OPINION: Let science lead the campaign against drugs

Jose Galang - Your Business

Posted at Aug 22 2017 09:37 PM

With the people now becoming more vocal in rejecting the brutality of the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs”, it looks like it’s time for the police and their guns to give way to science and compassion in moving to rid our society of this menace.

There is a fundamental flaw in the strategy to strike fear on the citizenry by letting loose police personnel or inspiring vigilantes in search of targets—mostly suspected or confessed drug dependents and pushers—and cutting out their lives instantly without the benefit of a fair chance for them to mend ways.

Over the past few years, scientists have discovered new facts about drugs and drug abuse that disprove old beliefs such as one that even a single use of illegal substances can already damage a person’s brain. More significantly, scientists have found out that a brain that’s been damaged from prolonged use of methamphetamine (“shabu” in the local drug trade) is still capable of recovery—the brain can be able to regain much of its previous healthy state.

To say, therefore, that a person who has fallen victim to drug merchants is “already useless” and “deserves to be killed” is not only extremely heartless, to say the least, it is also premised on an inaccurate understanding of the problem. It is time for the government to heed the people’s growing cry and terrified screams and adopt a science-based campaign against illegal drugs.

Wrong emphasis on punishment

Science has revolutionized the understanding of drug addiction, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). People addicted to drugs used to be regarded as “morally flawed and lacking in willpower”, which shaped society’s responses to drug abuse that placed emphasis on punishment rather than prevention and treatment, she says.

“As a result of scientific research, we now know that addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. We have identified many of the biological and environmental factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development of the disease,” Volkow says in NIDA-produced literature on drug addiction.

Drug addiction can change the brain—in its structure and how it works—and these brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to “harmful behaviors”. However, drug addiction, NIDA points out, is “preventable and treatable”.

Research-based programs, which are “rationally designed based on current scientific evidence, rigorously tested, and shown to produce positive results”, have been developed by scientists and are now applied in US families, schools and communities in preventing drug abuse. These programs involve the participation of teachers, parents and health care professionals in shaping perceptions of young people, the most vulnerable sector of society, about the risks of substance abuse, says NIDA.

How drugs affect the brain

During laboratory work, Volkow and her team saw how drug use causes a surge in the brain’s supply of dopamine, a chemical that influences a person’s movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. At normal dopamine levels, this system “rewards” an individual’s natural behaviors. Overstimulating this system with drugs, the scientific studies showed, “produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforce the behavior of drug use—teaching the user to repeat it.”

It is this drug-induced euphoria that, when dopamine levels start to ebb, send the user to crave for more. The brain then starts to acquire an increasing amounts of the drug to “produce the familiar dopamine high”, according to the NIDA studies.

This process damages the brain’s dopamine transporter system over time as addiction grows. However, brain scan images from studies led by Dr. Volkow also show that stopping drug use can help the brain recover, with one case of methamphetamine user virtually regaining its former healthy state after a 14-month abstention. This brain recovery through prolonged abstention is graphically described in the Kolkow-led study published back in 2001 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Short on scientific evidence

At the Columbia University in New York, neuroscientist Carl Hart looks at drug policy in the US and in countries around the world as “based on assumption and anecdote, but rarely on scientific evidence,” according to an article in the Lancet journal. For several years now, Hart has waged a campaign for “greater empathy” in regarding people who use drugs, specifically methamphetamine. He has also called out “media distortions” that influence even scientific knowledge about the consequences of drug use.

By his own admission, Hart used illegal drugs in his younger years in Miami but he did not become an addict because he knew how and when to “say no”. He says he excelled in sports instead and went on to become a highly respected expert on psychology and neuroscience.

When he started probing deeply into the drug use problem in the US, he found out that the “neurobiological effects of drugs have been greatly misunderstood, in part, because even some scientists draw sweeping, unwarranted conclusions from limited data,” he told the Lancet.

Dr. Hart now presses on with his advocacy for the need to fix other domains of life, other negative factors that cause drug addiction. He stresses: “Fix broken societies and you would fix most of the world’s drug problems.”

Portugal’s radical solution

Yet a more radical approach to the drug problem is the strategy of decriminalizing all drugs. Initiated 16 years ago when “every family had its own drug addict”, the decriminalization policy considers possession or use of any drug as “a health issue, not a crime”. Drug dealers, however, are still sent to prison.

A physician, João Goulão, is the architect of Portugal’s drug decriminalization strategy, having been involved in government work on the treatment, recovery and social integration of drug addicts. In 1998, he was named into a committee that drafted a report from which the drug decriminalization law was designed. The law had the support of then president Jorge Sampaio, a member of the Socialist Party of Portugal.

Goulão, whose official title is director-general of Portugal’s General-Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors and Dependencies, points out that under the law, drug abusers are “ill, not criminals, and that they need help.”

Under the program, drug addicts approach any of the directorate-general’s discreet offices where government sociologists interview them. The sociologists then refer patients to drug treatment centers where the patients are given a dose of a drug that is hoped to eventually wean the patient away from more potent substances.

Since the implementation of the decriminalization, the stigma against addicts has eased, according to a recent report by the US National Public Radio (NPR). Drug-related HIV infections in Portugal have reportedly dropped by 95 percent.

NPR quotes Nuno Capaz, one of the government sociologists at a Lisbon center, as saying: “It’s cheaper to treat people than to incarcerate them. If I come across someone who wants my help, I’m in a much better position to provide it than a judge would ever be. Simple as that.”

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.