Weed, Coke, and Heroin
Marijuana has been used for five thousand years in China. The Turks, Indians and Assyrians all began using it more than two thousand years ago. Ancient Greeks like Homer, Herodotus, and Theocritus wrote about its medical benefits. It serves very well as an anti-emetic, muscle relaxant, glaucoma treatment and sedative and is used for migraines, menstrual cramps, seizures, asthma and nausea. 50% or so of oncologists report giving it to cancer patients.
It was taken in a variety of ways and probably smoked before tobacco. Cannabis, from which the word "canvas" originates, was also the most important source of fiber for thousands of years until the 20th century. About fifteen percent of users abuse the drug, just as with alcohol.
During the deliberations to make it illegal, the federal government claimed it would make you violent, and then later reversed itself and claimed it would make young men pacifistic and unwilling to go to war. They say the new marijuana is dangerous, more like hard drugs, but no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose and probably no one ever will. Lab tests indicate it would take 40,000 doses to kill someone – about ten thousand times as many doses of alcohol as one would need to die, and about 200 times as many doses of caffeine. They say it’s a gateway drug, but decriminalized marijuana in Holland has not resulted in more cocaine or heroin use, or even pot use.
As for the idea that no one who uses it can accomplish anything, I would defer to Michael Phelps, Carl Sagan, and the bulk of artists and musicians of my parents’ generation, as well as the last three presidents. (Okay, perhaps there is a criminal element associated with marijuana, after all.)
Heroin is perhaps the quintessential "hard drug," but it is closely related to morphine and codeine. Perhaps it would be used in hospitals to this day if it were not completely illegal. Notably, there is no death from chemical withdrawal from heroin, and most people who abuse it eventually get over it. So much of the damage done by it is exacerbated by prohibition. Overdoses and lack of impurity arise because people do not know how much they are using, and no one bothered to inform them seriously of the risks. The legal barriers to syringe availability have famously led to a rise in HIV transmission.
Since heroin is essentially akin to very strong morphine and codeine, it is ironic that the conservatives were so quick to defend Rush Limbaugh when he was caught with Oxycontin, also simply a very powerful opiate, which he had allegedly been abusing illegally.
Cocaine comes from the coca leaf, native to the western hemisphere and still used in South America, mixed with tea, as a treatment for upset stomachs. The leaf has been used thousands of years. The chemical was isolated in 1860 and its most common recreational use after this was in beverages – in elixirs, Coca Cola, and Vin Mariani, a red wine with the drug in it that was fancied by Thomas Edison, Jules Vern and Pope Leo the VIII. (Incidentally, cocaine was removed from Coca Cola years before it was illegal, due to market considerations.)
When they started cracking down on coca leaves, powder cocaine became more popular. When they leaned heavier on that, crack cocaine got on the streets – perhaps with a little direct help from the government. The more the government cracks down, the purer the drug tends to get, as it is easier to transport. Liquor became big under Prohibition and then subsided afterwards. We could probably expect a similar response from ending the prohibition of cocaine.
Cocaine can cause psychosis, heart problems and is one of the most addiction-prone, but its full risks should be analyzed thoughtfully, not mindlessly. There is no death from withdrawal, for example. A lot of the hysteria surrounding cocaine in the last couple of decades was sparked by the tragedy of Len Bias, a senior from the University of Maryland, drafted by the Boston Celtics, who died of an overdose. The media did not report, however, that Bias did not snort it – he more likely ate it, given the massive amounts in his body. Many of the worst abuses come with mixing cocaine with alcohol, which produces cocaethylene in the liver, which is very stressful to the cardiovascular system.