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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Why they can’t Coexist….

Found this on Facebook. Just wanted to transcribe it here, partly because a friend couldn’t clearly see the text on Facebook 😀
Why they can't coexist meme image

Why They Can’t Coexist. Original, apparently from Truth-Saves.com.

The texts of [Christianity], [Islam] and [Judaism] order the elimination of [equality], [paganism], and of each other. Both [Islam] and [Christianity] claim to be religions of [Peace], but [Peace] is a world without [Islam] and [Christianity].

[Islam] and [Judaism] have conflicting promises of land ownership. [Paganism] is a very broad term but all of [Paganism] support living by non-evidence-based-claims, causing conflicts for [Peace]. [Taoism] says to find harmony in everything, good or bad, preventing the seeking of [Peace] and [Equality]. The less a self-proclaimed follower of [Christianity], [Islam] or [Judaism] actually follows the teachings of [Christianity], [Islam] or [Judaism] the more [Peace] and [Equality] can thrive.

[Christianity], [Islam] and [Judaism] claim their way is the only way and cannot coexist with anyone. [Taoism] can only coexist with the [Pagans] who also follow [Taoism]. [Equality] can coexist with most of [Paganism]. The only ones that allow for completee coexistance with each other are [Peace] and [Equality], and the unmentioned [Atheism] and [Humanism].

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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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The Seven Questions of Basic Income Implementation

From the first meeting of our Implementing a Basic Income in Australia group, I presented my outline of what I think are the fundamental questions which need to be answered before a Basic Income can actually be implemented.

In order to answer these questions we want to organise a range of experts on social and economic issues into working groups so that they can discuss the consequences of each decision and how it will be beneficial or detrimental to society, economics, welfare, well-being, employment, power imbalance, freedoms, etc.

The questions are:

  1. How Much / How Often?
    $1 – $10,000+ / Paid daily – Paid annually
  2. What scale is it implemented on? Where?
    Small town? Council? City? State? National.
  3. Who gets it?
    Everyone? Citizens? Residents? 18+? Based on tax return submission? etc
  4. How is it funded?
    Local government? Federal Govt? Increased taxes? New (resource?) taxes? Debt? Transaction tax? Charity? Crowd funding? New money straight to the people?
  5. How long will it run for?
    2 years? 10 years? Indefinitely? 5 years on, 5 years off, etc?
  6. What does it replace?
    Replace all welfare? Just unemployment benefit? Nothing? Minimum wage? Wait and see?
  7. Will there be a transitional period? What will it look like?
    Instant implementation, or gradual implementation over time?

(Have I missed any? Please leave a comment below if I have!)

The answers to each of these questions often influences the answers to others. For example, if you want a National (Q2) Basic Income, it will be virtually impossible to fund that through Charity of Crowd sourcing (Q4), but there is a chance that you could fund a Partial Basic Income (Q1) for 2 years (Q5) in a small remote town (Q2) via charity (Q4).

Of course, a partial income in a small remote town isn’t the ultimate goal, so then we’re talking about a first step implementation. A trial, or a demonstration of value, hoping that it will grow to other towns or else convince enough of the population to enact a nationwide Basic Income. In this case, we’d have to design the best “initial test case implementation” and then a second “Ultimate goal implementation” and perhaps even design the strategy which will take us from the initial test to the ultimate goal.

Whether we want a small test case first or not is still to be answered. I don’t believe the NHS, medicare, welfare etc had incremental steps to implementation, so perhaps it is an error to think that a Basic Income would need it. Perhaps we should instead be focusing on the best possible design for Australia, and then fight for grassroots support of that system while lobbying political parties and getting the support of influential think tanks.

This is all just a first step. We still need to reach out to existing Basic Income organisations (BIEN, QUT, Utrecht University (BIParty NL) etc) to see what information, research and conclusions they are able to share with us which will help inform our answers to these questions.

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The problem with the new atheist movement is…

I had a short conversation with a good friend yesterday which consisted of him (an atheist) telling me that the problem with the atheist movement is that they don’t provide an alternative option to replace the role that religion has fulfilled in our society for so long.

I often have atheist friends tell me that the new atheists are doing it wrong. That they should be doing X other thing instead of what they are doing, or that they should also be doing Y, or that they are wasting their time because some particular philosopher destroyed the notion of God hundreds of years ago, so this is all old news.

All of these sorts of criticisms of the new atheist movement strike me as exceedingly odd.

It is like claiming that climate change activists are doing it wrong because they aren’t personally replacing the coal and petroleum industry with an alternative energy infrastructure. It is like claiming that websites like Skeptical Science are a waste of time because climate scientists have known for decades that climate change is caused by humans. I never heard climate change advocates making these arguments because it is obvious that they are nonsensical. The alternatives exist independent of the activists, and the scientific consensus isn’t reflected in public opinion – therefore the activism is still needed! The atheist movement is no different.

So, when I hear that the new atheists should provide an alternative structure to religion, I think: No, that already exists. It comes from philosophy (morality), science (explanations of the world), sports teams, family, hobbies groups, etc (community). The atheist agenda isn’t to transform society – it is simply to fight for representation in a society which has clearly declared that non-belief is unacceptable, untrustworthy and to be despised.

My understanding is that the atheist movement as we currently know it was basically started by Dawkins giving this TED talk. I think he very clearly outlines why we need this movement, and what its objective is. And I agree completely with him.

Religions cause people to make decisions which harm themselves and people around them, and they do so because they believe that the creator of the universe commands it. They don’t do it because they are intentionally trying to harm people, or because they are necessarily biggoted – they do it because the book commands it.

Yes, there is overlap. Yes, sometimes bigoted people will use the bible to justify their bigotry (as if that is much better), but just as often people will be bigoted just because they believe that the creator of the universe has commanded them to be!

How do you rationally argue against that?

You can’t. You literally cannot make a single argument against “I have to be a bigot, because the creator of the universe has told me that I must behave this way.” The basis of the position is not founded on rational thought – it is founded on authoritarian command. Therefore the only way to correct the erroneous bigoted position, is to undermine the authoritarian command itself. You have to show that the belief in the commander is false. It is the only viable option.

Let’s make this crystal clear. At the very same party where this criticism of the new atheists took place, another good friend pointed out that she was a feminist prior to discovering christ herself and becoming a true believer. In doing so, despite it going against everything she felt and believed, she knew that because God was real and because the Bible was his true word, she must submit herself to her husband, she must see gay people as sinners, and other such commanded positions. These were not positions she wanted to hold – it was just what the bible very clearly told her.

Multiply that experience across the population, and you now have a basis for terrible laws and government policy which leads to vilification and sexism.

Or, lets look at another example of religion doing harm. As I write this article a news story is running about a Jehovah’s Witness family denying their son a blood transfusion. This will kill their son. Do you think they actually want their son to die? Do you think they have some sort of weird bigotry against blood transfusions?

No. They just believe that the creator of the universe has commanded them to do this, so they are obeying the command.

You cannot rationally argue against this position. You can only rationally argue against the underlying belief in a universal creator and master.

And that is what the atheist movement is all about. Fixing the actual problem.

For too long religion has influenced politics, law and social convention despite evidence. And as the “Nones” have grown in number over the decades, their influence has stayed non-existent. This is the problem. This is what the atheist movement cares about.

If you too are worried that the atheist movement might be wildly successful, and leave devastation in their wake as millions of people wake up without religious structures to prop up their meager existence – then go and start your own Humanism Organisation which provides everything religion does, just without the God stuff, and fill that gap. Just don’t be surprised when you find out people are surprisingly capable of filling the gap all on their own with the innumerable other options which already exist.

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Response to “Another reason to cut back on soda” by ConsumerReports.Org

Someone sent this article my way on account of how much Coca Cola I drink:

Another Deadly Reason Why You Should Stop Drinking Soda

Yes, I know Coke isn’t a healthy option, yes I should drink less, but no, this chemical is probably not the reason.

First of all, lets do a quick search of the chemical, and find its wikipedia page and quickly and easily see that…oh dear me…this chemical is present in grilled meat, roasted food, dark beers, coffee and potentially numerous other foods which aren’t soft drinks! We better stop eating and drinking everything just to be safe!

Or maybe we don’t need to worry…. Looking at the actual study which gives 4-MEI its “Potentially carcinogenic” status, the results are not clear. I think this is why they use the word “Potentially”..??? The study looked at 50 male and 50 female rats and mice, and found:

no evidence of carcinogenic activity of 4-methylimidazole in male rats exposed to 625, 1,250, or 2,500 ppm

equivocal evidence of carcinogenic activity of 4-methylimidazole in female rats

clear evidence of carcinogenic activity of 4-methylimidazole in male and female mice

So… are humans more like Mice, or Rats? Or, when it comes to this chemical, are we completely different? The mixed results make it hard to know whether we have variation due to species, or whether the 100 were not enough to absolutely determine the effect of the chemical.

Basically, all we can derive about its carcinogenicity for humans from this study is: “Fuck knows. Could be. Probably should study it more.”

So, unless you want to start restricting every ‘potentially carcinogenic’ chemical from your life (breaking news: oxygen is potentially carcinogenic), you’re going to have to accept that life is carcinogenic, and you should really be only concerning yourself with the ones we actually know about (asbestos, high doses of radiation etc). Just deciding that other things are carcinogenic, and avoiding them, won’t actually help you live longer.

Even if we tie the chemicals in question to the scary scary subject of “soda drinks”!!!!

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That Daily Kos article about the US Police Killing more in March than the UK police have killed in 115 years is misleading.

In a situation that shouldn’t need any exaggeration, the Daily Kos have taken an incomplete Wikipedia list of people killed by UK police and acted as if it was a comprehensive list, comparing it to a list of people killed by police in the USA in March. The UK list is most certainly not comprehensive, and acting like it is is manipulative and very misleading.

So while 111 people killed by US police in March is incredible in itself, the claim that it is more than the UK police have killed in 115 years is absurd. This summary of deaths in police custody in the UK has the number at 1508 since 1990. That is an average of 60 per month – which is now comparable to the 111 in March, and potentially means that the UK kill significantly more people, per capita, than the US do!

However, that would be to make the same mistake as the original Daily Kos writer did, because these numbers are still incomparable. The data from the Inquest study comes from a much broader definition of death in police custody:

INQUEST defines police custody deaths as deaths that take place while the individual is in contact with police, whether or not they have been arrested, or that happen shortly after that contact. The death may not necessarily have occurred inside a police station. We do not include self-inflicted deaths following contact with police or deaths as a result of domestic violence where the police have been involved.

Meanwhile, the 111 deaths in March is taken from a website which only tracks deaths mentioned in the media. It is unlikely that this very-indirect method of counting deaths is anywhere near as rigorous as the study completed by the UK Inquest group which uses Casework files. For example, the 111 deaths cited in the Daily Kos story has now grown to 115. Obviously not all stories are immediately discovered and added – and who knows how many deaths receive no news coverage at all?

Basically, you just can’t compare these numbers. So don’t pretend you can.

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Following up from my last post: In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas

Almost perfectly following up from my last post I came across this article today which expands on what I was saying and looks specifically at the University side of things, and on our growing fear of upsetting people.

I think personal relationships require a lot more delicacy when it comes to offending – these people are your friends and you don’t want to hurt them. But when it comes to higher education, there really should be no question. Challenging ideas and confronting concepts should be part of the experience.

In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas

Probably best to just read the whole article, but here are a few of my thoughts on this:

“I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Of all of the things to ‘get used to’, I would think that this would be one of the good ones.

We should not live in a society were we should grow accustomed to murder, or rape or the sight of starving people in the streets. We should rage against these things, and make them disappear entirely from our world experience so that everyone feels shocked and confronted by such sights.

But learning to deal with viewpoints which go against our dearly held beliefs… this is something we should be encouraging in everyone. Everyone needs to develop the coping mechanisms necessary to express and receive ideas which challenge their being.

And a few of my other favourite excerpts:

A junior named Adam Shapiro decided he didn’t want his room to be a safer space. He printed up his own flier calling it a dangerous space and had that, too, published in the Columbia Daily Spectator. “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth,” he wrote. In an interview, Mr. Shapiro said, “If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission.” But a safe-space mentality has begun infiltrating classrooms, he said, making both professors and students loath to say anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. “I don’t see how you can have a therapeutic space that’s also an intellectual space,” he said.

why are students so eager to self-infantilize?

And the conclusion:

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure “that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.” Ms. El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power,” the writer continued, had granted her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.” In a letter to the editor, the president and the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had sponsored the talk, shot back, saying, “El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.”

You’d be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that the student and her defender had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space.

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