Shirola: It’s time to end our hypocritical stance on drug policy and take a more common sense approach

Wesley Shirola, Columnist

This is the fifth and final column in “Failed Policy,” a series examining the history of drugs and drug policy in the United States since its founding.

I began this series earlier this year in order to shed light on the U.S. government’s failed approach to drug policy. I wanted to write about drugs in an enlightening and informative way so readers could have the knowledge necessary to be informed advocates.

I first wrote about marijuana and urged its swift legalization at the federal level if not for the expansive health benefits then for the sake of the free market. Then, I addressed the ongoing opioid epidemic but argued that mass restrictions of prescription opioids for patients that need them is not the answer to the crisis. Next, I endorsed the popular street drug ketamine as an effective treatment for severe depression and suicidal ideations and showed that we must act now to prevent its price from skyrocketing. Finally, I tackled psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA and argued for their use at treating PTSD and addiction.

While all of these illegal drugs, and countless others, hold promising medicinal uses, the most dangerous and damaging drug known to man — and one that holds no beneficial uses — remains legal and heavily promoted. This “mystery” drug: none other than alcohol.

Indeed, it turns out that of all the foreign substances that people consume, alcohol is the least restricted but the most harmful. Admittedly, many illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl are far more dangerous to their individual users on a per use basis. But since they are relatively hard to obtain and thus used by a smaller population their widespread impact, while still serious, is comparatively limited.

In 2010, a group of drug experts scored the total harm in Britain caused by the 20 most common drugs, ranging from alcohol and crack cocaine to psilocybin and LSD. Alcohol scored the highest at 72 (out of 100) as a result of the dependence and damage to mental and physical health it causes its users, its high risk of death, the resulting loss of relationships and productivity, the increases in crime and injury and the family breakdown so often caused by addiction. The illegal drug heroin — while causing more harm to users — scored a 55. As for the other illegal drugs: marijuana scored a 20, ketamine less than a 15, and LSD and psilocybin both came in at under 10 due to their extremely low risk of mortality and negligible societal harm.

The U.S. government’s approach to drug policy is extremely hypocritical. Why is the most harmful drug readily available and cheap while other drugs, that are both less harmful and carry demonstrable medicinal uses, remain illegal, or in the rare cases where patients have access to them, extremely expensive? Many experts believe the problem lies within the lack of “rhyme and reason” to current drug policies.

The issue plagues not just the U.S. but most other Western nations as well. The root of the problem stems from the classification of drugs being placed into “schedules” according to their harms and benefits. Most recreational drugs, which in the eyes of the U.S. government and the U.N. have no medical uses, are placed in the most dangerous category and subjected to the strictest of criminal penalties. These policies are nonsensical and paradoxical. The government wants more evidence of the medical benefits of these drugs but at the same time makes the research required to find this evidence next to impossible due to their illegality.

It is time for the U.S. government to use some commonsense and overhaul our failed drug policies. I’m not calling for the prohibition of alcohol again. In fact, the detrimental effects of alcohol should be ignored for the time being. It is far more important right now for the government to urgently loosen legal barriers to research and treatment with the promising drugs discussed in this series.

Scientists have long known that many of these drugs hold very powerful medicinal effects and have been advocating for their legalization for years. Now, we all must do our part as students and academics to pressure the U.S. government to stand down and reach the obvious conclusion that these drugs should not be illegal.

As I’ve said before and will continue to proclaim until a significant change is made: the longer the U.S. government holds out and maintains legal and bureaucratic hurdles, the longer it will continue to indirectly harm thousands of patients each and every year. Nonetheless, it’s not yet too late to fix this Failed Policy.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.