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Humans, drugs, and bad policy
Drug policy doesn't reflect the history and nature of drug use
Humans seek that which alters the mind. It’s always been the case.
Since time immemorial, priests and shamans have ingested psychoactive plants.
At the end of the third millennium BCE, Sumerians isolated opium from poppy seeds. They called the substance “hul gil,” which means “joy plant.”
When I was a kid in the 90s, I spun in circles until I was dizzy, my visual and auditory perceptions momentarily warped.
Some popular choices today: coffee, cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, food, gambling. Roam a city street and notice how many businesses sell these types of goods.
A benefit of running a roofing business, someone once told me, is that it’s generally recession-proof. No matter the economic outlook, people pay to protect their homes.
The sale of mind alteration is not only recession-proof but can flourish during recessions. During the Great Recession, for example, alcohol consumption in the US increased. Mind alteration, especially in the face of hardship, sells.
Of course, using substances in the Bronze Age was different than today. Sumerians didn’t worry about fentanyl-laced opium. In 2022 BCE, you couldn’t use Google to find and purchase designer drugs.
When a media outlet posts a story about the latest overdose statistics or the newest designer drug, comments like this are common: “When I was a teenager, we only had pot and booze.”
Two ideas are present in the subtext of such comments—that people across generations have sought mind-altering substances and that the limited assortment of substances in the past was safer. I agree, but what’s missing is why people consume substances past generations couldn’t imagine consuming.
Here’s my story.
In 2011, I frequently purchased a stimulant called methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) from a laboratory that sold substances online. When Canada criminalized MDPV in 2012, I switched to its chemical cousin, alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone (alpha-PVP), which was still legal at the time.
In addition to euphoria, both stimulants cause rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and psychosis at low doses. I had experience with other stimulants, like cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine, but nothing prepared me for the physical and psychological effects of MDPV and alpha-PVP. My heart beat so fast I gasped for air, my muscles and joints felt like cement, and I could see and hear people who weren’t present, often believing they were plotting against me.
Despite these negative effects, I used MDPV and alpha-PVP for a few reasons. For one, I was in the midst of addiction, and both substances were dramatically cheaper than street drugs. $80 of cocaine might last an hour. $80 of MDPV might last a week.
Plus, since the substances were legal and delivered through the mail, I could avoid the stresses of the black market, like face-to-face interactions with strangers and the risk of arrest.
And lastly, online sellers of MDPV and alpha-PVP didn’t have incentives to add adulterants. Unlike street-level dealers (middlemen who add adulterants to increase weight, potency, and, by extension, their profits), they can cheaply create large quantities of the substances in their labs, no adulterants needed. Why is this important? Knowing exactly what I was consuming helped me avoid accidental overdoses.
I used substances for the same reason people buy new roofs: protection. Substances helped me disconnect from my reality—anxiety, depression, isolation—so I could carry on my existence. It was a coping mechanism, which is what addiction is.
Ultimately, I preferred cocaine over MDPV and alpha-PVP. On cocaine, I didn’t experience psychosis and, while I had some bad times using it, my overall experience was safer, more comfortable, and more predictable. But, for the reasons outlined above, I typically chose the more dangerous options.
Drug policy is the culprit.
If cocaine, which humans have used for over a thousand years, were legal, it’s hard to imagine someone concocting MDPV, then alpha-PVP, then who-knows-what’s-next.
If people who use heroin could easily access a safe supply of the drug instead of the fentanyl-laced kind, countless lives would be saved.
I know this is where I’ll probably lose some people. Or maybe I did a few paragraphs back.
“Safer, more comfortable, and more predictable? Here’s a better solution: don’t do drugs in the first place!”
I understand that instinct, but the situation is not that simple.
This takes us back to the beginning of the essay: people have sought mind-altering substances throughout human history, from Sumerians harvesting opium to friends drinking beer at a football game. It’s innate. No drug policy is going to change that.
For a time, my addiction was an unstoppable force, and no drug policy was going to change that either. What policy did do, however, was dictate my options. Option 1: expensive and illegal substances that contain adulterants. Option 2: affordable and legal substances with limited or zero history of human use.
Let’s not forget about the large majority of people who use substances without issue. You might be one of them. Maybe you use cannabis or alcohol. Or maybe cocaine. There is nothing inherent about cocaine that makes it harder to use responsibly than alcohol. Current drug policy, though, makes cocaine wildly expensive and prone to dangerous adulterants.
Let’s also not forget why most people seek mind-altering substances: to enrich their lives. Whether it’s the pain-relieving effects of opioids or the sociability-boosting effects of alcohol, drugs serve positive purposes. If you willingly ignore the positive, your picture of drug use is incomplete.
I’ve been in recovery from addiction for eight years, and I don’t use drugs anymore. Or, more accurately, I don’t use the same drugs anymore. I’ve quit stimulants, opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines, but I still use an antidepressant called escitalopram. It’s the definition of “mind-altering,” and it improves my life. Luckily, I can get it from a pharmacy instead of the streets.