How much do humans need drugs?







As far as can be ascertained humans have always made use of vegetable and animal substances which alter brain activity. These include alcohol (forbidden to Muslims) and numerous vegetable substances, allegedly including some common western foods.

It may be that in the past when tobacco, for example, was used only occasionally for ceremonies, or coca leaves were chewed to deaden the effects of living in high mountain areas, or opium for occasional medicinal use, these substances were useful. It is reported that when psychoactive drugs were used in some traditional societies, by such people as Shamans, there were recognized strict conditions for their use: the time, the place and the person. Generally the substances were taboo outside these occasions.

The new situation during the late 20th century is that many of these are being used in large quantities, in concentrated form and in an addictive manner without regard for occasion. These include: Heroin, a concentrated form of the substances from the Opium Poppy; Cocaine, a concentration of the active substance in Coca leaves; new drugs created in the laboratory. (Distilled alcohol - Whisky, gin and brandy - is itself an innovation from the more ancient beers and wines).

During the 1960s some of these drugs were advocated by people in western countries as "means of liberation" . However, the effects have turned out to be a form of slavery in which the addict has to concentrate on finding new supplies of the substance to the exclusion of other activities in life. Moreover the effects on the nervous system were unknown - rather like poking a stick into a television set's inner electronics. The fashion for using drugs spread from the privileged group to the poor for whom the results have been especially disastrous. Most such people become unproductive and a drain on the economy. (But is drug taking a result of unemployment?) Users disrupt society by stealing to support their drug needs. Shared needles for injecting tend to spread the HIV virus and hepatitis. The market for such drugs is so profitable that criminal gangs form and kill each other to control the market. The users do not seem to be developed people, superior to those who do not use drugs.

Some former colonial countries, such as Bolivia, Peru, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Burma gain great economic benefit from growing and selling these addictive substances to western users. The trade could not be ended without serious changes in the world's imbalance of wealth. Bolivia and Peru cannot be compelled to give up growing their most profitable crop without assistance to produce an equivalent amount of wealth in a socially acceptable way. Thus the problem of drugs is related to the other problems listed in this stack.

Some have argued that the drug trade is an act of revenge for colonialism - a subtle form of biological warfare. However, heroin addiction is also affecting the producer countries, such as Pakistan; also cocaine in Colombia. People in the former colonial countries remind the westerners that the British and other Europeans conducted a "drug pushing" Opium trade with China during the 19th century and fought wars with China (1839-42 and 1856-60) to enforce it against the wishes of the Chinese government. The modern trade of western tobacco companies with poorer countries has been criticized as having some similarities. The US government has threatened countries with GATT sanctions for trying to exclude US tobacco companies on health grounds. Tobacco is an addictive substance which became established outside the Americas before its dangers were recognized.

Some point out that common tranquilizers and other "approved" prescription drugs affect many times the number of people who are addicted to heroin. This indicates that modern society relies, perhaps unwisely, on chemical psychoactive substances at many levels. Does this use reflect deep-seated cultural and psychological problems? Is it a result of overcrowding due to population growth?

The European empires were based on what should be recognised as drug trades: nutmeg, sugar, tobacco, opium.

Evidence for use of cocaine from Egyptian and Andean mummies
Survey of ancient Cocaine use



Possible Solutions

In so far as the desire to take drugs is the result of a desire for altered states of consciousness it reflects a gap in western culture where non-chemical means are not generally practiced. Greater knowledge of these means might therefore be an important tool in a program to reduce the desire to take drugs. The experts in "mystic" practices have said that "drugs are the mystical experience of the ignorant" and have warned against the desire for strange brain states with or without drugs, on the grounds that these are not the genuine mystic experience.

The desire to take drugs may also be caused by poor general education which leads to poor employment prospects and a pessimistic sense of hopelessness. This too may reflect a need for a culture which encourages personal and social development rather than consumerism ("I shop; therefore I exist" or even "born to shop" ).

The main method of combating drug use must be directed at reducing the desire to consume drugs, because drugs are a high value substance of low weight and volume which can be imported without being caught by customs police - only a proportion of the illegal imports are intercepted. Moreover, such large sums of money are involved that it is hard to keep police honest. But reducing desire would be a cultural change which is more difficult to achieve than spending more on police. Those depressed and pessimistic communities within western states, such as some blacks in the United States, need resources in education and employment opportunities. The cost of providing them needs to be compared with the cost of not doing it (the creation of criminal no-go areas throughout the world). This is another problem which cannot be solved without raising taxes. Those who advocate low taxes need to consider whether they would rather keep their relative riches but live under guard, or live in a peaceful society while paying a higher contribution to society as a whole. The cost of running a modern society is much higher than the low tax advocates are willing to accept.

Can the problem be dealt with by Prohibition? The effects of alcohol prohibition in the United States were the rise of a criminal culture of bootleggers and smugglers. The same is true of prohibition of other drugs. Would the results of controlled access be worse? Can drug laws be compatible with civil rights in a democracy? There is some evidence that the former British system of controlled prescribing reduces both the amount of sickness and the level of crime. It is claimed that most people give up addictive drugs eventually - if they don't die of the side effects.

A new line of enquiry being opened up is into the possible effects of a modern western diet. Some argue that pre-modern peoples used a much greater variety of plants in their normal diet. It is possible that the absence of these, and also the absence of trace mineral elements (micro-nutrients) in chemically stimulated agriculture may cause an underlying lack in people's nutrition. If this turns out to be a cause, then improvement in diet: organic agriculture, a greater variety of food plants and so on may cause the epidemic to subside.

Last revised 11/03/12


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