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Using Science in the Drug War

June 03, 1988

The "war against drugs" is big news again and the weapons proposed to fight it are education and law enforcement, including the military. If drug dealing and drug use are an indigenous guerrilla war with highly paid external suppliers, then fighting it as we have must ultimately fail.

We can win the war against drugs if we field our best armies-- science and technology.

For the first time in history we are in the position to solve the problem of addiction and to develop effective agents to eliminate the biologically determined drug cravings that permanently victimize the user.

To scientists the problem of addiction is closely akin to the questions of how brain cells are changed permanently during learning and how various tissues differentiate into their final form during development. Similar irreversible chemical changes occur in cells during addiction to drugs.

Exciting progress is being made in the fields of the neurosciences and the biology of development. There is steady progress in the molecular biology of addiction. If we make an intense national commitment, in 10 to 15 years we should be able to identify the mechanisms underlying each of the principal addictions and create treatments whereby they can be reversed. We will be able both to stop drug use and to eliminate the cravings that so often cause recidivism.

Then and only then, will we be able to break the cycle of addiction and restore the opportunity to live a fruitful life to the victims of drugs. We will be able to justify widespread testing of populations at risk because we will be able to offer meaningful therapy and rehabilitation. Then the reservoir of the hooked will decline and the profitability of illegal drugs will begin to fall.

When you consider that IV drug addicts will be the long-term reservoir for AIDS, that a vast proportion of our criminal activities, including teen-age gangs, are related to the drug trade, and that addiction to nicotine and alcohol contributes greater than 30% of hospitalizations of adults in the United States, the benefits of a major new investment in the molecular and cell biology of addiction promises to vastly exceed the costs.

The proposed drug czar should be a scientist and the war should be fought, at least partially, in the laboratory.



Professor of Medicine


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