Drug use certain in these uncertain times
By TONY NEWMAN
First published: Tuesday, October 7, 2008
I know a lot about drugs and the drug war, both personally and professionally. Drugs have had, at alternating times, a positive and a detrimental impact on my life. I have laughed, relaxed and found inspiration while intoxicated. I have also struggled, fought and become despondent because of my current addiction to the drug known as cigarettes. I have spent the last eight years working at the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working to reform drug laws. With the economic crisis in the United States dominating the news, I find myself wondering what the impact will be on people's drug use and our country's drug policies. Here are some of my reflections on these uncertain and stressful times and how my fellow Americans' drug use may be affected.
People use drugs for joy and pain, in good times and bad. The New York Times Style Section had a story on Sept. 21 about the bars on Wall Street being packed during the crazy ups and downs of the financial market. One man was quoted as saying that he and his friends came to drink when something great happened or when something terrible happened. Basically, people drink to celebrate the good and drown out the bad. People are losing their homes, their jobs and their life savings. I have to believe that the fear and anxiety being felt by so many will lead to increased use of alcohol and other drugs to calm fears or numb pain.
We will likely continue or increase some drug use and give up others. With people struggling to pay the bills, most of us will have to make some sacrifices and cut back on some of our expenses. For many of us, our drugs will not be one of the items cut from our lives. Many of us will drink at home instead of paying triple the price at the local bar.
While some people feel dependent on their drugs, others who use drugs more recreationally may curb some of their use. I have been to spots in New York where people out on the town are using cocaine. Some people may hold off on dropping 50 bucks for a drug they could take or leave. Some people who only smoke cigarettes socially ("only when I drink"), may stop paying nine bucks a pack.
Despite a $40 billion-a-year "war on drugs" and political speeches about a "drug-free society," our society is swimming in drugs: cigarettes, sugar, alcohol, marijuana, Prozac, Ritalin, Viagra, steroids and caffeine. Some people get their sleeping pills or uppers at a pharmacy. Others get them on the street. If more and more people lose their jobs and/or health insurance, we may see a shift from pharmacy drugs to illegal drugs. Alcohol or marijuana may be a cheaper sleeping aid or anti-anxiety drug than their prescribed competitors.
Will the economic crisis lead to a smarter and more cost-effective drug policy?
There are reasons for hope and concern when it comes to our elected officials advocating for cost-effective and money-saving drug policy strategies during the budget crisis. The fear is that treatment and prevention programs will continue to be cut as states look for ways to balance their budgets. On the flip side, states can save millions of dollars by implementing and funding treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.
The bottom line: Drugs aren't going anywhere. The drug war has been waged for 30 years, during both good and bad economic times. We have 500,000 people behind bars on drug charges. Despite decades of war, incarceration rates and billions of dollars spent, drugs are as plentiful as ever and easily accessible.
We have to accept that drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harm from drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems, and leave in peace the people who are causing harm to no one.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).