Gateway Drugs, Lost Lives and American Hypocrisy

I originally posted this piece on Righteous Anger.

Years ago, I read a piece in our local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star.  It consisted of studies and interviews with doctors at the University of Arizona’s University Medical Center.  The subject?  Recreational drug use.  The thesis was that of all recreational drugs, the one that does most damage–both socially and physiologically–is alcohol.  Having experience with all kinds of drug users, I knew this to be true from my own life.  I’d watched people kill themselves with alcohol, and I’d watched people kill themselves with heroin.  I’d lived with and loved drunks, and I’d lived with and loved junkies.  I’ve always said, “Give me the junkie over the drunk any day of the week.”

Just today, I ran across another study that made the exact same point.  In the November 2010 BBC piece “Alcohol ‘more harmful than heroin’ says Prof David Nutt”, a former drug policy official from the United Kingdom discusses a study he was involved in.  This peer-reviewed study was posted in the Lancet, the British medical journal.  It’s conclusion?  The most socially and physiologically dangerous recreational drug is alcohol.

The study “ranked 20 drugs on 16 measures of harm to users and to wider society.  Heroin, crack and crystal meth were deemed worst for individuals, with alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine worst for society, and alcohol worst overall.”  Again, “alcohol worst overall.”

On of the study’s shortcomings is that they also include some criteria like “international damage” and “crime”, which is generally only going to apply to black market drugs.  That’s not really an effect of the drug.  That’s an effect of the law.  More crime was associated with alcohol once upon a time, simply because it was prohibited.  Prohibited drugs, as well as most other black market products, are going to involve crime.  The very nature of legal prohibition requires that.  Even more, though, prohibition brings in the element of organized (and disorganized) crime.  This is something they can make money on.  During the era of alcohol prohibition, organized crime was a big player in the manufacturing, smuggling, and distribution of illegal alcohol.  Violence, such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, was committed in order to define territory and eliminate competition.  In addition, broken “contracts” cannot be fought over in court; the wronged party must take a stand or risk becoming a mark forever after.  There’s no way to compare legal and illegal drugs at this point in time, simply because of the black market factor.

But what of the “gateway” nature of illegal drugs, people will demand.  Well, it appears that alcohol is the culprit there, too.  In a recent study published in The Journal of School Health, researchers reported, “As you can see from the findings of our study, it confirmed this gateway hypothesis, but it follows progression from licit substances, specifically alcohol, and moves on to illicit substances.”

The major problem with these studies, though, is the conclusions they draw.  The researchers are more concerned with focusing on alcohol in order to win the deadly War on Drugs.  Why?  It is a losing proposition.  People like to feel relaxed.  Cultures have had their own acceptable highs as long as there have been cultures.  The better answer is to admit that people have a right to decide what to do with their own bodies.  Whether you are talking about women wanting abortions or people wanting to get intoxicated, it’s time that we stop pretending that the government is the landlord of our bodies.  Our bodies.  Ourselves.

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