When most people think of illegal drugs, danger comes to mind. For them, the laws against these substances are in place to protect law-abiding citizens from the menace these compounds would allegedly bring about. Therefore, when they think of drug users they either have a picture of a helpless addict incapable of making rational decisions or a violent offender willing to hurt anyone to get their fix. However, in actuality what causes these substances to be dangerous does not stem from their direct effects on the body- as if there wasn’t a safe way to use them; rather, prohibition by its very practice produces harmful effects, that would disappear with the abolition of the current drug ban. Specifically, there are three aspects of prohibition cause an illegal drug to go from something to be approach with caution and knowledge to something capable of destroying the health and personality of the user and their loved ones: (1) Purity (2) Ostracizing via Criminality (3) Ignorance of the drug’s effect profile. These three facets, I believe, contribute to virtually all of the negative effects from illegal drug use- most notably, this triad can be applied to the interpretation of media stories covering drug use and abuse. That is, these three factors can help one understand the effect of prohibition on drug use in a clearer and rational light.
Before moving on to the details regarding these three aspects, it would be useful to properly consider other prohibitions or unregulated markets vis-à-vis today’s alcohol and meat production. Some may be familiar with the term “bathtub gin”. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the clandestine production method of gin. As suggested by the term, there was little regulation of production, so that the final product has sub-optimal quality (e.g. impure, or wrong concentration of alcohol). This notion relates to the first aspect of impurity. Moving on, we can draw an analogy that can frame today’s situation within that of the meat market before the book The Jungle from the early 1900s was published. The book was an exposé of the then current meat market and, some may say, it’s clandestine production methods- reminiscent of the bathtub gin of almost a generation later. Thus, it should be plain to see that when products are not regulated or legal their quality drops so significantly, it may induce harm to its users.
The first aspect is probably the most well known to the general public, although that is not to say it is wildly known (or even close to it). The concept is simple to grasp, yet cannot be exhausted as easily. As noted above, when markets are made illegal and have little regulation, the product produced is of very low quality. The quality may be so low that the merchandise becomes tainted with another unwanted substance. For instance, heroin users may be sold something that is labeled as heroin but may, in fact, be almost anything else. The dealer may have run out of heroin and instead uses a pharmaceutical opiate which has a completely different dosage range (perhaps 10x more potent), thereby causing the user to OD. Perhaps during the production of the drug a metabolite other than the drug is mixed in with the final product by accident. Drugs like MPTP that are definite neurotoxins can be accidentally synthesized while producing other compounds. In a regulated and legal market, these problems would be averted, thereby leaving the pure product at the right dosage.
Moving forward to the next aspect requires us to think outside of ordinary distinctions associated with legal/illegal and good/bad because the following reorients these boundaries. We usually associate that which is illegal with that which is ethically reprehensible. Actions like murder, rape, and theft are morally reproachable. Some may classify the use of certain drugs in this same group. But history informs us that what is illegal is not necessarily equal to what is immoral or unethical. Laws which restricted the freedom of prior oppressed groups like women, blacks, gays, and the disabled, are now known today as obstacles which held us back from the more civilized society we have today. With that in mind, it is not farfetched to believe that some of these unjust laws are still around us today; and like the generations of past, we need to look beyond our conventions to see how those groups we demonize are actually oppressed (e.g. drug users).
With that said, the second aspect addresses this problem of criminality. As the name implies, when someone’s activity is made illegal, they become a criminal; it follows then that if one’s activity of choice is criminal, then one must hide it from others who might inform the authorities. This process of keeping one’s use hidden is difficult and usually, results in problems for the user and loved ones. In trying to keep the activity secret, complications may arise- these include time management problems, feelings of insecurity, guilt, and doubt about hiding use, being arrested and convicted as an offender, the social stigma which comes with being identified as a user, losing employment due to unjust drug screenings, and much more. One cannot do an act that is criminal without repercussions to oneself in the long run. This is the case for anything made illegal. If milk was made illegal, its users would have a difficult time drinking, buying, and storing their milk. It would take up much more of their time and energy than if it was legal. In sum, making anything criminal makes it users have a much more dangerous and difficult time doing the activity, thereby challenging the notion that the activity was dangerous to begin with, in order to justify it being illegal- as the illegality makes it far more dangerous than if legal.
The last aspect is both the most straightforward and yet paradoxically is the least understood by most people: many are ignorant of the effect profile and form/route of administration of illegal drugs. That is, when it comes to understanding what a drug does to someone, as well as how the way it is taken can affect them, most people including users are uninformed. For instance, many users know well that sniffing a drug and taking it orally produce dramatically different effects; but what they may not know is that causing a drug to enter the bloodstream quicker makes that drug more addictive. Or they may know about tolerance, but may not know that after a break of using one’s drug of choice, tolerance drops considerably. This last case is what causes so many heroin addicts to OD once out of rehab or prison; they are unaware that their tolerance has dropped, causing them to take the same dose they used when tolerant. Cases like these are avoidable with nothing but knowledge. Another case is when people may take a drug while ignorant of its effects and so end up hurting themselves. Such is the case with drugs like cannabis or psychedelics, were those ignorant to them may find themselves in an experience they could have never foreseen. The fact of the matter is that when people are uninformed, they make worse decisions. Prohibition acts as a gatekeeper by shunning out all knowledge of drug use, labeling it evil or dangerous. Objective and accurate knowledge about drugs which saves lives should be freely available. Websites like Erowid.org help by providing factual information about illegal drugs. But it is not until the drug ban is lifted that we could properly educate people on the proper ways to use and what to avoid along the way.
These three aspects which make prohibition a danger to products that people desire can be used to elucidate how stories of drugs in the media point to the dangers of the drug ban. The next time a story appears on the news related to drug use, ask these kinds of questions:
-Was the issue related to composition, of the drug?
-Did the substance it have any other substances besides the one the user aimed to use?
-Did the issue involve steps taken to hide use from others?
-Was the user arrested for their use?
-Were the complications from the drug due to some preventable issue (e.g. OD due to ignorance of tolerance dynamics)?
-Did the user have information available concerning their particular method and type of substance use?
Once questions like these can be answered, we can learn how what made the drug dangerous in the first place was not the drug itself, but the criminality and ignorance of the drug due to prohibition.