War on Drugs: War on Reason

By Vlad K.

Summing up results of years of extensive research all over the world, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime came to the conclusion that, “Treating drug use for non-medical purposes and possession for personal consumption as criminal offences has contributed to public health problems and induced negative consequences for safety, security, and human rights.”

If scholars and politicians worldwide came to a consensus about the ineffectiveness of strict, punitive policies in fighting this social evil, why it is not yet officially renounced? The total fiasco of the War on Drugs is becoming quite obvious. Forty years after the War on Drugs was officially proclaimed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the War on Drugs doesn’t resolve any problems, but only creates new, additional ones.

While European countries rejected strictly punitive measures as counterproductive decades ago, now even the “toughest bastion” of the War, the United States, is making signs of ideological shift. For example: the Justice Department’s October and November early release of 6,000 prisoners convicted in low-level nonviolent drug related offences. With practical implementation of the President’s idea of making a distinction between violent individuals and “young people doing stupid things,” it seems that after a long period of trials and mistakes society is moving into right direction. But no matter how fast we as a civilization are moving toward scientific and social progress, we cannot turn to a new page without turning away from the previous one. We cannot develop and implement new strategies of fighting addiction, establish new social institutions, or even acknowledge and consider new scientific research without complete liberation from the ghosts of the past. “Why not renounce the War on Drugs?” is inseparably connected with a dozen other whys.

Rat Park

About seventy years ago, scholars of the rapidly developing science of psychology carried out a series of experiments which still define our approach to drugs. Psychologists taught laboratory rats to self-administer drugs, after which some rats repeatedly consumed bigger and bigger dosages until they died. No great scholar of the 20th century like Roger or Maslow ever challenged conclusion of this experiment, because it seemed to be carved in stone that living creatures were powerless before the drug. But when Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander repeated the experiment in natural conditions with uncaged, free rats, he discovered that those untraumatized rats, after being taught to self-administer drugs, showed no trace of interest in intoxicants.

For eight years, no scholarly journal was willing to accept Alexander’s paper, and the university withdrew the scientist’s finding. Only after about forty years did other scientists dare to repeat the same experiment and come to the conclusion that Alexander may have been right. But even now, almost fifty years after Dr. Alexander presented the results of his experiments to the scientific community and general public, only a few scientist like Canadian doctor Gabor Mate have been open to reexamining the century-old hypothesis in light of new findings. Even if we assume that Dr. Alexander was wrong (despite the fact that recent research supports his thesis), his discoveries need to be evaluated, not just left without an answer.

Doctor Shulgin

Those who scare others with the mystical power of drugs over the human will should read about the incredible life of the uniquely gifted biochemist Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin. At the time of World War II, young Sasha dropped out of Harvard to serve his country in the Navy. Later, as a scientist, Sasha Shulgin was credited with developing biodegradable pesticides for industrial use. However, very soon Dr. Shulgin realized that his unique ability to develop new organic substances might have an even greater demand in medicine, and he left Dow Chemical for an academic career in medicine. In respect for his obviously unique and extraordinary talents, Dr. Shulgin was given a laboratory and granted the right to conduct his own independent research.

Developing new revolutionary methods of organic synthesis, Dr. Shulgin was especially interested in the brain’s reaction to different biochemical interventions. Dr. Shulgin developed and explored hundreds of new organic substances previously unknown to science, and with each one he was facing the unknown. Since newly developed substances were absolutely unknown and the use of them could possibly have serious side effects or even cause death, Dr. Shulgin—like an ancient scientist—first tested medications on himself. In order to separate the effects of using the medication from such factors as his own physical and emotional condition, diet, and other things, Dr. Shulgin had to repeat experiments several times. Though many of the discovered substances were stimulants giving ecstatic bliss or the experience of long term euphoria, Dr. Shulgin never ever used any of his substances to get high or just relax. All of his experiment were pedantically pre-planned and transcribed. The only addictions of Dr. Shulgin were science and service to humanity. If there were universal, humanistic religion in this world, Dr. Shulgin would be a first candidate to be canonized as saint.

After Alexander Shulgin summarized decades of his work on revolutionary methods of organic synthesis in two fictionalized self-published books, the Drug Enforcement Administration defined his publications as instructions for making new drugs. Despite the fact that no irregularities or violations had been found, an aging scientist lost his license, definitely contributing to his declining health.

Client X

This is a real story to which I neither add nor subtract essential facts. The story is very similar to tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of stories of people convicted for possession of minor dosages of drugs for personal use.

Despite severe ADHD, my client X worked as driver, because his disease was successfully managed with the right medications. A couple of times, when client X drove without medications, he missed turns and even had the experience of driving several miles in the wrong direction before paying attention to the road; however during several years of professional driving on medications, he didn’t have any violations, not even minor ones. One day he was promoted to drive bigger trucks longer distances, and unluckily his private doctor with whom he had an appointment was hospitalized, so he was not able to get his prescribed medications. One of X’s friends told him that amphetamines had similar effects to ADHD drugs, so X wanted to give them a shot: try tiny amount in the evening, and if he got the same clarity he used to have with regular medication, he’d go to work, otherwise he’d take sick leave. But while he was looking for amphetamines in the Tenderloin, he was caught by police and ended up getting a prison term and losing his job.

The decision of client X to self-medicate was definitely stupid, but was it criminal, deserving a long prison sentence?

One of the reasons why possession of minimal amounts of drugs should be decriminalized is straight and simple: The law has to meet the minimal requirement of being just, and possession of the small amount of drugs for self-medicating purposes doesn’t meet any reasonable definition crime.

Crime happens when there is an intention of causing damage or harm, or when there is unintentional infliction of damage or harm; but who was damaged or harmed except for client X (who was imprisoned) in this story, or thousands of similar ones? The only violation was obtaining a substance from an unauthorised vendor on the street. Client X’s sentence should have been similar to those for people buying cigarettes or souvenirs from unauthorised vendors on the street. The ast thing Client X wanted was to finance organized crime, which gets much more money from mistakes in the War on Drugs than from the stupidity of one individual.

“Young People Doing Stupid Things”

Many years ago, when the author of this article was young and stupid, he lost a close friend to an overdose. Together with another friend, who also didn’t have any experience of drugs, they promised themselves to launch a crusade against drugs.

The first thing they wanted was close familiarity with enemy, so they started trying everything available on the market (heroine excluded). After trying each and every substance for several times, they came to the conclusion that it was somewhat comparable to alcohol in its ability to drive the mind in different directions by turning off some of its responsibilities, but most of the substances were obviously weaker and less addictive than alcohol. With this conclusion, they stopped the experiments and using any intoxicants.

Our experience was not even close in its intensity to the life of Dr. Shulgin. But we represent two out of millions of life stories of people from the present and past who have used drugs without developing addictions. Almost all of the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan as well as American soldiers in Viet Nam used drugs to remain functional while facing brutalities of war, but a minority have remained addicts after returning home.

These facts are casually ignored by myriad teachers from every corner of the world who indoctrinate their students that that crack cocaine is immediately addictive, that it is impossible to resist cravings for meth or heroine, that these drugs are so good that you lose yourself after first try. Desire to protect young people from drugs is a natural feeling of every normal adult, but have these pedagogues ever thought what will happen when a young misfit discovers that the teacher’s doctrine is wrong? Aren’t there other ways to protect the young generation without ascribing mystical powers to drugs?

Facing the Challenges of Time

A good starting point for developing new strategies on addictions and drugs would be simple recognition of the fact that we know close to nothing about most controlled substances, and we have no time to waste because drugs are developing much more quickly than our ability to research, study, and react. Even with “old,” traditional drugs, some of which have been used for thousands of years, we are acting mostly out of emotion.

Every historian or sociologist knows that you do not start studying the social impact of 9/11 the day after the tragedy by interviewing relatives of victims. It would be too emotional, and therefore unscientific. But that knowledge fails us when we talk about drugs. As the head of a unique group of scientists who were asked by the US Government to study possible medical uses of LSD, Dr. Stan Grof reported many cases of miraculous improvement of conditions of many clients. But after a wave of articles about students doing God-knows-what on a cocktail of drugs in which the dosage of LSD exceeded recommended doses for the medicine by 100 times, the government concluded that the drug could not have any medical use, and shut down all research, ignoring the only existing real scientific study.

Emotions coming out of human suffering and pain are the answer to most of the whys of this article. Emotions never go along with science, but they are the perfect fuel for politics. The misdirected flow of suffering and pain can destroy cities, shut up scientists, and keep our attention away from any empirical observations.

Civilization is just too invested in the myth of mystical power of drugs and their instant addictiveness. This myth is too convenient for blaming the victim and not helping those in need. (Remember: Only traumatized rats were unable to resist drugs.) Though addiction is a multidimensional phenomenon, often combining elements of character traits, social misconduct, etc., it definitely has elements of disease. As a disease, addiction cannot be stopped by incarceration. To incarcerate addiction as a disease is the same as incarcerating people for diabetes.

Blaming addicts is an easy social excuse for refusing to provide the most necessary help to fellow humans. Some political parties are building their campaigns on the myth of liberals giving money to addicts to buy drugs, even though they could hardly be able to give a single example of this. This is especially cynical in light of the fact that one of the most harmful if not the most harmful and addictive drug—alcohol—is legal and readily available in most of the world. You can legally drive a truck carrying an amount of alcohol enough to poison a small town, but you will be incarcerated if you carry a sand grain of amphetamines for self-medication.

People with mental health problems are the modern day outcasts. This allows everybody else to maintain high self-esteem just due to the perception that “we are not like them.” Criminalizing addiction is too convenient as a social excuse not to help those in need, because after being labeled as criminals they do not deserve any help. But when we will become strong enough to call things by their real names, we will realize that the War on Drugs from the beginning was the criminalization of disability.