It's Time to Rethink

by Darren Lund | 5/23/01 5:00am

So, who are the drug abusers around campus anyway? Can you pick them out on the Green? Or are they holed up in a single in the Choates scratching their skin because their blood itches from heroin withdrawal?

In actuality, drug abuse exists all around us. You may be a drug abuser. The person standing next to you in line for blitz may be doping themselves up right now. Collis just may be the largest supplier on campus.

Allow me to explain what I mean. We need to begin with the word "drug" itself. It gets thrown around a lot these days, but how should we define it? The best definition I can think of is "a substance unnecessary to the human diet which one takes in for the purpose of self-gratification" (perhaps "to get high," although that definition is too vague for me). Well, that certainly covers cocaine and marijuana and all the illicit drugs, but strangely enough it also includes alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, sugar something you may be consuming right now.

Do you need caffeine to get up in the morning? You're a drug addict. Do you eat lots of sweets in times of stress? Maybe you should seek treatment. Can you never eat just one Lay's potato chip? Don't look now, but your friends just scheduled an intervention.

Am I taking things too far? Is this ridiculous? Or is our stigmatization of "drugs" and "non-drugs" ridiculous? Where is the line drawn? If the distinction between licit and illicit drugs was based on the amount of harm caused, then there is no way alcohol and cigarettes would be legal while marijuana is illegal.

I don't want to go into a lengthy explanation here of the harms of each substance. However, it is clear that alcohol causes many physical problems, including cancer and long term effects on mental functioning, not to mention the innumerable social problems caused or aggravated by alcohol use and abuse, such as domestic violence, crime rates (linked as heavily to alcohol use as to any illicit drugs), and drunk driving.

While marijuana is not safe by any means, it does not have nearly the same detrimental physical effects as alcohol or even tobacco, and marijuana also has a much smaller impact on social problems. Anyone who claims that this smaller social impact is due to marijuana's prohibition may not realize just how easy it is to obtain this drug -- the vast majority of high school seniors claim it is easier to get marijuana than alcohol.

This is not an argument for legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. Instead I would like you to re-examine your thinking about what a "drug" actually is. An article was printed in the Op-Ed section of The Dartmouth called "In Support of Beer" on May 7 extolling the virtues of beer and beer culture. While I respect that this article was written with a humorous intention, it nonetheless reflects a cultural value that is frighteningly pervasive -- the belief that somehow alcohol is not a drug.

Alcohol use is often deemed acceptable while the use of marijuana or other illicit drugs is problematic, even to the point where people claim that any illicit drug use automatically qualifies as abuse. This suggestion is absurd. Many people use marijuana or cocaine or any other illegal drug on a regular basis and simply go about their day. Are they drug abusers? Not any more than someone who needs a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning.

So what is abuse, then? In my view, use becomes abuse when the need for any substance begins to take over your life, with negative effects.

Our collective cultural values lead us to look down at drug abusers as morally deficient, but maybe it's finally time to step down off of our high horse and realize that ours is a culture of consumption, and we are all addicted to something.

How much TV do you watch per day? How many cups of coffee do you have? How much time do you spend playing an instrument? Playing cards? I had a friend who was addicted to brushing his teeth. He couldn't leave the house unless he had brushed his teeth first. Fortunately, after years of intensive counseling, he has been able to cope with his problems and move on with his life.

Advertising feeds on our impulsiveness and desire for instant gratification, the same qualities that may lead someone into a drug addiction. We are bombarded with new products every day to improve our lives, the implication being "use this and you'll be popular" or "it feels great to do this." Your TV is the pusher. We constantly self-medicate with over the counter pills, and pour substances such as caffeine, ginseng, or alcohol into our bodies for their effect. Why is this different than someone who likes to relax with a joint once a week? Or someone who does some cocaine when they go out to a club once a month? If they are not addicted or abusive toward these substances, where is the problem?

What's my point? The stigmatization of "drugs" needs to end. Addicts are not somehow intrinsically different from you or I. Their failure is ours too, not just as human beings, but as a society. And what is our solution to this problem? Burn the fields of poor farmers in southern Colombia? Put drug traffickers in jail, as if removal of supply (which is clearly impossible) will somehow impact demand? It's time to rethink. Put the money being spent building new jails to house drug offenders (a quarter of our total prison population) into treatment centers, needle exchanges, and drug education programs that teach about all drugs, including alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine. We can treat drug users as human beings. Here at Dartmouth we can reject the arrogance of beer culture that believes it is somehow not involved in drug use, and we can try to understand that it's not as simple as these substances are "drugs" and these are "not drugs," but instead a spectrum that contains everything we put into our bodies.

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