Monday, July 2, 2012

The Chicken and the Egg

Drug policy is a horrendously divisive area. I'm in favour of proportionate punishment for acts destructive towards good societal order, which means I think the US is tremendously over-punishing; stealing an item should not result in a lifetime as a second-class citizen. I digress, however; today, I'm talking drug policy, and how we ought to be doing things.

The first thing to note about illegal drugs is how similar they are to legal drugs; I have a Vicodin prescription, which gives me access to a potent semi-synthetic opiate. I could, if I were so inclined, get out of my mind on it perfectly legally, since my doctor has trusted me to act as a responsible adult and regulate my own dosage. That trust has actually kept me from using it; there's a constant refrain, every time I consider taking one of the pills, of "Do I really need this?" and I'll often decide that no, I don't.

Indeed, in the US, control of many legal drugs and prohibition of illegal drugs are handled under the same law: the Controlled Substances Act. This contains a number of lists, called Schedules, which determine both the medical availability and the severity of the offence committed by illegal possession. Vicodin is fairly low; it's Schedule 3. It has abuse potential, but that's mitigated by the fact that the opiate is combined with acetaminophen (paracetamol, for those outside the US) and so is less easy to abuse. Other drugs are higher; cocaine, for example, is Schedule 2 because it's easily abused but does have an accepted medical use. Where things get a little silly is Schedule 1. Schedule 1 is supposed to be where all the Really Bad Drugs go. The ones that will mess you up a treat, and have no medical use at all.

Which makes it a bit of a puzzler as to why pholcodine is on Schedule 1. It's an antitussive, common in cough syrups in Europe, non-addictive, and generally considered very safe. And yet over here it's more illegal than heroin. Another puzzler is marijuana (note: I'll be using the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably in this post, while hemp will refer to the same plant grown for fibre) which the CSA would have you believe is highly addictive and highly dangerous, with no medical benefits.

There are campaigners in the US trying to make cannabis more illegal, or rather campaigning to make penalties for possession and use of it more severe. Leaving aside for a moment the lunacy of making penalties more severe than a lifetime's disenfranchisement, loss of any job prospects, and essentially forcing people to turn criminal to survive, there are rarely good arguments advanced for why it's so dangerous.

People will say with a straight face that of course it's dangerous, because it's listed in Schedule 1. Why's it listed in Schedule 1? Because it's dangerous. How do you know it's dangerous? It's listed in Schedule 1. And around and around the circle goes, with nothing resembling evidence being advanced. The other argument against it, usually advanced to oppose the use of medical cannabis, is that there's no generally accepted medical benefit. That one's circular too; there's no accepted medical benefit because no studies have been performed, and no studies have been performed because it's listed in Schedule 1, and that listing states that there's no medical benefit, so there's no need to do any studies.

Meanwhile, the stuff's known to contain potent anti-inflammatories and to have massive beneficial effects on glaucoma. It's just that there haven't been any studies done to show the medical benefit because it's so illegal.

It's instructive at this point to compare cannabis to tobacco. Both are plant products; both contain psychoactive compounds; both are generally used by setting fire to them and inhaling the resulting smoke. Tobacco, moreover, has no health benefits that I'm aware of. And yet, cannabis is illegal, tobacco is legal. Why is this?

A big part of it is the tobacco lobby. Tobacco has been a huge moneymaker, has resulted in extremely rich, and therefore powerful, corporations, and has supporters aplenty. Meanwhile, cannabis is less demanding to grow, and there isn't really a well-organised lobby trying to make and keep it legal. The sheer finickyness of tobacco growing demands economies of scale that are far less attractive when growing cannabis, which is one of the most easy-going plants around. Then, too, we have the home-field advantage for tobacco; it's legal, and it's generally easier to maintain the status quo than to change it.

So why is cannabis illegal? Well, to answer that, we have to look back at what was going on when it was made illegal. It was the 1930s, the economy was just about recovering, and Du Pont had just invented a new fibre by the name of Nylon. They wanted to get into ropes with this, but the industry was dominated by the cheap and eminently suitable hemp. Meanwhile, middle-class white America was getting anxious about Mexicans coming and taking jobs. That fear is not new. There was a push on to regulate drugs, too; the synthetic drug boom of the turn of the century was still shaking out, and it was finally starting to be realised that a lot of these drugs were entirely too powerful to be available on demand.

Add in sensationalist journalism, and it turns out cannabis is illegal because a powerful business lobby wanted to squash competition, and used underhanded racial scare tactics to do it. By the time the Controlled Substances Act arrived to clean up and rationalise drug laws, around forty years later, cannabis had been illegal for four decades and people had forgotten how it became illegal; the circular logic had eaten its own tail, and the lunacy was enshrined.

How should we fix drug policy, though? Well, a start would be fixing societal attitudes towards people convicted of crimes. As it stands, anyone with a prison sentence on their record is essentially unemployable; this is deplorable. That, however, will take a long, long time to fix. For the start, what we need to do is stop treating drug policy violations as though they're crimes of violence. A person using drugs doesn't need punishment; he needs help. Addiction is not cured by locking a man up. Custodial sentences are the wrong solution for drug offences, and we should replace them with treatment. Stop treating addicts as criminals. Anyone using methamphetamine, heroin, or any other illegal drug, who seeks treatment and assistance to stop using it, should be commended and treated with dignity. As things stand, they're handed over to a justice system which takes no account of their efforts to stop, and locks them up until they're useless to society. Meanwhile, we also need to make things less harmful for addicts. Needle exchange programs, drug assay programs so that they know how pure their fix is; these reduce the harm to the addict, and make it easier for him to want to stop.

Harm reduction is a good guideline for lots of things. Let's look briefly at abortion; my ideal for abortion is that there not be any, but the world doesn't work like that. There will always be situations in which the least damaging choice is abortion, and so it behooves us as a society to ensure that abortion is available safely and in an atmosphere of respect. I cannot imagine anyone taking the decision lightly; the nurturing instinct goes too deep for that. Once someone's made that horrendous decision, we need to make sure she's treated with dignity. Another place where harm reduction is key: sex education. Do I support underage sex? Do I want it to happen? No. But I accept that people are people, teenagers get caught up in the moment, and it will happen. There is no way to prevent that. Therefore, we should educate our children, so that they have the knowledge and tools available to make the behaviour less risky. I was given that knowledge, and somehow I wasn't a sexual deviant; I was into my 20s before having sex. It's utterly unreasonable to expect everyone to hold to that standard; give them the facts, before they suffer harm from not having those facts.

My politics have been showing quite a lot. I'm sorry if I'm offending anyone with them, but I'm not going to stop. If I feel a need to write about politics, it's what I'll write about.

1 comment:

  1. The other circular argument about drugs is that the production, sale, and import of illegal drugs involves all sorts of crimes and finances all sorts of unsavory things, therefore they must be bad. The first part is true, as far as it goes, but it's only true because the drugs can't be bought, sold, or produced legally so of course the people doing it are going to be criminals!


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