The word “drug” has always possessed a mystically vague definition for me. Kind of like the phrase “hooking up”. Did you kiss? Did you do anal? I’m not sure what’s being insinuated by its use.
Researchers tried to ascertain a definition for “hooking up” and settled on
“casual sexual behaviors ranging from kissing to intercourse with a partner in which there is no current relationship commitment and no expected future relationship commitment”.
Still quite vague.
Similarly, the textbook definition of the word “drug” is
“a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body”.
By that definition, caffeine and crystal meth fall under the same category. Which is understandable if you’ve ever seen someone go a whole day without coffee, but I feel the term’s use is still deeply flawed.
Nowhere in its definition is there any mention of illegality or illicit nature, but no one is whispering around the water cooler about Sharon’s “drug problem” after seeing her mainline her third cup of coffee that day.
The word has developed this almost evil connotation that has been propagated by initiatives like the war on drugs and D.A.R.E. Let’s not forget that one Oscar-worthy commercial where a man compared an egg sizzling in a frying pan to “your brain on drugs”.
The disproportionate weight behind the word “drugs” has been systematically groomed in order to ostracize and marginalize various populations throughout the last century.
In the 1960s, the ‘hippy’ counterculture movement rose in popularity within the college-aged crowd alongside opposition to the Vietnam war and rejection of the materialism which had become entrenched in the decade’s popular culture. The movement stood in opposition to everything mainstream society coveted: formal education, steady careers, status, and wealth. They were proof of an alternative way of living that threatened the stability and capitalistic structure the nation had worked for.
So hippies became the scapegoat for all social unrest and the method of choice was targeting the drugs that the movement had become synonymous with: weed and psychedelics, like LSD and magic mushrooms. The same drugs the hippies had used to promote peace and tranquility were now weaponized against them in order to frame them as alien and dangerous.
Media coverage began honing in on LSD, claiming that the drug was “the greatest threat facing the country” and “more dangerous than the Vietnam War”. It became publicized as a threat to the very fabric of society, despite the fact that medical research had shown it to possess great potential in the treatment of various mental health disorders. It was quickly classified as a Schedule I drug — a classification that officially made it illegal, wrongfully labeling LSD as having a ‘high risk for addiction/abuse’ and ‘no medical benefit’.
The 1980s saw a huge shift to the right, with the emergence of the ‘yuppies’. Conservative values and praise for high-status careers dominated the airwaves. Those conservative ideals allowed the war on drugs that Nixon had initiated the decade prior to flourish. The Reagan administration became the age of mass incarceration, which strategically undermined and pillaged communities of color to a staggeringly disproportionate degree.
Through news and media coverage like the tv show Cops which first aired in 1989, the word “drugs” became synonymous with crime — more specifically crime committed by minority groups. Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, explores this topic in detail as it relates to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states:
“neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”.
It can be theorized then, that the mass incarceration of minority groups secondary to drug-related crimes could be a loophole of sorts. A targeted attack to proliferate the marginalization of specific populations after the abolition of slavery had made it illegal by any other means.
This is most infamously illustrated in the minimum sentencing for crack cocaine vs powder cocaine. Crack is a variance in the packaging of powder cocaine, where it’s heated with baking soda and water to form hard ‘rocks’ which can be smoked. Powder cocaine could be purchased in viles for $50–100, while crack was available in smaller quantities for purchase at $5–10. This allowed crack to be more accessible in lower-income communities which had already been subjected to discrimination and redlining. Crack became synonymous in the media with communities of color, while cocaine remained its whiter, ‘classier’ counterpart. This was reflected in the 100–1 crack vs cocaine sentencing disparities.
Distribution of 5 grams of crack carried a minimum 5-year federal prison sentence, while the distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Another drug used to target people of color is weed.
Weed is legal in 11 states and DC (which should be a state, but that’s an issue for another time).
It has been shown to be beneficial for pain, anxiety, IBD, IBS, PTSD, sleep problems, and a whole host of other medical conditions.
While marijuana arrests decreased by 18% between 2010 and 2018 (while more and more states were legalizing its use), they still made up 43% of the total drug arrests made — a drop in only 7% during the eight-year period. 89.6% of those arrests, were for possession only.
Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparable usage rates.
Arrest rates generally have decreased, but the racial disparities persist.
The American Civil Liberties Union found that,
“In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”
This history of leveraging drugs to undermine specific populations has altered the way that people feel about drugs as a whole. Medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996, but even 20 years later there are people who still oppose its legalization at a federal level — and those people are more often than not older generations who were exposed to the widespread, anti-drug propaganda of the past half-century. When asked why they opposed the legalization of marijuana, 43% cited that it’s because they feel that it
“hurts society and is bad for the individual”.
A claim that the science doesn’t support.
The most harmful recreationally consumed drug is actually…drumroll…alcohol.
I don’t think many people refer to alcohol as a drug in their daily life, but by definition it is one, it’s a substance that when consumed has a physiological effect on one's body. We all know that effect, or combination of various effects, as getting “drunk”. As benign as drunkenness may seem at times, it’s a catalyst for a whole host of damage: alcoholism, drunk driving accidents, alcohol poisoning, liver damage, etc.
A majority of the time, drinking alcohol is ‘harmless’. However, it is very possible to drink too much. The CDC reports that 95,000 deaths occur each year related to excessive drinking — on average, shortening the lives of those who died by 29 years.
Meanwhile, the number of weed-related overdoses is almost zero. A study trying to ascertain the fatal dose of THC (the component of marijuana that gives you the ‘high’ feeling) found that it would take around 15 to 70 grams to overdose. To put it into perspective, the average joint is 0.5 grams, which means it would require someone to chain smoke somewhere around 30 to 140 joints in order to overdose.
And yet, alcohol is one of the most widely consumed and socially accepted drugs available. Both alcohol and tobacco (also a legal drug that is far more damaging than some other illegal drugs) are actually explicitly exempt from the Controlled Substance Act. According to US law:
The term “controlled substance” means a drug or other substance, or immediate precursor, included in schedule I, II, III, IV, or V of part B of this subchapter. The term does not include distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages, or tobacco.
The vague nature of the word “drugs” lumps together drugs which are all-around damaging and substances that have been shown to provide immense personal and medical benefits.
Over the past 10 years or so, psychotherapy has begun to enter a renaissance of psychedelic assisted therapy. Promising research that had ended with the criminalization of LSD, psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, and MDMA began again in facilities like John Hopkin’s and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies).
The recent studies demonstrate findings similar those done in the 1960’s — there is immense benefit that can be found from the proper use of these drugs. Properly in this case being in a calm, therapeutic environment.
For me, psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and weed have been the catalysts for some of the most profound personal growth I’ve been able to achieve. They’ve helped me in a way that therapy and SSRI’s have been unable to, and it saddens me that laws prevent other people from being provided with a treatment option that could prove incredibly beneficial for them. In his podcast Making Sense, neuroscientist Sam Harris eloquently states that,
“One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting and for what purpose and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term, drugs, making it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”
That vague term— drugs — impedes society as a whole from separating the beneficial from the harmful. We are in need of better terminology that isn’t accompanied by a history of implicit and systemic bias.
Maybe if a new system is implemented and substances are no longer lumped together under one defining term, we can begin to see a shift in the way people think about the individual compounds, that differ so wildly from one another. That shift in perception might open the doors for more widely done research and the ultimate reclassification of the legal scheduling of drugs.
So no, caffeine is not the same as crystal meth. We all know that. But also, LSD is not heroin. Shrooms are not cocaine. Despite their existence under the same umbrella of Schedule I drugs. One word does not adequately encompass everything that exists within its vague definition.