Struggling With the "Demonization" Demon

by Tom O'Connell, MD

All discussions of drugs and drug policy ultimately have to deal with the ubiquitous "evil drug" paradigm. This idea has become a virtual demon
tormenting the cause of drug reform - it's a protean demon because it assumes so many forms and intrudes itself into the debate in so many
unexpected ways. Once present within a specific discussion, exorcism is usually impossible and its continued presence spells yet another defeat for
rational drug policy.

The demon I speak of is the idea that certain specified "drugs" are inherently evil, immoral, wrong - "sinful," in the most basic sense of the
word. This "demonization of drugs" has little basis in reality, but has become such an essential part of current human thinking that It justifies
the (amazing) decision that the only permissible drug policy is to restrict manufacture and marketing of certain agents to a criminal monopoly. This
decision, originating in the United States in the early days of this century, has been exported to the entire world as policy and is annually
re-endorsed by all governments despite the grotesque aberrations already produced by an increasingly lucrative and powerful criminal market, a market
totally dependent on the witless policy for its very existence.

Ensconced deep within the conviction of most people, this idea of the innate evil of specified "drugs," lies within the realm of religious dogma, safely
beyond the reach of reason. It justifies not only asinine policy decisions, but also Draconian punishments for drug users and precludes any rational
discussion of policy which does not expressly condemn or attempt to eliminate drug use. One of the most fascinating phenomena for those few of
us who have been able to get beyond the "evil drug" paradigm, is that tobacco and alcohol are clearly excluded in the eyes of most people. This is
exemplified by Bob Herbert, columnist for the New York Times who recently expressed amazement that police would use the same tactics to counter
tobacco smoking among teens as they have routinely applied to pot. It clearly matters not to Herbert that tobacco is inherently more addictive and
orders of magnitude more harmful to health- his unvoiced belief that pot is sinful and tobacco isn't forms the basis for his outrage.

Another of the many ways this idea is expressed is by insistence that any consideration of drug policy must include moral condemnation. A morally
neutral attitude is simply not tolerated. One who insists on moral neutrality is branded as either a "woolly headed" idealist or a malign
character who really wants to sell drugs to kids. The idea that moral condemnation is intrinsic to any discussion of drug policy is not limited to
those who favor drug prohibition. A large segment of those espousing drug "reform" are also insistent that policy modifications must include a
consideration of the moral dimension, either voiced as a condemnation of drug use or, as in the medical marijuana initiatives, specific guarantees
that implementation of a policy won't increase "harmful" drug use. So insistent are reformist adherents of the "evil drug" paradigm on the
necessity to address this issue, they are blind to the fact that injection of the idea into the discussion immediately weakens their position by
diverting attention from their strongest argument - the benefits of marijuana to patients and focuses it where they are weakest - protecting
"kids" against access to pot - never mind that the two are unrelated or that "kids" already have ample access, thanks to present policy.

While it is impossible to profile the drug policy reform movement with complete accuracy, it is my conviction that a majority of our adherents are
still struggling with some aspect of the idea that the moral dimension of drugs must be dealt with in our program for "reform." While this is the
case, meaningful reform is a forlorn hope, absent some dramatic insight which allows us to shake off the noxious effects of the "evil drug" demon.
If the current controversy over AMR and the spirit of the ideal initiative has any value, it will be because forcing us to consider this issue yet
again may afford a few more of us with the means to get beyond the "evil drug" paradigm in our thinking. We have a very long way to go.

by Tom O'Connell, MD
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