There is a lot of discussion these days about the legalization of substances, especially marijuana. These discussions and articles focus on how it might improve the economy, to decriminalization resulting in fewer deaths and a drop in the growth of HIV cases, to medical benefits of marijuana. You might expect someone who witnesses the difficulties and occasional devastation that substances cause to be firmly against legalization. This is not necessarily the case. After all, consider alcohol and tobacco are legal, and yet they are listed as the most destructive substances to individuals and society currently. Then again, this might be a reason not to legalize other substances. In this article the focus is not to focus exclusively on legalization, but on the motive for substance use, and how that is more important than its legal status.

In a class I teach at FIU on the Psychology of Drugs and Drug Abuse I am often asked if I think marijuana should be legalized. I usually try not to express my opinion directly, but instead present and entertain discussion on the topic. But recently I was pushed for an answer, and I replied: “I once read an outstanding book called ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Television.’ What I remember most from that book is how often we base our decisions on too little information (in the case of the book’s perspective, based on television images. Take elections for example). So my best answer is I probably do not have enough information to make an educated decision.” However, based on Amsterdam and Portugal’s experience of fewer problems as a result of decriminalization, it seems like it is at least a viable option. Of course, if the U.S took that approach, there is first no guarantee it would go the same way, and secondly I would anticipate an explosive increase in substance use initially. The difficulty is: are the rewards worth it?

One thing that concerns me about the American people’s substance use is the motivation. According to VH1’s documentary on “The Drug Years” the initial increase in marijuana and hallucinogen use in the sixties was a result of attempting to achieve enlightenment and a sense of oneness and communion. This is evident in the images we have of that time: sit-ins, free drugs being provided at musical events, and wanting others to “turn-on” and experience the sense of love and oneness that others were achieving and that a psychology lecturer at Harvard named Timothy Leary was advocating.

Initially, that seems to have been the purpose. But times have changed since the sixties, and let’s face it; even then the movement was not completely successful. We American’s are an individualistic culture. On the continuum between individualism and collectivism Americans definitely fall on the side of individualism, which is defined as everyone looking out for themselves or their family first. This is opposed to collectivism, where the group is cohesive, and where the group protects one another and the individual looks out for the group above their personal needs. Using these definitions, it is quite easy to state Americans are on the individualism side of the spectrum. The movement in the sixties (which in some regards continues, witness “one human race” and “coexist” stickers) to make the human race more united, and now more in tune with the earth and its needs, is not grand enough to alter the individualistic nature of this culture yet. And it is the opinion of this writer that the individualistic attitude of this culture has even altered the motivation of drugs initially used to enhance a sense of oneness and enlightenment.

My more recent experience with clients is that these substances, especially marijuana, are used as an escape from reality. Many people find their existence boring, or worse, painful. A student (who I promised I would give credit for the quote) named Christine Vera said “In a world that feels nothing, we all want to feel something,” when asked why she believes people use drugs. This statement seems related to the boredom with life discussed above. Many have become desensitized to life, and want more excitement. Without excitement, life is boring, and when life is boring, for many escape through substances becomes a viable option.

Although escape seems a motive much of the time (as reported by substance abusers entering treatment, by those who know addicts, or by those who also formulate personal theories to explain others’ substance use) it is not always from boredom. Sometimes the individual perceives life as too painful to cope with without the use of substances for relief. Substances, at least initially, provide a sense of euphoria. This is true of nearly all substances, although some seem more effective to different individuals. (For example, some enjoy marijuana but not other substances, others cocaine, others alcohol, and so forth). Some of those attempting to escape pain have endured horrible life circumstances or, some horrible internal states (self-loathing, depression, or overwhelming anxiety, to name a few). Others began substance use innocently enough, but progressed into relying on it slowly, and now, as a result of the substance use, are caught in an endless cycle of substance use, further problems, further need to escape, continued substance use.

Besides the escape motive there is the desire to experience something new and different. This is often true of hallucinogen use. It is rare that someone would use hallucinogens to escape reality on a regular basis. Hallucinogens generally render a person unable to function in a normal manner for a period of time. When someone takes mushrooms, LSD, or other hallucinogens, they aren’t generally trying to work, drive, or otherwise do much other than experience the “trip.” In other cultures hallucinogens are used to facilitate enlightenment.

As mentioned earlier, hallucinogens have been used by other cultures as a pathway to enlightenment. In many of these cultures, those familiar with the uses of hallucinogens were shamans, medicine men, or the spiritual leader. This movement was also true in the sixties, where a certain sect of the population attempted to again connect with God or the spiritual, often using hallucinogens.

This is not generally true of hallucinogen use today. Today many young people are looking for a new experience. The abuse of cold medications (some of which in large doses create hallucinogen effects) is evidence of this. This is also true of the drug Salvia, only recently (July 2008) made illegal in this state (Florida). In other cultures, it is called “Diviner’s Sage.” But rather than using it to connect with a spiritual sense, it is simply used for the experience.

Many substances initially create a sense of connectedness between individuals. Alcohol has been known as a social lubricant, making talking and interacting with others easier. And marijuana is usually initiated with others in the beginning. But many resort to isolated use later. And even if this is not true, many simply get “high” with others playing video games or watching movies. The point is, it is generally not taken for spiritual reasons anymore, but instead to make perceived tedious tasks more bearable or to heighten the enjoyment of relatively passive tasks (listening to music, video games, movies).

In some states marijuana is used for medicinal purposes, and I believe the facts in this area speak for themselves. Marijuana helps those wasting from AIDS, those with cancer, and many other ailments that traditional treatment falls short in. This includes pain relief for some. In fact, prescription pain analgesics (opioid based pain killers) are quickly becoming more damaging to their users (which in many cases are abusers) than all illegal substances combined. There were more deaths in Florida in recent years from overdose on prescription medications than all illegal drugs combined. And there has yet to be a reported case of marijuana overdose.

There is a drawback to these prescription uses however. Many of my students who know people in California (where there seems to be the most “medicinal” use of marijuana) state that many of their peers have prescriptions. One student reported that 8 out of 10 of their friends in California have a prescription. Headaches and anxiety as well as insomnia are reported to be reasons to get a prescription.

In summary, there are many reasons to decriminalize some, if not all, drug use. The benefits seem important in this day and age. But at the same time we are culture where people are often out for themselves. And we have become a country and culture of shortcuts and reliance on pills to make our lives tolerable, rather than the more natural and healthy (but requiring more time and energy) solutions. Feel depressed, get a prescription. Want to loose weight, get a prescription or order diet pills from the internet. Additionally, some of the communal and enlightenment reasons seem outdated and unlikely at this time. Then there is the likelihood there will be a strong surge in substance use if decriminalized. There is probably a great deal more information out there that both supports and denounces legalization or decriminalization.

In an ideal society, we would work toward self actualization while assisting our peers to do the same. There would be a sense of communion with all other humans, and with all living creatures. My question is which helps us get there, continued criminalization of substances, or the legalization of them.

Author's Bio: 

William Berry has worked in the field of addiction for over 15 years. He has been a Certified Addiction Professional since 1996. He has worked in nearly every form of addiction treatment available, including detoxification, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and traditional outpatient. He has worked with all types of clientele, from the inner city in Philadelphia, to the high functioning substance abusers of the South Florida area. Mr. Berry has over 12 years experience conducting group and individual therapy.

Mr. Berry is well read in the areas of addiction recovery, psychology, and Eastern philosophy. He obtained a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from FIU.

He is also an Adjunct Professor at Florida International University, conducting a Psychology courses and at Nova Southeastern University, conducting courses in Substance Abuse and Psychology. Recently William has developed seminars for reducing the risk of teenage substance related problems and for anger management. He has also developed a workbook for the outpatient program for which is director. The workbook is being revised for mass publication.

William continues to be creative in his career to keep the passion for what he does alive.