Decades ago, a few signatures were enough to criminalize the immemorial use of certain plants. The signatories of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, planning to preserve the health and welfare of mankind, declared that plants like poppy, coca and cannabis, lacked any legitimate or medical uses.
This Convention prompted a business model based on the unlawfulness awarded to the today illicit substances – drug trafficking-, which in Colombia has been the engine that has fueled and atomized armed conflict. Drug trafficking is by far the main source of income of all armed groups.
It is the illegality of drugs, not their existence, which links them to organized crime. This illegality remains today due to the conviction that illicit drugs are harmful to humans. Now, is this true?
What does drug mean? (1)
Elements and compounds that enter the human body, regardless of the route, can be assimilated immediately -like food- becoming fuel for new cells, or they can resist this assimilation. In the latter category there are two types of substances: the ones that are expelled intact from the body and have no effect on it -like plastic-, and those that provoke a reaction. The latter group includes drugs (2) in general. Among those that cause an intense reaction are those compounds that affect the body in a somatic manner, such as cortisone or aspirin, and also those that affect the body in both a somatic and emotional way, as heroin or MDMA(3).
Medicinal compounds that generate intense reactions can injure and kill in relatively small amounts and, therefore, are known as poisons. Poisons, as Hippocrates and Galen -fathers of scientific medicine- understood, are substances capable of defeating the body. If a substance can kill, it is because it can cause changes in the body, and anything that can do that is also a potential remedy. This is why we can relieve sickness and disease with poisons such as aspirin or arsenic.
Paracelsus, the Swiss physician, wrote in the sixteenth century: "All things are poison and there is nothing that does not. It only depends on the dose, whether venom is venom or not” (4). Therefore, all remedies, drugs or medicines are poisonous. However, what makes a toxic substance is not the substance in itself, but relative doses of itself based on a measure such as gram, milliliter, etc. For example, a dose of benzathine G penicillin of 1,200,000 units can save the life of an adult but would be lethal for a child weighing less than 25 kilos.
The legal lie
As the dose is what separates the poison from the remedy, it cannot be true that there are dangerous and harmless drugs, narcotics and medicines. A harmless drug would not be a drug; as it would not be poison anymore. No wonder Ezra Pound said that "the technique of infamy is to invent two lies and make people argue heatedly over which one of them is true." It is an infamous claim to pretend that drugs can be classified in narcotics and medicines.
What sets medicines apart from narcotics (legal drugs from illegal ones) is not the level of toxicity of substances; the difference is a linguistic game, which hides that the words are terms that contain a moral interpretation, but appear to be scientific classification. After all, drugs, narcotics and medications are just three different ways of naming the poison.
So what do illegal drugs have in common? Just that, that they are illegal. It is impossible to find common chemical and physiological criteria for banned drugs that make them differ from those that are legal today. Nobody has been able to specify in pharmacological terms why alcohol, barbiturates or tobacco are considered grocery items or medicines and marijuana and heroin are criminal items (5).
However, the system of lists started at the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 is preserved today. Hemp and its resin remain in List I, with all other drugs considered with "particularly hazardous properties".
The word narcotic has become an ethical-legal concept that slowly seeped into the vocabulary and mind of society. Gradually the association of narcotics-non medical-illegitimate was created. In 1971, illegal drugs were banned globally.
From a legal point of view, marijuana and hashish, -hemp’s flowers and resin - are very dangerous drugs. It is a strictly moral interpretation: from a pharmacological level, poisons cannot be classified as hazardous and harmless, or guilty or innocent.
Incredibly, in 2001 the U.S. government, represented by the Department of Health and Human Services, the same government that denies internationally that hemp has legitimate medical uses, applied for a patent on cannabinoids, arguing they needed a mechanism to investigate "one of the most powerful antioxidants and neuroprotectors in nature."
The U.S. Patent 6630507, granted in 2003, was requested when researchers discovered that cannabinoids had specific antioxidant properties, useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of a wide variety of oxidations associated with aging, such as inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Today we know that cannabinoids serve as neuroprotectors; they may limit the neuronal damage that arises from strokes and trauma, they can treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer and Parkinson and prevent and treat diabetes. The literature showing how and why marijuana is used for preventing and treating cancer is far too extensive. In this link you can find the most important studies.
Is it wise to qualify as dangerous a plant that can be used to reduce blood pressure, the chances of heart attack and cancer incidence in humans, knowing that this illusion of danger is fostering an industry like drug trafficking? Is it even rational to transform a plant into a criminal article? Is not the real crime to deprive the human race of all its benefits?
Moreover, there is no scientific evidence to support the longheld belief that those who use marijuana or hashish are prone to psychological problems and mental impairment..
Dr. Alex Dregan of King's College London, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology the results of an experiment that showed that it is not possible to link illicit drug use with damaged cognitive functions. Dr. Dregan and his team evaluated the cognitive functions of 8,992 Britons aged 50. Study participants were contacted when they were 42 and were asked whether they had used at least one of 12 illegal drugs. Eight years later, the participants took part in memory, attention and various cognitive skills tests. Dr. Dregan’s team found that drug users had the best results.
It is not true that illegal substances are devoid of legitimate medical uses. The illegality of some drugs is maintained for arbitrary reasons that are not humanitarian or scientific. The humanitarian thing to do would be to remove the obstacles for whoever wants to enjoy this ancient heritage. It would suffice to demand that legislation gave more weight to judgment than to prejudice, to evidence over assumptions. We must not forget that the worst of poisons, the most dangerous of all, can also heal us.
(1) The concept of drug, its precise definition and scope can be studied in depth in the first chapter of the Appendix of Antonio Escohotado’s book, General history of drugs, pages 1179 to 1191. The title of the Appendix is Phenomenology of Drugs, Editorial Espasa, Eighth Edition, Spain, 2008.
(2) The Greek word for drug is Pharmakon, a concept that means medicine, poison and remedy, is an indistinguishable sort of way. Thus, the cure and the threat are presented inseparably, indicating that the benefit or detriment depends on the use made of the drug, not in the drug itself. Cf: Escohotado, Antonio (1998), Learning from drugs. Uses and abuses, prejudices and challenges, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona.
(3) Escohotado, Antonio (1998), Learning from drugs. Uses and abuses, prejudices and challenges, Editorial Anagram, Barcelona.
(4) Hofmann, Albert and Schultes, Richard Evans (2000) Plants of the Gods. Origin of the use of hallucinogens. Fondo de Cultura Economica, Argentina, p. 10.
(5) Escohotado, Antonio (1998), General History of the drugs 1, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, pp. 137 and 138.