What we have been told about drugs is not true: Seventy-five myths busted

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Drug law and policy has its roots in fear, ignorance, racism and vested interest. Sadly, little has changed over the decades. Drug discourse continues to be shaped by punitive populism, isolated tragic incidents and ideologically driven moral crusades, rather than science, evidence, reason and rationale.

To encourage mainstream critical debate on these issues, I’ve tried to uncover and highlight the key myths, lies and misconceptions, which underpin, shape and inform dominant drug policy thinking.

Unless we expose these flawed notions, fallacies and beliefs that infest our drugs discourse, drug reform risks reproducing further misguided drug policies and practices. Although the points are made in a punchy and accessible in style, each one is carefully considered and can be academically supported. So here are some of the main misleading assumptions:

Exposing 75 fallacies that underpin drug policy

Myth #1. “There is a clear pharmacological definition for drugs.” There isn’t – what we classify as controlled ‘drugs’ is a 1950s & 60s social and cultural construct with no coherent pharmacological rationale. We fail to recognise alcohol, tobacco or caffeine as drugs – and maybe sugar should also be classified as a drug.

Myth #2. “People who use drugs are suffering from substance use disorder.” Untrue – the vast majority of people using drugs, do so rationally, recreationally and sensibly, but unfortunately we conflate drug use with problematic use. 

Myth #3. “Drug users are dirty, immoral and dangerous losers.” An unjustified and hostile stereotype – people who use illicit drugs are a diverse group of people from every walk of life. The drug business can be dirty, immoral and dangerous – but that’s because it’s illegal, extremely lucrative and subject to fierce law enforcement.

Myth #4. “People take drugs because they have problems.” Untrue – most people take drugs because they enjoy or seek the effect, just like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. People who have problems are more likely to develop issues with addiction.

Myth #5. “Regular drug use inevitably leads to addiction.” Untrue – only a small proportion of people who use drugs develop an addiction – just like the widely used drug alcohol.

Myth #6. “Taking drugs damages people.” All substances (legal and illegal) can to some extent cause harm, and the most damaging drug of all is a legal one – alcohol. However, prohibition makes illicit drugs more dangerous and damaging. In addition, acquiring a criminal record for drugs can be more harmful to life than the drug. 

Myth #7. “Drug use fuels crime.” The presence of a drug and the commission of a crime does not equate to a causal connection. The relationship is ‘associated’ rather than ‘causal’. However, research indicates that prohibition and tough law enforcement fuel acquisitive and violent crime.

Myth #8. “Legal drugs are safer and less harmful.” This is a particularly misleading statement because alcohol and tobacco are far more damaging than most illegal drugs. However, prohibition makes it difficult to know the strength, ingredients or quality of illegal drugs, which in itself creates an entirely avoidable but serious risk.

Myth #9. “Law enforcement measures affect levels of drug use.” Studies show that in advanced western democracies neither tough nor liberal law enforcement approaches have much impact upon levels of drug use.

Myth #10. “Addiction is an equal opportunity employer.” Drug use is an equal opportunity employer,  but chronic addiction isn’t. While anyone can be affected, chronic problematic drug use tends to disproportionately affect those with disadvantaged and damaged lives that had significant difficulties before PDU and these people lack the resources, opportunities and support to recover, resulting in chronic addiction.

Myth #11. “Addiction is a brain disease”. Untrue, yes the brain will be affected, but the loss of control of drugs (similar to internet addiction, gambling, over-eating) has much more to do with social, psychological and behavioural factors than any neurological or physiological defect. If addiction was a brain disease MRIs would be used in diagnostic assessments to show evidence of addiction, and chronic addiction would be spread more evenly across society.

Myth #12. “The government can protect society by banning new drugs”. Banning drugs masquerades as positive tough action to remove the ‘problem’ when actually banning drugs has little impact on use and makes production, distribution and consumption more dangerous.

Myth #13. “Once listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, drugs become controlled.” Technically correct – but once a drug is listed as a controlled drug, it is forced underground and thus becomes completely outside government/social control. So ironically a controlled drug, is by nature, an uncontrolled drug.

Myth #14. “Cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to addiction and ‘hard’ drugs.” Untrue, most young adults have used cannabis and most have not progressed onto using other drugs, nor have they become ‘addicts’. The last three Presidents of the USA all successfully used cannabis without any gateway effect.

Myth #15. “People who use caffeine, tobacco and/or alcohol are not drug users”. Untrue – they certainly are drug users and many could be classed as ‘addicts’. These three substances are all drugs, and ironically unlike some illegal drugs – in high dosages caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are toxic and can result in death.

Myth #16. “If we lock up dealers we can reduce the drug-related violence.” The opposite is true, disrupting supply and removing dealers creates more violence by fuelling market uncertainty, presenting new business opportunities and creating ‘business’ conflict.

Myth #17. “Drug use isn’t a crime issue it’s a health issue.” This may sound like a step in the right direction, but taking a substance isn’t inherently a health issue, any more than enjoying a coffee or glass of wine is a ‘health issue’. Even problematic drug use isn’t best described as a health issue, it’s more accurately a social, psychological, health and/or legal issue.

Myth #18. “There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs.” There is no scientific evidence underpinning the misleading categorisation of hard and soft drugs. While some drugs can generally pose greater problems than other drugs to some people, – these generalisations are misleading because the impact of a drug varies from person to person depending upon the set (the person) and the setting (the environment) – it’s not just the substance.

Myth #19. “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous, and the proof they are dangerous is that they are illegal!” This circular Double-Speak offers no evidence and is used to defend prohibition, but the substances we have called ‘drugs’ are not inherently more dangerous than other substances such as alcohol, sugar, tobacco, caffeine and peanuts. However, prohibition increases the risk, danger and uncertainty considerably.

Myth #20. “Drug testing will tell you if a person is on drugs.” The result is unreliable due to human error, machine error, deliberate and accidental false positives and false negatives. Someone eating a poppy seed bagel could test positive for opiates. Someone who tests positive for cannabis may not have used the drug that day, however, because of the metabolites of the drug the positive result may be detecting cannabis used days, weeks or even months ago.  Drug presence does not indicate drug impairment or intoxication.

Myth #21. “Like everything else on the market drugs must be proven safe before they can ever be legalised.” Not true. The safety of other products does not have to be established before approval (for example mobile phones or GM foods). Substances that are damaging or even lethal to some such as tobacco, alcohol, peanuts are legal and promoted, whereas a drug such as cannabis that has medicinal benefits and has never killed anyone is considered dangerous and remains illegal.

Myth #22. “People who use drugs are not criminals they need help.” An apparently benign and supportive statement, however, while taking a drug should not be a law enforcement concern, neither should we problematize or pathologize drug use as a health issue. There is no reason why we should assume a person using drugs needs help.

Myth #23. “Recovery is about becoming drug-free.” Recovery is about people who have been dependent on drugs regaining control of their life, but becoming drug-free isn’t always necessary to achieve that. Some people sort their life out and continue to use in a non-problematic way, and some take clean legal prescribed substitutes such as methadone or heroin and successfully lead productive and stable lives. 

Myth #24. “Harm reduction is about reducing the spread of diseases.” Harm reduction is not just about health – it’s also about reducing social, cultural and psychological harms. Harm reduction is an evidence-based approach that should sit alongside human rights to underpin all drug policy. It’s pragmatic, humane and non-judgemental, it engages people where they are at with a view to reducing risk and harm.

Myth #25. “Harm reduction doesn’t support abstinence.” Harm reduction isn’t about getting people off drugs – it’s about working with people to reduce risks. However, in some cases abstinence might be a good way to reduce risks – so harm reduction incorporates abstinence – but only if the person is ready, able, interested and wanting to become abstinent.

Myth #26. “Illegal drugs have little or no use in medicine.” Although this sentiment is enshrined in the much out-dated 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics it couldn’t be further from the truth. Opiates are essential in severe pain management, while cannabis and MDMA have medicinal benefits in the treatment of a growing number of conditions (e.g. MS, PTSD, Epilepsy). Illegality has made medical trials and acceptance extremely difficult.

Myth #27. “People who use drugs need treatment, not prison.” Another apparently positive statement, however, people who use drugs don’t need treatment or prison anymore than someone who has a double espresso each morning, or the person who enjoys a glass of whisky before bedtime needs treatment or prison. Under the umbrella of ‘it’s better than prison’ all sorts of questionable practices can appear palatable.

Myth #28. “To prevent stigma we need to understand addiction as a disease.” Yes, we want to prevent stigma but addiction is not a disease. The most effective way to prevent stigma is to end the drug apartheid and challenge the hypocritical and flawed social construction of ‘drugs’. 

Myth #29. “Drug laws affect everyone the same.” This is not true. The chances of being stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted for drug possession depends greatly on the colour of your skin, your social class, age, location and your social background. 

Myth #30. “If we try hard enough we can eradicate drugs.” A fallacy. Forty years of extremely tough prohibition involving masses of time and money for police, armed forces and customs has had no impact upon supply, price or use. They can’t even keep drugs out of high-security prisons.

Myth #31. “Heroin is a dangerous drug that damages your body.” Any street drug could be very damaging because illegality means the user hasn’t got a clue what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin (unlike alcohol) doesn’t cause any permanent damage to the body.

Myth #32. “Crack cocaine in pregnancy leads to permanently damaged ‘crack’ babies.” There is no consistent evidence to support this claim. Longitudinal studies indicate severe and enduring poverty appears to be the most significant factor that thwarts child progress and development, not parental crack cocaine use during pregnancy. So instead of emotively and inaccurately, focusing upon ‘crack babies’, it would be more appropriate to direct attention towards the plight of ‘poverty babies’. 

Myth #33. “Drug testing will help identify people who have a drug problem.”  Besides its unreliability – at best drug testing only indicates drug presence, it provides no indication of the pattern, time, place, reason or context of drug use. A positive result indicates drug use not problematic use.

Myth #34. “Law enforcement targets the most dangerous drugs.” Untrue, arrests and drug seizures for cannabis outnumber all the other drugs arrests combined. The war between drugs is largely a war on the relatively benign cannabis while the significantly more dangerous drug alcohol is enjoyed and promoted amongst law enforcement officials.

Myth #35. “People caught with cannabis don’t end up in prison.” Untrue, certainly many certainly do, and indigenous people, poor people and people of colour are more likely to be targeted.

Myth #36. “Drug law enforcement targets people who use drugs.” Levels of drug use across the white and black population are similar. However, it depends upon the colour of your skin and your social status as to whether you will be targeted. If you are poor and have a minority ethnic heritage you are much more likely to be targeted – stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and subsequently sentenced – for drug defined crime. 

Myth #37. “Heroin during pregnancy will cause permanent harm to the unborn child.” Street heroin is a problem because you don’t know what’s in it. But clean pharmaceutical heroin causes no known permanent damage to a baby. Once recovered from withdrawal symptoms babies will have no permanent harm. However, alcohol taken during pregnancy can cause Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – a permanent condition.

Myth #38. “A drug-free world is desirable.” Drugs have been used since records began for pain relief, treating sickness, for relaxation and social reasons. Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco are drugs and arguably cocoa, sugar and fat too. A world without drugs is unthinkable, undesirable and untenable.

Myth #39. “Illegal drugs kill people.” This is misleading because the majority of drug deaths are consequences of prohibition and a draconian drug policy that makes taking drugs uncertain and more dangerous and getting help risky. A lot of deaths could have otherwise been avoided. 

Myth #40. “Drug policy is based upon the best available evidence.” For decades research reports, reviews, inquiries, expert groups have provided mountain loads of evidence – but drug policy has repeatedly ignored the best available evidence and instead continued to uphold the principles of prohibition enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention. Drug policy is rooted in ideological beliefs and an attempt to seize the moral high ground, rather than science and evidence.

Myth #41. “It’s a war on drugs.”  Untrue – drugs have never been more accommodated, integrated or promoted. There is no war on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, fat or BigPharma drugs.  It is a war on particular drugs that have been outlawed for political, social and economic reasons (not pharmacological or scientific reasons). It’s a ‘War Between Drugs’ enforced by an uncompromisingly tough Drug Apartheid.

Myth #42. “Strict Regulation is the way forward.” Ideally, but it depends upon what regulation looks like. Not if that regulation (as illustrated in the New Zealand Psychoactive Substance Act 2013) means: you are now prohibited and punished for possession of substances not approved by the state (s.71 $500 fine); supply carries a 2 year prison sentence (s.70); all new psychoactive substances not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act are automatically prohibited and the only way of acquiring ‘approved’ substances is through BigPharma or BigBusiness.

Myth #43. “Every day drug-free is another day of being clean.”  This is misleading, is anyone ever (and should they be?) drug-free because we take caffeine, sugar, cocoa, aspirin, alcohol?  More importantly, this statement wrongly insinuates taking a drug is wrong and dirty and without them, we become ‘clean’.

Myth #44. “Alcohol occupies so much police time – imagine how bad it’d be if we legalise cannabis.”  There is no comparison between these two different substances that impact behaviour very differently. It is rare for anyone on cannabis to be argumentative, aggressive and violent, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for alcohol. It’s like saying we’ve seen the damaged caused by sports like rugby, so we have no intention of allowing tennis.

Myth #45. “Legalising drugs is dangerous because more people will use drugs.”  In countries where drugs have been legalised or decriminalised there has not been an overall increase in drug consumption. However, it is not drug use per se that should concern us, it is problematic drug use that we should be concerned about. Only a small proportion of people who use drugs develop addiction issues. However, while drugs remain illegal it creates uncertainty regarding purity, toxicity, content, strength and people are further at risk of acquiring a criminal record that could damage them for life.

Myth #46. “Cannabis use by drivers is leading to more deaths on the road.” Unfounded. There is evidence that cannabis is increasingly found in blood samples in road traffic accidents (RTAs) but this presence of cannabis in the bloodstream could arise from the use of cannabis days, weeks, even months earlier. Drug presence doesn’t mean drug impairment. Association is not causation. It would be similar to suggesting the increased possession of a mobile phone by drivers in fatal RTAs was leading to more deaths on the road.

Myth #47. “Every drug death is further evidence of the dangers of drugs.”  Most drug deaths are a by-product of draconian drug policy that could be avoided by a combination of decriminalisation, legalisation, naloxone distribution, safer drug use education, heroin-assisted treatments, drug checking kits, drug consumption rooms and less intolerance and stigma. Our drug policies are killing people.

Myth #48. “The underground criminal business in drugs is enormous so we need tougher law enforcement.” Unfortunately, it is prohibition that has created these conditions in the first instance, more enforcement can only be expected to further increase the power and wealth of the criminal cartels and increase violence. However, decriminalisation and regulation could significantly reduce illegal drug business, and also reduce harms for users.

Myth #49. “Better that someone gets treatment in Drug Court than go to prison.” Anything can appear palatable and justified if presented as an alternative to prison. For the overwhelming majority of non-problematic drug users, coercive treatment is pointless, expensive, and unethical. For the small minority of problematic users who need and want help, it is better that they can access help voluntarily in the community, following a thorough assessment, and be  matched to a best-fit treatment plan that has access to a full range of services; rather than having to carry out an enforced abstinence 12 step programme with the threat of imprisonment looming for any failure.

Myth #50. “The world would be a better place without drugs.” Drugs are vital in medicine and pain relief, they are also important for relaxing, sleeping, socialising, providing energy, thinking laterally, creatively and artistically. Legal drugs alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are used for these purposes every day, although other (currently illegal) drugs might be safer and better suited.

Myth #51. “People grow out of taking drugs.”  While there is evidence that people grow out of criminal activity, the use of prohibited drugs involves criminal risks, so if there is a shift away from illegal drugs at a later age it’s not necessarily the case that people are ‘growing out of drugs’, but perhaps, over time, they learn to avoid the associated criminal associations. There is no evidence people grow out of using the drugs alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Myth #52. “If we provide robust evidence drug laws will change  Strong reliable evidence is crucial to develop effective drug laws, but most advanced capitalist countries show little sign of being influenced by science and evidence. Instead, they seem committed to an ideologically driven position to maintain the privilege of legal drugs by demonising all illicit drugs regardless of the harms caused.

Myth #53. “Society needs to learn to accept drug use  With the massive range of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine products available, combined with the ever-increasing range of pharmaceutical drugs, there is no doubt society already accepts, embraces and engages in drug use – on a daily basis! So this statement is misleading and feeds into the faulty thinking that fails to acknowledge legal substances as ‘ drug’ use. Society needs to learn to understand we are operating within a drug apartheid.

Myth #54. “There is no cure for addiction  Addiction is essentially a social and psychological condition, rooted in patterns of thinking, behaviour and lifestyle that’s got out of control. It’s not an incurable disease from which people never recover and are forced to live in ‘recovery’. The vast majority of people who become dependent successfully regain control, most of them without professional help. The large numbers who have quit smoking are a good example.

Myth #55. “The only appropriate place for taking drugs is in medicine  It is a position you could hold for yourself but not one you have any right to impose on others. It’s an extreme position that would mean no tea, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fizzy drinks, sweets or cakes, most breakfast cereals etc (avoiding the drugs; alcohol, caffeine and sugar).  It’s akin to saying the only acceptable reason for consuming food is to keep us healthy. Pleasure, relaxing, getting more energy,  feeling sleepy or enhancing our senses are not unreasonable motivations for taking food or substances.

Myth #56. “Drugs like cannabis are illegal  As a result of the 1961 UN Single Convention signature countries have made possession and cultivation of certain substances listed in the Convention a criminal offence. However, the substances themselves are not illegal, which raises the question why plants like cannabis, coca and the opium poppy are not illegal, on what basis can or should the police and armed forces search the countryside to dig up or destroy uncultivated plants.

Myth #57. “The Drugs War has failed  That depends upon what you think the purpose of the Drug War is. Yes, the drug war has failed to reduce or stop people from using banned drugs – but that is a war that should never be fought, it is fundamentally misguided and wrong.  If the drug war is understood through a neoliberal lens it has been a great success. It has preserved the privileged position granted to the legal drug industry (pharmaceuticals, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco); it has provided the state with considerable powers to control the poor, people of colour, indigenous people and the ‘other’; it has provided great numbers for the burgeoning and profitable penal industrial complex; and it has spawned extensive new testing and surveillance business opportunities in times of recession.

Myth #58. “People choose to buy alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, but illegal drugs are pushed on people  This notion is deeply flawed. Most people are exposed to illicit drugs through friendship networks, whereas, legal drugs such as alcohol are actually pushed on people via advertising and sponsorship, and they are further pressured to use alcohol by powerful cultural norms to ‘celebrate’, ‘have fun’ and ‘join in’. So, if anything people are more likely to be ‘pushed’ into legal drugs.

Myth #59. “Drugs are dangerous, that’s why we need regulation  Adopting prohibition arguments to draw people towards decriminalisation or legalisation, only serves to perpetuate myths and misinformation. Drugs are not dangerous per se, they vary widely and cannot be lumped together like this. What we can say is that prohibition enforcement has made drug use dangerous.  Beware because regulation can be so strict, it is effectively new prohibition. 

Myth #60. “Maybe we were wrong about cannabis  Don’t just isolate cannabis, drug prohibition is wrong for all illicit drugs. Yes, it’s right that cannabis should be legalised and free for individuals to cultivate for personal use, but isolating cannabis and inviting this particular drug to enjoy power and privilege in a corrupt system not only perpetuates the drug apartheid, but it potentially weakens the opposition to it. So while cannabis should be legalised, the commitment needs to be focused upon exposing and dismantling the entire corrupt drug control system that lacks scientific evidence to support it, so that all drugs are decriminalised and sensibly regulated, rather than select particular drugs to enjoy privilege and promotion alongside alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.

Myth #61. “Drug laws are outdated and need changing”  Untrue. It’s not that drug laws have become outdated, they have never been fit for purpose at any time. They are rooted in propaganda, myths and lies and we need to understand this in order to develop new drug laws rooted in scientific evidence with policies that promote harm reduction and protect human rights.

Myth #62. “Drug users need compassion and support, not stigma and hatred”  Certainly stigma and hatred towards drug users is wrong but people who use banned substances don’t need patronising, they are not inherently in need of support or compassion. They need to be free from criminalisation and they need their human rights restored.

Myth #63. “Nations need to work together tackle the global drug problem”  There is no global drug problem, what we have is a global drug policy problem. Drug policy harm that has been created, sustained and exacerbated by the nations working together under the UN mandate to prohibit so-called drugs.

Myth #64. “We need to get the UN to change their approach to drugs”  The UN system to control ‘drugs’ has created the problem. The UN the bastion of needless prohibition that has created the World Drug Policy Problem, should not be commissioned to lead reform, their role and involvement in controlling ‘drugs’ needs to be decommissioned. Instead, we need countries to invest their energy to tackle the drug policy problem in their own country and roll out reform nationally, rather than divest and waste energy seeking and waiting for international reforms.

Myth #65. “It’s time to consider legalising drugs”  This statement colludes with the prohibition lie that drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar and pharmaceuticals are somehow not legalised drugs. They are not only already legalised they are heavily promoted and embraced drugs, so the more accurate and honest question would be to ask ‘Should the other drugs that we’ve outlawed be legalised?’ An important question because there is no scientific evidence to separate or distinguish them from the substances that have been selectively legalized.

Myth #66. “In-recovery is the term for a person who no longer uses drugs” A person who overcomes addiction isn’t forever in recovery, this is a disease model of addiction that claims people never recover from addiction, so spend the rest of life as ‘addicts’ in recovery, living with an incurable disease. Whereas, ‘in recovery’ should refer to the period when tackling addiction and recovering from addiction, after that period they are recovered.

Myth #67. “Abstinence is when someone has stopped using drugs” This statement presents drugs as homogenous as if somehow all drugs possess similar properties, dangers and risk. Abstinence is when a person gives up completely from using a drug that was causing them difficulties. If a person had an issue with drug ‘a’ there is no reason why they should necessarily abstain from drug ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’, or indeed every psycho-active substance on earth. 

Myth #68. “Injecting drugs causes ulcers, sepsis, endocarditis, Hepatitis & HIV” Untrue, it is injecting drugs under unsterile conditions and sharing equipment with infected others that causes these issues – not injecting per se. This risk is made more likely by Prohibitionist drug policies that stigmatize and make access to clean needles and equipment more difficult.

Myth #69. “Once an addict always an addict” The idea that once anyone has a particular problem then forever they’ll remain captive to it, is nonsense.  Each person is different and each substance and struggle with addiction is different. Importantly too, a person is not an addict, their identity is much richer, broader and multi-faceted. The notion of an all-powerful overarching identity is damaging and misleading. 

Myth #70. “We do not condone drug use”This sentence is often added by someone promoting harm reduction or drug reform. It’s prohibition propaganda speak that unwittingly lends support to the grotesque notion of a drug-free world. Why would anyone wish to proclaim they don’t condone people starting the day with a coffee, don’t condone drinking champagne at weddings, don’t condone people taking painkillers when in pain, don’t condone people opening a bottle of wine with friends?

Myth #71. “People are not ready to support recreational drug taking” This is absolute nonsense because widespread use of psychoactive drugs already lubricates every social event, gathering and occasion. Almost everyone starts the day with a stimulant hit. We all use drugs.

Myth #72. “Any physical contact with fentanyl poses a serious of overdose” Police departments in particular, have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid contact with fentanyl, but contact with the drug poses no serious risk whatsoever – the drug has to be ingested to pose a risk. No one has ever overdosed as a result of physical contact with fentanyl – despite the media stories.

Myth #73. “Needle exchanges encourage drug injecting” There is no evidence to support this – see evidence from a randomised controlled trial.

Myth #74. “The drugs out there have changed, they are now purer, more powerful and more dangerous, – they are lethal” Every year police make these exaggerated proclamations, demonising banned drugs, fuelling fear and seeking support for tougher action – it’s been going on for decades. Indeed, back in 1906 US Police claimed cocaine provided Black people with super-human strength and wanted heavier caliber handguns to stop the drug crazed Black person high on cocaine.

Myth #75. “The only people arguing to legalise drugs are ‘drug’ usersThat’s simply not true. I for one, have never used a banned drug and I want possession, cultivation and production of all drugs for personal use to be legal! Lots of people, like me, simply want to end the needless deaths, carnage and damage caused by drug prohibition.

Special thanks to Jerry Dorey for proofreading and helpful suggestions, and to so many other critical thinkers such as @NuriaCalzadaA willing to challenge the status quo.



62 thoughts on “What we have been told about drugs is not true: Seventy-five myths busted

  1. Hi Julian,

    I think you erroneously added an “s” to #28: “Addiction is not as disease.”

    Can you please clarify what you mean by “addiction is not a disease”? Or if not a disease, what is it in your opinion? How do you understand addiction?



    1. Thanks Ziggi
      I think addiction is not a disease it’s essentially a psychosocial condition (it may have physiological impacts too). I’d reserve the term disease as essentially a disorder that physiologically affects the body (it may have psychosocial impacts too).
      So addiction (the loss of control of a habit) can occur in any repeated pattern of behaviour – texting, gambling, washing, cleaning – note these are behaviours that don’t involve physically taking anything but they can result in addiction just the same. Because addiction is essentially not physiological.


      1. Thats a rather muddled reply. Some drugs – heroin, alcohol and some presceiption sedatives spring to mind, certainly can result in a physiological addiction if used regularly. Also, limiting the term ‘disease’ to purely physiological problems would exclude depression, anxiety disorders and a host of other conditions from being viewed as ‘diseases’ too.
        In general I agree with most of what you say, I dont believe that the deaire to use a drug (by which term I include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine) indicatws the prescence of a medical condition per se – but thats not to say that regular or daily drug use cant cause a medical syndrome (lets avoid the term ‘disease’ for clarity).


      2. Even for substances like alcohol, opiates and benzos which are clearly physiologically addictive the overall addiction, even to these substances, (in my professional experience) is not exclusively or mainly physical – but social and psychological.

        In terms of phobias, depression, anxiety etc I don’t think they are a generally best classed as a disease rooted in physiological, neurologic a, medical or organic disorders – but better understood as conditions. Although acknowledging some mental health manifestations are rooted in organic changes such as dementia. Again while there are physiological components I regard the social and psychological are more significant.

        When Nature Journal asserted addiction was a disease and this was widely accepted by scientists in the field 94 International experts in drug addiction reject this over simplified notion see: https://www.academia.edu/6133616/Letter_published_in_Nature_challenging_the_notion_that_addiction_is_essentially_a_disease


      3. With all due respect, I fully disagree with your conceptualization of what is a disease. Your statement of “So addiction (the loss of control of a habit) can occur in any repeated pattern of behaviour – texting, gambling, washing, cleaning – note these are behaviours that don’t involve physically taking anything but they can result in addiction just the same. Because addiction is essentially not physiological” does not prove that addiction is not a disease.


    2. Ziggi Santini, drug use will persist in places where drug use is illegal. Why is alcohol legal when that stuff kills people and not cocaine, hashish, methamphetamine or Marijuana which could also kill people if they overdose?


  2. Thanks. I’m not sure I agree that a disease necessarily has to have a physiological cause. I would say that addiction is at the least a psychiatric disorder, and with most psychiatric disorders, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause, which is usually a combination of biological/hereditary and social/psychological factors. Nevertheless, I would generally consider psychiatric disorders to come under the category of “disease” or “mental illness”, and thus also addiction. I would also say that there is a difference between an addiction and an obsession/compulsion.

    I think you made a very good list of misconceptions though. Thank you for that.


    1. The danger of widening disease to include non physiological conditions is how are they diagnosed, by whom? Also anyone who behaves in a manner deemed by the State as unacceptable could be diagnosed to have ‘a disease’ and be subject to [compulsory?] medicalisation and treatment.
      So you can imagine that in such terms homosexuality could be a disease, or a desire to use illegal drugs, or people with anti-state tendancies, or people who who commit crime etc.


      1. History tells us differently ‘Believe’. In the last 30 years, I have worked in mental health. In my early days, I was involved with the de institutionalisation of Tokanui and Porirua psychiatric hospitals here in New Zealand. Nine individuals come immediately to mind who were institutionalised for many years on the basis of their sexuality, 3 of these were given frontal lobotomies or leucotomies to operate the ‘gay’ away. Homosexuality was only removed from the Diagnositc Manual 30 years ago. Until very recently, it was considered a disease of the mind.

        Excellent point Julian.


      2. Shocking examples Sandra – thanks for sharing.
        Yes the parallel is there for the so supposedly diagnosed ‘addict’ suffering from an incurable life long disease.
        Another lesson is that we should be very cautious about yielding power to the state to intervene.


  3. Thx for this! Great information and therefore a great thing to show people in doubt. That is why i would ask you if it would be possible to add sources and academic proof of these answers. I agree with them all, and find many of them even as “common knowledge”, unfortunatly not all people see it this way, and it would be great if i could show it to “doubters” with being able to really backing it up.

    Thx alot!


  4. thanks Mathias – It is something I intend to do They can all be evidenced – but I just need some space to do it. Ideally I want to turn each of the points into mini chapter. Although I haven’t got space at the moment if you really need evidence for a particular point – email me and I’ll see if I can help julian.buchanan@vuw.ac.nz


  5. I didn’t read all of your posts, mainly because while some has some truth, some has no merit to it. There is considerable amount of evidence showing that addiction has a genetic and neurological aspect to it. Addiction is a disease, a disease that is chronic. Drugs can and do kill people, and it has nothing to do with the prohibition of drugs. Addiction is an equal opportunistic- homeless to the richest; pre-teens to geriatric; white, black, Asian; middle school drop outs to individuals with professional degrees. While some individuals can continue to use socially, it is a very small amount of people.


    1. You are right people have died from drugs like alcohol, tobacco and in rare cases even from caffeine but a large number of people are able and continue to use these drug socially. People have also died directly from illegal drugs, but most use them socially too.

      Prohibition kills in so many ways: the denial of clean drugs and clean equipment; the spread of lethal diseases HIV Hep.ABC; drugs mixed with poison; drugs that are much stronger than the user realised; violence fuelled by illegal markets; overdose where people are afraid to see help; the killing between gangs for turf wars; the killings in drug wars such as the invasion in Afghanistan.

      While addiction can have genetic and neurological aspects the social, environmental, cultural and psychological aspects are more significant. People are not born ‘addicts’.

      Consistently those most at risk of chronic drug dependence are not from a cross section of society, but are over represented by people who had damaged lives, learning difficulties, physical or sexual abuse, traumatic childhoods, loss, blocked futures and/or mental health issues BEFORE drugs became a problem. So it’s hard to see chronic drug dependence as an equal opportunity employer.


      1. I totally disagree that prohibition kills. Nothing you mentioned even supports your argument.

        Yes, social and psychological factors do play a role, but there is considerable amount of evidence indicating that addiction is a brain based disease. There is also tremendous amounts of research showing that it is genetic. But, I agree, a person isn’t born an addict, but often, they are born with the predisposition for addiction. Think, Diathesis–stress model.

        I further disagree that addiction is not an equal opportunity employer. Addiction is and can be seen in all walks of life. All ages, race, SES, educational status, profession, etc are seen in substance abuse treatment.

        Many concepts within addiction have varying ideologies. While you attempt to “debunk” some of these myths, you in fact are providing are mere opinions.


  6. I amazed you struggle to recognise that prohibiting drugs results in deaths – I’m not sure how to respond. Here’s one case example for you to read: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19458107-5742-days

    Yes people from all walks of life are seen getting help for addiction but they are not proportionately represented. It is the poor, excluded and damaged BEFORE drug dependence who struggle most with chronic addiction difficulties and tend to be those most likely seen in prison and drug in treatment.


    1. Surprised to find a reader who does not think that prohibition causes deaths. That was the one lesson from liquor prohibition that I thought everyone agreed upon. Liquor prohibition created the Mafia as we know it today. The fact is that over 800 black Americans were killed by gunfire in Chicago in 2021, almost 500 in NYC and almost 400 in L.A. And as Heather Ann Thompson wrote in The Atlantic in 2014: “Without the War on Drugs, the level of gun violence that plagues so many poor inner-city neighborhoods today simply would not exist.”


  7. I agree with many of your remarks.. the war on drugs is a war on people (often with racist overtones), a cannabis plant can hardly take up arms & return fire. The war on ‘marijuana’ apparently was more about getting rid of industrial Hemp. Prohibition is a failure. it did not work in 1920s USA with alcohol, resulted in Black-market, Gangsters, Corrupt Officials, Massive cost to the tax-payer & Violence. Alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933 & replaced with strict legal regulation. The demonisation of cannabis started soon after & continues today, by those who benefit from it, regardless of all the harm that PROHIBITION (not drugs) is causing !
    ‘Kia ora’


  8. I love the article and agree almost 100 %. Best take away was “The War Between Drugs” Agree addiction is not a disease, but let’s pretend it is. I ask those disease people how is that better? I guess I would include “It’s not w moral failing” When was the last time any credible person said addiction is “a moral failing?” 1919? It’s a myth to think that opposition to the disease theory equates a moral failing.


    1. Thanks Charles glad you like the piece!
      My worry about disease is not only that it’s inaccurate, but it could later with support from MRI scans, be used to coercively ‘treat’, remove or detain the ‘diseased’.


  9. You missed the biggest myth of all – the myth of ‘illegal’ drugs. There is absolutely no such thing as an illegal drug. There are only illegal behaviours such as possession, cultivation and supply of ‘controlled’ drugs. The other related myth is the concept of a war on drugs when it is actually a war on certain users of certain substances. Apart from that some good points made.


    1. Hi Chris good point about drugs not being illegal I’d overlooked that – I’ll include it – thanks!
      I think your second point is covered by:

      41. “It’s a war on drugs.” Untrue drugs have never been more accommodated, integrated or promoted. There is no war on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, fat or BigPharma drugs. It is a war on particular drugs that have been outlawed for political, social and economic reasons (not pharmacological or scientific reasons). It’s a ‘War Between Drugs’ enforced by an uncompromisingly tough Drug Apartheid.


      36. “Drug law enforcement targets people who use drugs.” Levels of drug use across the white and black population are similar. However it depends upon the colour of your skin and your social status as to whether you will be targeted. If you are poor and have a minority ethnic heritage you are much more likely to be targeted – stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and subsequently sentenced – for drug defined crime

      Thanks for the feedback 🙂


  10. Is there a reason you have not refrenced any sources for this information? Or is this just your opinion? For instance each state does have a definition of what is considered a drug, it is that definition that law enforcment and prosecutors and others use for legal/legit purposes (employer drug testing policy)and or criminal charges.
    Here in Colorado the definition of a drug is ANY substance that which when taken into the human body impairs the ability of that person to operate a motor vehicle safely. This definition is also used in charging individuals under the influence of drugs who are not driving, but is replaced with is an immediate danger to him/herself or others.
    You also need to take into consideration that Colorado along with somee other states have an internal possession law which means if an individuals for instance is found to be under the influence of Meth, regardless if the individuals does not have the substance on his person or paraphernalia in his possession, if the Officer is able to provide evidence of impairment (roadside maneuvers or DRE (Drug Recoginition Expert) evaluation, that individual(s) can be charged with internal possession.
    For me the bottom line is it apears that your information in most of this article is your opinon and not backed by legitmate sources and that your own personal opinion has influenced this article heavily.


    1. Hi Chuck
      Thanks for your comment. I could reference all of this it’s based upon research, literature and 30 years of working in the field, but I wanted it to be a succinct, accessible and an easy read that challenged the dominant discourse on drugs.
      If there is a particular statement that you are doubtful about and want evidence or references to support my claims do let me know and I will endeavour to provide them.
      But I have written this article without any agenda or leaning as I have never used an illicit drug myself and have arrived at this position as a result of working with people who have drug problems and carrying out research in the area.
      Best regards



  11. Excellent job. A fairly exhaustive list of the BS most often heard in opposition to legalization. Most prohibitionist arguments hinge on one or more of these fallacies/lies. Like the whole “what about the children?” line.

    Thanks for your work.


  12. It’s refreshing to hear anti prohibition views that are not compromised by a perceived need to appeal to those who demand that by taking drug use out of the reach of the judicial system it must necessarily become a problem of the healthcare service. Most often, by making this concession, the moral conviction that provides the strength of the argument is unknowingly conceded too as the justification for seeking pleasure itself and not merely a reduction of suffering in a medical context is undermined.

    I do find myself questioning the sincerity of your apparent bemusement at the illogical and inconsistent drug policy throughout nearly the entire world. To my mind the problem isn’t just the result of an anomaly or inconsistency in policy peculiar to pharmaceuticals and arising as an accident of historical circumstance. Rather, there seems to be a widespread and deeply rooted moral attitude which leads people to discount or even deny the value of pleasurable experience in itself and for its own sake, unless it is achieved as a tolerated reward or compensation for enduring a commensurate amount of suffering, or passed off as part of dining. There is no concept in most peoples minds that the use of a substance in any way other than medical in order to treat illness can be valid. The notion that a substance might induce a pleasurable experience, rather than being counted as a benefit, is actually seen as a negative since it represents a risk of dependence. There is the unspoken assumption that addiction is wrong in itself, not because of physical or even psychological harm directly but because the state of dependency is inherently morally and spiritually condemned.This is why, arguing against current laws on the grounds of harm done by various substances completely misses the point; it’s not the harm that is the problem, it’s the amount of pleasure they provide that causes them to be illegal.

    The only reason alcohol is tolerated in human society is surely because it can be excused and justified in the moralistic mind as being a drink, part of the culinary cultural experience. This would explain why the absurd snobbery exists with regard to fine wine and the laughable metaphorical descriptions that spring up in the wine-tasting “art”. The only way drinking can become acceptable is to furnish it with the pretentious artifice of exaggerated culinary paraphernalia. Tobacco on the other hand is acceptable precisely because it doesn’t actually give you a high. If any proof was ever needed that the the relevant measure was not harm caused but pleasure conferred, then the legality and acceptability of tobacco smoking is surely it.


  13. All drugs should be legal. People in many cases will use them regardless of whether a law permits or prohibits it. The hypocrisy of some of the leaders in the U.S. who admitted to using these drugs and yet want to deny us the right to use them as well is ridiculous.


  14. Julian Buchanan, as I see it, the only victims of drug use are the users, not society as a whole. The most perplexing thing to me is the hypocrisy of some leaders in the U.S. who admit to using these drugs and want to deny us the freedom to do the same. Drug use, despite what some people may think, is a victimless behavior. As a libertarian and liberty minded individual, I believe that as long as I am not doing anything to hurt anybody, the government should leave me alone.


  15. I have just found this article. These are my thoughts as well! 🙂 Very good to read this, clear thinking, I am going to share with my friends.


  16. Julian, not sure if you can comment, I was discussing with some of my friends on facebook to see if they would respond in a positive way towards repeal of Cannabis Prohibition, one of the people who I asked thinks there should be a nationwide discussion on the repeal of Cannabis Prohibition in New Zealand, do you think a nationwide discussion on the repeal of Cannabis Prohibition in New Zealand would work since some US states like Iowa are aiming for total repeal of Cannabis Prohibition?


    1. Well we’ve just had a nationwide discussion on Legalising Cannabis in preparation for the Referendum which we lost very narrowly. So I don’t see the debates to repeal cannabis prohibition as too different from what we’ve already had.

      I also think that the argument to repeal prohibition is not that fundamentally much different to a discussion on repealing cannabis prohibition – so I’d be more in favour of a wider discussion on repealing prohibition.


      1. Myth: “People who use a substance problematically need treatment” You do cover it in the content but I think this may need it’s own number, but I’m in Canada. I spent about 12 months total in the most expensive, renowned, respected, residential treatment in BC and the treatment was simply convincing me my options in life are abstinence jail or death and that all my problems are caused by substance use. I didn’t even grow up thinking drugs are “bad”. I was doing mushrooms mental health professionals when I was 16 (dad is a psychiatrist). I was 19 when Edgewood Nanaimo diagnosed me as an “alcoholic” and “addict”. I’m now 35 and I still fight my own internalized prohibition daily because of the intensive “treatment” administered to me without anything close to informed consent. Treatment is stigma and everyone wants it.


      2. Thanks for sharing Lauren. “People who use a substance problematically need treatment” is a myth in that people who use substances problematically may not want to change and may be only presenting a problem to themselves, so in that case it’s their choice. Also people who use substances problematically who do want to change can often change without ‘treatment’, so it’s wrong to say they ‘need’ treatment. Some may need treatment. However, that treatment needs to be evidence based and rooted in harm reduction and human rights. What prohibitionists call ‘treatment’ is founded on ideology and hunch – not science and evidence.

        Anyone captive in prohibitionist treatment is forced to believe:

        1. Use inevitably leads to addiction
        2. Addiction is a brain disease
        3. Addiction is lifelong & incurable
        4. Use defiles you and makes you dirty
        5. Use means we can’t trust the addict you
        6. Only when left bereft of love and support to hit rock bottom will you come to your senses.
        7. Lifelong abstinence is the only solution
        8. You must also abstain from every banned drug
        9. The harms caused by prohibition provide evidence that drugs are dangerous
        10. But can enjoy state approved psychoactive drugs

        I am sorry you’ve suffered indoctrination for prohibitionist propaganda and lies.


  17. Julian! Do you read me? I tried to post a comment and it disappeared after I clicked on “submit.” Can you please tell me if you received it? I did spend two+ hours composing it, so I hope you did, especially since I can find no other online way to communicate with you except through this wordpress page!


  18. Hi, again, Julian. I am in total agreement with your 75 points, and I find it encouraging to learn that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the Emperor (or rather the Drug Tsar) is wearing no clothes. If you don’t mind, however, I’d like to add a few comments to a few of the points you raised.
    Thanks again for this very useful collection of talking points in the war against the war on drugs.

    Myth #1. “There is a clear pharmacological definition for drugs.”

    If Diogenes were searching for a wise human being today, he wouldn’t need a lantern; he could just ask people what they thought about “drugs”. Anyone who failed to begin their response by pointing out that “drugs” is a highly fraught political term loaded with unspoken assumptions could be instantly dropped from the potential list of know-it-alls. This is why so many articles about drugs are an immediate turn-off for me, because I can see almost at once (usually just by reading the article title) that the author has uncritically used the term “drugs,” without apparently noticing the highly problematic presuppositions implied by such use. It’s as if someone were to write a supposedly objective article about the motivation of striking workers while yet referring to them as “scabs.” The mere use of the word demonstrates that the writer is holding assumptions about those workers that should by rights be discussed openly and in detail rather than being simply inferred through the use of a highly charged word.

    Myth #14. “Cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to addiction and ‘hard’ drugs.”

    This is what Joe “Drug War” Biden apparently believes to this very day. As you say, this is not true. But even if it were true, I would ask, “so what?” Drugs like coca and soma and mushrooms have inspired entire religions. Why exactly is it wrong for me to develop an interest in such “drugs”? To the contrary, isn’t it an attack on religion to prevent me from using substances that have proven in the past to be the very wellspring of religious inspiration? As for addiction, the drug war has created a psychiatric pill mill in America thanks to which 1 in 4 American women are chemically dependent on expensive Big Pharma meds for life (source: Julie Holland), so I don’t think that drug warriors are in a very good moral position to lecture to me about possible addiction. Such facts demonstrate another seldom-noticed truth about the drug war, by the way: that it’s not about getting people off of drugs: it’s rather about getting people on the right drugs, namely those that conduce to a pliable citizenry whose daily prescription use contributes enormously to Wall Street’s bottom line. Far from wanting us to avoid becoming chemically dependent on drugs, the pharmaceutical industry is telling us through the media that it is our duty to “keep taking our meds.”

    Myth #17. “Drug use isn’t a crime issue it’s a health issue.”

    While conservatives want to criminalize “drugs,” misguided liberals want to medicalize and moralize them. That’s why Gabriel Mate is so popular today, because he claims that all addicts are suffering from “inner pain.” “Addicts,” however, is a political term in the time of a drug war. Before opium was outlawed, users were habitues. After criminalization, they became addicts, with all the judgmental baggage that supposedly objective word carries along with it. Thus the Drug War creates addicts linguistically, as it were, out of whole cloth. It creates still more addicts by enforcing prohibition which limits our drug access to the most addictive substances that greedy drug dealers can conveniently sell to us (like prescription pain meds). But was the opium-loving Marcus Aurelius suffering from inner pain when he used opium regularly? Was Benjamin Franklin? Was Marco Polo? JFK and his wife used plenty of what we call “speed” today thanks to a doctor’s prescription. Was JFK in inner pain? Or do you have to be poor and without political connections in order to be suffering from “inner pain”?

    Myth #23: “Recovery is about becoming drug-free.”

    Sobriety is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Suicides are often drug-free. School shooters are typically stone sober during their rampages. Vladimir Putin seems to be all too sober (whereas both he and the world would benefit were he to undergo emotional therapy with MDMA and psilocybin).

    This is why the 12-step program is a religion, for it tacitly holds that the “good life” necessitates a hypocritically defined sobriety along with a public confession by the inebriate that he or she is powerless in the face of temptation (from things like evil plant medicine). MY RESPONSE: Yes, one may indeed be powerless before such substances, but that’s only because the drug war has outlawed hundreds of psychoactive plant medicines that, in theory, could help one to avoid unwanted addictions and to pleasantly – even triumphantly – endure the withdrawal from counterproductive substances (as opposed to fighting addiction by paying $3,000 for the privilege of going cold turkey in a small multi-occupant detox room and then receiving Narcan). In my religion, according to my metaphysic, the world’s godsend medicines were meant to be used for such purposes – and so a 12-step program that tells me to revile such substances and rely instead on a higher power is clearly an attempt to change my religion, i.e. to change my concept of what constitutes “the good life,” my concept of what life and the world are all about. To tell me to believe that I am powerless is basically to tell me that I must ascribe to the Christian doctrine of “fallen humanity.”

    Myth #56. “Drugs like cannabis are illegal”

    I was surprised to learn that the opium poppy (and coca and cannabis) are not illegal in themselves, and would be glad to hear more about that distinction. But I’m not sure that it makes much difference on a practical level. The American DEA stomped onto Monticello in 1987 and confiscated Thomas Jefferson’s poppy plants, so whatever the technicalities of the case, the police and drugs agencies in America certainly behave as if the plants themselves are illegal. Of course, maybe things are different outside the States. I would love to hear more about this should you find the time!


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