Duane C McBride Revised by Jonathan Caulkins

Safer Use of Drugs People commonly use drugs in safe ways, that is, nonabusively. Safe use means that drug use does not significantly impair health or interfere with social or economic functioning. For example, most users of alcohol consume that drug in moderation, not to the point of extreme intoxication, during specified hours, and for specified purposes, such as relaxation after daily work or promotion of social interchange.

Any drug can be used or abused, although some drugs and some ways of introducing them into the body may favor safe use. In general, less potent forms of drugs taken by mouth are more likely to be associated with safe use, whereas more potent forms taken parenterally (that is, introduced other than by way of the intestinal track) are less likely to be associated with safe use.

It is difficult to discuss the safe use of illegal drugs, because foes of those substances regard them as ''drugs of abuse'' that cannot possibly be consumed in nonabusive ways. This attitude is unhelpful. Whether a drug is used or abused has little to do with whether a drug is legal or illegal; it depends, rather, on the relationship an individual forms with it. One can as easily find examples of abusive use of legal drugs (TOBACCO, ALCOHOL, and OVER-THE-COUNTER medications) as of safe use of illegal ones. Take for example, the majority of coffee drinkers in our society who are addicted to the CAFFEINE in coffee (meaning they will have a withdrawal reaction on sudden cessation of intake). Many of these people also experience adverse effects on health as a result of their coffee addiction (cardiac arrhythmias, stomach and intestinal problems, irritation of the urogenital tract, tremors, insomnia, mood swings, and more). Many users of MARIJUANA, however, consume that drug moderately and occasionally, without suffering ill effects on health or behavior.

By observing safe use of drugs throughout the world—from Native Americans who use Hallucinogenic Plants ritually to the many people who have figured out how to enjoy alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine nonaddictively and nonabusively—one can draw up a list of suggestions for users to increase the likelihood of safe use.

1. Know that the substance you are using is a drug or contains a drug.

2. Know how it affects your mind and body and what the risks are of moderate to excessive use.

3. Use lower potency (dilute) forms of drugs rather than higher potency (concentrated, refined) forms.

4. It is always safer to take drugs by mouth rather than by other routes of administration.

5. If the substances are illegal, it is important to know your sources in order to avoid adulterated, toxic, or misrepresented products.

6. Limit frequency of use by defining appropriate occasions and purposes for use. Regular, especially daily, use of any psychoactive drug com monly leads to loss of desired effects (tolerance) and to dependence.

7. Do not use any drug without good reason or just to go along with the crowd.

8. Seek advice about drugs from books and from people who know from experience what their real benefits and risks may be.

9. Reactions to drugs are strongly shaped by dose, mind set (expectations) and setting. Pay attention to these variables to reduce the risk of bad reactions.

Clearly, it is in society's interest to discourage the unsafe use of drugs. It is also in society's interest to foster the safe use of drugs by those who are inclined to use them. Of course, abstinence is a sure way to avoid problems, but there is no reason to think that most people will choose it in regard to drugs any more than they choose it in regard to sex. Therefore, providing good education about ways of using drugs safely should be a priority along with encouraging abstinence.

In addition, government drug policy should not work against safe use. Strongly prohibitionist policies may drive out of circulation dilute, natural forms of drugs, while encouraging the growth of black markets in concentrated, refined, and adulterated forms. This has certainly been the case with coca leaf and COCAINE. Coca leaf, with a low abuse potential and significant medical usefulness, has disappeared from our world, as powder and CRACK-cocaine have become more available—a change that has favored unsafe use rather than safe use. It would therefore be in society's interest to make dilute, low-potency forms of natural drugs more available.

(SEE ALSO: Drugs from Plants; Education and Prevention; Partnership for a Drug-Free America; Prevention Movement)

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