Decriminalization: What would happen?

Jan 16 2009 Published by under Drug Abuse Science, Public Health

Alrighty, I'll bite, sort of, on drug abuse policy issues. I'm triggered by a recent comment responding to a guest post over at the blog of some dude who's famous mostly as the brother of one of our most insightful commenters around here. Before I get to my ish, you might find the dueling Drug War perspectives of the aforementioned guest poster, Radley Balko (agin' it), and David Freddoso (fer it) over on Culture 11 interesting.


Commenter Bachelon wrote:

I forget where I read it, but I've seen studies that have shown that while more people might try something once, the amount of people who would use regularly (and the rates of dependence and addiction) would remain the same.

So one wonders if anyone (anyone, anyone....Bueller?) has any toe holds on what those might be? Authors? Drug in question? Anything?
The reason I wonder is because it is not clear that one could ever really test this, save with a decriminalization effort. Maybe Canada or the Netherlands for cannabis? The US Prohibition era is useless because there are very few data.
Also, this comment is confusing "amount" (the number of people using a drug is stable) with the population "rate" (numbers of people increase with the exposed population). Two entirely different matters. Me, I suspect if you change the exposed population significantly you will most certainly not remain at a stable number of addicts. On the other hand, I also predict that the increase in addicts will undershoot the increase in exposed population on a rate basis.
These, and the opinions advanced in the two articles from Balko and Freddoso, are just predictions. Hypotheses about what would happen if there were major changes in drug policy. Hopefully advanced in a testable way, backed by some recognition of the available data and not just some seat of the pants estimate influenced by the predetermined outcome.
In terms of my first prediction, well, I've often referred critically to the fact that almost every animal model of addiction is predicated on 90-100% of individuals expressing the phenotype. With enough opportunity to self-administer intravenous cocaine or heroin, almost all of the rats will acquire the behavior. Meaning pressing on the lever that gives a drug infusion more than on a lever which delivers nothing or a saline infusion. It gets more complicated but that will suffice for now. My critique of the animal models is based on the fact that even among the population of humans exposed to a given drug (say, i.v. heroin), not all will become dependent. So the models have some conceptual limits. Nevertheless they do tend to suggest that with enough exposure to a drug (under the right circumstances) virtually everyone will become an addict. This suggests that if we lower the barriers to entry by making recreational drugs legal and easily available at your local head shop (or more likely the neighborhood likkerstore) the number of addicts is going to increase.
Now why do I predict an undershoot of the current rate? I'm out on more of a limb on this one but it stems from my acknowledgment of individual susceptibility to develop a liking for a given drug or even a propensity for impulsive behavior that generalizes across drug classes. In both human populations and animal models, I will note, there are going to be significant differences in who gets to addiction most easily or sooner. I'll suggest that the population of humans who are willing to try illegal drugs in the current environment have an increased percentage of those that are susceptible to dependence. As a corollary, I hypothesize the hypothetical population that won't try a drug solely because it is illicit and/or not trivially available is less rich in phenotypes that will lead to addiction.
Like I said, just a couple of hypotheses.
As always, I recommend perusing the Monitoring the Future publications (view easy summary figures and tables from 2008) and looking at long term trends in use patterns, attitudes toward drug use ("how safe is it to try once, use regularly", etc) and adolescent reports on the ease of procuring various drugs of abuse.

44 responses so far

  • Dunc says:

    Alrighty, I'll bite, sort of, on drug abuse policy issues.

    It had to happen eventually. 😉

    My critique of the animal models is based on the fact that even among the population of humans exposed to a given drug (say, i.v. heroin), not all will become dependent.

    The animal models are also problematic for trying to understand human behaviour because humans are (at least theoretically) capable of consciously choosing their behaviour. How many rats ever decide to quit of their own accord?
    As for data on experimentation vs regular use, there surely must be data from jurisdictions which have decriminalised - the Netherlands, Portugal (hell, they decriminalised all drugs, including H), Switzerland, Australia... It's gotta be out there somewhere. However, I'm about to go home for the weekend, so I'm not looking for it now.
    Personally, I'm a proponent of legalisation, not decriminalisation. Decriminalisation is, in many ways, the worst of both worlds - you've still got an unregulated supply chain and you're still giving away all those revenues to organised crime, but you've lost the deterrent effect of criminalisation. Legalisation, regulation, taxation, re-investment - that's my mantra on the subject.

  • Nevertheless they do tend to suggest that with enough exposure to a drug (under the right circumstances) virtually everyone will become an addict.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! Yeah, where "the right circumstances" are being in a cage and having access only to drug water and regular water. My interpretation of the fact that in these kinds of studies some animals don't prefer the drug water is the opposite of yours: that it is actually pretty difficult for most individuals to become addicted to drugs.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    that it is actually pretty difficult for most individuals to become addicted to drugs.
    This is not inconsistent with my point. If you optimize conditions, you get almost 100% of animals to self-administer. In some hands 100% each time every time (by report) if you exclude technological problems like non-patent catheters the the like.
    But drop off the optimal conditions, use tighter acquisition criteria (e.g., "we're not willing to wait another 15 sessions..."), etc and you will start to lose some individuals.
    and yes, it is my reading of the available evidence that "most" , meaning a majority, of human individuals who sample a drug will not become dependent.
    The available data do not really get down to the level of parsing addiction rates given a particular drug history. Probably the best we have in terms of general epidemiology is the population who has sampled within the last 30 days.
    But direct comparisons within the same dataset are hard to come by, I keep looking...

  • CyberLizard says:

    I would suspect that the rate would stay the same. Given that there are already legal substances that those expressing the addictive phenotype can acquire, I would conclude that the introduction of an additional legal substance wouldn't have a significant effect on the rate of addiction/abuse. There might be a shift in the populations partaking of each substance, with portions of, say, the smoking population now adopting marijuana, but I doubt you're going to get that many more new addicts. That, combined with the already easy accessibility of many of the currently illegal substances, will work to keep the rates the same.
    From a personal standpoint, I would also be a proponent of legalization as opposed to decriminalization, as Dunc pointed out.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    We do know that there are human subpopulations with a greater-than-background propensity for drug abuse: untreated ADHDers. Whether this comes from the primary symptom of poor impulse regulation or from the ability of some drugs-of-abuse (notably cocaine, nicotine, and the amphetamines) to arouse the underaroused brain regions characteristic of ADHD is (AFAIK) not currently known.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    CyberLizard, let's try to be as clear as possible whether we are talking about the rate in the general population (which is sounds like you mean) versus the rate in the subpopulation that try a given drug.
    also, I'll mention that I covered the Anthony et al, 1994 paper before to give a sample of how relatively high rates of dependence within the drug exposed population (e.g., iv heroin) can be absolutely tiny in the general population when compared to other drugs in which the population who has sampled is so much higher...

  • Phillip IV says:

    The reason I wonder is because it is not clear that one could ever really test this, save with a decriminalization effort.
    I bet it would be difficult even with that - I just don't see how one could ever come up with truly comparable sets of figures. Figures on illegal drug use are necessarily imprecise to a considerable degree, so comparing them to post-legalization numbers requires an educated guess or two, at the very least.
    But when it comes to informing public policy decisions, I think going merely by the number of addicts is a bit misleading, anyway - ideally, you should also have some way to quantify the differences in quality of life and ability to function in society for those addicts.

  • Grizzled Cynic says:

    One problem with decriminalizing marijuana is that the use of marijuana gets equated with smoking marijuana, which nobody wants to claim is a healthy thing to do.
    There is but one good reason to smoke marijuana: because it's so expensive.
    Before marijuana became a political issue, it used to be cheap, so much so that people would brew an infusion of that and drink it. Hence the names 'pot' and 'tea'.

  • DuWayne says:

    I'm triggered by a recent comment responding to a guest post over at the blog of some dude who's famous mostly as the brother of one of our most insightful commenters around here.
    I'm taking that warm fuzzy to bed with me tonight.....
    I'll also get to the meat of the discussion in a follow up, but first.....
    Dunc -
    The problem with using European populations for the model, is that there are significant cultural differences that just don't apply in the U.S. It's the same problem that I have with applying studies done in Denmark that support gay marriage to the debate in the U.S. We're talking about pretty significant differences in a lot of the factors.
    Grizzled Cynic -
    There is but one good reason to smoke marijuana: because it's so expensive.
    This is just plain wrong.
    In the discussion of medical marijuana this comes up a lot. The thing is if you ingest or vaporize the marijuana, it has different effects. Smoking it delivers a lot of THC at a rapid rate, much more rapid than ingestion and more rapidly than vaporizing it. When someone needs to get the drug more rapidly, which is often the case for people suffering from sudden onset migraines and people who are taking either chemotherapy or HIV drugs, they smoke it. When someone is using it to manage pain (rather than chasing it) they can get what they need by ingesting it, while vaporizing it is a good in between, though it definitely is closer to ingestion than smoking.
    And of course if the goal is just to get high, smoking gets you there faster. My personal fave when I was more of a head, was to eat some, to extend the duration of and boost the high from smoking it. But smoke it I would. And trust me, there have been plenty of times in my life, when the cost simply wasn't as issue.
    Also, it should be noted that trying to make tea of it is a good way to waste a lot of weed. Cannabinoids aren't water soluble. Making an infusion simply won't get you high, not in the least.
    However, making ghee is probably the best way to go. Or using a variation that I really like, instead of using butter, put heavy cream on the top of the pot and let the THC percolate into that until it turns bright neon green. Then make some killer fucking icecream (we're not sure which of us actually had the idea, but a friend and I came up with it while tripping on a whole lot of acid). There are those who argue that this method wastes THC into the air - I argue (as one who has cooked many a batch) that if you close the doors to the kitchen, it really doesn't waste much and gets you really high after a few hours:)

  • Becca says:

    DuWayne- I think you just single handedly upped the DM blog into a whole other orbital sphere of coolness.

  • Turuk Laskal says:

    As for the comparison between smoking vs vaporizing; certain evidence, from non-clinical experiments, finds the difference in effect and the speed of effect is negligible and one method infinitely preferable over the other, so that going back is as enjoyable as licking an ashtray.

  • Matthew says:

    This suggests that if we lower the barriers to entry by making recreational drugs legal and easily available at your local head shop (or more likely the neighborhood likkerstore) the number of addicts is going to increase.

    It absolutely does not suggest that. The experiment speaks to the biology of addiction, not the psychology of substance abuse, nor the rates of substance abuse. It only suggests that addiction is virtually a universal biological phenomenon. It may suggest that with more people trying drugs we should see increased rates of addiction. But, as you pointed out, the experiment does not fully recapitulate the human phenomenon, so take it with a grain of salt. It most certainly does not address barriers to drug availability and usage rates.

  • DuWayne says:

    As for the post itself.
    First, I will note that I think decriminalization would be about the stupidest thing we could do. It ignores too many of the reasons we have made it illicit in the first place and creates an environment in which regulation is far more of a challenge.
    Legalization is a great way to solve a lot more problems and create a much greater tax base. And I believe that from a harm reduction standpoint, it is a win, even when dealing with addiction. But I would like to step back from that, onto a point that applies to both legalization and decriminalization. Please bear with me, as to fully extend my hypothesis requires throwing prostitution and even gambling into the mix - though it's not absolutely necessary.
    I would argue that just as important as the discussion of drug users and potential new drug users, is the cost of the illegal nature of drugs to society as a whole. We'll split it up into it's different aspects, though there is some overlap.
    First factor is the direct financial cost. We are spending untold billions every year, both in fighting the war on drugs and imprisoning offenders. Several states are spending significant percentages of their budgets on maintaining our massive prison and jail populations. In a lot of states, drug offenses account for better than half the incarcerations at any given time. The state of MI for example, spends better than sixty percent of it's budget on incarcerations. This does not include what we spend on addiction treatment and research. On top of that, we spend billions every year, just on prosecuting the war on drugs.
    By ending the war on drugs, we could save a lot of that money and move some of it into the realms of treatment and research. By ending the overarching war on vice, we could reduce the incarcerated population even more and save even more money.
    Second, doing so would help foment stability in some notoriously unstable regions of the world. While I have no illusions that legalization would put cocaine lords in Columbia out of business, it would legitimize their business and remove much of the impetus to maintain the volatile status quo. And in the poppy fields of the mid east it would do wonders for farmers, while possibly making it easier to dislodge some of the local warlords who are in turn, supporting or directly engaged in terrorism. Which brings us headlong into my next point.
    Third, we would be decimating a major source of funding for terrorists of all stripes. It's not just Jihadis who fund their activities through the illicit drug trade. The IRA did it, the PLO has and probably still does it. Hamas has had it's hands in it and probably still does. German national socialist groups do it. White supremacist groups in the U.S. do it, in the hopes of committing attacks on U.S. soil. Anyone who wants to have a hidden source of ready cash, can and often does turn to illicit drug dealing. And terrorists top the list of folks who need ready cash they don't have to account for (maybe behind our own intelligence organizations).
    Finally, we get to crime. Not the specific crime of using/dealing illicit drugs - we're ignoring that in this point. I'm talking about related crime and this is where prostitution and gambling come into play. Because the vast majority of violent crime in the U.S. is related to one of those three trades.
    I won't try to pretend that decrim or legalization is going to eliminate it. I won't even claim that everyone who engages in vice related violent crime will stop using violence. But the fact of the matter is, that there will be an inevitable and significant reduction in violent crime, when the war on vice is ended and vice is legal and safe. The majority of people who get into the illicit trades and by default end up involved in violent crime, would not go there is there wasn't a significant profit to be had from it.
    You don't see the guy who owns the convenience store up the street, shooting it out with his dairy supplier, because he got a load of rotten milk. Why not? I mean if the crack dealer at the other end of the block gets a bunk supply, he's likely to go out ready to kick some serious ass, if he doesn't go out with a loaded gun. Well, the convenience store owner has the law on his side. He has legitimate venues in which to seek redress. The crack dealer simply doesn't and violent crime happens.
    I could go on and on, but I think you can get the gist. And I have papers to write now.

  • Yo, DuWayne! Why the fuck don't you have a blog?
    If you want help setting up a WordPress blog, I'd be happy to help you. Seriously.
    Or if you want to get your feet wet guest-posting at PhysioProf, let me know.
    physioprof@gmail.com
    I'm not fucking kidding!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    He does have a blog!
    http://debrayton.blogspot.com
    we just gotta get him to post more shit on it!

  • Dave says:

    Why does everyone insist on talking about this stuff as if it's hypothetical?
    Decriminalization of drugs in America, even highly addictive ones, is an experiment that's already taken place. Consider alcohol and tobacco. As for the argument that everyone would be addicted to coke and morphine and stuff like that if they were widely available, well... What are the addiction stats for when those drugs were legal and widely available a century ago?
    Regardless, the question of decriminalization is totally culturally relative and not scientific at all. We might as well talk about whether the color red is better than blue.
    Consider Afghanistan -- largest opiate producer in the world but culturally anti-alcohol. Or consider other muslim countries that might not be so keen on opium but are nevertheless culturally stoked to the gills by caffeine and nicotine far more than Western society. What about South Americans and their coca chewing? Personally, I think American society makes more concessions for shopaholics and overeaters than it does any drug addict. Fat blobs who can't walk up a flight of stairs and are drowning in credit card debt are just as pathetic as anyone who can't stay off the blow. Dopamine is dopamine; I don't care what's squirtin' it for ya.

  • DuWayne says:

    I don't post on my blog, because I just don't do well at keeping up at it. I much prefer to argue on other people's blogs and just have a hard time getting motivated to write to my own. Now that I'm going to school I am going to have less time. When I get through the custody issues and am a full time single dad on top of it all, I will probably be limited to posting random comments in the whee hours.
    Though honestly, I'm only in one class that will be remotely challenging this semester. I wrote one of my papers between this and my last comment. So who knows...

  • I don't post on my blog, because I just don't do well at keeping up at it. I much prefer to argue on other people's blogs and just have a hard time getting motivated to write to my own.

    Dude, in this comment thread and the ecstasy one, you've written three comments in the last couple days that would each stand on their own as outstanding blog posts. I bet you do that every fucking day. Copy/paste is your friend.

  • DuWayne says:

    Ok already, jeezus. But I'm probably still going to post long, rambling comments here. Because occasionally people like to argue with me and that's what it's all about.

  • JLK says:

    DuWayne, I think you have yet to say anything that anyone would really "argue" with as you say. I'd love to see you blog some more, you're definitely an interesting fucking dude!
    When I read this post, I thought the same thing as CPP - if rats are given a choice between plain water and drugged water, why on earth wouldn't they choose the drugged water? Shit, I would if put in that scenario.
    As far as decrim goes - MA voted for it this past November. Primarily it's to keep the costs down of putting people in jail. Anyone caught with 1oz or less of weed pays a fine and moves on with their life. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term. Is it a great idea to decrim? No, it's not the best. But it's the first step to legalization so we can prove to the drug war fans that the world won't "go to pot" if they don't have to worry about going to jail.
    Personally (and this is going to sound horrible, I know) I think everything should be legal. People should have the right to do with their bodies as they will. And I don't use illegal drugs. But I am a smoker and a drinker, and if prohibition happened tomorrow I'd be the first one in line to learn how to brew moonshine in my bathtub.
    But the point is that the people who are going to destroy their lives with drugs are going to do it whether there are legal implications or not.
    Side note - smoking pot cures migraines?? I didn't know that. Too bad it's still more expensive than a good old-fashioned bottle of Aleve....

  • Dave says:

    Holy crap, you guys make the tritest arguments. The most interesting set of comments (especially given the subject of the discussion) so far starts in numbers 14 & 15...
    CPP: C'mon DuWayne, try some blog. You can handle it. I can even get you some WordPress if you need it.
    DM: Yea, DuWayne, I know you've tried it. All the cool people are blogging.
    DuWayne: I dunno guys. Once in a while is OK but honestly, it didn't do too much for me, and I haven't really got the time with school and family...
    CPP & DM: Dude! You're already doing it! We're just telling you how to make it better! We're your friends!
    DuWayne: Well, OK... But I'm not going to be doing it all the time...
    Tune into the borgosphere next year to see DuWayne wonder: Where has my life gone? I had kids, school, a job... I wasted it all sitting on my ass for hours and hours typing stupid crap into an internet site that no one reads... Why? WHY?!
    It's OK, DuWayne. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

  • DuWayne says:

    JLK -
    I think that curing migraines is putting it a little too strongly, but it certainly does have analgesic properties, coupled with the ability to make you really not care so much.
    And if alcohol becomes prohibited again, please reconsider using your bath to house a still. Trust me, your neighbors will appreciate it. Nothing destroys property values like exploding bathrooms:)
    Dave @ #16 -
    I think that using tobacco and alcohol as comparison points have there reasonable points, but ultimately there are factors with, say, heroin, that just don't exist with tobacco and alcohol. For that matter, alcohol and tobacco aren't really reasonable comparing one to the other. We can certainly make some very generalized assumptions, based on the evidence that alcohol and tobacco provide us, but when it comes to a detailed picture of what decriminalization would look like, we just don't have it.
    OTOH, I think it can point to a few details that make a reasonable argument for legalization. The main one being harm reduction through quality controls. We know pretty well what illegal alcohol brought to the market, with a lack of any quality controls/redress for injuries. We also know that while as a baseline that alcohol is a poison, with strict quality controls and redress for injuries, we no longer buy a bottle of whiskey that is likely to make one go blind or worse.
    What are the addiction stats for when those drugs were legal and widely available a century ago?
    I think an even more important question is; "What did the addiction to those drugs look like when they were legal and more widely available?" Because the answer would surprise the more ardent defenders of the war on drugs.
    Opiate addicts, for example, were quite capable of functioning in society with little difficulty. Sure, they still wanted to hide their addiction - it had about the same social acceptability it does today. But in a time when there was virtually nothing in the way of addiction/detox services available, a junkie could actually maintain a job and often enough function better than his colleagues who were a bit too sauced.
    Regardless, the question of decriminalization is totally culturally relative and not scientific at all.
    An interesting point that I'm not sure I entirely agree with, though I have made the same point about cultural relativity. I will try to address it when I get to a post about What would happen? to drug users both current and potential. Which I will try to get to today at my own blog. But I have another paper to write and it's moderately more difficult than the one from yesterday.
    Dopamine is dopamine; I don't care what's squirtin' it for ya.
    This is such an important point and really, one of the reasons I am studying neuropsych with the intent of going into addiction research. For a puritanical society with a huge propensity for demonizing addiction and addicts, we give a whole lot of addicts a free pass. Just because the object of the addiction doesn't happen to be a chemical we can see, doesn't mean it's not addiction and for that matter, not a chemical addiction.

  • iRobot says:

    point 1: post 14 and 15 is why blogs fucking rock! find a great post and just follow it down the rabbit hole. Thanks Comrade PP!
    point 2: Legalization is a must when you see how the drug war has corrupted our police, legal system, military, foreign relations and other countries. I feel bad for people who become addicted, but ending the harm caused by prohibition outweighs any harm that comes to the addict. As was mentioned earlier, you can see (and I have) people royally mess up their and their families lives with alcohol. We saw how prohibition of alcohol was a miserable failure. This directly maps onto the other prohibited drugs.

  • iRobot says:

    Dave, if posting is such a waste of time,why are you doing it? As bugs bunny says, What a moroon!

  • Dave says:

    iRobot: Did you not read what I wrote? I never claimed to be immune, but at least I'm not fooling myself.
    DuWayne: You know, agreeing with me will just make CPP think you are stupid, so let's talk about the stuff where we disagree:
    Re alcohol vs tobacco vs heroin: What's a problem with heroin that outweighs the costs of alcohol or tobacco? Heroin tends to kill only heroin users, and relatively fast when it does so. Alcoholics get in their car and run into other people, and smokers blow smoke at other people and die expensively over many months or years from emphysema and lung cancer.
    Re cultural relativity: Human societies have used drugs forever, but the exact drugs, extent to which each has been used, and 'official' support has varied wildly. Examples abound. Consider the English-Chinese wars of the 19th century (AKA 'Opium wars'), where England was the pusher (and Sherlock Holmes was a contemporary addict). And consider that the widespread use of beer arguably made civilization possible (and strong beer it was, lest there be no antibacterial properties). Every culture has certain drugs it accepts and others that are not part of the cultural tradition. The idea that culturally untraditional drugs are more dangerous than culturally traditional drugs is a naive late 20th century American cultural export. As I said earlier -- someday people will probably look back and wonder why Big Macs and Doritos weren't outlawed.
    ...and don't even get me started on gambling. It's destructive, totally addictive, but governments love it. What's the deal with that? Oh, yea (see opium wars, above)

  • DuWayne says:

    My name is DuWayne and I'm a blog addict. Back in 2005, when I tried blogging for the first time......

  • qaz says:

    I know that it's very popular to attack animal self-administration experiments. But I think that it's also important to remember what these experiments do well and that is to address the neurophysiology underlying the mechanism of these drugs. I agree completely that there's more to addiction than the mechanism of drugs, but mechanism is an important first step. And self-administration animal experiments allow for much better controls than human-population surveys and clinical trials.
    Dave #16 and DuWayne #22, dopamine is only a small part of the picture. Remember that animals without functioning dopamine will still self-administer cocaine and that cocaine also has huge strong effects on norepinephrine and serotonin transporters as well as long term effects on opiate receptors. It's not even clear that all drugs provide dopamine. There are many ways for a decision-making system to fail, dopamine is only one of them.
    I've always thought that the real problem is the definition of addiction. I've never found a definition that wasn't either too inclusive (continually doing stuff that's bad for you - come on, lots of us do that, some are even celebrated for it) or too exclusive (showing withdrawal symptoms, lots of addicts are addicted long beyond the end of withdrawal symptoms) or too vague (says they don't want to do it, but do it anyway - again, just doesn't work). That's why earlier attempts gave up and moved to "dependence", but as we've all faced here, that's not really a workable definition either.

  • qaz says:


    Opiate addicts, for example, were quite capable of functioning in society with little difficulty. Sure, they still wanted to hide their addiction - it had about the same social acceptability it does today. But in a time when there was virtually nothing in the way of addiction/detox services available, a junkie could actually maintain a job and often enough function better than his colleagues who were a bit too sauced.

    DuWayne #22, tell that to Eugene O'Neill who wrote "Long Days Journey into Night" for his opiate-addicted mother or to the anonymous author of "Soldier's Joy". Sure there were many who could function fine. We see that even with current heroin users today. The problem always lies with the subpopulation who can't.

  • Dave says:

    "Dave #16 and DuWayne #22, dopamine is only a small part of the picture. Remember that animals without functioning dopamine will still self-administer cocaine [...]"
    But do they become addicted?
    Having fun is not the problem. Destroying your life to have that fun is the problem. But like I'm saying above, no one is about to force DA transporter antagonists on the world, because we too much value addiction in so many non-'drug' ways. Curing addiction would destroy society.

  • DuWayne says:

    Dave -
    Using my heroin example, it's not a matter of the costs being significantly different, it's the nature of the addiction and the demographic involved. The difference is in the details.
    Alcohol is pretty much socially acceptable and to a certain extent, being an alcoholic is socially acceptable - especially if you become aware of the problem and seek to fix it. Heroin on the other hand, is absolutely not socially acceptable and I just don't buy the notion that making it legal is likely to change that. It amazes me the people who can have all the sympathy in the world for a recovering alcoholic, who will treat a heroin junkie who's trying to get/stay clean with absolute derision. Yet that is exactly how it works for a lot of people. And this is true of crack cocaine as well.
    As far as cultural relativity goes, I don't really see anything to disagree with you, so I'll shut up. Even though I honestly could give a shit who thinks I'm stoopid for whatever reason. Though the more ambivalent the reason for that assumption, the less I care.
    qaz -
    I have to rather strongly disagree with several of your points.
    In humans, dopamine is a very important factor in addiction. And it ties into your difficulty with over/under inclusiveness. And to really get you irritable, I don't even think it's reasonable to restrict the definition for addiction to that which is bad for us.
    I have very severe ADHD, which is in part pathologically defined as a dopamine deficit. I have made heroic forays into substance abuse as a result of this, but have also managed to find other addictions that feed my need for dopamine, including writing/performing music, leading worship in churches (even after I had completely rejected the faith said worship was based upon) and yes, even blogging/arguing. The simple acts of either having righteous indignation or having my mind changed by compelling arguments, have a profound effect on my neurochemistry. Which is why I keep coming back for more. That, and it beats the hell out of busting through rails of cocaine or taking enough acid to get a dozen people tripping nuts.
    The thing is that you seem to want black and white answers for addiction that just don't and never will exist. That is not to say that we can't make some fairly solid distinctions. Such as the difference between addiction and overt dependency.
    Overt dependency (OD) is an addiction to the specific mechanisms of a particular substance. So OD on cocaine, is different than OD on alcohol. They are different chemicals that have their own unique effects on neurochemistry. In effect, using them to the point of OD, alters the neurochemistry in a specific fashion, unique to that substance. Thus when someone tries to quit using that substance, it is necessary to go through some sort of detox - the methods of which can vary wildly from substance to substance.
    Addiction, OTOH, is a different beast. And it's where dopamine comes into play, though I hesitate to assume that that is all there is to it. I would argue that dopamine is merely a known element of addiction, an element that is a common thread running through all addictions. This is why I am studying psych, with the intent of studying neuropsych, with the intent of going into addiction research. While I largely suspect there is more to it than the dopamine, I also suspect that the neurochemical mechanisms behind heroin addiction are the same as those behind gambling addiction, once the specific OD aspects of heroin are removed from the equation.
    I have said it before; some (though few) people who get detoxed from heroin, never touch it again, never want to. The OD was their only issue with heroin and actual addiction was never a factor.
    As for the pre-prohibition opiate junkies, yes, I am aware that some people had very destructive relationships with it. But based on what I have read on the topic, there were significant differences that allowed a larger percentage of junkies to experience a functional, productive lifestyle. I have known a great many heroin junkies, including a few who are quite functional. But by and large, they tend to have really fucked up lives and that can often be traced to factors relating to it's illicit nature.

  • qaz says:

    Dave #29 -
    I don't know if those animals are "addicted". (I have trouble identifying when humans are "addicted".) Is coffee an addiction? (I get severe withdrawal symptoms when I stop.) In order to get dopamine release with caffeine, you need to have levels that would be highly toxic. I'm just saying the role of dopamine in addiction is likely very overstated, in large part because its one of the only pharmacologies we can easily measure. I would argue that the decision-making system in the brain is a lot more complex than dopamine.
    A lot of this issue is really about social control of behavior. How much do we care if someone takes drugs? What are the costs to us? What are the costs to our friends and family? Is it an issue of societal costs? Is it an issue of we don't want to see our friends or family succumb to drugs?
    We do have to remember that criminalizing drugs imposes a very high cost on drug use. As with any economic object, increasing cost decreases consumption. I know lots of people who never tried drugs in large part because of the threat of criminalization. (Obviously that's not true of everyone.) The question (to which I do not have an answer) is whether criminalization is the best way to control this.
    I think rather than talk about decriminalization, we need to talk about what we do have data for. Which is that treatment rather than jail is a much better mechanism to wean a user off of drugs, empirically.

  • qaz says:

    DuWayne #30
    I don't disagree that dopamine is a critical part of addiction. I'm just saying there's a lot more to it than that.
    Sure we can say that everything we do is related to dopamine, particularly if we generalize it to neurochemistry rather than dopamine particularly. (That's not to argue that dopamine's not important. Just that there are other things going on too.) We are using the same decision-making machinery to take drugs as we are to do anything in this world. The question comes to whether we want to reduce the amount of music-writing or church-going in our society.
    On the relation of heroin and gambling addiction - I would note that there's very good evidence, particularly for gambling that there are multiple mechanisms by which people succumb to gambling addiction, which can be treated differently.
    The problem with the pre-prohibition vs. post-prohibtion question is that we are both working from anecdote. I don't think the data exists on whether it was better or worse. If such data does exist, I would love to see it.

  • Dave says:

    "I don't know if those animals are "addicted". (I have trouble identifying when humans are "addicted".) Is coffee an addiction? (I get severe withdrawal symptoms when I stop.)"
    Addiction is fairly well defined, scientifically. And my understanding is that dopaminergic signaling is widely regarded as essential. Neither recreational drug biology nor neuroscience of addiction are my specialties, however, so you'll have to rely on DM or your own investigations for caveats and/or more detail.
    In the end, I think we all agree that decriminalization is a cultural/societal issue rather than a scientific -- or even logically addressable -- one.

  • DuWayne says:

    Coffee can be both or neither, depending on the person and quantities they drink. I drink fairly large portions of coffee and when I miss it, I can get some pretty severe headaches that alternative sources of caffeine just don't touch. I also have a profound love for coffee outside the caffeine dependency. When I detox from coffee, something I try to do a few times a year at least, I still drink decaf, because I have something of an addiction on top of the dependence.
    My tobacco habit is much the same. Nicotine is a very minor aspect of my addiction to cigarettes.
    Sure we can say that everything we do is related to dopamine, particularly if we generalize it to neurochemistry rather than dopamine particularly. (That's not to argue that dopamine's not important.
    I am well aware and that is why I developed an interest in studying neuropsychology. I want to find other generalizations that relate to addiction, as well as sorting out where the neurochemical aspects of addiction end and circumstantial aspects begin. I firmly believe that finding both are going to be critical to the development of better addiction treatment protocols. I also think that both will be critical to developing a healthier addiction paradigm in our society.
    Which relates to your mention of my songwriting and worship leading. To be clear, there were some very unhealthy aspects of my addiction to leading worship. But it wasn't the act itself, it was the inherent dishonesty involved - a very complicated issue. However, if you eliminate my absolute rejection of revealed religion from the equation, then my addiction to leading worship was an absolutely ideal method for fulfilling my neurochemical needs. And writing/performing music, while not as powerful as leading worship, is still an effective and healthy method for achieving that fulfillment.
    I think it's a mistake to pretend that just because something is entirely benign and healthy, it's not an addiction. Which is where I am going with the idea of developing a different addiction paradigm. I firmly believe that if people who have substance abuse issues had the fundamental understanding that one, they will never be addiction free and two, that not all addictions are bad, they would get a tremendous boost in defeating the specific addiction that has such a profoundly negative influence on their life.
    On the relation of heroin and gambling addiction - I would note that there's very good evidence, particularly for gambling that there are multiple mechanisms by which people succumb to gambling addiction, which can be treated differently.
    I am not denying that. I would take it as far as to relate it to my addiction to cigarettes. An important aspect of my addiction to tobacco is entirely circumstantial.
    When I was fairly young, I left home and then left the state to wander the U.S. and even some outside the U.S. I hitchhiked nearly every state. I slept outside, far more than I slept inside, in those years. I lost absolutely everything I had on multiple occasions, starting completely over - mind you all I had at any given point was what I could carry on my back.
    The only consistency I had in my life, was cigarettes and coffee. The only things that were absolutes in my life. Next to that, I almost always had marijuana and a copy of Huxley's Brave New World.
    I've given up the weed and regularly detox from coffee. But to this day, I always have a copy of Brave New World and my motherfucking smokes.

  • Alex says:

    I think we all agree that decriminalization is a cultural/societal issue rather than a scientific -- or even logically addressable -- one.
    Well, scientists like DrugMonkey can at least inform a debate over legalization: Drug addiction and the negative behaviors associated with it are directly affected by the biological phenomena that they study, so biology can provide insights on predispositions and risk factors.
    There's another science that can provide some insight here: Economics. Economic theory says that if you restrict the supply of something the demand doesn't go away, the price just goes up. Moreover, if the demand is inelastic (which it will be for addictive substances, i.e. price is not the biggest variable for people making a buying decisions) then driving up the price just makes it more profitable rather than less profitable. So, prohibition increases the profits for people who are willing to break the law. That's a basic prediction made by economic theory, and it's confirmed by studies showing that the cash value of the marijuana grown in California exceeds the cash value of any other single crop. That's right, the pot grown in CA is more valuable than all the grapes in Napa Valley. It's more valuable than the avocados, and even more valuable than all the citrus groves that you see all over the place.
    I'm 100% in favor of legalization, and I say that despite seeing close-up what addiction can do to people. The law hasn't improved their lives; if anything it's made it harder to improve their lives. The law has, however, enriched some very dangerous people. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that if drugs were legal you'd see Afghan warlords at the freeway off-ramp with signs saying "Will hijack for food!"

  • JLK says:

    "As I said earlier -- someday people will probably look back and wonder why Big Macs and Doritos weren't outlawed."
    If Doritos were outlawed, JLK would go seriously apeshit.
    Interesting series of studies highly related to this discussion:
    Olds and Milner's studies of electronic stimulation of the brain (ESB) in rats. I don't have the citations, and I'm not spending my saturday afternoon searching for them. So y'all will have to look them up on PubMed or whatever if you want them.
    In any event, they implanted electrodes deep in the brain of these rats to look at the influence on freely moving rats. BY ACCIDENT, a couple of the electrodes were misplaced - a problem that was discovered when the rats with the wrong placement kept returning to the site of the ESB over and over again. Turns out the electrode had been placed in the medial forebrain bundle (MFB) of these rats.
    So they put some rats in some Skinner boxes, only instead of only pressing a lever for food, the rats also pressed a lever for ESB via an electrode placed in their MFBs.
    These rats would press the lever for ESB up to 30 times per minute until they were completely exhausted. FOOD DEPRIVED rats would press the lever to receive ESB INSTEAD of food until they DIED.
    Now THAT's an addiction. Obviously it's a huge leap from the use of chemicals like cocaine to ESB and make any conclusions about addiction in humans because doing this to human participants is totally unethical.
    But I still find it interesting that they were able to bypass an object or substance of addiction and create an addiction to brain activity alone. You can train rats to do just about anything very, very quickly using ESB to the MFB.
    Also interesting to note - rats will perform just about any operant to TERMINATE ESB to certain areas of the brain, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus.
    Okay, that's my scientific contribution. Now I'm off to find some Doritos.....

  • DuWayne says:

    Hah. So rather than writing a voluminous comment about my hypotheses of what drug use would look like were it decriminalized or legalized, I posted about it on my blog.
    So here is it.....

  • Bachalon says:

    I have nothing of value to contribute other than to say how tickled I am to see that one comment (that wasn't even correct! Thank you DM for helping me out) could spark such an informed and thoughtful conversation.

  • DuWayne says:

    Heh, I'm just glad you emailed me again. I was trying to remember why that handle seemed so fucking familiar.

  • scicurious says:

    qaz: I just wanted to address the point you made about dopamine in addiction. Many people thought that dopamine was NOT the primary player in cocaine self-administration when it was found that DAT-knockout mice (mice with no dopamine transporter, which is what cocaine binds to to increase dopamine in the brain) are still capable of self-administering cocaine, and still show conditioned place preference for it. This caused some angst, but soon it was found that the reason they do this can be mediated through serotonin, which has interactions with dopamine. So dopamine signalling was STILL involved. I covered this a while back.
    More recently (that paper was from 2004), there was another study done where mice were created with a dopamine-isensitive DAT. These animals completely failed to exhibit rewarding properties of cocaine, implying that, where DAT is present, it is necessary (though possibly not sufficient). SO it may not be ALL dopamine, but it is definitely the biggest player, in cocaine addiction at least.
    Other drugs, all bets are off, but dopamine is an extremely common denominator. Not only do most drugs with "addictive potential" cause increases in dopamine in the accumbens area of the brain, the speed at which the increase occurs can correlate with a subjective high. For example, Ritalin is just as addictive as cocaine when taken i.v. or snorted. But Ritalin given orally results in a much lower addictive potential. Increase in dopamine with oral administration take much longer, and the slow increase appears to prevent a subjective high.

  • short term memory says:

    A February 2001 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. "Evaluating alternative cannabis regimes"
    [ED: Publisher Link]

  • Dunc says:

    DuWayne:

    The problem with using European populations for the model, is that there are significant cultural differences that just don't apply in the U.S.

    Absolutely. I thought the discussion was about decriminalisation / legalisation in general, rather than specifically in the US. Even then, data from European populations is probably better than no data at all, provided that it's interpreted with the appropriate caveats.

  • Art says:

    IMHO the fact that people overlook is that the 'war on drugs' is expensive, wasteful of resources and human talent and, the kicker here because it is a question of what your getting for our investment, ineffective.
    IMO most people who don't live, work or traffic in drugs vastly overestimate the difficulty in finding and getting drugs. Billions of dollars spent, hundreds of thousands needlessly exposed to violence, locked up, living in fear and/or branded as felons and so unable to get a decent job and still you can easily buy drugs in virtually any major city by just driving to one of the many corners where the many energetic and entrepreneurial gentlemen ply their trade. Better than 99% of the time it is a matter of driving up, rolling down a window, telling them what you want and exchanging cash for your drug of choice. Typically it takes less time and effort than buying a burger at a fast food joint.
    There is some chance you get more or less than you asked for and there is a slight chance the police will ruin your day, and possibly your life, but most of these dire consequences are results of the law. Not the drugs themselves.
    Point here is that despite the billions spent on law enforcement trying to prevent people from getting what they want, the down side of depending on the black market to provide it, and the very real down sides of the drugs themselves there is still no shortage of places to buy whatever you want.
    Legalize drugs and, at the very least, the shootout in Mexico over who has control over the drug routes stops. Legalize them and the price goes down and the profit motive that drives the killing in Mexico and inner cities across the US evaporates. As do a lot of burglaries and property crimes that are committed by addicts who are feeding a $400 a day habit. Heroin and cocaine would be cheap. Not much more expensive than cigarettes. How many people break into houses to scare up the price of a pack of smokes?
    Sure, there will be costs if drugs are legalized. But these costs have to be weighed against what we are paying now. In the end I suspect that even if drug rehabilitation and education were counted the costs are still lower with these materials legalized.

  • jameswilks33 says:

    While your comments have some validity to them. Your overlooking the obvious. Its not that people are not willing to try them because they are illegal. Its because they have no reason to use them in the first place. Life is just fine without drugs. And while some addiction to drugs or alcohol can be blamed on physical addiction, what about the first time you tried them before any of them were in your system. Its because you lost control and you need a family drug intervention
    to get you sober and clear. Most of all you need to address the issues of what drove you to use drugs in the first place.

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