I'll start off this section with a book recommendation, one I've made several times before on this blog. The book is "Saying Yes: In Defense Of Drug Use" by Jacob Sullum (who currently writes at Reason) and I recommend it because it really opened my eyes on the drug issue. The premise of the book is Sullum's rejection of what he calls "voodoo pharmacology," which is, to put it simply, the notion that a drug robs it's users of free will creating a compulsion for use and abuse. Most interestingly, the book highlights the similarity in language used by temperance (anti-alcohol) activists at the turn of the 20th century, anti-marijuana warriors of the 1930's, and modern drug warriors discussing cocaine, methamphetamines, and other supposedly dangerous drugs. Basically, many of the claims made today about harder drugs are the same claims that used to be made about alcohol and pot. Most of us recognize the older claims as just the least bit over the top, yet still regard the warnings about today's "dangerous" drugs as deadly serious.
As Sullum points out in his book, many of the supposed dangers of "hard" drugs have never been substantiated by peer reviewed scientific research. Think about that for a minute- drugs are identified as dangerous not because of their chemical composition or other scientific factors, but because of sociological conclusions about the people who do use "hard" drugs. Functional drug users- the sort with jobs and maybe families- aren't about to advertise their habit or offer their story to researchers or those in the drug field. So who are we left to study- the people with real problems of course, the people that can't keep their lives together, and this is the group that generates most of our assumptions about "hard" drugs. To compare, it's a bit like studying alcohol by relying solely on members of AA. Maybe it'll tell you a lot about people who have or think they have alcohol problems, but it doesn't tell you very much about alcohol itself.
Drug abuse is not a problem created by evil chemicals, drug abuse is an individual problem. In his book, Sullum raises the question of whether the functional addict is really a problem at all. After all, if a person can get up, go to work all day, and do their job without using drugs, but has to come home and drink or get high every night, is that person really a problem for society? The fact that not every drug user becomes unemployed and homeless is an indication that drug abuse is more about personal, individual issues than it is about specific drugs.
The truth about drugs is that drug use is different for each individual. We all know this intuitively when it comes to alcohol, but people have trouble believing the same logic applies to cocaine. Alcohol use ranges from wine at communion to the homeless alcoholic drinking liquor from a bottle in a paper bag to everything in between and the same applies to cocaine, opiates, and every other drug you can think of. The fact that some drugs have the image of being particularly nasty says more about the people (our our perceptions of such people) drawn to make such choices in the first place than it does about any scientific facts about drugs themselves.
I'll conclude by exposing what I believe to be one of the biggest unsubstantiated accusations ever made, which is that marijuana is a so-called "gateway drug." Marijuana is identified as such because survey after survey shows that hard drug users smoked marijuana before trying harder drugs. The gateway drug claim is BS for two reasons. The first is that the same surveys also show that alcohol and tobacco use proceeded hard drug use. Scientifically, I can't see a reason to distinguish marijuana from alcohol and tobacco, particularly in this regard, so unless the argument is that alcohol and tobacco are gateway drugs as well, there is no reason to treat marijuana any differently. (And similar to the fact that many alcohol and tobacco users never go on to try hard drugs, many marijuana users never go on to try hard drugs either.) The second reason the gateway drug claim is BS? Because it equates correlation with causation. There's a difference between a social pattern (kids try beer first, pot second, and then move on to harder drugs) and scientific explanation of why A leads to B.
I end with the gateway drug hypothesis, because it's just another example of how we're continually fed loads of BS when it comes to drugs. There's nothing wrong with telling kids not to do drugs, but the fact that the anti-drug message is so ineffective when it comes to teenagers and young adults is a good indication that the falsehoods perpetuated about drugs and drug use are paper thin in the eyes of curious teens.
The truth about drugs is that drugs aren't bad. People aren't bad either, some people just make bad, self-destructive decisions. And we all know this- we can all spot the difference between the casual user and the problem user, the alcoholic drinking to escape his problems and the guy just looking to get drunk after a stressful week at work. Drugs should be legalized because most drug problems aren't really about drugs, they're about people.