientific research in many ways) while simultaneously funding many studies in order to prove their existing biases. This fact is most strongly highlighted by the fact that David Nutt (winner of the 2013 John Maddox award for defending science) was fired from his government position for reporting that many illegal drugs were far less harmful than the legal drugs, thus the laws should be changed to be more scientifically consistent. The government (usually through ‘drug abuse’ organisations) has been funding ‘drug research’ for decades with the clear intention of finding specific results. For example, the most recent study to get a lot of press because it found ‘abnormalities’ in the brain of ‘casual’ marijuana users, was in part funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The press derived from this paper was clearly designed to hype the somewhat biased language used in the paper.

What’s All the Fuss About Anyway? What is the Harm in Protecting People from Drug Abuse?

ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse ridingI’m so glad you asked! Because we all know that drugs are bad and dangerous and harmful right!? Well, yeah, there is some level of truth to that. Like driving cars. Or mountain biking. Or horse riding. Everything in life contains risks and we all have to choose what level of risk we are each willing to accept. When it comes to drugs though, for some reason personal autonomy is not an option.

So yeah, drugs can be harmful, but this is where the science really matters – How harmful are drugs exactly?

This is where David Nutt’s research becomes incredibly important. He was actually trying to answer that question. And when his findings highlighted the inconsistency between the actual risks associated with particular drugs and their legal status, he was fired for actually reporting it as such. Nonetheless, we can still thankfully see the results of his research and see that many drugs are actually less harmful to individuals and society as a whole than the legal drugs and many other activities which no one would ever consider criminalising.

So that is the first point here; our laws do not represent the actual risks involved, and thus the notion that our laws are there to ‘protect people’ are immediately questionable.

But the second point is far more important – these laws are outright harmful.

If someone smokes a joint, it might have negative affects on their brain (an incredibly slight chance) – but if that same person is caught by a police officer with that one joint, it could get them a permanent criminal record which will affect them for the rest of their life. That is real and genuine harm that lowers individuals well being, chance of success and happiness in life.

  • Placing people in prisons for personal choices – that ruins lives.
  • Being able to use drugs as an excuse to disproportionately target one socio-economic or racial group above all others – that is a real harm.
  • Driving an elastic market underground and creating drug cartels who are already on the wrong side of the law, thus have no reason to obey any other laws – that is a real harm.
  • Not providing a safe way to buy chemicals which people continue to buy despite the laws, thus risking overdose or taking poisons instead of the intended substance – that is a real harm.
  • Spending billions of dollars to enforce these laws while making zero actual progress – that is a real harm.

motorcycle racing - more dangerous than most drugsThe costs of the war on drugs, to individuals and to society as a whole is incredible. This is why I believe it is one of the most harmful things our society does to itself.

I am not alone.

The drug reform movement is growing. Breaking the Taboo is a great example of this, with Richard Branson, US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and leaders from Colombia, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico all coming out against the war on drugs. Even the Wikipedia page on the War on Drugs paints a bleak picture of that policy. And then you have examples like Portugal, who took steps to decriminalise personal quantities of drugs in 2001 and have had many successes in their experiment.

The war on drugs is winding up, and there is growing support for reformation of drug laws around the world, but it is still taking an incredibly long time. And while this is happening, we have people spending their lives in prison for petty and harmless crimes. And we have people being sentenced to death for drug trafficking. As if that fact wasn’t bad enough, dare to publicly speak up to defend these people about to be murdered by governments on the basis of global propaganda, and people actually defend the governments rights to do it. People respond with “well they knew the chance they were taking when they did it!” Very caring and compassionate that is! I wonder if those same people would be so blase if an extreme Jewish sect started stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath? Or if they defend the rights of extremist Muslim groups who kill women trying to get an education. They all knew the risks they were taking too, surely?

The harms of this global persecution of drug use and drug supply are devastating and inhumane, and they need to end. If we could help speed this process up, and bring drug laws into alignment with the best scientific knowledge, than we can make the world a better place and save many lives.

What Skeptics Can Do

Like most things, it starts with self education. Watch this talk by David Nutt and you will have a much better understanding of the drug-law situation than 99% of the population. If you can, watch Breaking the Taboo too. Understand the manipulations present in past drug research – for example, read this comic to see how research has been used to produce desired conclusions and then the correcting studies have been largely ignored. And of course, if you want to know anything about any drug, then Erowid is generally recognised as the most comprehensive and reliable source of information about drugs (and I have been told that Bluelight is great too).

With knowledge on your side, then I think we need to start considering drugs (or drug law? or ‘the science of drug harm’?) to be one of the subjects skeptics care about. We should be inviting people like David Nutt to talk at our conferences. We should be publishing articles about the science of drug harms in our skeptic magazines to help inform more people about the situation. We should be blogging about it. We should be challenging people when they make untrue statements about drug harms.

We have to break through this fear of talking about drugs. We can’t let social pressure and policy pressure stop us from bringing objective scientific information to the public. We have to break out of the propaganda!

Lets make the world a better place and focus our laws on the real criminals – not on the people who want to enjoy life in their own way.

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