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Illicit Drug Use

October 12, 2015

Last week I watched the brutal movie, Sicario.  It realistically portrays the massive violence going on in Mexico (and elsewhere) due to the illegal drug trade.  I came out of the theater deeply disturbed and discouraged, recognizing that the ongoing massacres in Mexico (often involving innocent people such as the forty-three college students who disappeared last year) is largely caused by the drug consumption of Americans.

Americans use illicit drugs at a higher rate than anyone else in the world.  According to a 2008 study, the use of cocaine in the United States (adjusted for population) is four times higher than the next highest country (New Zealand) and eight times higher than highly permissive Netherlands.  Our use of heroin and marijuana is also the highest in the world.

It is estimated that the cost of illicit drug use in the United States each year–in terms of healthcare, crime, and law enforcement–is $193 billion.

And then there is the cost in lives.  In 2013 about 13,000 people in the U.S. died of overdoses from heroin or cocaine (and another 24,000 from prescription medications).  Add to these the number of people killed in drug deals, or by drug cartels, and we’re looking at major war-size numbers.

Why are Americans so addicted to drugs (both legal and illegal)?  Some evidence suggests a correlation between affluence and drug use–the more affluent a society is, the more it uses drugs.  Drug use is also glamorized in the United States.  Celebrities widely acknowledge, even celebrate, their drug use.  But I wonder if the largest factor fueling drug use is a feeling of stress and isolation.

A famous series of experiments conducted in the late ’70s by Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander suggested that addiction is a product of a stressful and isolating environment.  If rats are isolated and given a choice between water and morphine-laced water, they quickly get addicted to the morphine.  But if rats are put in large cages with other rats where they can socialize and have plenty of access to toys and food, then the rats rarely choose the morphine.  Although Alexander’s claim that addiction is not due to the drugs themselves is highly controversial, subsequent experiments have supported the theory that environment plays a role.

We humans, like most animals, crave connection with others.  In fact, our craving and need is far greater than that of any other animal.  We are the most social and cooperative of any mammal on earth.  When cooperation breaks down, when we no longer feel we are making meaningful connections with others, when our environment feels isolating to us, when unrelieved stress builds up, then we are prone to addiction–not just drug addiction but all kinds of compulsive habits.  This suggests to me that an effective way of combatting drug use and addiction is to foster caring communities.  We each need to belong to a self-giving, mutually-caring community of friends.  This, of course, is what a faith community is supposed to be.

Illicit drug use is severely harming our society and causing violence and death on an overwhelming scale.  At the same time, the forty-five year “war on drugs” has largely been an expensive and tragic failure.  What can we do?  I suggest:

  • Legalize and tightly regulate marijuana.  Cut the criminals out of most of the trade.  If this proves to be effective, consider it for other drugs, one at a time.
  • Publicize to a much greater extent the negative health effects of marijuana use, as well as other drugs.
  • Publicize the connection between drug use and murder by drug lords and cartels.  Appeal to conscience in stemming drug use.
  • De-glamorize drug use.  Solicit the help of celebrities.  Do to drug use what we have successfully been doing with smoking.  (It is estimated that every dollar spent on drug use prevention campaigns saves perhaps seven dollars in drug use costs.)
  • Expand drug rehabilitation opportunities.
  • Provide loving and supportive communities for drug users.
  • Educate faith communities about drug use and addiction, so they can be more effective partners in offering a helpful environment of hope and wholeness.

The church potentially has a much larger role it could play in being part of the answer to our society’s pain.


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  1. Ferne permalink

    thank you for thoughtful content on legalization of marijuana and potentially other drugs. Your position: we have been successful in curtailing tobacco smoking through PSAs, which has led to reduction in cigarette smoking. Tobacco has been legal since it was first discovered and used by individuals. Why are we now making it “illegal” to smoke tobacco in buildings, restaurants, even on the streets in some states in the US? What happens when we legalize pot? Does everyone get to smoke in restaurants, offices, and on the street whenever they want? As far as I know, tobacco never made anyone want to lay down and sleep; truck drivers are addicted to tobacco because it gives a “legal” buzz and helps you keep going. Pot makes most people mellow and wanting to rest. How do you screen employees who make mistakes at work, which cost a life or production error, which is costly to a company? I think the larger question, as you comment, is addiction. Why do some persons experiment with tobacco and then don’t need it after a short time of use or are able to give it up after many years of addiction to tobacco?How do we predict who will become addicted to pot or who will use “socially”?
    In my personal life, I can name four families who have had moderate distress to severe distress from use of pot. Unfortunately, it wasn’t simply because of pot use. A moderate distress was a head of household, who could not function without daily consumption of THC. This made it difficult to get to work, keep a job, function in the family. Ultimately, he became a Christian and he believes he should not smoke pot as a member of the body of Christ. He laments often, however, that he lives in WA state and he could be smoking legally. Two other families had fathers who went from consuming pot to more advanced drugs (cocaine, LSD, etc) to selling. One father stated he was “providing for his family”. That ended when he and his wife were arrested and sent to jail for distribution. His parents needed to raise his three children until he was released. His wife went on to overdose with prescription narcotics many years later. Another, mixed his with alcohol, another legal substance. He was arrested multiple times on DUI, went to jail, had his mother take him in and then when he attended drug rehab, his employer attempted to keep him. He couldn’t pass the drug screening test. He was a heating and AC guy who needed to be able to install equipment correctly and safely. A fourth family, has a young son, who started experimenting with pot @ age 12-14 yr. the age most teens start who begin to have long term problems. I’ve heard a researcher on development, state that when individuals begin to use pot at a young age, their decision making skills become arrested at the age which they started. He is now 20, he has been in and out of drug rehab programs for the past five years. His parents are both lawyers, with plenty of money to give to his care and encouragement and education. He is currently in jail, following the his arrest for possession of heroin, a week after he ODd with a mixture of heroin and ativan. Except for the final family, the mentioned are were not families of affluence. They were simply ones who made choices.
    I do not believe legalization of pot will eliminate the problems. Keeping substances illegal will not stop all misuse or abuse, however, there is some evidence that making some things illegal, will reduce the number of persons participating in that activity. If it was legal to drive drunk, there would be plenty more crashes and deaths, simply because there is no legal consequences.
    Thank you for allowing me to share some personal experiences, which shapes my opinion.

    • Thank you for adding depth to this issue through sharing the very troubling and painful accounts of addiction and misuse. I think if pot were to be legalized, it could then be regulated by the government–which means it would have a variety of restrictions similar to (or more stringent than) tobacco use and alcohol use. There should be strict penalties for under-age use or use while driving or operating machinery. The downside of legalizing pot is that it would likely increase the number of users, at least initially. But with a public health campaign, and legal use restrictions, I would think we could lower its use as we have done with tobacco. We would also vastly decrease the criminal enterprise of marijuana. But I am certainly no expert in this area, and I am open to information which contradicts my assumptions.

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