At last Sunday’s Anchorage Science Pub presentation, Dr. Tim Hinterberger wondered aloud what people mean when they talk about “drugs.” He likened it to when people say “epicenter” when they mean “center,” or when they say “steroids” when they mean “testosterone.”
“Words matter,” he stated emphatically.
Hinterberger is a UAA neuroscience professor and activist for drug policy reform. Using a series of colorful and complicated charts, he explained how the body reacts to chemicals, how different drugs affect those chemicals, and to what degree. But this was all a lead-in to his more pressing concern: how the history of the broadened use of the term “drugs” has impacted U.S. drug policy, and thereby, impacted the lives of millions.
Listing drug-related news articles from the 1950s to present day, Hinterberger pointed out that language used to describe drug arrests, studies, and public policy shifts from specific language (ie. what type of drug) to the umbrella term “drugs.” (See, I’m doing it right now.) This is problematic, according to Hinterberger. “It actually makes a difference what drug it is.”
When teaching kids about the potential dangers of “drugs,” Hinterberger said using broad phrasing like the famous “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” ad is inherently dishonest and discredits adults.
“When I see something like that, the implication, the intent is to get viewers, kids presumably, thinking that all drugs are the same and if you smoke marijuana it’s just like sticking a needle in your arm. But of course, kids don’t think that way. The kids think ‘Oh, this is all crap, so I don’t have to believe anything that anyone tells me about drugs.’”
That is likely counter-intuitive to the intent of the ad.
Hinterberger took the audience through a breakdown of different kinds of substances, based on their addictiveness and the effect they have on the body. There were some exclamations and knowing chuckles as he listed particular chemicals, ranging from caffeine (“the world’s most popular psychoactive substance”) to amphetamines to psychedelics (denying charges of physical dependence). Returning to his earlier theme, Hinterberger said, “it’s amazing what they’ll tell kids.”Image via “Drug Harms in the UK” by David Nutt et al The Lancet
The take-home message that Hinterberger said he wanted the audience to remember was this: “All drugs that affect the brain act in different ways on different neurotransmitter systems. That’s why it’s so useless to try and lump them all together.”
This idea plays into the way that Hinterberger said the U.S. drug schedule, or policy, is categorized. Substances are cataloged by their deemed potential for abuse, medical use, and consequences of abuse. He pointed out inconsistencies in the way that the U.S. federal government categorized “drugs” in relation to their potential for harm as determined through scientific study.
In particular, Hinterberger referenced the 2010 study that spawned this chart (also placed above), which focuses on the comparative harm caused to an individual taking the substance to the harm caused to others. He said the U.S. still has a long way to go to get its drug policy in line with scientific evidence.
While Hinterberger’s presentation ranged into scientific advocacy, his passion for scientific evidence to play a greater part in local and federal drug policy was clear. And judging from the enthusiastic response of the assembled crowd, his message was well-received.