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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 10th May 2013

'If drugs are harmful and kill why do people sell them and make them? It’s stupid, they’re putting other peoples’ lives at stake. By the way I’m 12 and doing it for a report at school and dads a cop, moms a lawyer.'

I received this email from someone in the USA and thought I’d reply here partly because this is a question a lot of people ask but also because I’m waiting to hear from a parent before replying directly. Obviously, I’m not going to identify the young person who sent the email so I’ll refer to them by the gender neutral Jamie.

Dear Jamie,

Thank you very much for your email. I'll try and give you my answers to your questions but you must understand these are MY answers. I am sure you will be asking a number of people these questions before writing your school report taking all the different answers into account.

The important word in your question is ‘If’. It is not possible to say that all drugs are harmful to everybody who uses them. The way in which drugs work is not fully understood, partly because the law makes it so difficult to do research, but there are a couple of ways we can see that drugs are not harmful all the time.

First, there is the population approach. It is estimated that, in the whole world, between 100 and 200 million people use Cannabis sativa, marijuana, every year. The numbers of people seeking assistance for problems with marijuana use is a small fraction of that and even if you said only some of the people who have problems seek help you still end up with a very large number of people using cannabis without any problems.

There is also some limited research evidence. A study in Jamaica in the 1970s found that some people had problems using cannabis. In a group of people sharing a joint it was understood that someone might not want to join in because he didn’t ‘have the head’ for it. This means we know that not everyone responds to these substances the same way. What we don’t know is why that is.

But, it has to be said that these are adults. There is more evidence that young people should not use cannabis because their brains are still developing. Though the evidence is not complete it is enough to say that it is safest for young people to avoid cannabis use.

So, it is not possible to say that drugs are always harmful. There is also the question of what is meant by harmful and what is acceptable. A very well-known professor from Imperial College London pointed out, a couple of years ago, that some people who ride horses get seriously injured and a few even die every year. That doesn’t mean we say horse-riding is harmful and try and stop anybody from riding a horse. Rather, what we do is to try and see how the harms occur and what can be done to reduce them.

Did you know that you can get riding jackets that have airbags similar to the ones in cars? If a rider is thrown from the horse, the jacket detects this and the airbag inflates before the rider hits the ground. So, people are able to have the pleasure of horse-riding but the chances of harm have been reduced.

Turning to the core of your question, ‘why do people sell them?’ the answer is simply that people want to buy them. I’ve never used any of the illegal drugs, and it is many years since I used the legal ones either, so I can’t explain why people want to use them but they do. Whenever there is something people want to buy there will be people who want to sell it to them to make a profit. If that profit is large enough, then people will ignore the risks involved in selling an illegal product.

The problem is that, since selling drugs is illegal, the people selling them don’t care who they sell to. If you went into a liquor store to try and buy beer, the store owner would not serve you because there are rules that say he cannot sell alcohol to someone of your age. But, if alcohol were illegal like drugs then the store owner would be happy to sell you beer and would, probably, try and get you to buy whisky instead because, being more concentrated, it would be easier for him to hide bottles of whisky rather than cases of beer.

It is not just drug sellers who don’t care about the harm they may cause. Tobacco companies and drinks manufacturers are well aware of the problems their products can cause but they find all sorts of arguments to justify their actions. Obesity is almost as much of a problem in the UK as it is in the USA, but companies still make very fatty foods and have promotions encouraging people to eat more so that they can make more profit. And arms companies sell weapons to governments who use them against their own people.

But, with legal products, the government can try and control the amount of harm caused. There can be rules about strength and about how much can be sold and who can buy and there can be monitoring to make sure that manufacturing standards are being met so that a product is as safe as it can be.

I wouldn’t say that the people who sell drugs are putting lives at risk every time but the point is that they don’t care whether there are risks or not. They just want to make the sale. Many of the people who sell drugs actually like that drugs are illegal because it reduces the number of people willing to sell them and means they can charge a higher price.

I don’t mean to show any disrespect to your dad but the reality is that, if the police make a successful raid on some drug dealers, the rest celebrate because they know the shortage that has been created will increase the price they can charge until new supplies arrive.  

Like most things in life, working out how best to manage the question of drugs is a very complex problem but, I believe, thinking it will go away just because it is illegal is never going to work.

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