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Getting high to save a life

So today I want to talk about something fun… because I figured I’d bored everybody enough talking about broadband policy and wind turbines.

Drugs are a really interesting part of modern Society. Over the last hundred years we’ve developed this majestic double standard on intoxication. A great confusion on what’s good and bad in regards to the substances we put in our body. The thing that has perplexed me for a long time is the refusal by our society to talk about them. We’ve developed a moral objection to the idea of these substances while simultaneously indulging in them on a very regular basis.

So I want to talk about two things in this post.

1: Why we refuse to talk about drugs and why we have developed this strange, completely hollow moral objection to them.

and;

2: Why current drug policy is completely insane!

Before I go on I want it on record that I am actually not pro-drugs or anti-regulation; I’m in fact very pro-regulation for harmful drugs. Things like methamphetamine and heroin that literally destroy communities and economies need to be tackled as hard as our society is capable of. The problem is that our society has got it’s priorities completely ass-about-face when it comes to understanding which one’s we should actually be tackling. This is not some hard-left, libertarian utopia I’m advocating; I want to save lives, I want to get people out of their soul destroying addictions, and I want to live in a society where I can choose what I do with my own body, so long as it’s not hurting anyone.

So first, what our society currently thinks about drugs…

 Our false consciousness

Thanks to the ‘War on Drugs’ of the late twentieth century, western culture has developed a rather strong moral dislike for drugs and the idea of ‘getting high’ in general. People who take drugs or are advocates of a more liberal policy in regards to them are labelled as deviants or undesirables. Now the reasoning for this attitude on face value seems quite obvious. Drugs can, when abused, cause significant harm not just to the abuser, but to the people around them and to society as a whole. With this in mind, it would make perfect sense for a society to develop an over-aching moral dislike for drugs and for their effects.

The problem with all this though is that the moral naughty-corner we have put drugs into is a complete farce.

If our culture was totally straight edge and had developed a disdain for the idea of altered states of consciousness as a whole, then we could say that our views on this topic are consistent. But the problem is we obviously haven’t done this, and it’s these inconsistencies that are the undoing of the logic behind current drug policy.

How do we know this inconsistency exists? Simple… Alcohol.
Somewhere along the line our society has developed this false consciousness around intoxication and decided that Alcohol isn’t a drug. But you see… it totally IS A DRUG. There is no reasonable argument you can make to differentiate alcohol from some of the very common recreational drugs that exist in our society, and this is a problem.

Our attitude to Alcohol has demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, we as a society have actually fully endorsed the idea of getting high (and yes, drinking alcohol gets you high, just in a different way). It’s a bit of a no-brainer really; if there is a substance that you can consume that makes you feel good, a lot of us are probably going to support people’s right to consume it.

So why then, when we as a society have already said that we’re ok with people getting high, have we spent the last seventy years prosecuting anyone who wants to get high on something other than alcohol?

Now this is where people are going to start screaming at me. Obviously I’m making an unfair comparison between relatively safe drugs like alcohol, and all those nasty drugs like Marijuana and Ecstacy that KILL PEOPLE!

Because this is immoral.

But this is OK.

 You’ve been lied to

The primary argument one hears against the liberalisation of drug policy is that the drugs that are prohibited under the law are prohibited because of their danger to people’s health, and the potential damage widespread use can do to society. What’s interesting though is that this message has been pushed not by scientists or the medical sector, but by politicians and political decision makers. Drug policy very rarely even makes it onto the political agenda, and a serious debate about the issue has not been had since the 1960-70’s. This is despite the fact that the use of drugs causes over 18,000 deaths per year (this is just from alcohol and tobacco alone) and costs the Australian economy around 45 billion dollars (again, just from alcohol and tobacco).

Now… you might be asking why I only included the legal drugs in that set of statistics; obviously if I don’t include the death toll from illegal drugs the legal ones are going to look terrible! That’s actually not the reason at all; the real reason is that the number of deaths from the illegal drugs I’m discussing today are so statistically insignificant they don’t even bear mentioning. A study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW found that between 2000 and 2005 there were only 112 ecstasy-related deaths; that’s around 22 per year. From my research, I can only find 1 death that was directly attributed to smoking cannabis during this time period… so take what you want from that.

 So let’s have a look at these numbers

Now a few of you will correctly note that simply comparing the effects of different drugs on a 1-1 basis is actually a rather spurious argument. According to the Australian drug foundation, around 30% of Australians drink on a regular basis, this is in contrast to the 10% of Australians who go on record as regularly smoking cannabis and 3% for taking ecstasy. With these numbers in mind, we have to take into account the fact that there are significantly fewer individuals taking these illicit drugs, and so there will obviously be a lower number of people being harmed by them. So how do we account for this? Well, it’s pretty simple really. By breaking down the effect of each drug on a per capita basis (so the chance of death for each person who uses the drug, instead of the number of deaths over the whole population) you can calculate what each regular user’s chances are of dying because of their drug use.

 Legal drugs

 Tobacco:

there are a little over 3.1 million smokers in Australia with an average death toll from smoking related illness at around about 14,000 per year. With these numbers in mind, we can calculate the chances of a smoker dying in any one year are around about 1/226.

Side-bar: HOLY SHIT THIS IS HIGH! over 70 years of smoking there’s roughly a ⅓ chance that you’ll die from it.

 Alcohol:

There are roughly 8.8 million regular alcohol drinkers in Australia with an average yearly death toll from alcohol sitting at around about 3500(a regular drinker is someone who, on average, has one or more drinks per week). This means that regular alcohol drinkers have a 1/2500 chance of dying from an alcohol-related issue in any given year. To put this in perspective, a motorcyclist has around a 1/3500 chance of dying in any given year in a crash.

Side-bar again: I had no idea about this statistic until I wrote this post. So many people have given me a hard time about riding a motorbike and I’ve always responded by saying that the risks were equal to a lot of things people do on a daily basis… this is a new one to add to that list.

Now let’s have a look at some of the illegal drugs. Keep in mind that the 'reported’ user base for these drugs is more than likely lower than the 'real’ user base. This is due to the fact that many people who do use illegal drugs would not voluntarily go on record as having done so. What this means is that the harm probability that I will calculate here is actually much HIGHER than it would be in the real world, meaning these drugs are actually SAFER than this post will show, we just don’t know how much safer. As always though, I like to err on the side of caution so that there can’t be any claims that I’ve doctored the facts in order to suit my argument.

 Illegal drugs

Ecstasy, or more accurately, its active ingredient MDMA, is a psychoactive drug which has gone through varying levels of popularity and widespread use. Most people have at least heard of ecstasy. Once or twice a year there’s a front page story about some young party-goer dying from an ecstasy-related incident at a music festival or some underground rave in the suburbs of one of Australia’s cities. MDMA though is one of the most misunderstood drugs in circulation today. Only 11 percent of Australians will admit to trying MDMA and only 3 percent go on record as using the drug regularly. From the media coverage, you would expect the actual death toll from it to be quite high. But as I pointed out before, MDMA was only responsible for 112 deaths between 2000 and 2005, a time period where it’s usage was actually at its highest point. With a reported user base at roughly 720,000 this equates to a 1/32000 chance of death per user on a yearly basis.

Yeah… that was three zeros on the end of that number.

And do you know what else? A recent review of MDMA-related deaths found that only 15% of those deaths were directly caused by MDMA. The other 85% of them were as a result of multiple drug toxicity caused by the other, more dangerous drugs that black market elements mix into ecstasy pills in order to increase their profits. The thing is, this is a really easy problem to fix. Legalisation and regulation of the substance would completely take these black market elements out of the loop and prevent up to 85% of the small number of deaths that the drug causes. It worked with alcohol to wipe-out the moonshine trade, it would work with MDMA too.

I just want you to think about this for a second. I’m sure some of the people reading this have kids and the chances are that at some point you’re going to have a conversation with them about drugs. I want you to think about a legal system which makes you tell your kids that they should obey the law and, when they go out, they should have a few drinks and “say no” to those other kids who will inevitably offer them drugs like MDMA. A system which, you now know, is telling your kids to partake in a drug that is roughly 13x more dangerous than other, illegal alternatives.

A study published in The Lancet found that out of twenty common drugs in our society, alcohol was the most damaging, while things’s like ecstasy and marijuana sat almost at the very bottom of the list.

MDMA has even been found to have extensive medical uses. Recent studies have shown that it could potentially become the most effective drug for combatting PTSD that we’ve ever seen.

And the results are very similar for marijuana…

 So what’s my point?

As I said before, I’m not advocating for some libertarian utopia where our society doesn’t regulate drugs. Drugs CAN be dangerous and CAN harm our society; just look at what methamphetamine is doing to communities and families all over Australia. But the thing is, we’re regulating the wrong drugs and we’re tackling the one’s we do need to regulate in the wrong way.

Think about what would happen if a new drug appeared in our community that was so addictive, over 30% of the population started taking it on a regular basis. Imagine if the death toll from that drug rocketed past pretty much every other drug we regulate, to the point that it was killing thousands of people a year and costing governments tens of billions of dollars. We would make it illegal in a heartbeat, as we should, but we haven’t.

This is called path dependence, we’ve become so accustomed to something that has been with us for so long that we now find it extremely difficult to get rid of. In the past, alcohol was the best way we as a society knew of to get a buzz… and so it became the norm. The thing is, we have become a lot better at making drugs, particularly over the last hundred years. Why then, are we still clinging to an intoxicant that we’ve been using for over ten thousand? One that is killing so many people and doing so much damage to our community. You have to wonder if it’s either simply out of tradition, or it’s because of some rather powerful entrenched interests that make A LOT of money off alcohol and its monopoly over people’s altered states of consciousness.

There’s nothing wrong with getting high, we’ve already decided this as a society. But there is something wrong with throwing people’s lives away; and to be honest, I think there is something seriously wrong with a society that tells people they can’t smoke weed or take MDMA, while encouraging them to drink alcohol.

 So how do we change it?

Anyone with any kind of political understanding knows that banning alcohol and replacing it with substances like MDMA and Marijuana is simply insane and would not be politically possible. Whether this would even be a preferred state of events is completely up for debate and not something that I, as an individual, have the right to pass judgement on. If we, as a society, have decided that the risks posed by alcohol are of an acceptable level, then there’s really no need to regulate it any more than we already do. I’m all for freedom of choice, as long as we know the choices that we’re making.

On the flip side of that, if we could find a way to reduce alcohol use and reduce the number of deaths caused by drugs, all whilst keeping the freedoms that we enjoy today (and potentially gaining some additional ones) we should absolutely pursue it.

And this is what I’m proposing. Utilise a system that we already know works (markets) to reduce the amount of people drinking alcohol without restricting people’s rights to choose what they do with their own body.

How you do this is really quite simple, introduce competition into the market. Ask any economist in the world and they will tell you, the most effective way to kill off a product is to introduce a competing, and arguably better product into the market. There are a huge number of people that prefer illicit drugs to legal ones, usually because they believe that the illicit ones are actually safer and have a preferable effect to alcohol.

Logic dictates that if you legalise and regulate drugs that are currently illegal, yet obviously popular, they will steal market share from alcohol as a product. As long as the drugs we as a society legalise are safer than what they are replacing, the move will have a net negative effect on the amount of drug-induced harm that occurs in our society. While we’re at it, we’ll also wipe out the primary revenue stream for criminal elements in the community. People are going to take drugs no matter what, prohibition doesn’t work. So why are we hand-feeding customers to the black market by refusing to have a reasoned conversation about this?

 It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better…

Are there things you would need to take into account with this program? Absolutely… It would most likely need to be combined with a smart card system which limited purchases to only a single type of drug in any 24/48 hour period. This would help prevent the impulse induced, mixing of drugs that is responsible for the lion’s share of the small number of deaths that are caused by drugs like ecstasy. It would also ensure the competition aspect of the market takes effect by forcing consumers to choose between one product and another. It’s like a cap-and-trade system for altered states of consciousness.

The popular idea that by introducing new drugs you’ll have some kind of cumulative effect and increase the overall harm is a logical fallacy. It’s like saying we should ban hybrid cars because a second type of vehicle is just going to add more cars onto our roads… it makes no sense. Supply and demand is the universal law that governs our economy. The problem is that we’ve become trapped in a system where the supply has been completely monopolised by a product which is one of the worst possible options. We’re talking about saving lives here. More often than not, young lives.

I think this is the central issue in our cultures problem with drugs. We want to find a perfect solution and until we do, we just want to bury our heads in the sand. I think we’re collectively embarrassed by the fact that a large proportion of us actually enjoy the effects of some of the substances mentioned. We need to come to terms with the fact that we’ve accepted the idea of drugs in our society. Once we do that we can start looking at them in a rational way. I’m not saying this is a perfect solution; but if we’re going to have drugs in our society, why not make it the one’s that do the least damage?

At the very least, why not let people choose the less damaging ones if they want to.

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This post first appeared on The Sensible Centre, please read the originial post: here

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