It's often been said that, in war, the first casualty is truth. Some say the United States' war on drugs has been no exception.
For decades, educators, government officials and law enforcement agencies have fed the American public with sometimes vehement and perhaps exaggerated admonitions about the dangers of drug use. Alternately, those who partake of the forbidden fruit have fed one another their own brand of drug "truths" -- cobbled together from personal experience, song lyrics, Internet rumors, urban myths, and, of course, bull sessions with fellow stoners while listening to Led Zeppelin.
The reality, as it turns out, lies somewhere in the middle. So, as Nehru-jacket-clad singer Sonny Bono said in the 1968 anti-drug film "Marijuana," "Let's examine the facts, and only the facts." Here are 10 of the most outrageous drug myths, debunked.
10: Legal drugs aren't bad for you.
Just because the Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug for some medicinal purpose doesn't mean you can safely use it at any time. Yet an awful lot of people seem to make that bizarre assumption.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for "nonmedical reasons" [source: MedlinePlus]. For example, synthetic opioids, which doctors prescribe to people with severe pain, are often used for recreational purposes. A 2010 NIDA study found that one in 12 high school seniors had abused the prescription pain reliever Vicodin. One in 20 high school seniors reported abusing OxyContin, another powerful pain reliever often given to cancer patients; it's earned the nickname "hillbilly heroin" because of its popularity in rural Appalachia.
As the NIDA Web site says, "A consumer culture in which 'taking a pill for what ails you' and the perception of prescription drugs as less harmful than illicit drugs are likely contributors to the problem." Alas, you can overdose from OxyContin just like you can from heroin, and it'll kill you just as dead. In fact, as federal officials note alarmingly, unintentional overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers have quadrupled since 1999, and now actually outnumber heroin and cocaine overdose cases [source: NIDA].
9: There's no harm in mixing drugs.
At the beginning of Hunter S. Thompson's novel "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," narrator Raoul Duke relates that the trunk of his car is filled with a frightening collection of intoxicants: "two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls" [source: Thompson].
Duke may brag and joke about this drug collection in fiction, but in reality, doubling or tripling your pleasure by mixing and matching substances is no laughing matter. Polydrug use, as it's called, often compounds the risk from taking each substance separately because the active chemicals interact within a user's body like some sort of amateur science experiment. For example, if a user snorts cocaine while swilling champagne, his or her liver combines those two substances to produce a third substance called cocaethylene. Combining the two drugs may intensify the euphoric effect of the cocaine, but it also intensifies its effects on the cardiovascular system, raising the risk that the user may die from heart failure [sources: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Laizure and Parker].
8: Drugs enhanced the creativity of late-19th-century Parisian artists.
It's true that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a liquor called absinthe was popular among the bohemian painters who caroused in Parisian bistros when they weren't creating visionary artworks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec were among those who drank the aperitif, known as "the green fairy" or "the green muse," because they believed it expanded consciousness with psychedelic hallucinations. But did it really have that effect?
Indeed, absinthe does contain a chemical called thujone, which was long credited with mind-altering abilities. But in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers who obtained samples of absinthe from century-old bottles and subjected it to chemical analysis found that the amount of thujone was too small to cause the sort of wild visions ascribed to the drink. Instead, they concluded, the most powerful active ingredient in the artists' drink was ethanol -- that is, plain old booze. Both the hallucinations and the even scarier side effects -- facial contractions, numbness and dementia -- ascribed to absinthe actually were just the same symptoms experienced by garden-variety alcoholics [source: Science Daily].
7: Smoking crack cocaine is far more dangerous than snorting cocaine.
Crack cocaine began showing up on inner-city streets in the 1980s, primarily because it was so inexpensive. Crack was sold for $5 to $10 a rock, compared to up to $100 a gram for powdered cocaine, making it an affordable high for the poorest of society. Also, it was smoked in a pipe, rather than snorted, which meant that the cocaine was delivered to the bloodstream more quickly; in other words, it was easy to get high in a hurry.
None of this was a good thing, of course. And the news media responded by painting crack cocaine as the worst villain in illegal drugs. But is smoking crack cocaine really so much worse for your body than snorting cocaine?
According to a 1996 survey of scientific literature published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the differences between crack and cocaine may have been exaggerated. While crack does get into the system more quickly, the high may last longer, and there's evidence of more dependency on cocaine when it's smoked, the physiological and psychoactive effects of the two substances basically are the same -- or, at least, not as different as people tend to think. Additionally, as the researchers noted, there's evidence that snorting cocaine is actually a "gateway" behavior that can lead to smoking crack as well [source: Hatsukami and Fischman].
6: Ecstasy rots holes in the brain.
Perhaps you've heard that MDMA, popularly known as ecstasy, can rot holes in your brain. The source of this myth may be a Sept. 28, 2001, telecast of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" devoted to the dangers of ecstasy. Guest expert Dr. Dominick Conca displayed an image of the brain of an ecstasy user, and pointed out areas that apparently had been damaged. "You see what look like holes in different little areas here," Conca explained, adding that those actually were areas where brain cells were no longer functioning normally [source: Oprah Winfrey Show Transcript].
The "holes in the brain" myth was then echoed in a government antidrug campaign: Teenagers were sent postcards that pictured shrunken brains filled with what appeared to be holes caused by ecstasy use. But in 2003, the New York Times reported that the brain scans came from a study that measured serotonin levels in brain tissue, and "had nothing to do with holes" [source: McNeil].
Ecstasy's long-term effects on the brain remain a matter of scientific controversy, but a 2011 study by Dutch researchers, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, suggests that the drug may damage the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for long-term memory [source: Science Daily]. Holes or no holes, that still seems like a pretty good reason to stay away from it.
5: Coca-Cola contains cocaine as an ingredient.
This assertion still pops up sporadically on discussion boards on the Web. Like many urban legends, it's based upon a grain of historical truth. As detailed in a 1920 Supreme Court decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the popular drink made from coca leaf once contained a tiny amount of cocaine, the drug that also is derived from coca. But by the early 1900s, the Coca-Cola Co. was subjecting the coca leaves to a process to remove "every characteristic substance except a little tannin and still less chlorophyll." The stimulant effect that remained, Holmes wrote, came from caffeine [source: Coca-Cola Co. vs. Koke Co. of America].
Since then, the closest that Coke has come to having cocaine in it was probably in 2008, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers discovered two vacuum-packed baggies containing 16 ounces of the drug packed inside two cans of Coca-Cola that smugglers tried to bring into the country on a plane from Jamaica [source: CBP press release].
4: Children prescribed ADHD medication become drug-using teens.
Now that doctors so frequently prescribe Ritalin and other stimulants to treat children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, some fear we may be creating future generations of speed addicts, who'll eventually graduate to using cocaine, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs. That impression no doubt has been reinforced by anecdotes about teenage or adult drug abusers purloining kids' medications to get high.
But in fact, multiple studies indicate that while ADHD sufferers have a higher risk of becoming substance abusers, prescribing ADHD medications not only doesn't lead to adolescent abuse, but it may actually help prevent it. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, for example, found that girls treated with ADHD medications were half as likely to become cigarette smokers or drug abusers [source: Science Daily].
3: You can trick a drug test.
Drug users going in for a test sometimes try to alter or mask traces of drugs in their urine sample. They may surreptitiously dilute it, substitute urine from another person or an animal, or add other ingredients to the sample to adulterate it. (Vinegar is a frequent choice, but soap, apple juice and bleach are also popular.) According to one drug testing firm's Web site, some of those methods once did actually work. But as drug tests have become more exacting, it's been more difficult to trick them. Today's tests don't just look for banned substances, but also measure indicators like specific gravity, pH, creatinine levels, and temperature for irregularities.
A sample diluted with water, for example, will have an abnormally low creatinine and specific gravity levels, while urine from another person or animal is unlikely to pass the temperature and specific gravity tests. Additionally, drug testers now use far more stringent security procedures. For example, donors aren't allowed to take purses, bags or other objects that might conceal an adulterant into the collection room, and some tests are conducted without prior notice, so that test subjects don't have time to retrieve an adulterant [source: Ohsinc.com].
2: Marijuana is (or isn't) addictive.
Proponents of marijuana decriminalization have long argued that the drug isn't addictive, while those against marijuana use claim that pot smokers become hooked, just as surely as if they were using heroin. But according to University of California-Irvine medical school professor and psychologist Jann Gumbiner, who wrote an article on the subject for Psychology Today, neither side is quite correct.
Studies have shown that a small percentage of marijuana users -- about 9 percent -- do in fact develop a serious addiction to smoking it. In contrast, about 17 percent of cocaine users become addicts, and 23 percent of heroin users develop an addiction. But surprisingly, the addiction power of all three of those drugs pales in comparison to a completely legal substance, tobacco, which hooks one in three people who use it.
Becoming addicted to a drug is only half the story, though, Gumbiner points out. It's also important to consider how difficult it is to quit using. Unlike other substances, marijuana has very few severe withdrawal symptoms -- some users may experience anxiety, depression, nausea, sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal problems. Most people can quit rather easily. "It's much harder to quit smoking cigarettes than it is to quit smoking pot," Gumbiner writes [source: Gumbiner].
1: George Washington grew and smoked marijuana.
It is true that George Washington -- and many other Virginia farmers of his time -- cultivated cannabis, the same plant whose flowers, leaves, stems and seeds are dried to create marijuana [source: NIDA]. But Washington's purpose wasn't to get high. The first U.S. president, like numerous other colonists, was interested in another product of the cannabis plant: hemp. In the 1600s and 1700s, hemp was a much sought-after raw material for manufacturing rope, paper and durable cloth for export to England, according to Robert Deitch's 2003 book "Hemp: American History Revisited" [source: Deitch]. Here's some evidence of Washington's interest in hemp: In a 1765 letter to a British merchant Robert Cary and Co., Washington was eager to find out "the general price one might expect for good Hemp in your Port watered and prepared according to Act of Parliament that I may form some idea of the profits resulting from the growth" [source: University of Virginia].
It's important to note that marijuana farmers and hemp farmers use different cultivation methods. To produce industrial-quality hemp, male and female plants usually are left standing in the fields until harvest. Marijuana cultivators, in contrast, generally eliminate male plants from the fields, allowing only the unfertilized female plants to mature, which increases the percentage of THC, the active ingredient that gets smokers high [source: ElSohly].
Lots More Information
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- "Banana Smoking Machine Knocks 'Mellow Yellow.'" UPI. May 22, 1967. (Oct. 25, 2011) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=kLUzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kTIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=3590,4890406&dq=smoking+banana+peel+effects&hl=en
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