Debunking drug folklore
By Ryan Ash and Elliott Ash
The Daily Texan, the newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin
Alcohol does not kill brain cells.
Science has once again refuted a widely held belief, but popular fiction has once again resisted replacement by unpopular fact. The human tendency to accept society’s traditional beliefs without checking the evidence often leads to general trust in falsehoods, alcohol’s neurocidal effects being one of innumerable examples.
Questioning every piece of information with which one comes into contact would make living difficult, and faith in common wisdom provides an effective heuristic for functioning in most circumstances. Nevertheless, it is the business of those in the public sphere to identify and defy popular myths, and the realm of recreational drugs harbors many of them.
Both our laws and our public dialogue suffer from a serious ignorance of the individual and societal effects of various drugs.
As mentioned, alcohol poses little danger to neurons. But it does pose a considerable danger to our very lives. Among people ages 15 to 24, alcohol-related automobile accidents are the number one cause of death.
While consumption of alcohol remains legal and accessible, use of far safer drugs is prohibited by law and censured by public opinion. Mythical beliefs about these drugs are popularly held despite scientific evidence to refute them.
For instance, it is a common albeit false belief that smoking marijuana, like smoking cigarettes, causes cancer. A 1997 study at UCLA concluded that, in actuality, even heavy marijuana use does not increase the likelihood of cancer. According to Dr. Robert Melamede of the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, pot’s active ingredient THC counteracts cancer-causing chemicals in marijuana smoke. “THC turns down the carcinogenic potential,” he said.
Moreover, marijuana is not physically addictive. A 2001 report by the National Academy of Sciences states that a mere 9 percent of marijuana users become dependent on the drug. Compare this to tobacco, on which 32 percent of users become dependent, or alcohol, on which 15 percent of users become dependent. In fact, marijuana is less habit-forming than caffeine.
MDMA, popularly known as Ecstasy, does not cause brain damage, nor does it have any long-term physiological effects. George Ricaurte, research scientist at John Hopkins Medical School, retains a large amount of responsibility for the propagation of this myth. His study suggested that a single trip on ecstasy could cause permanent brain damage.
It turns out that his research was seriously flawed: Not only did he administer his subjects (monkeys) exceedingly high doses, the drug he administered wasn’t even Ecstasy. Supposedly, the drug containers were mislabeled and Ricaurte injected methamphetamine instead of MDMA.
Ricaurte also provided deceptive photographs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s anti-drug campaigns. One of the photos showed an Ecstasy user’s PET scan. Dark spots on the photograph were described as holes in the brain, but the scans actually showed serotonin levels.
The modest reduction in serotonin levels recorded in the PET scans had nothing to do with brain damage. Even more despicable, the photograph of the “normal” brain, placed next to the photograph of the Ecstasy-user’s brain in advertisements, exhibited serotonin levels 50 times greater than normal.
Subsequent studies have found no evidence of brain damage among users of Ecstasy.
Meanwhile, nicotine, the active ingredient in cigarettes and other tobacco products, is the most addictive substance known to science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans prematurely die each year from cigarette-related complications. Women who are light smokers lose an average of 14 years from their lifespan; women who are heavy smokers lose 20.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, tobacco is the leading cause of death in the United States. Somehow, use of tobacco remains legal and acceptable. Nonetheless, the Journal’s August 2000 survey reported that 46 percent of college students had used a tobacco product in the last year.
Evidently, popular opinions on recreational drugs are plagued by trust in false beliefs. To combat ignorance in the populace and guide our government towards a reality-based reform of drug laws, we must do away with these misconceptions. While the human practice of accepting traditional beliefs will undoubtedly continue, dissemination of the scientific facts can guide us toward objective truth.
Ryan is a Plan II psychology and biology senior. Elliott is a Plan II government and philosophy senior