Fact vs. (Pulp) Fiction : Common Drugs and Their Caricatures
As a veteran of the American university scene, an avid reader of Castaneda, and a social psychology afficionada, I’ve long been fascinated by the status, reputation and usage of drugs in various cultures and contexts.
The easiest conclusion I’ve come to: humans, especially those in the “North,” have a very fucking bizarre relationship with psychoactive substances.
I’ve already written about the media’s fascination with cigarettes and briefly mentioned the birth of medical marijuana and the growing demand for all-out legalization in America. In this post, we’ll be probing further into the confused and often contradictory terrain of the country’s dialogue on drugs.
How much does the average person know about the thousands of different psychotropic plants and chemicals that are available for consumption, their origins, and their properties? What images and adjectives come to mind when their names are pronounced? Where does our information come from?
The Power of Imagery
The clichés associated with drug use are present and powerful, to an extent that is probably unequalled among other popular topics of controversy. Research on drugs could and should serve as the fodder of intriguing and innovative discussion. Unfortunately, the realm is dominated by a ubiquitous and incredible dichotomy of stereotypes and superstition, and has been for most of the past century.
The “debate” going on is more akin to a gigantic, grotesque battle of feces than an objective and academic comparison of information.
On one side of the hypothetical shit field is the “war on drugs” campaign, starkly outdated and embarassingly uneffective. Bullets of choice: PSAs using scare tactics that range from misleading to downright hilarious and self-serving politicians that are more concerned with perpetuating stereotypes than preserving public health.
On the other side… kind of… are media outlets that spew all kinds of glamorous garbage about VIPs snorting bumps of coke off of stripper humps or chewing sheets of LSD in order to play radder guitar riffs.
I say “kind of,” because the same media outlets are just as apt at portraying glamourous overdoses, confusing sad risks with sexy martyrdom in a way that further skews fact and fairytale.
All of this is extremely troubling. Year after year, young thrill-seekers will try new drugs without the slightest idea of what they’re ingesting and how it will effect their minds and bodies… and their less adventurous peers will judge or avoid them, leading to misunderstanding and alienation.
The antidote is the usual one: education! And I’m not talking about the D.A.R.E. program or other government-sponsored terror campaigns.
I’d like to make an analogy here to abstinence-only “sex ed” programs. Both approaches deny reality in treating adolescents like domestic animals, rather than human beings. Both issues are more complex than obedience versus delinquency or good versus bad. Rather than denying natural impulses and experiences in which humanity has participated since the fucking dawn of sentience, we should fight taboo and ignorance in favor of safer practices!
For at least once in my blogging endeavors, I am going to try and leave politics out of the picture here and focus exclusively on scientific approaches to understanding this dilemma. That being said, this is obviously an extremely politicized issue, and I encourage you all to express your opinions concerning policies, stigmas, and/or personal experiences in the comments section below.
The best advice that I could possibly provide to anyone who is considering taking drugs, already taking drugs, or just curious about psychoactive substances in general would be to check out this website:
Erowid is an extensive database of all information concerning psychotropics, from effects, risks, and dosage to laws, origins, and art. The data provided is well-documented, well-researched, and neither condemns nor encourages drug use. It is a presentation of facts, whether they be in the form of independent doctoral theses or collective health studies. It covers recreational, pharmaceutical, common and less common drugs such as cannabis, Prozac, caffeine and peyote.
If you’re looking for opinions from people like you (and often, a good laugh or a mindfuck), then check out the experience vaults – public forums storing thousands of personal accounts of psychotropic use, including information like possible interactions and detailed effects in relation to the amount of time elapsed since consumption.
I know that some people may have trouble accessing this resource, due either to snoopy parents who check internet history or annoying censorship settings. If that’s the case for you, or if you have any questions concerning psychoactive substances whatsoever, do not hesitate to send me an e-mail at email@example.com. I will, of course, keep all of your personal information confidential. If interested in a particular substance, send me the name of the drug, and I will respond with information that I think could be useful to you.
I’ll leave you with some handy charts and figures:
Harm rankings (from a 2008 study published in The Lancet):
1. Alcohol, overall harm score 72
2. Heroin, overall harm score 55
3. Crack, overall harm score 54
4. Crystal meth, overall harm score 33
5. Cocaine, overall harm score 27
6. Tobacco, overall harm score 26
7. Speed/amphetamines, overall harm score 23
8. Cannabis, overall harm score 20
9. BHB, overall harm score 18
10. Valium (benzodiazepines), overall harm score 15
11. Ketamine, overall harm score 15
12. Mephedrone, overall harm score 13
13. Butane, overall harm score 10
14. Khat, overall harm score 9
15. Ecstasy, overall harm score 9
16. Anabolic steroids, overall harm score 9
17. LSD, overall harm score 7
18. Buprenorphine, overall harm score 6
19. Mushrooms, overall harm score 5
20. The most harmful drugs to the individual are heroin, crack and crystal meth.
21. The most harmful drugs to others are alcohol, heroin and crack.
Dangers to the user alone*:
*It is important to note that in the above chart, powder cocaine and crack cocaine are confounded.
The risks of powder cocaine are generally lower than those associated with crack, its more volatile form.
Addiction rankings (Taken from Erowid, on a scale with 100 being the most addictive substance studied):
Ice, Glass (Methamphetamine smoked) 99
Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine injected) 93
Valium (Diazepam) 85
Quaalude (Methaqualone) 83
Seconal (Secobarbital) 82
Crank (Amphetamine taken nasally) 78
PCP (Phencyclidine) 57
Ecstasy (MDMA) 20
Psilocybin Mushrooms 18
[Research by John Hastings]
If readers respond with interest and/or feedback, then I may decide to write a series of articles concerning particular drugs or aspects of drug culture/policy, in addition to my other posts.