Have you noticed a theme among a number of early articles on The Influence?
They point out a phenomenon that will be alien to many: Illicit drug use is always popularly reported in the most lurid terms, with drug users portrayed as self-destructive, violent addicts—but this does not present a fair overall picture.
Johann Hari’s piece noted how the government’s most famous anti-drug crusader, Harry Anslinger, hoked-up evidence that an axe murderer was high on marijuana, while ignoring harmless use of pot, in order to have weed legally banned.
Meanwhile, Carl Hart discovered in his own research (and experience) that Adderall, comprised of d-amphetamine and amphetamine, was virtually the same drug as methamphetamine, and even experienced users couldn’t distinguish the two. Yet kids are given Adderall for ADHD!
In one study of experimental amphetamine use at a college campus, Chris Johanson* found that subjects reported (like Carl Hart) finding the effects of d-amphetamine to be highly mood-enhancing. Yet, on successive sessions in which subjects were given the drug, although they continued to find the d-amphetamine pleasurable, these students and college employees became less and less willing to take the drug again and to savor its positive effects.
Why would you guess that was? The simple explanation is a key to understanding the causes, prevention and treatment of addiction, on the one hand, and the myopic nature of our zero-tolerance, drug-focused policies on the other. The obvious explanation is that purposeful people concerned about functioning successfully at the university assigned the powerful drug a secondary place in their hierarchy of values and life choices.
Surely, this possibility of ordinary use can’t apply to heroin? In fact, as my article showed, our current heroin and painkiller epidemics greatly overlap. People who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. And, remember, the narcotics addict that Chris Christie described on the political stump to such acclaim never took heroin—the drug responsible for his addiction and death was Percocet, a standard painkiller many of us have taken.
So opioid painkillers are addictive in the same way as heroin. Yet, many ordinary people take them without problems. Consider the great Super Bowl ad mystery—you know, the one depicting opioid constipation. Who knew so many regular Americans have this problem?
An estimated eight million Americans are constipated due to prescribed narcotic painkillers. Compared with this huge number, relatively few become addicted.
Consider that whereas fewer than two out of a thousand Americans over age 26 use heroin, more than 20 times that rate, 5% of middle age Americans, are using prescription painkillers. At some point in our lives, most of us will use such a painkiller. What keeps most of us from becoming addicted to “addictive” drugs?
None of us seeks to deny the real harms that are associated with drugs and addiction. But any realistic, proportional assessment of these subjects must acknowledge that most use is not problematic—as demonstrated, for example, by figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and many other sources.
So why do you think we are bombarded with negative stories about illicit “addictive” drug use, while we are protected from learning that most such drug use (Carl Hart estimates 80-90%) is normal and non-problematic? And how does this bias affect how we think about and deal with drugs?
These are critical questions—and ones that future articles on The Influence will address.
* Johanson, C.E., and Uhlenhuth, E.H. 1981. Drug preference and mood in humans: Repeated assessment of d-amphetamine.Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 14:159-163.
Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter: @