I chanced upon this article. Its subject is the advisability of legalizing marijuana. It’s at the usual level of coherence that typifies public discussion of the subject. It sees no conflict between an individual’s right to engage in behavior that harms only himself and society’s right to stop him, indeed to lock him up for a very long time. We have managed to fill our prisons to beyond surfeit by making mere possession of forbidden substances a felony. We’ve even managed to destroy at least one other country as a consequence of our drug laws.

The article cited above says, “While marijuana is not addictive in the way that a drug like crack-cocaine is…” One of the characteristics of popular journalism is that it can pontificate at length without a lot of knowledge of a subject beyond the superficial. Let’s stick to cocaine and addiction rather than confronting the whole subject of addiction much less discussing whether marijuana should be legal or not. I may return to this issue in a later post.

The lay press and the myriad of “professionals” who earn their living from having as many drugs and behaviors as possible accepted as addiction or even as disease, and who get paid for their services as would an internist for treating diabetes, rarely use the medical definition of drug addiction. They typically confuse habituation with addiction. A drug is addictive when it causes habituation, dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal. Cocaine produces no gross physiological withdrawal symptoms (Gawin, Science, 251:1580, 1991; DSM IV [psychiatry’s diagnostic handbook], 1994 p 225). In 1990 the NIDA found that 11.5% of Americans had used cocaine, but only 0.9% in the last month; only 0.09% used it weekly (DHHS Publication # ADM 91-1732). The vast majority of cocaine users do not become chronic users.

Why do the popular press and the public think that cocaine is even more addictive than opium? It’s because of statements such as this: “Cocaine-driven humans will relegate all other drives and pleasures to a minor role in their lives…. If we were to design deliberately a chemical that would lock people into perpetual usage it would (be) cocaine (Cohen, US Govt Printing Off, 1984).” Or this: “Repeated doses of addictive drugs – opiates, cocaine, and amphetamine – cause drug dependence and afterward, withdrawal (Hyman, Science 273:611, 1996).” The latter makes no distinction between cocaine and opium even though opium meets all the criteria for an addictive drug while cocaine does not. Both statements are hysterically wrong.

“After 10 years, 60% (of cocaine users) had become completely abstinent, and 40% remained occasional users. Most drug users ultimately stop. Drugs no longer fit their lifestyle. They get jobs, they have to get up early, they stop going to the disco, they have kids. (Peter Cohen, Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam).”

Let’s get a few things clear. Cocaine is a dangerous drug that occasionally is associated with dependence and habituation, but it is not addictive; most users spontaneously stop using it. Filling our prisons with people who have harmed no one but themselves is cruel and unusual punishment.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he does otherwise. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” JS Mill, On Liberty, 1859. Mill’s vision of liberty still remains an unrealized ideal.

“Many [drug users] receive mandatory sentences of 5-10 years for possession of a few grams of drugs. Congress set small quantities for no better reason than ignorance, politicking, and a lack of fluency in the metric system.” Eric Sterling, Criminal Justice Foundation. The press and the public seem unable to distinguish drug abuse from drug addiction. It is hard to justify life in prison for either. Illicit drugs can remain illegal without sending people to the penitentiary solely for possession.

The Editorial Board of The Christian Science Monitor is entitled to express any opinion it wishes. This opinion, however, may not have any standing as an expert or even informed opinion. It just offers the usual journalistic “omniscience” on anything that’s in the public’s consciousness. Deep knowledge or even familiarity with the subject is incidental.

Caveat lector.

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