Editorial: A Drug War Suppressant 7/16/99

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Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]

A front page story in the Dallas Morning News this week indicates that teens in Texas are increasingly turning to a new, legal high: cough medicine. Dextromethorphan, an active ingredient in more than 140 over-the-counter remedies, gives users a dissociative, trip-like high when taken at dosages far above recommended levels. The story, which highlights the fact that parents are largely ignorant of the trend, inadvertently points to the folly of the drug war as a whole.

"There's been a real upswing (in teen use)," a DEA agent is quoted as saying. But, he adds, since the substance is legal to buy, sell or possess, "this is out of our realm."

Several years ago, when the problem first came to the attention of the pharmaceutical industry, Whitehall-Robins, maker of Robitussin cough syrup, considered running an ad campaign warning of potential misuse of the product. But Bob D'Alessandro, an independent substance abuse consultant advised against it, reasoning that with the majority of American teens unaware that they could get high off of cough medicine, such a campaign would only raise the popularity of the practice.

The growing trend raises a very important question, one that should be answered before we spend another red cent on interdiction, enforcement or incarceration in the war on the traffickers and users of cocaine, heroin or marijuana. That is: If we could stop all illegal drugs from entering the country, would we accomplish anything at all in our crusade to create a "drug free" society?

Drugs don't have to be illegal to get you high. And they don't even have to be "drugs," strictly speaking. Gasoline, spray paint, household products and even some air fresheners will do the trick, as will a whole host of fauna indigenous to North America. And every day, in labs both licit and illicit, chemists are producing new substances to alter brain functions. Some of these substances will be safer than currently popular drugs, and some will be less so. The bottom line however, is that even if we could eliminate the big three from the face of the earth, the only difference that it would make is to trade one type of high for another. Or another. Or another.

Fortunately for the kids in Texas, and for kids in other parts of the country who are using dextromethorphan, or "DMX" as it's often called, the substance is not physically addictive and is unlikely to cause serious harms or death. Less fortunate is the fact that DMX is potentially deadly when taken in combination with other widely used drugs such as antidepressants and non-drowsy allergy medications. Kids who are using DMX are unlikely to have that information, and under our current "drug education" paradigm, are unlikely to think to even ask.

Perhaps we're going about this all wrong. Perhaps it is impossible to keep "drugs" away from kids. Maybe what we ought to be doing is supervising our younger kids more closely, regulating the most popular and most potentially dangerous substances to make it harder for kids to gain access to them, and providing our teens a with a full understanding and a healthy respect for the risks involved in altering their brain chemistry. Especially with substances whose chemical effects are unknown to them. Such an education, grounded in a far more comprehensive philosophy of health than the current "drugs are bad" model, would protect teens from the unintended consequences that so often accompany drug use, while demystifying the act of getting high and reducing its allure.

As things stand now, we are spending billions upon billions of tax dollars in a failing attempt to keep a very small subset of recreationally-used substances off of our streets. This approach ignores both the impossibility of that mission and the fact that even if we somehow succeeded, it is unlikely that the impact would be other than cosmetic. Even in an age of easy access to prohibited substances, our kids are finding alternative modes of intoxication. Like the caps on the cough syrup our kids are now slugging down, the drug war, it seems, is far from child-proof.

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Issue #99, 7/16/99 House Subcommittee Holds Second Hearing Attacking Drug Policy Reform | UK National Health Service May Expand Heroin Prescription | Kids On Texas Border Using More Cocaine | Governor Balks as Medical Marijuana Task Force Recommendations Move Forward in California Senate | News in Brief | Media Alert: New York Premiere of "You Know What I'm Saying?" | Editorial: A Drug War Suppressant
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