Heroin is scary!
Health class in freshman year was full of misinformation–especially about the two controversial, politically charged topics: drugs and sex. Though my health teacher got plenty of other things wrong, too, about anorexia and nutrition. But let’s just focus on one thing at a time.
We were mostly presented with information about the effects of various drugs: cocaine does this, and may cause your teeth to fall out, and meth does this, and may give you a heart attack, ecstasy does this, and may cause you to walk around Disneyland chewing on a pacifier and looking strung out. PCP makes you think you can fly. And bad trips on LSD will give you flashbacks for the rest of your life and permanently scar your mind.
I figured I would never be able to find illegal substances anyway, much less be brave enough to use them, so I never questioned what Mr. Health Teacher told us.
As usual, we also watched Lifetime-style videos dramatizing the ill effects of drug use, dependence, and abuse. You know. Three teenagers–one who gets sucked into the world of heroin, and sucks his other two friends in. Everyone dies of overdoses.
I asked my teacher afterward whether people who try heroin and cocaine for the first time really become so instantly addicted. Oh yes, he said, it happens quite often–that just demonstrates the addictive power of these drugs! Even my usual budding skepticism at the time ingested this tidbit of information, unquestioned. Gateway drugs, I thought! Instant addiction!
Later I learned about how foggy so many of these studies are, and how much propaganda is infused into them. They are far from the ideal of scientific objectivity.
Yes, drugs are dangerous in many cases. And pleasurable (why else use them?). But so powerfully addictive? Maybe not.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), most people who use heroin for the first time do not use it again in the next year. Drugmonkey provides a great breakdown on his blog, but here’s the jist: given continued use, heroin and crack cocaine are most likely to cause addiction. But since alcohol and marijuana are so widely used, there are far more people addicted to these substances than to heroin or crack.
A widely cited epidemiological study (Anthony et al, 1994 Exp Clin Psychopharm 2(3)) even concludes that those who use nicotine–the most popular drug next to alcohol–are more likely to become addicted than those who do heroin. But the study did not take into account how many times these substances were used until dependence developed, which seems to be an important factor.
Moreover, neither of these studies addresses the issue of why users eventually became addicted–is it really because of some inherent ‘addictive’ quality of the drug? Are there ‘addictive’ personalities or biological types? Is it a combination of these things? Do we have basic biological evidence to support the idea that X is more addictive than Y?
Not only are there no clear answers, but nobody is hurrying to find out what they are, either. I’m not advocating drug use, or that everyone goes out and tries heroin. I just wish my health teacher had the cojones (or the brains) to tell us the truth.