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The following is an excerpt from "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do", by
Peter McWilliams. It is a discussion between William F. Buckley, Jr. and
Professor Gazzaniga (the Andrew W. Thompson Jr. Professor of Psychiatry
[Neuroscience] at Dartmouth Medical School) which was originally
published in the February 5, 1990, issue of the National Review.
Buckley: It is said that the drug crack is substantively different from
its parent drug, cocaine, in that it is, to use the term of Professor
van den Haag, "crimogenic." In other words a certain (unspecified)
percentage of those who take crack are prompted to--well, to go out and
commit mayhem of some kind. Is that correct?
Gazzaniga: No, not in the way you put it. What you are asking is: Is
there something about how crack acts on the brain that makes people who
take it likelier to commit crime?
Let's begin by making it clear what crack is. It is simply cocaine that
has been mixed with baking soda, water, and then boiled. What this
procedure does is to permit cocaine to be smoked. Now any drug ingested
in that way -- i.e., absorbed by the lungs--goes more efficiently to the
brain, and the result is a quicker, more intense experience. That is
what crack gives the consumer. But its impact on the brain is the same
as with plain cocaine and, as a matter of fact, amphetamines. No one has
ever maintained that these drugs are "crimogenic.'
The only study I know about that inquires into the question of crack
breeding crime reports that most homicides involving crack were the
result NOT of the use of crack, but of dealer disputes. Crack did not
induce users to commit crimes. Do some crack users commit crimes? Of
course. After all, involvement in proscribed drug traffic is dangerous.
Moreover, people who commit crimes tend to use drugs at a high rate,
though which drug they prefer varies from one year to the next.
Buckley: You are telling us that an increase in the use of crack would
not mean an increase in crime? Gazzaniga: I am saying that what
increase there would be in crime would not be simply the result of the
pharmacology of that drug. Look, let's say there are 200,000
users/abusers of crack in New York City--a number that reflects one of
the current estimates. If so, and if the drug produced violent
tendencies in all crack users, the health-care system would have to come
to a screeching halt. It hasn't. In fact, in 1988 the hospitals in New
York City (the crack capital of the world) averaged only seven crack-
related admissions, city-wide, a day. The perception of crack-based
misbehavior is exaggerated because it is the cases that show up in the
emergency rooms that receive public notice, and the whole picture begins
to look very bleak. All of this is to say: when considering any aspect
of the drug problem, keep in mind the matter of selection of evidence.
It is prudent to recall that, in the past, dangerous and criminal
behavior has been said to have been generated by other drugs, for
instance marijuana (you remember "Reefer Madness"?). And bear it in mind
that since cocaine is available everywhere, so is crack available
everywhere, since the means of converting the one into the other are
easy, and easily learned. It is important to note that only a small
percentage of cocaine users actually convert their stuff to crack.
Roughly one in six.
Buckley: Then would it follow that even if there were an increase in the
use of crack, the legalization of it would actually result in a decrease
Gazzaniga: That is correct.
Buckley: Isn't crack a drug whose addictive power exceeds that of many
other drugs? If that is the case, one assumes that people who opt to
take crack do so because it yields the faster and more exhilarating
satisfactions to which you make reference.
Gazzaniga: That is certainly the current understanding, but there are no
solid data on the question. Current observations are confounded by
certain economic variables. Crack is cheap--
Buckley: Why? If cocaine is expensive, how can crack be cheap?
Gazzaniga: Cocaine costs $1,000 per ounce if bought in quantity. Once
ounce can produce one thousand vials of crack, each of which sells for
$5. The drug abuser is able to experience more drug episodes. Crack
being cheap, the next high can come a lot more quickly and since there
is a down to every up, or high, the cycle can become intense.
So yes, crack is addictive. So is cocaine. So are amphetamines. The
special punch of crack, as the result of going quickly via the lungs to
the brain, may prompt some abusers to want more. By the way, it is the
public knowledge that crack acts in this way that, as several studies
document, causes most regular cocaine users to be cautious about crack.
The casual- to-moderate user very clearly wants to stay in that
category. So, all you can say is that there is a *perception*, widely
shared, that crack is more addictive. Whether it is, isn't really known.
One thing we do know is that crack does not begin to approach tobacco as
a nationwide health hazard. For every crack-related death, there are
three-hundred tobacco-related deaths. Another example of hyperbole is
the recent claim that there were 375,000 "crack babies" born last year;
how could that possibly be, when the government (the National Institutes
on Drug Abuse) informs us that there were only 500,000 crack "users"
last year? Exaggeration and misinformation run rampant on this subject.
Buckley: Well, if crack were legally available alongside cocaine and,
say, marijuana, what would be the reason for a consumer to take crack?
Gazzaniga: You need to keep your drug classifications straight. if your
goal were, pure and simple, to get high, you might try crack or cocaine,
or some amphetamine. You wouldn't go for marijuana, which is a mild
hallucinogen and tranquilizer. So, if you wanted to be up and you didn't
have much time, you might go to crack. But then if it were absolutely
established that there was a higher addiction rate with crack,
legalization could, paradoxically, diminish its use. This is so because
if cocaine were reduced to the same price as crack, the abuser,
acknowledging the higher rate of addiction, might forgo the more
intensive high of crack, opting for the slower high of cocaine. Crack
was introduced years ago as offering an alluring new psychoactive
experience. But its special hold on the ghetto is the result of its
price. Remember that--on another front--we know that 120- proof alcohol
doesn't sell as readily as 86 proof, not by a long shot, even though the
higher the proof, the faster the psychological effect that alcohol users
Buckley: Is there evidence that the current consumption of drugs is
restrained by their illegality? We have read that ninety million
Americans have experimented, at one time or another, with illegal drugs.
Would more than ninety million have experimented with them if drugs had
Gazzaniga: I think illegality has little if anything to do with drug
consumption--and, incidentally, I am certain that far more than ninety
million Americans have at some point or other experimented with an
This gets to the issue of actual availability. Drugs are everywhere,
simply everywhere. In terms of availability, drugs might just as well be
legal as illegal. Now it has been argued that legalization will create a
different social climate, a more permissive, more indulgent climate. It
is certainly conceivable, primarily for that reason, that there would be
greater initial use--the result of curiosity. But the central point is
that human beings in all cultures tend to seek out means of altering
their mental state, and that although some will shop around and lose the
powers of self-discipline, most will settle down to a base rate of use,
and a much smaller rate of abuse, and those rates are pretty much what
we have in the U.S. right now.
Buckley: Then the factor of illegality, in your opinion, does not weigh
heavily? But, we come to the critical question, if ninety million (or
more)Americans have experimented with the use of drugs, why is drug
abuse at such a (relatively) low level?
Gazzaniga: If you exclude tobacco, in the whole nation less than 10 per
cent of the adult population "abuses" drugs. That is, 9 to 12 million
adult Americans abuse drugs. That figure includes alcohol, by the way,
and the figure remains fairly constant.
Consider alcohol. In our culture alone, 70 to 80 percent of us use
alcohol, and the abuse rate is now estimated at 5 to 6 per cent. We see
at work here a major feature of the human response to drug availability,
namely, the inclination to moderation. Most people are adjusted and are
intent on living productive lives. While most of us, pursuing that goal,
enjoy the sensations of euphoria, or anxiety reduction, or (at times)
social dis- inhibition or even anesthesia, we don't let the desire for
these sensations dominate our behavior. Alcohol fills these needs for
many people and its use is managed intelligently.
It is worth nothing that the largest proportion of this drug is sold to
the social drinker, not the drunk, just as most cocaine is sold to the
casual user, not the addict. Now, early exposure to alcohol is common
and inevitable, and youthful drinking can be extreme. Yet studies have
shown that it is difficult to determine which drunk at the college party
will evolve into a serious alcoholic. What is shown is that the vast
majority of early drinkers stop excessive drinking all by themselves. In
fact, drug use of all types drops off radically with age.
Buckley: Wait a minute. Are you telling us that there is only a 10 per
cent chance that any user will become addicted to a drug, having
experimented with it?
Gazzaniga: The 10 per cent figure includes all drugs except tobacco. The
actual risk for abuse for some drugs is much lower. Consider last year's
national Household Survey (NHS) which was carried out by the National
Institutes on Drug Abuse.
Gazzaniga: It is estimated that some 21 million people tried cocaine in
1988. But according to the NHS only three million defined themselves as
having used the drug at least once during each month preceding their
interview. Most of the three million were casual users. Now think about
it. All the cocaine users make up 2 per cent of the adult population,
and the addicts make up less than one quarter of 1 per cent of the total
popu-lation. These are the government's own figures. Does that sound
like an epidemic to you?
Buckley: But surely an epidemic has to do with the rate at which an
undesirable occurrence is increasing. How many more cocaine users were
there than the year before? Or the year before that?
Gazzaniga: The real question is whether or not more and more Americans
are becoming addicted to something. Is the rate of addiction to psycho-
active substances going up? The answer to that is a flat no. Are fads
during which one drug becomes more popular than another as the drug of
abuse? Sure. But, when one drug goes up in consumption, others go down.
Heroin use is down, and so is marijuana use. That is why the opiate and
marijuana pushers are trying to prove their purity--so they can grab
back some of their market share, which apparently they have done for
heroin in New York City.
But having said that, you should know that the actual use of cocaine and
all other illicit drugs is on the decline, according to the NHS. The
just- published National High School Survey carried out by the
University of Michigan reports that the same is true among high-school
students. Crack is used at such a low rate throughout the country that
its use can hardly be measured in most areas.
Buckley: Well, if low addiction rate is the rule, how do we come to
terms with the assertion, which has been made in reputable circles, that
over 40 per cent of Americans fighting in Vietnam were using heroin and
80 per cent marijuana?
Gazzaniga: Stressful situations provoke a greater use of drugs. Vietnam
was one of them. But what happens when the soldiers come home? That
point was examined in a large study by Dr. Lee Robbins at Washington
University. During the Vietnam War, President Nixon ordered a study on
the returning vets who seemed to have a drug problem. (Nixon didn't know
what he was looking for, but he was getting a lot of flak on the point
that the was producing a generation of drug addicts.) Dr. Robbins chose
to study those soldiers returning to the U.S. in 1971. Of the 13,760
Army enlisted men who returned and were included in her sample, 1,400
had a positive urine test for drugs (narcotics, amphetamines, or
barbiturates). She was able to retest 495 men from this sample a few
months later. The results were crystal clear: Only 8 per cent of the men
who had been drug positive in their first urine test remained so. In
short, over 90 per cent of them, now that they were back home, walked
away from drug use. And all of them knew how to get hold of drugs, if
they had wanted them. Incidentally, Dr. Robbins did a follow-up study a
couple of years later on the same soldiers. She reported that there had
not been an increase in drug use.
Buckley: Aha! You are saying that under special circumstances, the use
of drugs increases. Well, granted there was stress in Vietnam. Isn't
there also stress in American ghettos?
Gazzaniga: If you live in poverty and frustration, and see few rewards
available to you, you are likelier than your better-satisfied
counterpart to seek the escape of drugs, although the higher rate of
consumption does not result in a higher rate of addiction. Virtually
every study finds this to be the case with one possibly interesting
twist. A recent Department of Defense study showed that drug use in the
military was lower for blacks than for whites, the reverse of civilian
life. (It is generally agreed that the military is the only institution
in our country that is successfully integrated.) In short, environmental
factors play an important role in the incidence of drug use.
Buckley: So you are saying that there are social circumstances that will
raise the rate of consumption, but that raising the rate of consumption
doesn't in fact raise the rate of addiction. In other words, if 50 per
cent of the troops in Vietnam had been using crack, this would not have
affected the rate at which, on returning to the U.S., they became
addicted. They would have kicked the habit on reaching home.
Gazzaniga: That's the idea. Drug consumption can go up in a particular
population, fueled by stress, but the rate of addiction doesn't go up no
matter what the degree of stress. Most people can walk away from high
drug use if their lives become more normal. Of course, the stress of the
ghetto isn't the only situation that fuels high drug consumption. Plenty
of affluent people who for some reason or another do not find their
lives rewarding also escape into drugs.
Buckley: If it is true, then, that only a small percentage of those who
take crack will end up addicted, and that that is no different from the
small percentage who, taking one beer every Saturday night, will become
alcoholics, what is the correct way in which to describe the relative
intensity of the addictive element in a particular drug?
Gazzaniga: That is an interesting question and one that can't
satisfactorily be answered until much more research is done. There are
conundrums. Again, it is estimated that 21 million people tried cocaine
in 1988. Yet, of those, only 3 million currently use it, and only a
small percentage are addicted. As for crack, it is estimated that 2.5
million have used it, while only a half million say they still do, and
that figure includes the addicted and the casual user. Some reports
claim that as many as one half of crack users are addicted. As I have
said, crack is cheap, and for that reason may be especially attractive
to the poor. That is a non- pharmacological, non-biological factor, the
weight of which we have not come to any conclusions about. We don't even
have reliable data to tell us that crack creates a greater rate of
addiction than, say, cocaine. My own guess is it doesn't. Remember that
the drug acts on the same brain systems that cocaine and amphetamines
Buckley: To what extent is the addictive factor affected by education?
Here is what I mean by this: Taking a drug, say heroin or cocaine or
crack - or, for that matter, alcohol - is a form of Russian roulette,
using a ten-cartridge revolver. Now, presumably, an educated person,
concerned for his livelihood, wouldn't take a revolver with nine empty
cartridges and one full cartridge, aim it at his head, and pull the
trigger. But granted, decisions of that kind are based on ratiocinative
skills. And we have to assume these skills don't exist even among
college students. If they did, there would be no drinking in college,
let alone drug taking. Comments?
Gazzaniga: Most people perceive themselves as in control of their
destiny. They do not think the initial exposure will ruin their lives,
because of their perceived self-control, and they are right. Take the
most difficult case, tobacco -- the most highly addictive substance
around. In a now classic study, Stanley Schachter of Columbia University
formally surveyed his highly educated colleagues at Columbia. At the
same time, he polled the working residents of Amagansett, a community on
Long Island where he summered. He first determined who were ongoing
smokers, and who had been smokers. He took into account how long they
had smoked, what they had smoked, and all other variables he could think
It wasn't long before the picture began to crystallize. Inform a
normally intelligent group of people about the tangible hazards of using
a particular substance and the vast majority of them simply stop. It
wasn't easy for some, but in general they stopped, and they didn't need
treatment programs, support programs, and all the rest. Dr. Schachter
concluded, after this study, that it is only the thorny cases that show
up at the treatment centers, people who have developed a true addiction.
For those people, psychological prophylactics, including education, are
of little or no value. Yet it is these people that are held up as
examples of what happens when one uses drugs. This is misleading. It
creates an unworkable framework for thinking about the problem. Most
people can voluntarily stop using a psychoactive substance, and those
people who do continue to use it can moderate their intake to reduce the
possibility of health hazards. This is true, as I say, for most
substances, but I repeat, less true for tobacco because of its
distinctively addictive nature. The people who unwisely continue to use
tobacco tend to smoke themselves into major illness even though they are
amply warned that this is likely to happen.
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