Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Drugs

Due to overwhelming popular demand (I was overwhelmed by the existence of any demand, given I have no readers...), there shall follow a series of posts, concerning both Drugs, and God, and how the two topics overlap from my own perspective.

I shall start on Drugs, because it is the easier post, and I'd actually already started drafting it. Sorry, but I'm really not going to be able to cover both topics in one post to my own satisfaction.

Drugs have a very bad reputation in our society. This is understandable - many people have their lives ruined or ended as a result of substance abuse, and the trade in illegal drugs is one of the major cash cows for organised crime.

Of course, the drugs I'm talking about are the illicit ones. Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, crystal methamphetamine. We as a society seem to have no problems with legal drugs - paracetamol, codine, nicotine (although this one is increasingly frowned upon), alcohol (which the Rudd government may be trying to take a stand against, but its a long way from achieving the kind of significant change in social values that we've experienced over smoking.) I know that my life would be a lot harder to manage without the aid of Sodium Volporate and Olanzapine.

Well, one of the (many) problems with drugs is, the line I've drawn above, between the good drugs and the bad drugs - distinctions which the law, by necessity, makes rather clear - is in reality kinda blurry (and no, my vision hasn't been blurred by any sort of substance.)

Weekend binge drinking no doubt harms the drinker a lot, as well as leading to all kinds of anti-social or dangerous behaviour (violence, drink driving etc.) However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that drinking in moderation is not only not especially harmful, but may actually be beneficial to overall health, by for example relieving stress. Red wine has lots of anti-oxidants or some other vaguely useful substances in it, I forget which.

Marijuana falls on the other side of the legal line, but I know quite a few people who use it, some regularly, and suffer no (noticeable) ill effects. Of course a lot of people think that this is therefore a 'harmless' drug. This is nonsense. Sustained, heavy use destroys your mental faculties just as surely as serious alcohol abuse does. Perhaps more insidiously, there is increasing evidence that pot (along with a whole bunch of other susbstances) can lower the threhold for any (possibly latent) psychoses. So if you have a family history of Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, or other related illnesses, you'd be well advised to steer clear of this drug, not to mention just about any other psychoactive drug.

That's certainly not to say that marijuana shouldn't perhaps be a controlled but legal substance, as it is in some countries, and as are alcohol, tobacco, and codeine (which belongs to the opiates, the same class of drugs as Heroin.)

On the subject of the law, and drug policy in general, I would love to see a more rational, less politically and emotionally charged approach to the way we seek to control substances. I would like to see public opinion and government policy shaped by the doctors, social workers, magistrates, and academics, who scientifically and disspassionately study and/or deal with the effects of drugs on a day to day basis. I don't want our society's views on this critical issue dominated by the feelings of overwrought, grief stricken people who have tragically lost family members to drug abuse. Opponents of harm minimisation talk about compromising or diluting "the message" - presmuably, that "all drugs are bad." Well, I'm sorry, that's a bad message. It has little to no credibility, because many people routinely use drugs, both legal and illegal, without suffering noticeable (short-term) consequences; these people will naturally perceieve such a pronounced, absolute anti-drug message as an extreme exaggeration if not outright fabrication (not to mention incoherent given there are plenty of legal yet harmful drugs.) There is no moral high ground to be taken against the substances themselves here. The real moral high ground is to stop people's lives being ruined or lost, and we must adapt whatever approach the evidence (not our intuitions or emotions) suggests will do this best.

Moving on to more specific details, I am in favour of the decriminalisation of the possesssion of any drug (which is the defacto state of affairs as it stands - police and prosecutors go after dealers, not users). Don't get me wrong, I'm not on a libertarian bent here, objecting in principle to the government outlawing behaviour that 'harms no one but yourself.' First, the state has a legitimate interest in preventing people from harming themselves, especially if those people have a diminshed capacity to make a rational judgement due to the psychological effects of a chemical. After all, the state has to foot your medical bills. Second, drugs don't just harm the person taking them. People under the influence of drugs often harm those around them. I just don't think it helps to put someone in gaol for using drugs - perhaps scheduling them in a psychiatric ward is a appropriate in some circumstances.

I also think we as a society need to be more open minded about the use of the more dangerous drugs under specific, appropriate circumstances. Heroin, or to use the more legitimate medical sounding term, Diamorphine, is supposedly a fantastic painkiller and a decent alternative to the closely related Morphine for some patients with severe pain management issues. I think terminal patients in particular should have access to this drug on prescription as they do in the U.K. Ecstacy, in spite of its possible side effects (which are poorly studied and understood due to its legal status), may potentially be a valuable tool to aid in psychotherapy - a purpose it was used for before it was outlawed. LSD, which I understand has fewer physical side effects than many illegal drugs and is mainly dangerous in that it can induce psychosis, has funnily enough been studied as a very succesful way to treat alcoholism.

As for how to manage the substances that are legal to purchase, I would propose a new national scheme in which everyone carries a drug license. To purchase any drug whatsoever, from cigarrettes to alcohol to cold tablets to prescription pain killers, you must present this license (it would naturally act as a replacement or alternative for existing proof of age cards.) People caught driving significantly over the limit would have their right to purchase alcohol as well as their right to drive suspended. It would be a much more effective way to monitor people's purchase of cold tablets (which can potentially be used to manufacture illegal drugs) than the current "Show your driver's license" scheme. People could even voluntarily renounce their right to buy certain substances if they were trying to overcome an addiction.

Its by no means perfect system, of course, but I'd argue its an improvement over current arrangements. Yes, there are privacy issues, but if it were well designed they could be kept manageable, and I think its a fair trade off.

Finally, to finish on a more personal note. I over-indulge in alcohol from time to time; I enjoy the increased sense of happiness, sociability, and reduced inhibitions that come with being drunk. Illegal drugs have never appealed to me, though; perhaps its because I've witnessed first hand some of the negative effects they can have, or perhaps I've just always known that if I really want to I can make much better stuff myself (the noticed side effects include overwhelming feelings of joy, confidence, and serenity, a strong sense of connection to [some form of] God, vastly increased fitness and energy levels, rapid weight loss, and greatly increased ability to sing, do yoga, and shoot accurately in basketball. Yes, there's also strongly delusional thinking, rapidly fluctuating thoughts, patches of severe difficulties with focusing, and bouts of extreme paranoia, but hey, no drug is perfect.)

See, I got the link to religion in there. You can't really have expected me to squeezed it all into this one post as well, though?


With Respect to X said...

For some stupid, stupid reason - possibly that I drafted a couple of sentences of it first - blogger has decided to put this post out of order.

Hopefully this won't mean people overlook it?

Alex said...

"I would love to see a more rational, less politically and emotionally charged approach to the way we ..." [fill in the blank]

Alex said...

"There is no moral high ground to be taken against the [fill in the blanks] themselves here. The real moral high ground is to stop people's lives being ruined or lost, and we must adapt whatever approach the evidence (not our intuitions or emotions) suggests will do this best."

Prophetic words, my friend.

Alex said...

I think your drug licence idea is too much regulation for what it's worth. If I want alcohol, I'll just get my friend to buy it for me. Cold tablets? How about you give me your cold tablet quota and I'll give you my nicotine quota.

I'm not sure what such a licence could possibly achieve. The people who need to get around it will get around it and it will be damn annoying for everyone else.

With Respect to X said...

The objections you've made to my drug license scheme apply directly to our existing systems to control various substances.

People already can (and do) have other people buy cigarettes for them while underage, or alcohol for them while intoxicated, or cold tablets for them to use to produce illegal drugs. People who have legitimate rights to purchase these substances are already annoyed and inconvenienced by the only partly effective restrictions designed to stop abuse.

I'm not really asking for much increase in regulation, nor am I suggesting regulation as a panacea for society's problems with substances. I'm merely suggesting a unification and rationalisation of existing ad-hoc regulatory schemes.

If society has a legitimate existing interest in licensing your ability to drive a car, fish, shoot a gun, or sell any of these substances, and a legitimate existing interest in controlling how you buy and make use of these substances, surely it has a legitimate interest in asking you to carry a license to buy the selfsame substances?

Angela said...

So, in a slightly creepy I'll-read-archives-of-ANYTHING-to-avoid-thesis-work even if it seems facebook-stalkerish move, I'm going to totally comment on your blog now. It's ok, though, because it's an old entry, so I bet no-one ever even sees this comment. But!
Ecstasy does actually have some crazy-interesting side-effects. Not only is there the standard suicida-ideation-inducing depression about 3 days after use, you actually deplete your supplies of the relevant neurotransmitter for MONTHS afterwards. For up to 6 months, rats show a decreased level of adjacent-lying and people report less feelings of liking of and desire for closeness with others for a similar period.
Plus, y'know, the dangers of hyponatraemia and stuff, but that's not nearly as nifty.