Dean Becker of KPFT interviewed Dr. David F. Duncan

Dean Becker: Hello, my friends. Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. I'm so glad you're here with us. We're going to have here, in just a moment, Dr. David Duncan. He's a doctor, scientist, a renowned professor at Brown University and I want to just kick this off with this thought: I'm mad at the politicians, the drug law enforcers and all the ancillary drug warriors, the prison builders, the urine testers, the guards, but they have a reason to believe in the drug war--every time they cash their paycheck. But the people, the ones that have had generations of their children's lives devoured by this policy are somehow believing in the fear and they embrace the situation with silence in regards to the superstition and the ignorance that binds this all together. And today we're going to talk about the reality of this drug war, the medical side in particular, and with that I want to welcome our guest, Dr. David Duncan.

Dr. Duncan?

Dr. Duncan: Hello, nice to talk with the folks in KPFT again.

Dean Becker: It's so good to have you with us, Sir. The good thing is we're now up to about fifty stations in the U.S. and Canada. I understand KPFK in Las Angeles just started carrying our shows so we're speaking to a national and international audience--Canada has about five stations as well.

Dr. Duncan: That's great.

Dean Becker: Yes, Sir, and I hope you heard my introduction but today I want to talk about the need to overcome the fear, the fact that these drugs--hey, they may be bad if you abuse them, you're certainly going to get yourself in trouble--but the hype and the hysteria is certainly overblown, is it not?

Dr. Duncan: Oh, yes. Certainly. While it's true that you can get into serious health problems and other problems with many of the currently used recreational drugs, none of them are particularly more dangerous than many drugs that are quite legal today.

Dean Becker: Exactly. Alcohol, in particular, kills 100,000 plus, tobacco, 400,000 plus, and it's hard to gather the stats from the government in so far as these quote recreational drugs. They kind of lump it together with alcohol overdose and car crashes and everything else, right?

Dr. Duncan: Yes, and that's a very common tactic. To say ‘drugs and alcohol' kill X number of people, well, yes that's true, but it's mostly the alcohol and tobacco, and very little of it is illicit drugs. On a comparative level the illicit drugs don't cause very many deaths at all compared to many other causes in our society. A friend of mine actually at one point calculated and concluded that a heroin addict was less likely to die as a result of using heroin than an automobile driver was as a result of driving a car. It's just a greatly, grossly exaggerated idea about how dangerous the drugs are. I'm not saying they're safe, very few things are entirely safe, but they're not nearly as dangerous as many people believe they are.

Dean Becker: Well, I close this show with the thought that, you know, we've been duped. I think that's true. The intro was talking about the people still embrace the fear out of, I don't know, societal taboo or something. I'm not sure what it is, but if they could just open their eyes and see what's before them I think we could change this in a day. What's your thought?

Dr. Duncan: I think that's really very much true. People have been, for a long time, fed a lot of misinformation and exaggeration about drugs. They're afraid of them and they believe that the War on Drugs makes them safer and, in fact, the drugs are less fearsome than they believe and the War on Drugs makes all of those dangers worse, none of them better.

Dean Becker: So few people think about the fact that you go back 93 years ago, 94 years ago, all these drugs were legal. Bayer Heroin was on the grocer shelf next to Bayer Aspirin at the same price. I think, then as now, Aspirin is probably the bigger problem. Your thought?

Dr. Duncan: Oh, yes. Aspirin is definitely a much more dangerous drug, yes. In the time that I spent working in a hospital emergency room, specializing in treating drug overdoses, heroin overdose was no problem at all to treat. As long as the person isn't already dead when they arrive they're going to walk out later that evening fine. They're not going to suffer any serious harm in most cases. But someone's who's overdosed on Aspirin is very likely going to die and if they don't they're going to go through a terrible experience that's going to leave them with some damage that may stick with them for the rest of their life. It's a far more dangerous drug.

Dean Becker: Well, you know, I'm a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and we preach the fact we want to destroy the terrorist organizations, the gangs, the cartels, the paramilitary, all of those folks making a living selling these drugs to our kids but, I guess, these drugs probably start out pretty pure when they make the heroin in Afghanistan or the cocaine in Colombia but it gets diluted, it gets contaminated along the way to the sales market, right?

Dr. Duncan: Yes. The contamination is an important risk with heroin, cocaine, all of them. And there's the further problem that as it's going along the amount you're actually getting is uncertain which is the real cause of most overdoses. I mean, it isn't that somebody takes too much heroin intentionally, it's that they don't know how strong the mixture they're taking is so that you have both the risks that are associated with all those contaminants in the drug adding to the dangers that are associated with the drug and the uncertainty about how much you're actually taking that can lead to overdose. So, having it illegal just makes the drug itself very much more dangerous for people to use.

Dean Becker: We see that the ONDCP is talking about the age of the average drug user in America is actually increasing, and I'm glad fewer young people are trying it or using it, but the fact is, these older folks have learned perhaps the proper way to use these drugs without destroying their health or their futures. Your thoughts on that?

Dr. Duncan: Well, that's certainly part of it and we need to remember that the fact that the average age is getting older is not that much a function of less younger people using it, that's a factor in it, there's some continuing decline in number of younger people using but it's mostly a result of the fact that there are a lot of baby boomers around who are getting older who have used, and many of whom are continuing to use. In fact, I just finished presenting a paper at the Southern Gerontological Society in Atlanta dealing with the increasing use of alcohol and drugs among persons over age fifty. In a population where you used to have zero cocaine use, you now have one tenth of one percent who are current cocaine users. And that's a matter of tens of thousands of elderly persons who are current users of cocaine. So the pattern is much more simply that there's a larger number of older people using and much less that there's a smaller number of young people using.

Dean Becker: I think that also speaks to the fact that they made it through. Their health wasn't ruined. They haven't died. And, as I was trying to say, that they're perhaps learned how to do this with moderation and/or more healthy, if you will.

Dr. Duncan: Yes. We always have to remember that while there are people who run into addiction problems with any of these drugs, with most of the illegal drugs it's pretty much the same as alcohol, about one in about every five persons will have some problems at some point. Four out of five never have any problems.

Dean Becker: Yes, Sir. I guess that's the key to it all is that we have invested some, some say, a trillion dollars in enforcing these drug laws over the lifetime of this thing, and yet we haven't made a difference. I mean, we send people to prisons where they're bound to, more likely, to pick up Hep C or HIV or something and they come back to their families and it ruins their health perhaps and it certainly doesn't do anything to benefit the long term prosperity and health of that family, right?

Dr. Duncan: No. It definitely tends to be much the opposite, it tends to make things much worse. One of the things we've known for a long time is that punishing kids for using drugs makes them more likely to continue using drugs rather than likely to stop. Putting kids into boot camps increases drug use, not decreases it, among those same kids. So that the programs constantly seem to be almost designed to make the problem worse. It there were some evil genius out there running the War on Drugs, to make the drug problems in America worse, he couldn't design a system that would do a much better job of that than the one we have now.

Dean Becker: Well, my book which is some years overdue, but the working title is ‘Drug Lord's Dream - Fulfilled.' And that's exactly what we've got here, isn't it?

Dr. Duncan. Oh, yes. Yeah. If I were the head of some Colombian cartel selling cocaine to the United States I would be donating as much money as I possibly could to every drug warrior politician out there. Because they're maintaining the business for them. If I were Osama Bin Laden I'd be a big supporter of the War on Drugs.

Dean Becker: Yeah. I imagine he is, given the fact that they're producing ninety something percent of the world's opium and heroin supply.

Dr. Duncan: Yes, and the production has gone up dramatically since the U.S. invasion.

Dean Becker: Well, as I understand it, the nations of Mexico and Colombia have kind of, well, they haven't stopped but they've diminished their production because the Afghans got it under control.

Dr. Duncan: It's coming in so cheaply from Afghanistan that the Mexican producers are having trouble competing in the market. The free economy is working very successfully for providing heroin at as low a price as possible.

Dean Becker: I see the, we we're talking about this earlier, the blowback in what happens to the family, say, when the bread winner is arrested, but it really goes beyond that to government workers, oil company workers, are all required to do urine tests. They're all required to toe the company line, so to speak. There is that, I don't know, it borders on being an inquisition, in my mind. This mindset that you embrace this-quote-religion of drug war or you're just out. What's your thoughts on that?

Dr. Duncan: I think that it's certainly is leading towards a society in which it's an awful lot easier to control the population that we're seeing a much less democratic situation in America and we're seeing a movement back toward the sort of paternalistic and abusive operation of corporations that existed back in the gilded age, the late nineteenth century, when workers could be fired because the employer didn't approve of which church they went to or how they dressed on Sunday. So that we're really seeing a destruction of American values by the War on Drugs.

Dean Becker: Can you give me, I don't know, is there an average drug user? Who uses drugs?

Dr. Duncan: The typical American drug user is someone who is employed, holds a job, has a fairly good education, votes as often as the typical American and has about average health status, average mental health status. You'd have a hard time telling a difference between the average drug user and the average middle-class American.

Dean Becker: Now, kids have been, I don't know, they get the urine tests, they get searched by dogs, they get driven, I think, away from embrace of authority. They have their futures in jeopardy should they have a pill or a baggy of pot in their pocket. They get sent to some other school for adolescent misbehavior and that drives them further from rationale in regards to their potential further drug use, right?

Dr. Duncan: Oh, yes, I think so. I know when I was an adolescent I and everybody I went to school with thought that most of the adults we dealt with were pretty stupid. And we thought most of the people who ran our schools had a lot of absurd rules. But when I talk to kids nowadays, the view is a whole lot stronger than that and they can produce a whole lot more good arguments for believing that. They seem to be much more alienated from the school than we were in my day. And that's certainly a terrible movement considering how alienated from school a lot of us were in the fifties and sixties.

Dean Becker: Exactly. With the Vietnam War going on, I graduated in ‘66 and it was pretty extreme, I'll agree with you. Now, insofar as, you know, I interviewed Norm Kent of NORML, he'll be on tomorrow's Cultural Baggage Show, and he made a comment that, you know, these people who grew up in the sixties and, you know, smoked after work in the seventies, and saw they're kids smoking when they were in their forties, but now many of them are in office and they have walked away from that-quote-use. They don't talk about it. It's not something they want to put on the table and yet they're the ones that pass the laws that further increase the penalties and so forth. What's your thoughts about parents who have used, perhaps still use, and maybe their youngsters that are hitting that age where they're trying drugs. What do you do? How open can you be?

Dr. Duncan: Well, I personally think that the parent who is a user or former user is in a lot better situation for providing guidance to their kids if they are open about that than if they're pretending that they aren't. I'm certainly a lot more likely to listen to advice about how to drive or how to fly an airplane or whatever from somebody whose done it than from somebody who insists to me ‘I would never do it at all but I can tell you all about it.'

Dean Becker: (laughter) Well, that's a good point. Well made, Sir. Now, insofar as, you know, what do you do about the situation where somebody's in an impoverished community and that lure of money from the drug trade is enticing them to perhaps pick up the trade and stand on the street corner and sell crack? What do you think we should do for those communities where that is a problem.

Dr. Duncan: I think that the, I think the lure is somewhat overestimated. I think it's less the lure than the lack of alternate opportunities. The reality is you can make more money working at McDonald's than you can by selling drugs on a street corner. It's a less than minimum wage job. The profits are enormous for the guys who are supplying the stuff at the high level but not for the street level drug dealer and if McDonald's would hire him, he'd probably rather work at McDonald's.

It would be safer, he wouldn't have to worry about getting arrested for it and he'd take home more money at the end of the week. But jobs are scarce in those communities. And if you've had a little trouble with the law you can't get a lot of those jobs. Places won't hire you anymore. So once the kid gets into any trouble with drugs, drug dealing is one of the few jobs where he can get minimum wage level income. So the lack of opportunities is much more important than the lure. That and the fact that the drug war leads to more labeling of kids with a label that keeps them from getting jobs because they're a delinquent with a police record now because they smoked a relatively harmless drug and that means that they are excluded from many opportunities and that pushes more and more of them into illegal activities.

Dean Becker: I saw a story this morning about a gang shootout here in Texas that, you know, somebody shot a BB gun at one group and the other group went and got their machine guns and chased them down the street, I think it was San Antonio, and shot a man several times in the head, luckily, or perhaps unluckily, he didn't die, he's in the hospital in serious condition, but they afford those Mack 10s and those machine guns through that drug trade, right?

Dr. Duncan: Yeah. And the fact that they're dealing in an illegal market, you know, if you're in the drug business you're carrying a product around that's easy to steal, you're dealing with cash so that you're easy to rob, so you wind up carrying a gun to protect yourself against the other people who might rip you off in the trade, and they carry a gun to rip you off, so they get a bigger gun and it quickly accelerates into bigger and bigger weapons being carried by everybody.

Plus, the fact that it doesn't pay very much to be a low level drug dealer means that most of the low level drug dealers are young people who are more likely to accept a low paying job, and young people are much more likely to be violent. So you have a situation that has all the proper ingredients for pushing it towards more and more weapons being used by increasingly ready people to use those weapons. And then once it's become really violent the people who are less likely to use the weapons are less likely to go into the business, the people who are attracted to the idea of carrying around an Uzi and killing people are the people who find it most appealing to go into that business.

So the violence just keeps escalating. And no amount of law enforcement is going to cause it to deescalate. As long as you have the root causes there it's going to keep getting worse.

Dean Becker: Let's kind of talk about the flip side of that. Cheech and Chong made a living out of promoting the idea of the amotivational syndrome, the lackluster hippie lifestyle, but I think that I and many other medical marijuana users fully disprove that thought. Let's talk about that amotivational syndrome.

Dr. Duncan: Yeah. Essentially it's an idea that has been repeatedly discredited in a variety of studies. I, myself, did a study, with hashish users in Europe, looking at the frequency of symptoms of amotivational syndrome and basically found the same frequency of those symptoms in people who never smoked marijuana as in persons who smoked it on a regular basis. Some people don't show much motivation, some people show a lot of motivation, but there's no association of either with marijuana use.

Yeah, there are some marijuana using slackers out there who never do anything in life. There are also some non-marijuana using slackers out there who do nothing in life. And whether they use marijuana or not has no effect on the fact that they're slackers who will do nothing in their life. Most marijuana users are just as motivated as anybody else.

Dean Becker: Yeah, you should see some of the roofing crews and the framing crews I used to work with. We could put up a whole lot of work and we'd smoke morning, noon, and night.

Dr. Duncan: In Jamaica, traditionally employers encouraged their field workers, in agriculture, to smoke marijuana because people did a better job and worked harder in the fields if they were stoned.

Dean Becker: (laughter) It's amazing how things turn around. And, we're going to have to wrap this up pretty soon but I wanted to kind of get your thoughts, kind of go back to the beginning, there is no overwhelming medical evidence to support this fear of drugs, right?

Dr. Duncan: No, no. The drugs hadn't been selected on some rational basis because they're particularly dangerous drugs. They've been selected for social reasons that have to do with what social groups and mostly what racial groups use them. The fact is that they are not, for the most part, particularly dangerous drugs. No drug is safe. You use a drug recreationally you're running risks. But really none of them are, none of them are particularly more dangerous than alcohol, none of them are anywhere near as dangerous as tobacco.

Dean Becker: Well, all right. Once again, we've been speaking with Professor, Dr. David Duncan, a professor at Brown University. Doctor, is there a website you would like to share with my audience.

Dr. Duncan: Yes. I ought to say I'm now retired from Brown University, but I was at Brown University Medical School. My website is and you can find information there, reprints of a bunch of my papers and so forth if you're interested in looking at more things about drug use and drug policy.

Dean Becker: Dr. Duncan, thank you so much.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you. You have a good day.