Field of Science

As addicted as can be

I am reading the mind-blowing (no pun) book The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs: History, Pharmacology and Cultural Context by Daniel Perrine. The book takes us through a whirlwind journey through the chemical structures, biological activity, social and historical significance, economics, neurowizardry, and politics associated with mind-altering drugs. It recounts fascinating tales of countless artists, scientists and common folk who experimented with these firecrackers and states verbatim their fantastic experiences and journeys into phantasmagoria. Caffeine, morphine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, benzodiazapenes, LSD, barbiturates, amphetamines, ephedrine...they are all here. If you are a chemist or pharmacologist, you will find the details of the chemistry, synthesis, and interactions of these things with the brain fascinating, along with the other details. If a non-chemist, the other aspects should still be enough to keep you sunk in your chair on long evenings. After going through this stuff, all I can say is I cannot wait to lay my hands on some of these treats...

But one of the things that especially caught my interest was a discussion of "addiction scales" for various substances. Firstly, defining how addictive a substance is is a topic in its own right, and it's not easy to define "degree of addictiveness" if you will. But assuming that there are some reasonable criteria for defining addiction (ease of habit forming, difficulty of cutting one loose from the habit, probability of recurrence, withdrawal symptoms etc.), it comes somewhat as a surprise that it's nicotine which is number one on the list, the most addictive substance. Not cocaine, not heroin, but something legally used by millons everyday. A few more "mind-altering" surprises also await us:

1. As noted above, the most addictive substance is not controlled and is available over the counter
2. Cocaine and heroin, both highly controlled substances with criminal associations, are slightly more addictive than tea or coffee
3. Marijuana is consistently ranked less addictive than alcohol. So is mescaline from the peyote cactus.
4. Alcohol is the most addictive substance of all according to many criteria, and surely more so than marijuana

Now of course this does not mean that I might as well nonchalantly get a shot of heroin everyday instead of quaffing my giant mug of coffee. But these results tell us first and foremost how much the political restrictions and social perceptions on drug use are misguided and uninformed by rational study. Alcohol is many times more potent, habit forming, toxic, and fraught with undesirable and dangerous side-effects compared to marijuana, including in its propensity to cause road accidents. And yet pot is illegal while alcohol is a coveted legal commodity with high-culture connotations. Alcohol consumption also has so many more social problems associated with it precisely because it is also a social activity, and yet smoking marijuana even in a private setting is prohibited (or simply possessing it is prohibited...or whatever these crazy drug laws are...I can never remember).

What the government is doing by prohibiting marijuana is not saving lives or preventing crime. The fact that it has not forbidden alcohol clearly shows that that's not its primary goal. I seriously cannot understand what the primary goal in prohibiting marijuana is; it seems to be triggered by a mixture of pseudopious religious sentiments, anecdotal evidence, and knee-jerk social constraints (If someone consumes drugs, no matter what amount and what kind, he must be a completely wayward and purposeless subhuman by default). In any case, what the government is doing is to close up the drug market to competition, so that prices go up, transactions become closeted and riskier, and the business becomes riddled with dangers, crime lords and street gangs. If anything, many of these drug laws blatantly promote violence and crime. The production of these drugs can also not be curtailed. Amphetamines can be made from ephedrine (a common cough syrup constituent) by almost any amateur chemist. Kitchen chemistry can likewise be used for producing various grades of several other controlled substances.

The other point is that there are so many other things we encounter in life (violent video games? probably not) which are "addictive" and whose effects can be deemed as potentially harmful. Alcohol is probably the most egregiously neglected of these. What about addiction to car driving? Addiction to drinking coke? Addicting to sitting in roller coasters? Addiction to white-water rafting? Are these activities really free of danger to oneself and others? Obviously not. At the very least, consumption of mind-altering substances as a pleasure-providing activity similar to these other pursuits should be given due consideration in discussion. As the book also notes, food, chocolate, jogging, violence, God (surely so), exercise, sex and television also are addictive for certain individuals and come with the baggage of deleterious effects. For some reasons, we as a society have accepted these vices as legitimate and respectable. Clearly, though, in more than one sense, we are as addicted as anyone can be.

What the government needs to do is to have a realistic appraisal of the effects of various drugs. Naturally, alcohol is more dangerous than nicotine in terms of social behaviour, but nicotine can be much more dangerous in terms of personal and secondary health effects. Cocaine and heroin can be dangerous, but probably not as much as alcohol if used in tiny amounts privately. Acid trips caused by LSD likewise cause no harm if they consist of someone dancing in his or her room and writhing on the bed. And marijuana may be the most misunderstood brain-affecting substance ever, with every criterion of addiction for it ranking it on par with caffeine as the least addictive and dangerous substance. Legalize some of these drugs in a restricted manner and it may actually become much easier to keep track of who bought what and did what. Far from encouraging crime, it will likely restrict and surely make it easier to track and control it. Currently, most of the legislation on drugs has come less from rational debate and study and more from biases that have pushed the issue wholesale under the carpet and furiously pounded on it. After all, all these substances used to be consumed as medicines in diluted form by native tribes in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Clearly, they were wiser than we are (and in other contexts too)

Restricting many of these substances with a blank check is prosecuting what are famously called victimless crimes. But it also shows ignorance of sound scientific understanding of the effects, chemistry, production, and economics of drug use. Drug use, like religion, seems to be a topic on which the very notion of serious and reasoned debate is considered taboo. Government officials need to first have their own minds altered, before they pass legislation on these "mind-altering" substances.


  1. nice post Ashutosh.

    And speaking of drug use and religion......there are also plenty of stories about drug use in religion :-)

    There's religious cannabis use in Hinduism and tantric buddhism. The word assassin comes from "hasashin" (who were a muslim sect specializing in assassinations in the middle east, and did so under the influence of hashish). And methinks a bunch of the founders of religions did so under the influence, i.e. were hallucinating (think of most of the stories of visions and whatnot, and think of a generous dose of pot).

    That said....I think I should find this book and read it.

  2. Interesting factoid about "assassin"..was not aware! I also think the founders of religion were all pumped up when spewing some of their pseudolearned discourses....sick bast*** i should say...for their few hours of bliss, they severed the heads of millions for all eternity...
    One great example of drug-induced euphoria though is the wacky legacy of rock songs..I Am The Walrus is groovy!


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