5 Biggest Myths of the Drug War (and the Trump Administration Officials Peddling Them)

Photo by Dale Shirley

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C. on Saturday for an old-fashioned street protest. Less than 100 days into Donald Trump’s first term, the “alternative facts” brigade has provided no shortage of outrages to inspire mass resistance: executive orders so flagrantly bigoted they’re unconstitutional, conservative schemes to leave tens of millions of Americans without healthcare, a chief executive who brags about grabbing women’s crotches.

The purpose of this latest demonstration of the Trump era is much simpler. Rational, even. It’s… facts.

As in real facts. Evidence. Knowledge. Saturday was the national March for Science. Academic researchers and their allies turn out in an effort to prove to politicians and policy-makers that, hey, maybe you should not do things like say climate change—something nearly everyone who deals in facts for a living agrees is real—is a hoax, because it is not. It really has come to this: Americans are so assailed by hokum peddled at the highest levels of our government that they feel compelled to take to the streets.

That data denialism is so widespread it inspires a street demonstration in the nation’s capital and 500 other cities across the country is terrifying and awful, but such are the times. (Galileo and Copernicus could relate—yet another troubling parallel to draw.) As it is, this isn’t too surprising for some, as American drug policy has been full of shit since the very beginning. But, in typical Trump era fashion, we’re about to plumb new depths.

Trump’s budget proposes a $1.2 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health, which funds most of the addiction and drug-policy research in America. If NIH is gutted, we can forget any meaningful advance in our understanding of medical cannabis—and there won’t be much progress in addiction research, either.

But even now, ancient and exploded drug-war myths that should have been laid to rest decades ago are making a comeback.

In honor of the more than 100 drug-policy and addiction researchers who also took to the streets on Saturday, here are some of the most inaccurate and damaging drug war myths they’re attempting to dispel—some of which are being peddled by Trump administration officials as we type.

Gateway Theory

“Let me be clear about marijuana,” Homeland Security chief John Kelly said on Tuesday, to a crowd of law enforcement officials in Washington, D.C. “It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs.”

Twenty-two million Americans admit to using marijuana, according to the most-recent data. If you are a marijuana user or live in a state where cannabis is legal, you will notice something, or rather a lack of something: hard drug users.

The vast majority of marijuana users never go onto any harder drugs. But even if they do, so what? As it is, the vast majority of drug users never become addicted. Addiction has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the user—trauma, (lack of) education and employment.

Gateway theory is the oldest canard in the bag.

But even cannabis advocates can fall victim to the exploded notion that certain drugs are surefire paths to destruction, and perdition is used to stigmatize drugs and their users—the same baseless propaganda peddled by the drug-war zealots in the Trump administration.

“Meth is scary. Meth will immediately ruin your life. Not even once!”

The U.S. government classifies methamphetamine, that bane of rural America (or at least it was, before opiates showed up and shoved crystal off the block) as a Schedule II controlled substance—which is to say, we believe, that it’s less addictive than marijuana and has more medical value. That’s good, because we give meth to kids.

As Carl Hart points out, the chemical composition of Walter White’s blue meth is nearly identical to a compound called “d-amphetamine.” (The main difference is meth has an additional methyl group.) D-amphetamine has a brand name: Adderall, for decades a popular drug to prescribe to kids who can’t sit still. As it is, methamphetamine is also an FDA-approved drug that doctors can prescribe to people with obesity. And in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military issued its pilots “go-pills”government speed—to ward off fatigue.

In their zeal to discourage meth use, public-health and law-enforcement officials created the image of the “tweaker,” the toothless, wild-eyed and haired addict whom meth rendered an animal. (Ever seen “Faces of Meth”? It’s a unscientific and irresponsible scare tactic.)

The truth is that the drug doesn’t cause tooth decay any more than it makes an immediate addict out of the user. Hart himself proved this. On his 40th birthday, he took a low dose of meth. He had a very pleasant subway ride, worked out, attended a conference—and that was it.

Denigrating people as tweakers denies them their humanity, makes them easier to marginalize and ignores the problem. Don’t do it.

The Same Applies to Crack and Cocaine

In the 1970s, America’s elite started playing with a new drug. It filled you with euphoria and a sense of well-being—and left you focused and cogent enough to think and talk. It was popular with investment bankers, stockbrokers, pro athletes, Hollywood and rock music types—it was awesome! It was cocaine base, what we now call “crack.” As researchers Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine pointed out, it wasn’t until crack became popular in the inner city that President Ronald Reagan and Congress decided the drug needed to be severely punished—100 times more severely than powder cocaine—and then built the prisons necessary to house a new generation of offenders. As with meth and Adderall, crack and powder cocaine are nearly identical. The difference in effect is due to the method of application—smoking or snorting instead of swallowing a pill.

“The opiate epidemic is new.”

One of the vilest and most insidious lies is the notion that the current ongoing opiate crisis is a new development.

True, the phenomenon of drug overdoses killing more people than road and highway accidents arose only in the last 15 or so years—which is right around when opiates starting killing hordes of white people.

Prior to that, intravenous drug use was “mostly an urban problem,” affecting poor people, people of color—the kind of marginalized people politicians can get away with ignoring, even as they die.

“It had been a really big problem for years, but nobody cared because people had a very specific idea of what a drug user looked like,” Dr. Chinazo O. Cunningham, an addiction researcher (and March on Science participant) told the New York Times last year. “It’s about time to see the shift from incarceration to treatment. But it’s bittersweet because it’s clear the reason it’s happening now is that it’s affecting communities that are white and affluent.”

Marijuana and Heroin Are Similar 

We can’t believe we even have to address this—probably in the same way that women can’t believe the personification of sexual assault in the workplace is President of the United States and climate scientists can’t believe that an issue around which there is universal consensus is treated like a myth by Washington policy-makers—but here we are, thanks to the attorney general of the United States.

Jeff Sessions’s offhand remark that marijuana is “only slightly less dangerous” than heroin is patently false, but it’s also official U.S. policy. In fact, Sessions’s falsehood is arguably progress, since the Controlled Substances Act declares marijuana on a par—just as dangerous, just as little medical use—as heroin.

Nonetheless, it’s wrong. Opiate overdoses kill thousands, and marijuana abuse has yet to kill anyone. You may as well compare a paper airplane with a jumbo jet.

Marijuana Legalization Makes Cannabis More Available to Kids

According to Project SAM, an anti-legalization advocacy group started by a former Obama administration drug-control policy official and ex-Congressman Patrick Kennedy, marijuana legalization has “had significant negative impacts on public health and safety, such as… Rising rates of pot use by minors.”

This is one of the most frequently used arguments against increased availability of legal cannabis, whether it’s a dispensary opening up in a new neighborhood or another state giving taxation and regulation a try in favor of the black market.

And it has yet to be demonstrated. In Colorado, legalization has had no appreciable effect on teen marijuana use rates. Nor has the legalization of medical marijuana in any of the more than 20 states to make cannabis available to sick people led to more children smoking pot. Expect to hear this tired-out myth time and again over the next five years, as members of Congress push tangible marijuana reform and as more states push to legalize—and, then as now, expect there to be no data to support it.

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