Ben Wallace-Wells, in Rolling Stone, recently wrote a fantastic and tragic article on America’s War on Drugs:
All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.
I think it’s pretty clear that, as Wallace-Wells puts it, the War on Drugs “is one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered.”
What does this have to do with neuroscience? I think neuroscience is our last, best, and only hope of actually dealing with the drug problem. While addiction is an extremely complicated phenomenon, we now know that the brain utilizes a single chemical mechanism – the dopamine reward pathway – for everything from heroin to gambling to cigarettes. Of course, the molecular details differ in each context, but the general principle is the same. If science can find a way to selectively block the addictive properties of dopamine – without inducing a terrible range of side-effects – the societal payoff would be immense. Of course, nobody is sure that such a pharmaceutical is even possible, but even if scientists can engineer a mildly effective treatment that only works for specific substances, I think it would dramatically change the way we approach the War on Drugs. Addicts don’t want to be addicted. For the most part, they want help. We just don’t know how to help them.