For years we have all been told the same thing: that drugs are bad for you because they create a chemical hook on your brain, then slowly and sharply take you in a sure dive to your death. But, what if there is more to it than synthetic hooks? What if the entire world has been fighting the war on drugs with the wrong approach? Johann Hari, a British journalist, set out on a worldwide journey to find answers related to the birth of the war on drugs, and wrote a book about it, Chasing the Scream (2015). It is only a matter of years before more people finally understand the importance of decriminalising drugs and the shadiness behind their prohibition.
Legalising vs. Decriminalising
First we need to grasp the difference between legalising and decriminalising. If some country were to decriminalise drugs, they would still remain illegal to sell and buy, it is just the punishment for owning them that changes. But, guess what? Portugal already did this in 2001, instead of making drug addicts spend years withering away in a cell, they would pay a fine, and/or receive adequate treatment with a reintegration to society. A study conducted by the British Journal of Criminology in 2014 found that Portugal had reduced injecting drug use by 50%. Yes, it is not a typo, 50%. Along with this, the rate of HIV infection also decreased dramatically.
Yes, drugs are chemical substances that react with your body in a way that makes you want them again, and again… but that is not the only factor, many people forget a key ingredient: psychology. In the 1970s, Psychology professor Bruce Alexander made a shocking discovery. Countless of experiments with rats and cocaine have been made, the result always the same: giving caged rats the options of drinking water with cocaine and simple water, they would always choose in the end the altered water and die of overdose. So Alexander tried a different approach, what would happen if one repeated the experiment but altered the environment? He built what is widely known as “Rat Park”, literally an amusement park for rats, a cage full of entertaining activities and more rats to interact with. Then he would give them again the same two options. At first, the rats would show preference for the adulterated water with cocaine, but after a few tries, the rats would become bored of it and forget about it. Not a single rat became addicted or died.
Morphine – Human Connection = Heroin
If you are having trouble believing this, just think about the following. Morphine and heroin are almost the same substance (see image below), the single difference being that heroin reaches your brain faster (thanks to the extra acetyls), but they both affect it in the same way. Now think of all the people that have had a kind of surgery that gives them the right to ask for morphine, say appendectomy or hip replacement. Do you think they all became addicts or continued to use the drug? The answer is pretty obvious. The reason: they counted with some sort of support system (family, friends, job…), things that a common street-addict lacks. Now, I am not saying every single addict is alone in the world, but one of the main reasons to seek out drugs is lack of human connection. In his book, Hari gives two basic examples supporting this point of view. The first is the case of nicotine patches; only 17.7% of cigarette smokers are able to quit using them. And second, gamblers, people addicted to betting who clearly are not under the influence of any chemical hook.
I had the pleasure to talk to Kate Blom from Sweden. She is 27 and currently studies Philosophy, focusing on Comedy. She is an addict and has been clean for 16 months. She tells me that things —such as her job, her education, and her friends— work as a focus point to want to be better. “Humans. We want to strive for something better. We should be able to share all the bad stuff that is going on with us.” She urges people to be conscious of what buying drugs in this moment in time implies, the amount of human trafficking involved, the violence, the crime. Certainly not every person that smokes marijuana knows how it got to his or her hands.
It Is All about the Business
You have to wonder, why isn’t all of this well known? One word: profits. Harry Anslinger, founder of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (transformed later into the DEA), is the first to blame. Before the end of alcohol Prohibition, he used to say marijuana was harmless, but with the legalisation of alcohol, he started seeking a new Prohibition. He even went as far as blaming weed for a young teen’s killing of his family (the boy suffered from a sever mental illness). Anslinger dedicated most of his years to convince the United States government (and after that, even other countries’ government) that a drug banning was much needed, and succeeded.
Now, what follows is really fist clenching, a big spoiler ahead for Johann Hari’s book. Near the end of his life, Anslinger would become a drug dealer (for Senator McCarthy) and an addict himself (due to pain from several illnesses). And there you have it, the incongruity of being human. Why are we not hearing more about all the research mentioned above in other media? After learning all of this, one thing is certain: we need to encourage more research on this topic and take a new stand against addiction, because the one the United States and the majority of countries are taking is certainly not working.