The Reagan administration has embarked on an ambitious
campaign to wipe out the "drug problem" in the United States
through a seemingly multi-faceted program directed against both
demand here in the U.S. and supply in other nations. On close
examination, this program may be a Quixotic tilting at windmills
with no possible hope of success.
There are three factors which need to be considered before a determination can be made of exactly what sort of reaction our nation should have concerning this "problem."
The first has to do with the human brain. Our brains, like those of other mammals, have certain areas which, when stimulated, provide us with pleasurable sensations. Exactly what stimuli are found pleasurable varies from person to person, as does the intensity of the perceived pleasure. Sexual activity, food, and certain drugs all act as such stimuli in the human brain. Other animals have had their pleasure centers studied in the laboratory much more intensively than can be done with human subjects, and a startling result is consistently found: when animals are given voluntary control over stimulation of their pleasure centers with an electrical charge, they will forego even food and water to receive such stimulation. We share this characteristic with other mammals--we are hard-wired for pleasure.
Some people lose their voluntary control over stimulation of their pleasure centers, which leads us to the second important factor to consider: the question of use versus abuse. Clearly, there are intoxicating pleasures which exude more power over their users than others do. This too, is more an idiosyncracy than a hard and fast rule. Some people become victimized by food, others by salt, others by drugs, and still others by something as seemingly innoccuous as exercising. How do we determine what constitutes use versus what constitutes abuse? And who makes the determination? Should overweight people be jailed and put on strict diets until they reach a healthy and "desireable" weight? Should salt be made illegal because some people "abuse" it and develop high blood pressure (which ultimately kills them)?
Although it can logically be argued that some substances (and the sensations they cause) are more likely to be abused and may be more harmful than others, the process of addiction to anything is the exception rather than the rule. The fact that so many people have tried cocaine and so few have become addicted is blatant evidence of this fact. According to an article in NEWSWEEK, 20-24 million Americans have tried cocaine. Of these, 5 million admit to still being regular users. These figures say that 75% of the people who have tried it no longer use it. What happened to the "problem?" Yes, cocaine is addictive. Yes people die from using it. Far more people were apparently responsible in their use of it.
America is supposed to be the place where everyone is free to do whatever they choose to do. This leads to the last factor which must be considered concerning the "drug problem": the double standard concerning our right as free-thinking beings to make rational personal decisions.
Those of us born in the television age have been bombarded since birth with the message that we should take drugs. TV commercials, magazine advertisements, our parents and our doctors have continuously told us to take drugs anytime we feel the least bit uncomfortable. "Johnny doesn't feel good Dr. Bones." "No problem, Mrs Smith, give Johnny two of these every day. He'll feel much better." "Now take all of your medicine like a good boy, Johnny!" Feel good--do drugs!
Complicating this gleeful attitude toward feeling good through chemistry, is the fact that certain intoxicating substances are protected by law, while others are proscribed. Why can I drink three martinis with lunch, but I can't smoke a joint after dinner? Our society readily condones the right of the individual to pickle his brain with alcohol or turn her lungs to charcoal with cigarettes (as it should). However, we are baffled when our elders jail us for smoking weeds. What's going on here?
People who choose to smoke and drink are informed that such behavior may be detrimental to their health, and they are then free to make their own rational decisions concerning such behavior. Our constitution protects our rights to consume intoxicating substances. What if you're allergic to alcohol? Is your right to become intoxicated null and void through default?
So how do we handle the "drug problem?" Legal prohibitions are a blatant failure. Moral inhibitions are a farce in the face of our societal double-standard toward substance use. Massive urinalysis programs and unenforceable laws serve only to make criminals of ordinary people and to deny the right of the majority to self-determination.
Yes, there are people who do and who will abuse various substances. Let's rehabilitate those who need help, not persecute those with self-control. Let's learn as much as we can about intoxicating substances and use our knowledge to guide our decisions.
Because we are free-thinking beings, we choose to feel good. What's wrong with that? Because we are humans, some of us lose our self-control. Why punish the majority who don't? Because we are Americans, we cherish self-determination. When will we have it?
One final note. Given our genetic predisposition toward altering our consciousnesses, what should we do if someone discovers a way to make a "mind-altering drug" from rosebushes? Do we jail all of our grandmothers? Do we embark on a global rosebush-eradication program? Or do we study and learn, then allow everyone the right to make their own rational, informed, personal decisions? Think about it.
Written Aug 28, 1986
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