Learning to Appreciate Getting Drugged

PETER A. JAY

August 01, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- When Bill Clinton declared during the last election campaign that although as a young man he'd tried smoking marijuana, he had never inhaled, America snickered. Very likely not more than a couple of dozen people in the United States believed him. But I did.

I know that inhaling doesn't come naturally to everyone. This I discovered on a vacation at the beach when I was about 12. My older cousin John offered me a Viceroy cigarette, and as the child of two hard-smoking parents, I was eager to try it. As I lit up I imagined a door to adulthood swinging open before me.

The smoke tasted a little strange, but it looked impressive as I blew it out of my mouth and up into the air. I took several puffs. It seemed so simple I wondered why it was such a big deal and when I would dare show off my new skill in public.

"You're supposed to inhale," said John. "Draw it into your lungs and breathe out through your nose." I took a breath and felt as though I'd been stabbed in the chest. The sensation was so unpleasant I haven't smoked a cigarette, containing tobacco or anything else, ever since. I assume young Mr. Clinton had a similar experience with that long-ago joint.

Whether or not John's Viceroy was a factor, for most of my adult life I've been suspicious of drugs of all sorts, legal or illegal, and less than sympathetic to those who become reliant on them. Using them at all seemed a needless risk -- just plain stupid behavior, like walking down the middle of the Conrail tracks instead of beside them.

Some drugs were worse than others, but it was only a matter of degree. Whether it was crack cocaine sold on a street corner or some perfectly legal substance sold by prescription from a suburban drug store, the result was likely to be the same. Drugs eroded the will of those who had turned to them for relaxation, for amusement, or for relief from pain, and eventually ended up controlling their lives.

Over the years, of course, I took my share of pills -- antibiotics for infections, painkillers for injuries, antihistamines for allergies. But generally did so with reluctance. To resort to drugs seemed a sign of weakness. Besides, I had the same fundamental BTC suspicion of all drugs that anti-gun zealots do of all firearms. As the evil they do is much in evidence and the good is seldom obvious, it's easy to conclude that a civilized society would be better off without them.

But that conclusion, like the ones that led to Prohibition, is more emotional than rational. Just as life in general would be better if there were no such thing as drug abuse, it would be far worse if there were no drugs at all. My own recent experience has been a vivid reminder of that.

Some weeks ago I found myself suddenly unable to breathe through my nose. This is a common complaint; I know many people who've had the same problem, usually because of an allergic reaction to something in the air. Unless you are going to be bound and gagged, it is not life-threatening, but it's unpleasant and makes it hard to work, think or sleep. At times it can be infuriating, at other times frightening.

There are plenty of over-the-counter medications available for opening blocked nasal passages, and they can be very effective. But they can also have alarming side-effects, and some who use them develop an almost addictive dependence on them. I sought medical advice.

The family practitioner I consulted prescribed -- drugs. One to counter the allergic reaction, another to ease the inflamation that had shut down my nose. It took a few days, but the treatment worked. Being able to draw a normal breath once again came as an indescribable relief.

Without drugs, the options for patients with my symptoms would be limited. They could go to Arizona or another place without the troublesome allergens, or they could stick it out at home until fall, when the allergy season usually ends. The cost in either case would be high, whether in terms of expense, lost income from work or continued discomfort.

So can we conclude that there are good drugs, used to save lives or open the nasal passages of allergy sufferers, and bad drugs, with no redeeming social value? Probably, but only up to a point. Many of the good drugs can be misused and abused, and at least some of the "bad" ones have medical value under some circumstances.

From a health standpoint, there's not much good to be said about tobacco, but marijuana is said to be helpful to people with glaucoma and in easing the pain of those with terminal cancer. And while alcoholism may be a plague, various studies suggest that a little wine or a little whiskey taken on a regular basis can reduce the risk of heart disease.

The fact is that in discussing drugs -- and firearms, and other volatile public issues -- it's important to be able to draw fine distinctions.

Otherwise we're left with irreconcilable absolutes and little hope of reaching a useful consensus.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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