Editorial: Defining Drugs

Alcohol kills and injures but is celebratedAlcohol kills and injures but is celebratedA glossy brochure recently dropped out of my newspaper: “Discover your taste for whisky,” it advised. As it happens, I discovered my taste for whisky long ago and so was not in need of this advice. But it struck me as surpassingly odd that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is spending a considerable amount of money to convince the uninitiated to try potent forms of a psychoactive drug whose known risks include addiction, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, liver cirrhosis, several types of cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome and fatal overdose.
According to a 2006 study prepared by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, alcohol consumption was responsible for 8,103 deaths in 2002. Of all deaths among those under age 70, alcohol was the cause of one in 16. Western cultures have a bizarre relationship with psychoactive drugs. Some are believed to be so dangerous and destructive that they are banned and those who make, sell or use them are deemed criminals and outcasts. But when a government-owned corporation seeks to boost alcohol consumption by marketing the drug as a sociable and sophisticated indulgence, no one sees anything amiss.

Why would we? Alcohol isn’t dangerous and destructive, we assume. And that assumption lies at the heart of the contradiction.

“Canadians have an exaggerated view of the harms associated with illegal drug use but consistently underestimate the serious negative impact of alcohol on society,” concluded a report released earlier this year by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. We overestimate the risks of consuming illicit drugs while greatly underestimating the risks of the legal variety. For psychologists who study the perception of risk, this is predictable. One of the mechanisms the unconscious mind uses to make intuitive judgments about risk is the “availability heuristic”: The easier it is to think of an example of something happening, the greater the probability of that thing happening will seem.

News and entertainment media are filled with stories about people who suffer as a result of taking an illicit drug, but they almost never have stories of people who take an illicit drug without bad consequences following — even though the latter event is vastly more common than the former. The opposite is true of alcohol: As a 2003 study of British television found, stories of people suffering as a result of drinking do appear occasionally — almost always in the news — but those stories are “infrequent” compared to “positive, convivial, funny images” of drinking.

Personal experience multiplies this effect. Alcohol use is so common and open we all know lots of people who drink without coming to grief. But illicit drug use — marijuana excepted — is relatively rare. It’s also stigmatized, so the lawyer who occasionally snorts a line of cocaine before heading out to nightclubs will tell his colleagues the next day about the alcohol he drank but not the cocaine. As a result, few of us have personal experience with most illicit drugs. When this biased information is run through the availability heuristic, we form the intuitive conclusion that harm is very likely to come from taking an illicit drug but very unlikely to result from drinking alcohol.

Marijuana is safer than alcohol and science proves itMarijuana is safer than alcohol and science proves itThe “affect heuristic” is another mechanism of the unconscious mind. “Affect” simply means emotion and this heuristic uses emotions as a measure of risk: Positive feelings drive the perception of risk down, while negative feelings push it up. Someone who grew up with a beloved dog will have a much lower intuitive sense of the risk of dog attack than someone whose only contact with dogs was being chased by one on the way home from school.

In our culture, alcohol is not only accepted, it is embraced and celebrated. Drugs like heroin, cocaine and — to a lesser extent — marijuana are reviled. Those dramatically different cultural positions produce dramatically different feelings which, once again, drive perceived risks in opposite directions. The cumulative effect of these influences is to produce radically different perceptions about the risks posed by alcohol and other drugs. They are so different, in fact, that we often don’t even consider alcohol to be a drug — which is why we often hear the nonsensical phrase “alcohol and drugs.”

This is wholly irrational. And most of us are blind to it.

I once attended a dinner in Ottawa that brought together RCMP officers, DEA agents, politicians and civil servants in honour of a visit by the United Nations’ top anti-drug official. There was an open bar. And so, as speakers denounced the evils of drugs and vowed to continue the fight for “a drug-free world” — an official goal of the UN — most of the people nodding their heads and applauding vigorously were buzzed on a drug that has killed far more people than all the illicit drugs combined.

Bizarre juxtapositions like this abound, but they don’t come any stranger than a government spending large sums of money suppressing drug use while a corporation owned by that same government spends large sums of money encouraging drug use. That happens every day in Ontario. And no one sees anything amiss.

– Article from The Ottawa Citizen

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