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America's Love-Hate Relationship with Drugs
By Indy Media /
By Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet

While Americans are inundated with coverage of the Democrats' quibbling over Barack Obama's use of marijuana and cocaine as a teenager, a truly important drug story continues to be neglected: The hypocrisy of Big Pharma, psychiatry officialdom, and justice institutions regarding mood-altering (psychotropic) drugs -- specifically the denial of the similarity between illegal and psychiatric drugs.

Author and science writer Michael Pollan observed the following about Americans' illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy: "Historians of the future will wonder how a people possessed of such a deep faith in the power of drugs also found themselves fighting a war against certain other drugs with not-dissimilar powers. ... We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be that we hate the fact that we love drugs?"

When we recognize that psychotropic prescription drugs are chemically similar to illegal psychotropic drugs, and that all of these substances are used for similar purposes, we see two injustices. First, we see the classification of millions of Americans as criminals for using certain drugs, while millions of others, using essentially similar drugs for similar purposes, are seen as patients. Second, we see a denial of those societal realities that compel increasing numbers of Americans to use psychotropic drugs.

In the history of psychiatry, there has been a revolving door in which a "medication" becomes an "illegal drug" -- and visa versa. Sigmund Freud used cocaine as medication to treat his own and others' depression and despair. In the 1930s amphetamines were prescribed to treat depression; later amphetamines were prescribed for weight loss; while today amphetamines such as Adderall and Dexedrine are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alcohol was a recommended treatment for anxiety as late as the 1940s; and in the 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger treated the neuroses of Hollywood stars and other celebrities with LSD. Ecstasy was used in marital counseling during the 1980s, and today researchers are studying it as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is politically -- and economically -- incorrect for the corporate press, dependent on Big Pharma advertising revenue, to compare psychiatric drugs with illegal drugs. However, the psychiatry drug textbook A Primer of Drug Action notes that individuals who have used cocaine have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective effects of cocaine and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) when both are administered intravenously. The amphetamines Dexedrine and Adderall, besides being prescribed for ADHD, are used by many college kids, truck drivers, and others to pull all-nighters.

Both cocaine and amphetamines enhance the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. The antidepressant Effexor enhances norepinephrine and serotonin, and the antidepressant Wellbutrin enhances dopamine; and it is not uncommon to be prescribed Effexor and Wellbutrin at the same time. Effexor in combination with Wellbutrin enhances the same neurotransmitters as cocaine (you won't likely feel the same, mainly due to the quicker impact and shorter half-life of cocaine). And selective serotonin reuptake inhibitiors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, and Luvox enhance the neurotransmitter serotonin. Ecstasy also enhances serotonin, although by a different mechanism (you won't likely feel the same using SSRIs as you would using Ecstasy in part because Ecstasy has a quicker, shorter-lasting pop).

The Speed Culture, coauthored by psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon in 1975, astutely predicted: "Drug companies probably will continue to produce increasingly sophisticated and disguised amphetamines, and these 'new' drugs undoubtedly will be greeted with initial enthusiasm by the medical establishment until it is recognized that any drug with amphetamine-like CNS [central nervous system] stimulating properties almost invariably is just as toxic, potentially addictive, and therapeutically limited as Benzedrine or Dexedrine."

While many people use mood-altering drugs recreationally, many others believe that they need their psychotropic drugs -- prescribed and illegal -- to function. Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, investigating the meatpacking industry, discovered this: "The unrelenting pressure of trying to keep up with the line has encouraged widespread methamphetamine use among meatpackers. Workers taking 'crank' feel charged and self-confident, ready for anything."

In 2004 Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams announced that he had found marijuana to be "ten times more helpful than Paxil" for his anxiety and depression. What made Williams's declaration difficult to ignore was that he had been a celebrity spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturer of Paxil.

Neuroscientist Pankaj Sah notes, "It's worth considering that people who constantly use cannabis may be doing it for other reasons than just to 'get high' -- perhaps they are experiencing some emotional problems which taking cannabis alleviates. Much the same way as some people drink alcohol to relieve anxiety."

Marijuana and other illegal psychotropic drugs can, according to Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, "represent a form of self-medication against physical and emotional pain among people who do not have access to psychotherapy or Prozac." The Drug Policy Alliance (an outgrowth of Nadelmann's Lindesmith Center, a drug policy institute created with the support of George Soros) "advocates for drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights."

The illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy in the U.S. is an ugly triumph. It is a triumph of marketing over science. It is a triumph for pharmaceutical corporations and America's ever-growing prison-industrial complex. It is a triumph for those comfortably atop society who would rather Americans view their malaise as exclusively a medical rather than a social problem. And ultimately, it is a triumph of injustice and greed over human rights and a sane society.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green, 2007).

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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America's Love-Hate Relationship with Drugs