The recent hype surrounding marijuana legalization reminded me of a particularly outrageous conversation I had with a friend a few years back. The friend—we’ll call her Sam—has been a self-proclaimed goody-two-shoes since birth. Among other self-imposed restrictions, she swore off alcohol and drugs. One day, however, she called me with news. “OMG, Chels, you’re never going to believe what happened last night. I got drunk! And then smoked weed! It was incredible!”
Sam went to a party with her older brother at which she naively drank “the punch.” But it’s what she said next that really shocked me. “This couple invited me to smoke dope with them. I said I had never done it before and was nervous, but they were so nice and showed me how. I always thought smoking dope meant putting leaves into a pipe or some paper but this was different. It was like, this sticky brown stuff that we smoked off a piece of foil with a straw. I didn’t want to sound like an idiot so I didn’t ask—but is that hash? Anyway, it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. We should do it together sometime!”
Don’t feel stupid if you’ve never heard of smoking marijuana using a straw and aluminum foil—that’s because what Sam smoked wasn’t marijuana, it was heroin. While both drugs are often smoked, called “dope” and look brown and sticky, they couldn’t be more different. Naturally, Sam’s heroin consumption both amused and frightened me. Of course, it was hilariously ironic that Sam, while pure as snow and vehemently opposed to consuming anything more potent than a decaf soy latte, had unknowingly tried heroin. Of all people! I certainly got a good chuckle out of this. Then again, heroin is a highly addictive, illegal drug—what if something had gone wrong and Sam hadn’t been OK?
This piqued my curiosity—how the hell did a couple of college freshmen get it? What did it feel like? How dangerous was it? Despite my (embarrassingly expensive) liberal education and open-minded parents, I couldn’t answer any of these questions. Aside from the vague, abstinence-only drug classes I received (and often skipped) in middle school, my drug knowledge came from a myriad of unreliable sources. Lifetime movies, remnants of the Reagan-era “Just Say No” campaign and my friend of a friend whose cousin was in rehab all told me that drugs were bad, drug users were evil and that I should never, ever associate with either. Basically, I knew nothing.
And then, my epiphany: Much like abstinence-only sex education, abstinence-only drug education is useless. D.A.R.E., the nation’s most popular drug and alcohol education program, is abstinence-based and largely ineffective. As in, kids will do drugs whether or not we tell them to “just say no”—so what are we supposed to do? Rather than employ scare tactics (i.e. photos of meth addicts, cancerous lungs and prison cells), we need to teach kids about the drugs themselves—what they look like, feel like and, most importantly, how to minimize risks if they choose to use.
Thankfully, nothing bad happened to Sam, but because she had no idea what she was smoking, the potential was there. Did you know that heroin is especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol? Neither did Sam. Even small amounts of heroin can result in brain damage or even death when combined with alcohol. This is said to be what killed Cory Monteith.
It’s definitely not just heroin—there are ways to drastically reduce (or increase) health risks with any drug. The problem is, most schools don’t teach this stuff. From testing kits to ensure drugs aren’t tainted to using clean needles and staying hydrated, there are numerous ways to make drugs safer. I recently read an article about the potentially fatal interaction between MDMA and MAO inhibitors. MAOIs are a type of antidepressant, and MDMA is the popular drug behind those classy tank tops. I know many people taking antidepressants and many people constantly searching for their friend Molly—the overlap is what concerns me. Similar problems exist with other drugs.
This misinformation stigmatizes these substances and their users. Yes, Sam smoked heroin—does that mean she’s a bad person? Of course not. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death was linked to heroin use, but he was still an amazing actor. We’ve been taught that all drugs and their users are terrible, and that’s ridiculous. Truthfully, not all drugs are as dangerous as people believe, especially when compared to alcohol. A recent British study ranked alcohol and 19 other drugs according to their potential to harm the user and their potential to harm others. Surprise, surprise: Alcohol came out on top, even above heroin and crack cocaine. While you might judge that kid who trips on acid every now and then, it’s a hell of a lot safer than the binge drinking you probably partake in.
It’s no secret that drug use happens at Duke, which is why I’m surprised that drug education doesn’t really exist here. Do you remember what you learned from the AlcoholEdu program we were all forced into as freshmen? I certainly don’t, although I’m positive it contained nothing about drugs. Administration, I’m looking at you now: Just because you strive for a drug-free campus doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. In this sense, drugs are just like sex: If we’re going to do it anyway, you might as well help us be safe about it.
Chelsea Sawicki is a Trinity senior. Her column is part of the weekly Socialites feature and runs every other Wednesday. Send Chelsea a message on Twitter @ChelsTweetzz.