Drugs are dangerous. They corrode the mind, corrupt the soul and weaken your resolve — at least, so I’ve been told. From my first D.A.R.E. presentation in elementary school to my collegiate education, I have heard again and again that drugs fry your brain like an egg. But no one has ever taught me what exactly drugs do, why they are harmful and to what degree. And if my extremely unofficial, impromptu interviews with several UC Berkeley students have taught me anything, it’s that most college students don’t know much about drugs, either.
Students have ingested alcohol education from a young age, learning about safe consumption and when to say no to another drink. But no such discourse exists around drugs, which instead receive a “just say no” approach insisting on and demanding abstinence. This slanted substance education ignores some research positing that alcohol is actually the most dangerous drug of them all. But more so, it indicates an uncomfortable asymmetry in education on substance abuse that denies the reality that people, namely students, do drugs and will continue to do them regardless of legality. This reality demands a change in the way our society addresses and discusses drug use.
Of the many peers I polled, none of them considered alcohol anywhere close to being the most dangerous substance. Some even said they did not consider alcohol a drug. There was not even a clear consensus on how dangerous drugs were or which were the most dangerous. Many guessed meth, heroin or acid. But others said that Berkeley’s much-beloved marijuana was the most dangerous. In fact, the only conclusion I could reasonably make from the various responses was that most (including me) were woefully ignorant about the world of drugs.
Despite the lofty ideals of elementary school education — that no student will ever grow up to abuse substances, that they’ll steer clear entirely — high school and college students are surrounded by drug culture that draws all types of curious minds. Take the rave, a classic example of 21st-century debauchery and an epicenter of the recreational use of MDMA. Better known as “molly,” MDMA is a classic collegiate drug. Research has shown that MDMA is relatively safe compared with other drugs, but most students aren’t taught safe practices. Instead, they test out the drugs by feel and word-of-mouth advice. Undoubtedly in part due to this lack of formal discussion, every year, there are ecstasy-related casualties at raves. The L.A. Times reports at least 14 MDMA-related deaths in the last 10 years, with 10 of these deaths being of college-age students from 18 to 24 years old.
Most of these casualties, if not all of them, seem to be caused by misinformed abuse. Did these people know that MDMA causes dehydration? Did they know that ecstasy, which is easier to find, is often a mix of amphetamines and MDMA? Did they know the proper dose? That such a thing even exists? How would you even know? It is increasingly apparent that proper education on drugs is necessary to prevent further harm, yet the legal status of drugs prevents the necessary transparency. In fact, the topic of drugs has become such a taboo in American society that even clinical research is limited and relatively inaccessible.
Sean Nordt, a toxicology expert at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, responded to these drug-related deaths, telling the L.A. Times, “We should be treating this as a public health issue. … There needs to be a public health movement about this with education on campuses.”
Yet the sad reality is that this public health movement has yet to start, even at UC Berkeley. While all incoming students are required to take part in the AlcoholEDU program, this program disregards the issue of other drugs almost entirely. The campus’s Tang Center has a website full of great resources dedicated to helping those who may have questions regarding drugs or are in need of drug-related help. But which students have turned to this resource when they are considering taking drugs? I would wager that most students don’t even know such a page exists.
This problem isn’t strictly collegiate. The federal education curriculum in the United States has no place for drug education. It has been largely outsourced to D.A.R.E., but nowhere in D.A.R.E.’s policies does it outline any form of useful education in regards to harm reduction. What is clear is that the United States lacks anywhere near the educational infrastructure to promote a “public health movement,” and what education exists is rather inadequate.
This problem has a long and varied history. The 1970s War on Drugs created a culture of taboo and rejection that has since prevented much meaningful dialogue on the topic. When I approached people on Sproul Plaza to ask about their opinions on drugs, many were hesitant and often responded in a hushed whisper, as if they were afraid of the almighty drug police eavesdropping on the conversation. Worse, not only are people afraid of discussing the issue in the first place, but society inhibits those who legitimately need help on drug related-issues from seeking assistance.
The Berkeley Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, or Berkeley NEED, is a volunteer organization that provides a variety of harm-reduction services to the Berkeley community. In order to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS brought by sharing used needles, Berkeley NEED provides a free needle-exchange program, where people can turn in their used needles for a fresh batch. But even in a service such as Berkeley NEED, 60 percent of the clients who show up are secondary exchangers — people who serve as proxies for those who are afraid that they will be targeted by the police while seeking help.
Berkeley NEED serves 245 people a week and exchanges 600,000 syringes a year. But far more people could benefit from one of the most outstanding resources Berkeley NEED has to offer: drug education. In addition to providing needle-exchange services, Berkeley NEED attempts to teach its clients about harm-education policies and the risks of overdosing in order to prevent dangerous situations amongst drug users.
The conventional argument about drug abusers is that these people chose to ruin their lives with drugs. They chose to turn to illicit substances to escape and then face the responsibility of living with the consequences. According to this logic, it is not society’s job to help these people. But this black-and-white opinion denies the facts. There will always be a substantial portion of the population that does drugs. The number and age of people who use drugs despite the immense legal consequences only serves to show how immutable the demand for drugs is and will be. Some drug use is simply (and harmlessly) recreational. In more serious instances, marginalizing and dehumanizing those who legitimately need help, whether it be those seeking to overcome a potentially fatal addiction or struggling with a mental illness, need society’s support, not its criticism.
The real problem isn’t that people try drugs — it’s that those who do often do so with inadequate knowledge of the consequences of their actions. At one point, nobody knew that sharing needles would lead to the spread of HIV, that Xanax can lead to potentially fatal addiction or that taking ecstasy too frequently could lead to a permanent tolerance to serotonin. The vast majority of people who try drugs for the first time are unaware of specific consequences and, by extension, how to safely use these drugs.
The stigma surrounding drugs discourages people from seeking help, and this culture only leads to more unwitting self-harm. This danger is especially prevalent for college-age individuals because we have an unprecedented access to a huge variety of drugs. Not only are “traditional” drugs more available than ever, but people are also starting to use prescription drugs recreationally. Xanax has been the most prescribed psychiatric drug since 2005 with 50 million prescriptions a year. At the same time, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, rehab visits related to benzodiazepines (a larger branch of drugs that includes Xanax) have tripled. We already have witnessed too many cases of permanent brain damage due to the frequent use of ecstasy. It is more important now than ever to change the culture of taboo regarding drugs to prevent damage before it happens.
A “just say no” mentality is simply too reductive to adequately address drug education and draws parallels to the failures of teaching complete sexual abstinence. We need a new method of drug education that honestly discusses the effects of each drug, not only so that people know the exact consequences of their actions but so those who do choose to use these drugs do so in a safe and controlled fashion.
To facilitate this, UC Berkeley needs to develop its already great resources and promote a public health movement that seeks to inform students about all drugs and not just alcohol. I suspect that a change in our education curriculum will not only lead to fewer drug-related causalities but will also help create a culture where people are not afraid to seek help.