During the McCarthy period the term "Communist" was used to slander American citizens with leftist or imagined leftist leanings. The McCarthyites never made clear what the term actually meant: did it mean a member of the American Communist Party, a liberal, a union organizer, an actor or teacher unwilling to take a loyalty oath? This lack of linguistic clarity did much to exacerbate the hysteria that resulted in the shameful trampling of American citizens' rights. As students of history, we tell ourselves "never again." Yet an equally shameful linguistic atrocity is occurring in America today. Hysteria about the "drug problem" has caused otherwise normal Americans (and certainly the media) to misuse 'among other terms) the word "drug." Regardless of one's position on our current "drug crisis," I think we would all agree that the first requirement for solving a complex problem is to use accurate, precise terms in talking about the problem. Only then can citizens with conflicting viewpoints be certain they are discussing the same issue. Accordingly, let's examine some terms we misuse when discussing the "drug problem," and how we could come closer to solving the "problem" by using these words properly.

First, talking about "drugs" and "saying 'no' to drugs" clouds the issue. Acetaminophen, penicillin, and tetracycline are all drugs, but I don't think anyone would want us to say "no" to them. They are useful in treating disease. Perhaps what is meant is "psychoactive drugs," that is, drugs that have some influence on the state of a person's consciousness. If psychoactive drugs are under discussion, then we can be much clearer if we call them by their proper name.

A second term misused by news gathering agencies, as well as by other citizens, is the term "narcotic." If we want to stop the spread of narcotics, then we would be engaged in a narrow crusade indeed. Not all psychoactive drugs are narcotics. In fact, some psychoactive drugs are narcotics (heroin and other opium-based derivatives, including man-made substances such as methadone), while others are barbiturates, hallucinogens (LSD, psilocybin, mescaline), stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine, nicotine), depressants (alcohol), hypnotics (Quaaludes), and euphorants (cannibis-based substances such as marijuana and hashish). (Please note that medical authorities are divided on the precise classification of some drugs, so this categorization serves merely as an example. The only categories on which all authorities seem to agree are the two broad ones of central nervous system depressants and stimulants.) Where exactly is the problem? With what category or categories of substances do we have a problem? If we can isolate the category of substances giving us the biggest problem, perhaps public funds would best be spent on controlling the use of that substance.

As well, "Drug use" and "drug abuse" are two different terms for two different activities. The misuse of these terms was made glaringly evident in President Reagan's recommendations regarding Federal employees who tested positively for use of illicit psychoactive drugs. Reagan recommended that such employees be required to enter a drug treatment program. However, a urinalysis reveals (none too dependably) that an employee used an illicit psychoactive substance, not that he abused it. Use of such a substance is not abuse of it. If a person drank two beers after work, I wouldn't consider such a person in need of counseling for an alcohol problem, yet an analogous situation would arise if a Federal employee tested positively for an illicit psychoactive drug. Asking a drug abuser, of alcohol, nicotine or cocaine to enter a treatment program is humane; asking a drug user to enter a treatment program beggars common sense.

If we want to talk about addictive psychoactive drugs, let's be clear just which ones are addictive. The addictive drugs are heroin, alcohol, nicotine. In large or recurrent doses, drugs such as valium or cocaine can produce addictive behavior in people. However, while these substances are in some sense addictive, so are sugar and many other substances. In addition, the line between "physical addiction" and "psychological addiction" doesn't seem to be at all clear. I think that while the term "addiction" may be helpful in describing a drug, the fact that it is addictive isn't much help when we talk about public policy toward drugs. If we distinguish between addictive and nonaddictive drugs as a way of isolating the "dangerous" drugs, we're liable to make some big mistakes.

The illicit use of a drug is different from the use of an illicit drug. A minor drinking a beer is engaged in the illicit use of a drug. Anyone using LSD is engaged in the use of an illicit drug, that is, one that is illegal. Is the most serious problem of teenage drug abuse the illicit use of a drug, or the use of an illicit drug? There are legal drugs used illegally, and illegal drugs used illegally, and the distinction is important if we want to isolate just where the "drug problem" is.

Analogously, possession of an illegal drug differs from illegal possession of a drug. If someone obtains some penicillin without a doctor's prescription and has it in his house, he is in illegal possession of a drug. However, if someone has a Quaalude in his pocket, he is in possession of an illegal drug.

Once we establish exactly what the term "drug problem" refers to, then we can begin to think sensibly about it. To say that South Florida has a "water problem" doesn't describe what the problem is-- is it heavy seasonal rains, a dangerously low water table, a large polluted lake, or damaging hurricanes? Similarly, describing, or talking about a public health issue as a "drug problem" obscures more than it reveals.

Having established what drugs we want to claim as producing a "problem," the next step should be to examine the evidence in support of the claim. Clearly, for example, cocaine use is on the rise, particularly in the form of crack, but can the increase be described rationally as an "epidemic?" What does "epidemic" mean? Do the statistics we have match the definition of "epidemic?" Perhaps use of cocaine is rising, but not at epidemic proportions. In addition, when a famous person dies of a drug overdose, that doesn't necessarily mean that the entire country is doing the same drug. When Marilyn Monroe died of barbiturates, it didn't mean that there was a barbiturate epidemic; when Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, it may or may not mean that there is a cocaine epidemic. The notoriety of the people involved with drug use has little bearing on the extent of its use.

Once we have gathered evidence, we can then decide if it is wise to direct public funds toward combating the use of a drug, and if so, how best to employ those funds. For example, let's say that the reason why people want to eradicate drug use is because it is a serious public health problem. We can define a serious public health problem as an activity that results in the deaths of a large number of people. It's only sensible to direct our funds at the most threatening public health problem first, and thereby save more lives instead of concentrating on a minor problem. Given this as a principle of action, we note that heart attacks account for more deaths than anything else. If that's the case, and if ingesting beef and smoking cigarettes have been identified as the principal causes of the problem, then we should arrest cattle breeders and tobacco growers, confiscate the cattle and kill them, and invade Argentina, since it is a major cattle producing nation. This, of course, is the government's plan to combat "drugs": arrest drug dealers, confiscate drugs, and invade Bolivia.

The second highest cause of death is cancer. Public funds have been devoted to reducing the death rate from cancer, although its origins remain largely unknown. The third highest cause of death is alcohol. We should arrest the alcohol producers, confiscate the alcohol, and invade France. But wait, didn't we try this during Prohibition?

These absurd examples illustrate that the real issue behind "drugs," once we take care to define our terms, isn't public health. If public health were the principal concern, "drugs" would be far down on the list of priorities. Instead, it is the number one priority on every politician's list. Politicians and others speak about drugs in suspiciously moral language, as if they feared certain states of consciousness (such as the euphoria brought about by smoking marijuana) while endorsing other drug-induced states of consciousness (the depression of the nervous system brought about by alcohol) as "being social." We have other sad spectacles: Miss America refusing to commit herself on women's rights and abortion, but willing to say that "drugs" are the most serious problem facing Americans today.

From William Buckley to Gore Vidal, pundits are calling for the legalization of all psychoactive drugs, principally on libertarian grounds. Politicians, smelling the musky scent of ever-upcoming elections, call for laws that would abridge our rights of protection from illegal search and seizure and the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. College athletes are educated in the dispensability of their rights by being forced to undergo drug tests regardless of whether they show any indication of "drug" use. At this stage of public discussion, it's hardly relevant whether Buckley and Vidal are correct or if the election-charged politicians are correct, since we haven't even defined what it is we're talking about, much less demanded evidence to support the claim that there is a problem. Nevertheless, 1.5 billion dollars of our money a year have been spent on a supposed problem which has never been defined properly, nor isolated, nor supported through compelling evidence. We now have a "drug czar" of cabinet-level authority who, at the behest of his president, advocates using our armed forces against citizen and non- citizen alike. I would argue that every citizen should just say no to anyone who wishes to make any laws or spend any public funds on a supposed problem until that person can prove exactly what the problem is. Otherwise, the McCarthyites will continue to abuse citizens' rights and pocketbooks, this time hunting our contemporary "Communists," "drug users."

Copyright © Steven E. Alford