assessing drug harms and drug facts home

commentary on the confusion between harmful "facts" and factual "harms"

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Carl Hart, This is Your Brain on Drug Education

Jacob Sullum, Krokodil Crock: How Rumors Of A 'Flesh-Eating Zombie Drug' Swept The Nation

Jacob Sullum, The Year's Best Drug Scares 2015

Jacob Sullum, Five Drug Scares in 2014


Someone's Sitting on the (Moral) Panic Button

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Drugs are deviant because drugs are wrong because drugs are bad for you because we know this, right?

Social constructionism can be useful in re-orienting our attention and understanding about how and why things are regarded deviant. It makes us to answer questions such as “why all of a sudden do we respond or cease to respond to some situation here, but not there” or “why do we see or act on things now but not then”? Why have we established particular rules or laws, or made others subject to medical or criminal justice control at particular points in time? Why do we apply and enforce rules and control, and so selectively? Why are punishments imposed on some acts and on those groups who are not like us, but not for other acts altogether similar and other groups who differ very little from us? Why do we meet each new instance of a drug with the same lurid exaggerated, wholly inaccurate, and panic-inducing claims we met the previous drug? Why do drugs fuel an almost unabated moral panic?

We’re commonly told that illegal drugs are bad because they do bad things to us – to our minds, to our behaviors, to our bodies. In other words, some drugs are deemed illegal and thus prohibited because of the harm they represent.

The language of the federal government is, on the face of it, more explicit in identifying the harm in its rationale prohibiting illicit drugs.  Federal law mandates that the government place a drug on its schedule of controlled according to criteria laid out in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. § 811.  Law enforcement will place a drug on its schedule according to the degree to which a drug has a potential for abuse, may lead to physical or psychological dependence, lacks standards for acceptable use (dosage), and has little or no accepted medical use.

But government’s justifications have long been criticized – and condemned – for doing little more than playing Humpty Dumpty: words mean what government officials and moral entrepreneurs want them to mean. Abuse, crime, risk of injury or disease, addiction, overdose (death and injury), safety standards, or medical use are fine and well if they rest on credible evidence.  Have we made drugs subject to law enforcement control because ‘science says so’?  Were drugs criminalized because of good and hard evidence about their harmfulness? Was solid evidence available, prior to and leading up to its inclusion on the list of controlled – thus illicit – substances? And does criminalizing drugs actually result in a reduction in harm to individuals and society?

All drugs can be harmful. All substances can be harmful. There are 29 million people with diabetes which means sugaris potentially unsafe, likely addictive, and abused. There are estimated to be 17 million people with drinking problems. Thus alcoholis dangerous, habit-forming, and used irresponsibly with fatal consequences – 88,000 people died in 2014 due to alcohol related causes. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “an estimated 42.1 million adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes. Cigarette smokingis the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or 1 of every 5 deaths.”  These are legal substances not regarded as drugs, minimally regulated, and consequently not on the schedule of controlled substances.  There are as many people who have drinking problems as there are people who have only used marijuana. Obviously, we can’t take harm or the need for control, commonsensically or governmentally decreed, at face value. 

That’s the theoretical backdrop, the conceptual landscape. What do the data really show?