Pubdate: Wed, 6 May 1998
Source: Washington Post 
Author: Courtland Milloy


The new media messages about drugs are really blowing my mind.

On the radio, you can hear an anti-marijuana spot warning that the evil weed
causes memory loss. That's bad.

At the same time, you can read in news magazines that some legally
prescribed antidepressants also may have adverse side effects, such as
memory loss. But that's okay, because a new pill to enhance memory is in the

Cocaine and heroin are bad, we are told, because they artificially stimulate
or block natural biochemical functions. However, mood drugs such as Zoloft
and Prozac are good, even though they do the same thing.

Just say no to drugs, the media messages say, except to those made by
pharmaceutical companies.

It is estimated that 10 percent of the U.S. population suffers from chronic
or acute anxiety. Much of that is the result of wrongheaded thinking -- the
refusal to accept the things we cannot change or the lack of courage to
change the things we can, or so we were told during the "war on drugs,"
which has sent hundreds of thousands of drug users to prison for failing to
show they have the wisdom to make a change.

These days, we are being told that U.S. pharmaceutical giants are able to
identify specific receptors in our brain cells and manipulate them to good
purpose. In the old days, we called that "getting high." And that was bad.
But now that Pfizer and Eli Lilly, et al., are in control, it's called
"lifestyle enhancement." And that's good.

The thinking seems to be that just because we have the power to tamper with
nature, we should -- as long as it's legal. Take the biochemical
phosphodiesterase 5, or PDE 5, which has the sole function of working
against male sexual arousal. The new impotency drug craze, Viagra,
supposedly works by blocking PDE 5. Here is a biochemical with such an
important function, and yet virtually no man had ever heard of it until some
drug was created to destroy it.

We haven't even had time to ask ourselves why we were born with PDE 5 in the
first place. For all we know, the chemical is triggered when we don't take
enough time to talk with or embrace our mates before trying to have sex. PDE
5 may be naturally occurring when men are confused about the difference
between making love and having sex.

Viagra, as we all know by now, was initially conceived as a drug to
alleviate angina, chest pains caused by the blockage of blood vessels that
lead to the heart. That didn't work, but the drug did have the side effect
of causing erections.

Now it's all the rage, and impotence has suddenly become a physiological
rather than psychological problem, as if there is a clear distinction
between the two.

Ruth Westheimer, the sex adviser, is probably right when she says, "Even if
a man has an erection from floor to ceiling and can keep it that way for an
hour, it will not be pleasurable for a woman if he is not sexually literate."

According to a 1992 National Institutes of Health conference study of the
problem, impotence includes anything from "inability to get an erection" to
"unsatisfactory sex performance."

I could tell you about some other drugs that probably would enhance sexual
stimulation and no doubt cost less than Viagra. But if you got caught buying
some, say at the corner of Seventh and T streets NW, you could end up in
prison -- maybe under some mandatory minimum drug sentencing law -- for the
next 10 years. The street drugs are said to be addictive and have side
effects that include paranoia, irritability and loss of appetite. That's bad.

Viagra, on the other hand, causes only headaches, blurred vision, blackouts,
coital coronaries and something called priapism, which is an erection that
lasts four hours or more and, if untreated, can lead to tissue damage and
even impotence.

But that's okay, because it's legal.

According to a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical
Association, more than 2 million Americans become seriously ill every year
because of toxic reactions to correctly prescribed medicine -- and 106,000
die of those reactions.

Bruce H. Pomeranz, the University of Toronto neurophysiologist who initiated
the study, was quoted as saying, "We're not saying, 'Stop taking drugs.' "
What the study was saying, he said, was that there ought to be more research
into the problem.

It would be hard to imagine a similar reaction if 2 million Americans had
overdosed last year on drugs produced in Colombia or Mexico.

"The important message," said Michael Friedman, acting commissioner of the
Food and Drug Administration, "is not to be afraid of your medication but to
be respectful of the possibility of side effects."

The finding came with a statement from pharmaceutical manufacturers warning
against overreacting to the numbers, noting that the study made no effort to
measure the benefits of their drugs. Imagine the same courtesy being granted
to, say, the Marijuana Growers Association of America.

 Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company