drugsThe division of drugs into those that are helpful and those that are harmful, and the related division into legal and illegal drugs, is, perhaps, somewhat arbitrary. Most illegal drugs have legal medical uses, and even when they are used illegally it is to obtain a perceived benefit. Few effective drugs used by the medical profession, on the other hand, are free of risks, and many of them become extremely harmful or even fatal if used in excessive amounts. The Greek word – pharmakon – can mean either poison and medicine.

The Connection With Health

Some of the connections between drug use and health are obvious. Smoking is one of the major causes of serious health problems such as emphysema and cancer. Alcohol creates interpersonal problems, is the cause a many accidents, and does serious damage to the body. But obvious connections such as these are just the top of the iceberg. There are countless economic and political issues surrounding both the use of drugs in ways that are harmful to the health, and the unavailability of drugs that are needed for the treatment of disease.


Key Issues

Most of the political issues surrounding the use of drugs concern who has access or is denied access to the drugs, and under what conditions. Because of the harmful potential for many drugs, society has taken it upon itself to set up a rather extensive system of regulation to protect people from misusing them. In this respect we have society acting in the role of a protective parent to it’s citizens. Whether this role is compatible with the creation of a free society remains open to debate. Some people, for example, feel that taking certain drugs that are presently illegal can lead to psychological healing or spiritual insights. Regardless of whether this this is true, is it the legitimate business of society to tell its citizens what drugs they can and cannot experiment with.

Society does not just take it upon itself to prevent access to drugs for protective or economic reasons, it also forces people to take drugs that they would prefer not to take. The most common situation in which we see this concerns people who may violate social norms because of a presumed mental disorder. When psychotropic drugs are forced on children for behavioral control – as is not common in the public schools – the issue is further complicated by the question of who should have final control of the decision – a doctor, the school, the parents, or the child.

Over and above the issue of protecting citizens from the dangerous mis-use of drugs, there are many economic and political issues that effect drug availability. As the article by David Werner,Trees of Blood to Traffic of Drugs, makes clear, for example, global economic concerns related to international debt may cause the United States to be less than fully committed to actually winning the war on drugs. Another important example is found in the profit motive causing the big pharmaceutical industries to block the availability of cheap, life saving generic drugs. The consequences of such ruthless profiteering is especially evident in Africa.

The war on drugs has been a huge failure. In a country that tried the experiment of “prohibition” as a way of dealing with alcohol, this should not come as a surprise. Even if one granted the right of society to dictate to its citizens whether they have a right to use whatever drugs they want to, It is obvious that the drug war is causing more suffering than it is curing, and short of turning the world into a micro-managed ant heap, there is no way to win it. The need to legalize drugs is especially clear in the case of marijuana, which appears to be relatively harmless. But even with the more potent drugs, legalizing them would make it possible to radically reduce our prison population, and we could then find less draconian ways of dealing with the dangers of the drugs – as we do with cigarettes and alcohol.
Connections With Other Topics

The further we look into the various issues related to drugs, the more we see that it is a complex matter with many connections with other aspects of life.

Corporate Ethics

As we have already suggested, economics plays a major role with regard to who gets what drugs. Also, the huge amount of money that is now connected to illegal drugs – bought and sold at artificially high rates do to their being illegal – is an economic fact of major importance.


The issue of drugs also appears to have an odd connection with the issues of democracy and the effort of the US to establish itself as the head of a wold empire. Drugs played a very central role in the Iran Contra scandal, and continues to provide an excuse for the US to meddle in the internal workings of foreign countries.


Because of the increasing dependence of schools on drugs to keep children under control, the connection between drugs and education is vital. Clearly it is imperative that we create schools that children want to attend, and that do not endlessly pit teachers and students against each other in struggles for control.


Equity is another big concern. In a world in which there is a huge discrepancy between the haves and the have nots, it is obvious that many people from the more impoverished segments of society will turn to drug dealing as the one business in which they might succeed and get ahead. Clear connections also exist between drug issues and the matters that are discussed on this page under “access to resources” and “education.” Only by examining some of these connections can one begin to understand why this issue is so complex and so resistant to any simple solution.

Human Rights

There is also a very important connection between the drug issues and human rights. Is is the right of an individual to ingest what drugs he or she wants to? Is is the right of a person who has been labeled “mentally ill” to not have to take drugs that he or she does not want. Peter Breggin brings an important perspective that is seldom heard to this issue in the first chapter of his book, Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry.
What Can Be Done

It is important not to become incapacitated by our awareness of the complexity of the drug issue. There are things that we can do. Perhaps the most important starting point is to become informed. To more we learn, the more likely our proposed solutions are to be relevant and appropriate. We need to recognize the failure of the war on drugs and point out the seriousness of this failure to other people whenever we have the chance. The ugly connections between our drug policies and other aspects of our social order need to be highlighted. Our blind perseverance in the pursuit of a failed policy needs to be replaced with the exploration of more realistic and positive solutions. What have other countries done that has worked? How can their experiments be improved upon? What new insights or creative solutions can we come up with that might point in new and more hopeful directions? Perhaps at this point we can be of the most help by encouraging a free, vigorous and imaginative debate on what social policies should replace the current war on drugs.