Let's have an honest conversation about our personal drug use, why we use drugs, and how the war on drugs impacts us, our families and society. Please answer the questions below and reflect with me.
What drugs do you use on a daily, weekly or annual basis?
While you may not consider yourself a "drug user," virtually all of us use drugs on a daily basis. Our society is swimming in drugs. Coffee, soda, cigarettes, Prozac, weed, Ritalin, alcohol, cocaine, and sleeping pills are just a sample of the drugs that we take to get through the day and night.
Which drugs do you use?
Why do you use the drugs you do?
Most people use drugs for joy and for pain. Enjoy having some drinks at the end of the day? Enjoy a little smoke or shot of espresso after a nice dinner with friends? Many people bond with others or find inspiration alone while on drugs.
On the flip side, many people self-medicate to try to ease the pain in their lives. Ever had too much to drink to drown your sorrows over a breakup or some other painful event? Smoke cigarettes to deal with anxiety or stress? What are the reasons you use drugs?
Which drugs have you become dependent on or addicted to?
Some people associate drug use with addiction or dependence. Dependence is not necessarily a bad thing -- think of a person with diabetes who needs insulin, an office worker who needs a cup of coffee to start the day, or a person with debilitating pain who uses marijuana to get through the day. But when someone's dependence on a drug becomes problematic, that's when it turns into an addiction.
People may also assume that trying certain drugs, like meth or heroin, will guarantee an addiction. The truth is, only about 10 percent of people who ever try "hard" drugs like cocaine or meth become addicted. I know this may be hard to believe, but even the governement's own numbers show this.
Do you know people that have tried illicit drugs? Did they develop a problem? Which drugs have you tried and have become addicted to them?
What image and who comes to mind when you think of a person who uses drugs?
We have all heard the jokes about the lazy, couch-potato, Dorito-eating stoners. In reality some of the most accomplished people in our society are people who use or have used illicit drugs, including our last three presidents. Because of "reality" shows like Cops and because of who is targeted by law enforcement and ends up in prison, we may think that more people of color use and sell drugs -- when in reality, whites use and sell drugs at similar rates as blacks and Latinos. There are way more white crack users than black crack users and there are plenty of people on Wall Street who are regular cocaine users.
What is your image of a person who uses or sells drugs?
Which drugs do you consider dangerous and why?
There is a lot of fear around drug use. Many people are terrified of drugs and fear losing control. Ironically, the two drugs that lead to the most premature deaths in our country are tobacco and alcohol. They are both legal. Marijuana is by and large still illegal, and 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana last year. There is no disputing that marijuana causes less harm than many legal drugs in our society, and there has never been a reported overdose death attributed to marijuana. There are also conflicting images when it comes to similar drugs. Most people are terrified of methamphetamine and at the same time think nothing of a college student using Ritalin to help stay up late cramming for a final. Yet they are almost indistinguishable pharmacologically.
What drugs do you consider dangerous and why?
Do you think being locked in a cage would be the right thing for you if you got caught with illicit drugs?
God forbid you got busted with drugs. Do you think prison would be the best thing for you? Tonight, more than half a million people will go to sleep behind bars in the U.S. for nothing more than a drug law violation.
I appreciate you thinking about these questions. Most of us have a wide range of experiences and feelings around drug use. I hope that we can reflect on some of the inconsistencies, stereotypes and contradictions that may exist when it comes to our drug use, how we feel about people who use drugs, and how we want to deal with drug use in our society.
This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.