Monday, February 7, 2011

Wanna Do Some (Legal) Drugs?

Society tends to favorably view legal drugs; after all, you're not breaking the law when you take them, and are therefore acting morally and safely, in stark contrast to those who use illegal drugs such as marijuana, who act immorally and irresponsibly. Just image this conversation between two parents who just found out their son smokes marijuana. The mother is shocked and hysterical. The father, on the other hand, is calm and collected.

Mother: Aren't you worried? Our son is doing drugs!
Father: It's just a joint, honey. They're no worse than the pills you take.
Mother: My pills are legal!

This conversation is a paraphrasing of one that took place in the 2003 independent horror film Dead End. Does it sound familiar? Have you ever heard an argument like this one take place?

It's interesting to me that people would associate legality with morality. The mother's pills, which are probably addictive and damaging, are perfectly acceptable because they're legal. The son's joint, a non-addictive, non-opiate, harmless substance,  is not acceptable because it is illegal. This introduces a false dichotomy: that of legal drugs, which have medical utility, are harmless, and are morally acceptable; and illegal drugs, which have no medical value, are harmful, and are morally repugnant.

It's a dichotomy that most of society buys into. It's why, when I was young and hyper-religious, I shunned and scorned cannabis smokers myself. But it's a false dichotomy, and a harmful one at that, for two mains reasons. The first reason is quite simple: legal drugs can be and often are abused. Even simple over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen can be used too often and cause liver damage, kidney failure, and cardiovascular issues; this is nothing compared to the abuse of prescription drugs such as weight loss amphetamines, which can cause psychosis and other disorders. The second reason is that some illegal drugs are virtually harmless (such as 9-delta-THC and psilocybin) and provide many medical benefits (such as pain relief and treatment for personality disorders). Cannabis, as I have said before, can be used to treat over 200 medical conditions, and psilocybin (the drug present in psychedelic mushrooms) creates psilocin in the body, which is an experimental treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

This dichotomy exists because of propaganda, but it is also perpetuated by media coverage of drug abuse. While it is true that illegal drugs are abused, often to the harm of the user, the fact remains that abuse of legal drugs is no safer for your health and well-being. This is best demonstrated by the 2000 drama Requiem for a Dream, which depicts drug abuse on both sides of the legal boundary. Harry and Marion are heroin addicts, and their story is a fairly average tale of drug addiction. Harry's mother Sara, however, has a slightly different story. Her obsession with weight loss leads to her addiction to prescribed amphetamines and sedatives, causing her to develop a dangerous and delusional psychosis. The movie ends with each character broken and alone, their lives destroyed by drug addiction.

The movie showcases what happens when drugs are abused. The experiences of both Harry and Sara are so incredibly similar, even though he is injecting an illegal narcotic and she is taking a legal weight loss regimen, and by the end of the movie the audience can see that issue isn't drugs, but drug abuse.

Drug abuse is a very serious problem that will always exist as long as drugs exist, but the issue cannot be dealt with through legislation, because drugs will be abused regardless of their legal status. I am not saying that all drugs should be legal (although I have considered that position and the effects it would have on society). I am saying that we should examine drugs on a rational basis, considering their merits and their potential for abuse and addiction while ignoring their current legal status (heroin, after all, used to be legally prescribed as a cure for morphine addiction in the early twentieth century) before we pass judgment.

Consider this: the number of deaths from opioid overdose in 2006 were more than three times that in 1999. That's thousands of deaths every year due to legally prescribed pain killers. Of course, most people who become addicted to these pain killers aren't even looking to get high, but to live a normal life, and that sometimes means taking a higher than prescribed dosage. Unfortunately, this high dose leads to addiction, which in turn can lead to death.

More people die due to prescription painkillers than due to heroin and cocaine. Those people were law-abiding citizens who opted for a legal, addictive, dangerous drug for managing their pain and became addicts in the process. Now, I could respond to this with information about cannabis, its analgesic effects, and its non-addictive nature, but that's not the issue at hand. The issue is drug abuse, and it's an issue that should be handled not in a legal context, but in a social one.

To deal with this issue socially, we need to be thinking rationally, and in order to do that, it's time to start thinking about drugs for their pharmacology and not their legality. Only then will the issue of drug abuse begin to improve.

The orange bottle looks pretty safe, but red might be a better color.

-John D.. McGaughey


  1. Asprin was a major contributing factor to the damage and scarring on my liver. Now I always look into the adverse affects that over the counter drugs have on different parts of the body. I also think that if anyone has not seen Requiem for a Dream, that they should see it to get the perfect portrayal of drug abuse on all ends. It is a perfect example for this topic!

  2. Thanks for your response! I should also add that I do find aspirin to be an effective treatment for many ailments, and its role in cardiovascular health can't be ignored. Even though aspirin has the potential to be quite dangerous (even causing Reye's syndrome in young children), it has many useful applications.

    We as a society need to have an open discussion about drugs and their side effects, and I hope that more consumers will take the time and effort to research the various OTC and prescription drugs they use.

  3. wow!!! i completely agree with you! drugs like methadones, tabs, and somas are all legal but more people over dose and/or die from just those three then meth or pot. doctors these days just hand them out like candy and with the new "health benefits" the insurance companies pay for them... why is it that people are so anti pot? it is a proven fact that pot can be up to like 90 something percent effective at getting rid of pain for people who have Multiple Scleroses!!!!

  4. "but more people over dose and/or die from just those three then meth or pot."

    It's actually interesting to note that throughout written history, there is not a single recorded instance of a person dying from marijuana use alone. Cannabis users who smoke cigarettes are also at high risk for cancer, but there are also no recorded instances of people who only smoke cannabis developing either black lung or cancers of the lung, throat, or mouth.