Pubdate: Sun, 21 Sep 2014
Source: Rome News-Tribune (GA)
Copyright: 2014 Rome News-Tribune
Author: Carl Hart, Dallas Morning News
Note: Dr. Carl L. Hart is an associate professor of psychology in the 
departments of psychiatry and psychology at Columbia University and 
is the author of the recently released book "High Price: A 
Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything 
You Know About Drugs and Society."
Page: 1D


Is America's scientific research biased to focus on the harmful 
effects of drugs? That was one of the questions at the heart of a 
congressional hearing this summer seeking to understand more 
comprehensively the scientific evidence related to marijuana. And it 
was how Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug 
Abuse, found herself being grilled by Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

"Dr. Volkow, your testimony seems to completely disregard lots of 
other data," he accused.

Volkow and I were the witnesses, along with a representative from the 
Food and Drug Administration. Connolly was particularly interested in 
learning why NIDA and the FDA - both part of the U.S. Department of 
Health and Human Services - supported so little research into the 
potential medical uses of marijuana. He appeared exasperated by the 
focus on drugs' harmful effects, which "impeded the ability to have 
legitimate research that could benefit human health."

I have spent nearly 20 years studying the neurophysiological, 
psychological and behavioral effects of recreational drugs, including 
marijuana. And over the past decade I, too, have grown tired of 
hearing scientists detail drug-related negative effects, always 
warning of the possible neurological and psychiatric dangers users 
face, while virtually ignoring recreational drugs' potential 
medicinal or beneficial effects.

Some are quick to caution that marijuana, for example, is a gateway 
drug to harder substances but never mention the more than 700,000 
people arrested each year mainly for simple possession of the drug, 
let alone the shameful racial disparities in marijuana arrests. At 
the federal level, Hispanics represent two-thirds of the individuals 
arrested for marijuana violations. This is despite the fact that 
blacks, Hispanics and whites all use the drug at similar rates.

Few scientists admit publicly what we all know and the data has shown 
for decades: The overwhelming majority of people who use drugs do so 
without any problems. For example, different studies show that 
between 75 and 90 percent will never become addicted.

In fact, the last three occupants of the White House - Bill Clinton, 
George W. Bush and Barack Obama - all smoked marijuana when they were 
younger. Obama also admitted to having used cocaine. The point is not 
to tarnish the reputations of these men - they all served their 
country. My point is that their drug use did not result in an 
inevitable downward spiral leading to debauchery and addiction. And 
the experience of these men is the rule, not the exception. The 
overwhelming majority of drug users are not derelict addicts.

I often wondered why many scientists continued to emphasize such a 
limited perspective on the effects produced by recreational drugs, 
especially in the face of considerable evidence showing their 
beneficial effects and therapeutic potential.

For example, physicians in multiple countries, including Germany and 
Switzerland, prescribe heroin as a part of an effective treatment 
regimen for heroin addiction. Here in the U.S., my colleagues and I 
have shown that methamphetamine enhances mood and improves cognitive 
functioning in some domains. Our research also demonstrates that 
marijuana stimulates appetite in HIV- positive patients, which could 
be lifesaving for someone suffering from AIDS wasting syndrome.

Mind you, I recognize that some drug advocates overreach when 
extolling the virtues of, say, marijuana, claiming that the drug is a 
cure for everything from heartache to cancer. Clearly, many of these 
claims are exaggerations.

This does not, however, mean we should dismiss all claims of a 
recreational drug's potential utility. Any informed scientist must 
know that all drugs - including heroin, cocaine and over-the-counter 
and prescription medications - can produce both positive and negative 
effects. They must know that their safe use can be enhanced or 
diminished depending upon several contextual factors, including the 
dose taken, the user's level of tolerance and the setting in which 
drug use occurs.

In my congressional testimony, I aimed to contextualize marijuana's 
effects. Regarding the gateway theory, I agreed that the majority of 
cocaine and heroin users started out using marijuana first. But I 
also added a more important detail that is often omitted: The vast 
majority of pot smokers never go on to use harder drugs. To call 
marijuana a gateway drug is illogical.

I also added context to marijuana's addictive potential. During the 
hearing, it was correctly noted that about 9 percent of pot smokers 
would become addicted at some point in their life. However, the fact 
that about 15 percent of alcohol drinkers and a third of tobacco 
smokers would become addicted over their lifetime was not mentioned 
until my testimony.

This omission seemed to infuriate Connolly. "For you to only cite the 
addiction rate with marijuana," he snapped, "seems to me to be 
cherry- picking the statistics for a purpose."

So why do scientists focus almost exclusively on the detrimental 
effects of drugs when they are, in fact, a minority of effects? Are 
scientists dishonest? Probably not. They are more likely to be 
responding to their perceptions of NIDA's interests.

NIDA funds more than 90 percent of all research on the major 
recreational drugs. Its mission "is to lead the nation in bringing 
the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction" (emphasis 
mine). Of course, recreational drugs such as cocaine, heroin and 
marijuana produce other effects, including positive ones, that have 
nothing to do with "abuse and addiction," but that isn't part of 
NIDA's mission.

Scientists seeking research money from NIDA are well aware of this 
fact. As a result, they emphasize the negative effects of drugs to 
get their research funded. Upton Sinclair's famous quote aptly 
describes this situation: "It is difficult to get a man to understand 
something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." The 
result is that the majority of information on drugs published in the 
scientific literature, textbooks and popular press is biased toward 
the negative aspects of drug use.

It has also helped shape a socio-political environment where certain 
drugs are deemed evil and any use of these drugs is considered 
pathological. This, in turn, has provided the fuel for restrictive 
policies with an unreasonable goal of eliminating illegal drug use at 
any cost to marginalized groups.

Despite the propensity of researchers to focus primarily on the 
negative aspects of specific drugs, there has been a movement to 
liberalize policies that regulate marijuana in the U. S. Twenty-three 
states and Washington, D. C., now allow patients, with a physician's 
authorization, to use marijuana for medical purposes. Colorado and 
Washington recently became the first states to allow the legal use of 
the drug by adults for recreational purposes. Yet at the same time, 
other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine continue to 
be regulated by draconian policies. These policies have contributed 
to a horrifying statistic: More than 2 million Americans are behind 
bars, a greater number than in any other country.

To be clear, I am not advocating the legalization of drugs. ( We 
would need to dramatically increase sound drug education first; 
people would need to be taught how to use drugs safely, much as we 
already teach people to drive safely or practice safe sex.) Nor am I 
advocating the use of illegal drugs.

I am simply asking Americans to consider the broad range of effects 
produced by illegal drugs so we can devise more rational drug policy 
- - one that neither exaggerates drugs' harms nor punishes our citizens 
beyond what's fair and just.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom