Note by HealthWrights Staff

In this provocative article, Salim Muwakkil challenges the quasi-religious and hysterical assumptions that underpin our destructive and unworkable drug policies. By viewing the issue of drugs in the context of biological evolution, he opens us to a fresh perspective that that might provide a more productive and rational approach to the problems associated with drug abuse.

drugs R us
("The Alchymist..."
by Joseph Wright, 1734-1797)

The Article

Chicago Tribune

Deep in the hearts of Americans there lurks an almost religious belief that drug use is not just illegal, but inherently evil and immoral. If rationality guided our drug policies, most of the illegal substances now generating billions of dollars in underground profits would have been decriminalized and drug treatment centers would be wherever they're needed. But our society's attitude about (certain) psychoactive substances is oblivious to rational critique; our demonization of drugs has fanatical and cultlike dimensions.

The cold reality is that we'll never be free of these drugs.

Indeed, drugs are us. Serotonin, endorphins, Adrenalin, dopamine, norepinephrine, etc. are mind-altering chemicals produced by our own bodies. These powerful substances produce such dramatic changes in mood and behavior, there's little doubt they would be illicit were they not endogenous. Our circulatory systems are very efficient drug pushers.

Perhaps if we better understood our biological connection to drugs, we'd realize the need to avoid punitive social policies that command us to terminate our intimate relationship with drugs. And it is quite intimate; humanity evolved from herbivorous ancestors, whose diets regularly included plants with powerful psychoactive agents.

Virtually all pharmaceutical agents (legal and illegal drugs) originally derive from wild plants and fungi.

Much of this information is available in Daniel M. Perrine's 1996 path-breaking book, "The Chemistry of Mind-altering Drugs: History, Pharmacology and Cultural Context."

Scientists believe that our neurological system accommodated and, in some cases, incorporated these substances as our bodies became more complex.

Studies have found evidence of that co-evolution with the discovery of neurological receptor sites for most of the psychoactive drugs we now demonize. Those substances produce specific chemical transmitters that fit receptors within us like keys do a lock.

Marijuana, cocaine, opiates (heroin, morphine and codeine), "psychedelic" drugs like LSD and mescaline and even amphetamines have their own private receptor sites in the network of neurons that enable humans to think and feel.

Vitamins provide a good analogy of this evolutionary process. Produced in nature outside the human body, vitamins now are necessary for optimal human metabolism and well-being.

Since our contemporary diets lack many of those essential substances, we've created an entire "health-food" industry devoted to nutritional compensation.

Similarly, modern humanity no longer ingests the drug-rich plants that once typified our primal diets (and helped design our nervous systems), so we use external substances to compensate.

That's why the desire for drugs is such a universal need. Human beings can't "just say no" to physiology. We resist this conclusion because it humanizes rather than demonizes drug use and undermines the "bogeyman strategy" that motivates this nation's ridiculous war on drugs.

But it also is clear that certain drugs are demonized while others are lionized. Commercials for BuSpar, for example, a new drug made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, tout the substance's miraculous powers to reduce anxiety. Similar drugs, Prozac being the most prominent, are aggressively being marketed (pushed?) to anxiety-ridden Americans.

These drugs are not seen as chemical solutions to human problems, they have redefined human problems as chemical imbalances.

Our natural connection to drugs also increases our tendency to abuse them, which is undesirable. However, to discourage abuse, we recklessly exaggerate the dangers of certain drugs and criminalize their use. Rather than reducing the social harm caused by drug abuse, these misguided policies serve to exacerbate the problem.

I won't bore you by listing the negative effects and perverse incentives of our drug policies, though the list is expanding ominously. But even that lengthening list has failed to prevent drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey from ratcheting up the idiocy another notch.

We've exported our prohibitionist logic and $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia, where we're opening another front in the destructive drug war.

I'm arguing for rationality in our drug policies, but that line of argument apparently has little persuasive power over people who believe drugs are the work of supernatural demons or other theological bogeymen. Perhaps if we began to understand our drug policies as a series of fruitless assaults on human nature, we would assist rather than punish drug-abusing citizens. Perhaps we would bring our policies more into accord with those of several European countries that have learned to accept drugs as a part of humanity's biological heritage and decided to reduce the harm of abuse instead of denying reality.