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No. 541:
Drugs and Scientific Literacy

Today, let's talk about scientific literacy and the war on drugs. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You've seen that public service spot on TV -- the one where a man splats an egg in a frying pan to show you what drugs do to your brain. I don't like that. The hidden message is that we have nothing more convincing to say about drug use.

We need to follow scientific cause and effect to understand the dangers of modern life -- disease, drugs, and more. For example, what do we really know about AIDS? The media recite the words, "Wear a condom!" like a mantra. But few of us have a clear picture of how virulent AIDS is -- or isn't.

An article on cocaine addiction in Science magazine brought this home the other day. I'd heard the same confusing things you have. Finally, I had a hard technical explanation of what medical scientists are saying to each other about cocaine.

I had to labor in the unfamiliar waters of psychology and neurophysiology. Still, it was a blessed relief from eggs and frying pans. It also painted the most sinister picture of cocaine I've seen. It was so sinister because it was convincing.

As many as 3,000,000 Americans need treatment for cocaine addiction. Only 10 to 15 percent of people who try cocaine become addicts. Most suffer overwhelming anxiety and walk away. But that means as many as 30,000,000 Americans may have tried the stuff.

In 1980 we still thought cocaine was nonaddictive. Now we know the patterns have fooled us. Cocaine users are less regular than alcoholics. They binge and crash. During the crash, they crave food and sleep, but not cocaine. The crash might go on as long as four days.

After the crash comes withdrawal. That lasts from one to ten weeks. The user finds little pleasure in anything else -- he wants cocaine again. If he gets past withdrawal, the old craving can come back intermittently for years. He's at greater risk of relapse than recovering alcoholics or even recovering smokers.

And what about the egg in the frying pan? Well, cocaine does alter brain chemistry, but it's not clear how. We don't yet know the extent of physical addiction -- only that it's interwoven with psychological factors.

Cocaine use goes on because users don't see it frying their brains like eggs. If they did, it'd be an obvious threat. Addiction is woven far more subtly into mind and body.

It takes more than slogans to beat drugs -- or disease. It takes an understanding of scientific cause and effect. It's high time we did more to honor the public's ability to face complexity and subtlety. Especially in the business of its own survival!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gawin, F.H., Cocaine Addiction: Psychology and Neurophysiology. Science, Vol. 251, 29 March, 1991, pp. 1580-1586.