Choosing Your Drugs Wisely. A Perspective Shift.

There is an immense amount of discussion today about the legalization of illicit substances. Most predominantly is marijuana legalization, followed closely by psilocybin, MDMA and LSD. This is beginning to open discussions about the nature of these substances and whether they are medicinal or harmful. But our evaluation of substances has been so incredibly skewed by how we discuss these “drugs.” By discussing these substances with a different kind of vocabulary, we make them sound more dangerous than many things most of us consume every day. But reality is not so clearly cut. To get a better idea on how backwards our estimation of substances can be, I would invite you to reconsider substances that we don’t normally think of as drugs. Let’s evaluate the properties of these substances in the same way drugs are evaluated so we may see these new substances objectively rather than emotionally.

An easy correlation is caffeine. Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. When coffee first came to Europe in the seventeenth century it had incredible opposition as a new a unapproved drug. Authorities tried to prohibit its use but they failed, and whole populations became coffee-751619_1920addicted to it almost overnight. According to Dr. Andrew Weil in his book From Chocolate to Morphine, “Coffee is a strong stimulant that is hard on the body. It is irritating to the bladder and stomach. It also makes many people shaky by upsetting the delicate balance between nerves and muscles. It is a common cause of headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety and insomnia.” Commonly known side effects of caffeine are diarrhea, dizziness, fast heartbeat, hyperglycemia, blurred vision, drowsiness, flushed dry skin, loss of appetite, nausea, stomach ache, tiredness, troubled breathing, vomiting, anxious feeling, cold sweats, hypertension, confusion, shakiness, irritability and suppression of hunger. It has even been suspected of causing birth defects. Caffeine also increases the amount of stress hormones your body releases. This is extremely harmful over any extended period of time. And what about that distinctive, throbbing headache that appears when you miss your morning cup of coffee? That’s called withdrawal. You are literally withdrawing from caffeine just like any “drug.” And as most of us have found from personal experience, consuming caffeine in any form will rapidly alleviate the withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine is even being used as a preferred performance-enhancing drug for competitive athletes.

Ifood-2940251_1920ncreasingly, people die from caffeine overdoses every year due to the popularity of energy drinks, caffeine powder and caffeine pills. There has never been a death from overdosing marijuana. “Caffeine is clearly more risky, more dangerous, more deadly, more harmful and more costly than cannabis in every category – overdose deaths, overuse deaths, withdrawal symptoms and acute toxicity.” 82-92% of adults living in North America have a daily dose of caffeine; a psychoactive substance that is physically addictive! We are simply so used to the effects of caffeine that it doesn’t feel or look like a drug anymore.

To shake us out of our assumptions about caffeine further, here is a chart from DrugScience.org, noting marijuana is the least harmful.  “Eminent addictions specialist Jack Henningfeld was asked to rate the addictive qualities of popular drugs for the New York Times, and produced the following ratings according to five general indicators of abuse potential.”

 
Comparing Addictive Qualities of Popular Drugs
(Higher score indicates more serious effect)
Drug
Dependence
Withdrawal
Tolerance
Reinforcement
Intoxication
Nicotine
6
4
5
3
2
Heroin
5
5
6
5
5
Cocaine
4
3
3
6
4
Alcohol
3
6
4
4
6
Caffeine
2
2
2
1
1
Marijuana
1
1
1
2
3

Now let’s consider sugar as a mood altering drug. According to researchers from Queensland University of Technology, excessive sugar consumption increases the dopamine levels in a similar way to other drugs such as cocaine. If you think that is too harsh a comparison consider this study where rats preferred sugar over cocaine. Even the rats that were experienced cocaine users preferred sugar when given a choice. Professor Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist from the university’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation is quoted here as saying,”Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine. We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation.”

And if you want the real gateway drug it’s sugar, not marijuana. “‘In certain models, sugar-bingeing causes long-lasting effects in the brain and increases the inclination to take other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol,” Professor Bart Hoebel said. “Hungry rats that binge on sugar provoke a surge of dopamine 332Hin their brains. After a month, the structure of the brains of these rats adapts to increased dopamine levels, showing fewer of a certain type of dopamine receptor than they used to have and more opioid receptors. These dopamine and opioid systems are involved in motivation and reward, systems that control wanting and liking something. Similar changes also are seen in the brains of rats on cocaine and heroin. In experiments, the researchers have been able to induce signs of withdrawal in the lab animals by taking away their sugar supply. The rats’ brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal. The rats’ teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore.”

food-3180358_640And sugar consumption is on the rise. Sugar is killing people through heart disease, diabetes and other inflammatory diseases. It is ruining the quality of their lives by making them obese and sick. It’s a slow killer that ruins the quality of your life increasingly along the way. Marijuana has no such effects unless you give into the munchies and choose junk food. Marijuana is safer than sugar and most Americans agree. So given caffeine and sugar combined you have some powerfully addictive concoctions. Why do you think Starbucks, energy drinks and so-called soft drinks are ubiquitous now a days? Sugar and caffeine combined make for a powerful concoction that is not so soft when you consider them as drugs. This is even completely avoiding the topic of alcohol (by itself or combined with sugar and caffeine, giving Jager bombs their infamous reputation), which is far too potent and destructive a substance to even be included in this conversation. It’s not a fair comparison and it will need to be addressed separately.

What about marijuana itself? The DEA’S administrative law judge is quoted as saying “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” Addiction alters the chemistry of the brain in a way that supports more usage. This is true for both sugar and caffeine. But the human brain is already attuned to receive cannabinoids. It does not alter a user’s brain chemistry in any significant way. The binding of the cannabinoids to the CB1 and CB2 receptors is an entirely natural chemical reaction. In fact, our bodies produce their own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids. We are just beginning to learn about the functions of these endocannabinoids thanks to research being done into cannabis.

And what exactly is a drug anyways? Can anyone give a clear definition of what is a drug and what isn’t? How do we draw that line? Is caffeine a drug? Sugar? Tobacco? Salt? Chocolate? Aspirin? What makes marijuana a drug but not sugar? It’s difficult to distinguish drugs from food from plants from drugs-1914587_640poisons. They all seem to be a bit of each. They say the dose makes the poison. Water isn’t considered poisonous but if you drink too much too quickly, it can kill you. Chocolate is a dessert but also contains a chemical related to caffeine called theobromine. Theobromine is a stimulant but doesn’t account for the addictive behavior with which people consume chocolate. It’s still not fully understood. Often consumed in cyclic binges, and used as an antidepressant, chocolate may not be as benign as we’d like. What about taking Lion’s Mane or one of the many medicinal mushrooms available as supplements today? Is that food or drug? What if you cook the Lion’s Mane yourself, is it a food or drug then? Smartphones and tablets are even being compared to cocaine and alcohol. According to addictions.com, “The release of dopamine that occurs when a person uses a cell phone is similar to the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that occurs when drugs are used.” Drug is a big word that we squeeze too much into and as a result it has lost all meaning completely. And we draw the line very arbitrarily on what is classified as a drug and what is not, mainly based on tradition. But we are getting more data and information all of the time and the traditions here don’t hold up anymore. The concept of a drug is outdated. We have to be more discerning with how we label things.

With so much discussion around the legalization of different substances, it’s time that we reevaluate how we label so called drugs. Labels carry a lot of weight in our minds and “drug” is one of the heaviest ones. From pharmaceuticals, to outlawed plants, to synthetic chemicals cooked up in the labs, to supplements that enhance your life and performance; drug is too generic a term to retain any meaning anymore. We need to be more discerning with how we discuss these substances so we can talk about them objectively and compare them fairly. It’s confusing to hear about someone using an illicit drug as medicine that improves their lives. The concepts are contradicting by nature. I believe this has been one of the major hurdles with the legalization of the “drug” marijuana, and this has held back research and care for patients with dire need for the plant. Greater specificity is required when talking about drugs. Evaluating everyday substances reveals that there is no hard line between where food becomes drug, becomes medicine or even poison.

We are all dying. Everything we put into our bodies damages us a little. Even breathing introduces toxins into your body. That’s why we are constantly confused about what foods are healthy and what are harmful. All we can do is choose substances that improve the quality of our lives and try to minimize the negative side effects. If we are to grow as a society, we must be mature enough to meet things with the complexity presented to us rather than trying to simplify them into predefined categories to make ourselves more comfortable. “Drug” is an outdated concept that we need to leave behind if we are going to evaluate these promising substances properly.

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