Saturday, February 1, 2014

Some Arguments on Drug Tolerance and Prohibition

I have extensive experience treating people with alcohol and drug use problems.  I am always amazed at the lack of knowledge about addiction and alcoholism in the general public and how that impacts public policy.  As a result I occasionally get involved in public forums to argue a few points.  As a matter of disclosure I am thoroughly independent and vowed not to vote for any major party candidates a long time ago.  That doesn't prevent people from sending me heated e-mails accusing me of either being a Democrat or a Republican.  Of course you can also be attacked for being a independent and being too much of an elitist to not accept the fact that only major party candidates can be elected.  I have never found that to be a compelling argument.  My latest post to the quoted excerpt follows.  You can read the entire sequence of posts by clicking the link at the bottom.  There are obvious limitations to engaging in this exercise and that should be evident by reading the exchange right up to the last post where I get the expected shot for being a psychiatrist.  Tiresome isn't it?

“Come again...Politicians are pushing for legalization?  Politicians have been spewing the “war on drugs” “tough on crime” protecting the “fabric of society” bullshit for the last 40-plus years.”
Sorry – I try just to stay to the facts.  If you read the actual history of drug use in this country we swing from periods of prohibition to drug tolerance.  We are currently swinging into a period of drug tolerance and I fully expect to see drugs legalized in some way or another in most states.  So I really don’t have a stake in this fight either way.  So you can lighten up.  I am not “on your side” but I can predict with certainty that it will happen.  You can Google “politicians who support drug legalization” as well as I can.  As more of them get on board you will hear an escalation in rhetoric on how they will tax and control it.
You can put any type of spin on it you want – more freedom, freedom from the war on drugs, ability to generate more taxes, ability to treat any problem you might have with medical marijuana, you name it – history shows the outcome will be the same.  If you are still serious about legalizing heroin and coca like you previously stated that experiment has already been done and the outcome will be the same.  That experiment is being done right now with diverted legal opioids (the source of synthetic heroin) and according to the CDC we are in about year ten of an opioid epidemic that is killing more people in many states than motor vehicle accidents – about 15,000 people a year.  If you consider that the drugs typically called synthetic heroin on the street are usually pharmaceuticals with known safe doses, that also illustrates the nature of the problem.  If you think that nobody will be looking for synthetic marijuana if marijuana is legalized – I know that is false per my previous post.  No matter how free you are to smoke marijuana, there are very few employers I know of that will tolerate it at work and none if you are in a job where your decision making can lead to substantial liability. 
The problem with the “war on drugs” and excessive incarceration of people with drug charges in many ways parallels the excessive incarceration of the mentally ill because we have a health care system that is politically managed.  The politicians realized a long time ago that you can save health care costs by incarcerating the mentally ill instead of treating them in medical settings.  It may not have been a conscious decision up front but they have done little to stop it after it was clearly underway.  The three largest mental hospitals in the US right now are county jails.  Addicts in many cases are treated even more poorly if they are incarcerated because they do not get medically supervised detoxification and go through acute withdrawal.
In any “war” somebody has to be blamed and denied resources.  I prefer Musto’s analysis of the US tending to blame other countries for our drug problems:  “That analysis avoids the painful and awkward realization that the use of dangerous drugs may be an integral part of American society.”  That is reminiscent of Mexico’s Past President Vincente Fox pointing out that Mexico’s problem with cartel violence is fueled by America’s massive appetite for drugs supplying the money.  On that basis he was a proponent of the legalization and control of marijuana argument.  That doesn’t address the massive appetite for drugs problem.
The problem with the politics of addictive drugs is that people generally don’t know much about addiction.  There is a significant portion of the population that is vulnerable and the only thing it takes in increased availability for them to start having significant problems.
So good luck with the new temporary American dream of increased access to intoxicants and enjoy it while you can.  Depending on exactly what gets legalized – I would predict that would be the next 20 – 40 years.  That is the usual time it takes to complete a cycle.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

David F. Musto.  The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control.  Third Edition.  New York, Oxford University Press, 1999: p 298.  

Additional Clinical Note 1: A couple of graphs from my other blog that show alcohol use patterns over time are available on my other blog for the United States and the United Kingdom.  Graphs of opioid consumption over the past decade by the UN drug control agency shows a linear increase in consumption and production.

Additional Clinical Note 2:  If you had the patience to follow the political thread you probably notice the marijuana advocate trying to tell me that I was saying there was an epidemic of synthetic marijuana abuse that occurred with the legalization of marijuana.  My argument was simply that marijuana users if they are screened for THC at work will switch to synthetic marijuana in order to avoid positive toxicology screens and job loss.  Now in the February 5, 2014 edition of JAMA a report from the CDC it turns out that there was an "outbreak" of synthetic marijuana use in Colorado in August and September that involved about 200 people.  There was a similar outbreak in Georgia in August of 2013.  In addition  to the medical characteristics I would encourage the CDC to collect data on how many people were smoking marijuana to avoid toxicology testing and how many people were unable to stop smoking marijuana in order to achieve that same goal. I sent the CDC a note on how to refine their methodology. 

Supplementary Material Note 1:  My response from the CDC.

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