Monday, Reason magazine released a video of neuroscientist Carl Hart explaining what neuroscience has to say about the harms of methamphetamine. His contention is that the effects on the brain, and chemical makeup, of meth are nearly indistinguishable from the active ingredient in Adderall, and that the harms have been greatly exaggerated. Then yesterday it came out that a star in the hit television show Glee, Cory Monteith, died from a heroin overdose which was complicated by alcohol.
This brings up a sort of tension. It’s important to get our science straight and separated from our media-embellished anxieties. But as long as people continue to see young promising lives lost and addictions rage, the contention that drugs are harmless will remain neither accurate nor convincing.
I like drugs, personally. I think there’s a lot of potential for gain in taking them. Studies have shown that taking so-called magic mushrooms, or psilocybin can create permanent positive changes in users’ personalities. Other studies have shown promising results in treating PTSD with MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy. And marijuana has been shown in study after study to do everything from keep your weight down to help cancer patients beat nausea and chronic pain to actually curing cancer. But beyond all that, there is something good about experiencing a greater range of cognition than can be achieved without mind-altering substances.
However, like getting into a car, all that benefit isn’t without its risks. And that’s where the pro-legalization lobby sometimes leaves people. Yes, we should focus on the tremendous benefits drugs that are currently illegal have to offer. And we should be more realistic and less hyperbolic about their potential harms.
But there are many people who have seen the absolutely devastating effects of drug use up close and personal who will never be convinced that drugs are not harmful in the extreme. I was once one of them. Growing up in the Southern Baptist church, I never really experimented with drugs, save for one night when I took GHB, which is a date rape drug. One reason I believe in a Creator is that I willingly took a date rape drug and did not, in fact, get raped. But beyond that, my only real exposure to drugs was watching one of my classmates get expelled instead of graduating for selling cannabis at our high school, having an ex-boyfriend die of a drug overdose when he ate his bag of cocaine when he was pulled over, and seeing lots of kids sit around and get high instead of going to college.
What I didn’t see were armed no-knock raids in the middle of the night for possession. I didn’t see anyone, ever, go to jail for drugs. I didn’t see communities unable to trust the police. I didn’t see police profiling my friends and neighbors based on the color of their skin, tricking them into showing their drugs and then hauling them off. I didn’t see dogs shot. I saw the harmful effects of drugs, but never saw the harmful effects of the drug war.
So I don’t think the key to convincing middle-class white people, like old me, that drugs should be legalized will be convincing them that they’re harmless, or worth the benefits. What led me to change my mind was knowing how the horrors of the drug war were far worse than the effects of the drugs themselves.
Instead of talking about how benign drugs are, we need to be telling the stories of the victims of the War on Drugs. This is what it’s going to take for people exposed to the dangers of drugs but insulated from the damage of the drug war to come around to legalization.