Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on the War On Drugs

Back at her own blog, Megan McAardle cites an article by John Tierney in the New York Times about the now-ongoing trial of Virginia pain specialist, Doctor William E. Hurwitz. (More can be found here.) Dr. Hurwitz is now on trial for prescribing "too much" pain medication to some of his patients, some of whom either sold the medication on the street or used it recreationally themselves. Megan asks:

I don't even understand how it is possible that, in order to keep some people from ruining their lives with prescription painkillers, we are willing to condemn other people to horrendous suffering. Why have so few other people noticed that this is not merely wrong, but also thoroughly silly?

It's not just silly, Megan, it's murderous. As John Tierney notes, two of Hurwitz's former patients, unable to find doctors who would treat their pain, committed suicide.

That's right. They were in so much pain that killed themselves after Hurwitz shut down his practice. He shut down his practice due to the federal investigation.

The folks who work at the DEA who investigated Hurtwitz manage to feed and clothe themselves, to tie their own shoes and to do the normal things that adults of ordinary intelligence do in their lives. The prosecutors who prosecute him may not have been at the top of their class, but they graduated from law school. Anybody who didn't ride the short bus to school ought to be able to tell that prosecuting Hurwitz is a thoroughly idiotic thing to do.

So why, Megan asks, do we do it?

Well, the "war on drugs" gets its emotional oomph because certain substances are demonized. They aren't just bad in the ordinary sense that using them to excess will result in undesirable consequences. No, they become a symbol, a manifestation of Evil Incarnate. And in order to stop their abuse, we must have a "WAR" on drugs. The folks who become involved in that enterprise become emotionally attached to it. They're not just enforcing a law; they're purging the world of Evil.

People who buy into the notion that Drugs Are Evil lose their sense of balance and proportion. Ideas about costs and benefits just don't apply, because the War on Drugs is about Virtue, about Right and Wrong. The very real costs associated with it just don't get counted. A zealot never thinks about costs and benefits, only The Cause. The War on Drugs is itself a mind-altering substance.

This all goes back to the Secret Fear theory. Above all else, the Drug Warriors fear the notion of addiction -- the idea that an Evil Substance could totally take over a person's life, become the be-all and end-all. The drug warrior fears losing rationality and control. Deep down, the Drug Warriors are afraid it could happen to them, they could become "addicted." They could be taken over by an Evil Drug.

And so they become addicted, but not in the way they fear. Addicted to control. Addicted to rules. Addicted to a constant "get tough," "get tougher," get toughest" mentality. Never mind that tougher enforcement has never worked -- they're addicted to the War on Drugs. It's what gives their lives meaning and purpose.

The fact is that many drugs -- and opiods certainly fall into this category -- are "dual use." That is, they can be used recreationally, to get high, or medically, to alleviate pain. A policy of banning recreational drug use (except for alcohol and tobacco and caffeine) therefore inevitably entails a policy of restricting dual-use drugs. If we allowed unrestricted access to opiods while continuing to ban recreational drugs like pot and heroin and cocaine, people would just substitute the opiods.

Such restrictions require that we distinguish between true medical users -- people in pain -- and people who just want to get high. Here's the rub: we don't have a painometer to see who is lying about being in pain. We have to take people's word. Inevitably, some people will lie. And they will either sell the drugs illicitly or use them recreationally. Therefore, an inevitable consequence of the War on Drugs is some social mechanism for determining who is really in pain, and who's faking it.

In his article, John Tierney talks about Dr. Robin Hamill-Ruth, one of the prosecution's paid witnesses in the Hurwitz case. He makes her look like a fool. One of her patients was a woman who had suffered really bad migraines -- so bad they put her completely out of action. I mean, bad. Really bad -- so bad she once got taken away in handcuffs because she was suicidal. This woman had actually gone to doctor Hurwitz and gotten adequate treatment, treatment that included opoids. But she couldn't do that any more, since Hurwitz's practice had been shut down. So she went to the government's "expert," Dr. Robin Hamill-Ruth. Dr. Robin Hamill-Ruth's clinic wouldn't give the poor woman medication that would, you know, help her -- you see the philosophy of Dr. Robin Hamill-Ruth's clinic "includes avoidance of all opioids in chronic headache management." So what did Dr. Robin Hamill-Ruth give to the woman who suffered chronic and debilitating migraine headaches? She gave her an anxiety medication called BuSpar. And the side effects from BuSpar include -- headaches.

Now, when I read about something like that, I have an urge to start screaming obscenities, but once I calm down, I realize that there's a certain logic at work here. We've already established that a policy of banning recreational drug use (except for alcohol and tobacco and caffeine) inevitably entails a policy of restricting dual-use drugs. We know that some people will lie -- and a headache is the easiest thing in the world to fake, for anybody with even a dollop of thespian talent. We don't have the painometer.

Perfect isn't an option. Errors will occur. We can make the error giving recreational drug users or illicit drug sellers an opening to get opiods. Or we can make some people suffer, in some cases to the point of suicide in order to stop a few recreational drug users or dealers from getting their hands on percocet or vicoden. Now, to anybody with even a dollop of reason, compassion, humanity, or empathy, it is an obvious choice: who the fuck cares if a few prescription meds get diverted for recrational use? Give people the pain relief they need.

But to the Drug Warrior, Drugs are Evil, and if a few people have to suffer, well so be it. If they end up committing suicide, too bad. Acceptable losses in the War on Drugs.

1 comment:

Casulty of the War said...

I would like to commend you on your heartfelt and intelligent post on the "War on Drugs". And I agree that those zealots whom call themselves the warriors, are themselves addicted. Not to the drugs but to the cause. They are the most uncompassionate, uninformed bastards I have yet to come across. I have personal experience with this so called "War" in more than one way. I, at the ripe old age of 32, am a chronice pain sufferer. I am a firefighter and a paramedic, who fell through the roof of a burning building and blew out 3 disks in my back. Now, as was mentioned, a headache is the one of the easiest things to fake, and so is back pain, due to the lack of a "painometer". However, MRI's, CT Scans, and XRays that prove a severe injury should negate any feelings that I am "faking" it, or drug seeking. However, that is exactly how I am labeled. Let me also tell you that I am no longer full time in the above mentioned position, because of the Dr. will not prescribe adequate pain meds, so that I can lead a normal life. I had to change occupations and now work from home.
In addition to the back injury, I have been recently diagnosed with metastatic uterine cancer. I had a hysterectomy a year ago when the cancer was found, and chemo, but the demon has reappeared, in multiple locations, one being in my spine, where the affected disks were, and also on my kidney. I am undergoing chemo at present time, which causes an excruciating amount of pain, and my doctor gives me a few Lortab a month and says grin and bear it, because he doesn't want to draw the attention of the damn DEA. So, though I work from home, I still am unable to perform my job quite often, as I am in so much pain it hurts to move. Is this fair...NO. But to keep those opiods off the streets, I get to suffer.
I also worked on the oncology unit of a hospital for a couple years, and I got to witness patients die in agony, rather than be given morphine or oxycontin, because they "might become addicted". What the fuck? These patients were dying, who the fuck cares? I want them to be addicted, so that there last days or months or even a years, are spent as comfortable as possible and they can enjoy what is left of their life. The demon cancer cells in my body very well could be terminal. Hospice has even been discussed if this round of chemo doesn't work. But, so that I don't become addicted, I get Lortab, that makes me at least able to sit and work, but not able to do the things that I would like to do with my children, should I die a year from now. If it wasn't for those kids, I can tell you that there have been times I would have been tempted to take my gun out and end the pain, but I soldier on. So you tell me, does this "War" make any sense? And who is on the battlegrounds with these zealots? Who are their guns drawn against? Innocent Americans who need their Dr.'s and their country to give a damn.