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March 28, 2008 -- Tri-City News (CN BC)

OpEd: New Season Calls For New Drug Understanding

By Nicole Pankratz

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Spring is about rebirth. About new beginnings. And this year, it couldn't come too soon because as a society, we really need to let go of some of our old ways and start over, especially when it comes to gathering and interpreting information about drugs.

Not only is a great deal of misinformation being touted as fact these days but the focus of both policy and media attention seems to be on the wrong substances and issues altogether.

Part of the problem is simply bad habits. It's a habit, for example, for most people to talk about "drugs and alcohol," a term that falsely implies that alcohol is different from a drug.

Fact 1: Alcohol (ethanol) is a drug.

Fact 2: Tobacco (nicotine) is a drug. A drug is a chemical compound found in a plant or made in a laboratory that affects activity in the brain or the body.

It's also a bad habit to cluck our tongues at crystal meth and other illicit drugs that are supposedly "ravaging the neighbourhood."

Fact 3: Only a handful of people has ever even tried crystal meth. About 7% of the general population has used amphetamine-type stimulants -- meth, ecstasy, speed and so on -- in their lifetime.

Approximately 1% has used one of more of these drugs in the last 12 months. Yes, it's popular among certain sub-populations but it's certainly not ripping through playgrounds the way some media sources would have you believe.

While we're on the subject of low prevalence, only 2% of the population has ever used heroin. What's more, heroin use is on the decline in Canada while misuse of prescription drugs (or "medicine," as we like to call it) is on the rise.

Fact 4: The real culprits -- the drugs that are legitimately scary -- are the legal ones: tobacco and alcohol.

When it comes to costs to society, smoking and risky drinking top the charts. B.C. boasts the lowest smoking rate in Canada at around 15% but there are still enormous costs attached to regular tobacco use.

An employee who smokes, for example, costs his or her employer an estimated $3,000 per year in health care costs, absenteeism, presenteeism and so on. And more than 47,000 Canadians die of smoking-related diseases every year -- but not before making full use of the health care system.

As for drinking, B.C. spends more than $2.2 billion a year on alcohol-related costs. The costs associated with all illicit drugs put together are nowhere near that high.

Consider it this way: In 2005, almost 28,000 hospitalizations in B.C. were attributable to tobacco and nearly 15,000 hospitalizations were attributable to alcohol. To compare, fewer than 5,000 hospitalizations were related to illicit drug use. Yet tackling the illicit drug problem is what many public figures and people in general seem to worry about.

We identify and vilify some drugs, and we misidentify and shrug our shoulders at others, even though the evidence clearly shows our current habits are causing harm to ourselves and others.

Why is this? Because some drugs are more outwardly gruesome and therefore more "interesting" (or at least more in-your-face) than others. And, presumably, because policy makers, the media and the public aren't sure where to find factual information.

In an attempt to rectify this fiction over fact problem, the Centre for Addictions Research of BC has added a reader-friendly statistics section to its website ( With one click on the Statistics button, visitors to the site can find evidence-based information (in text and graph form) on drugs -- from prevalence rates among particular populations to health effects to economic costs.

The CARBC website also features a more rigourous statistics section, called the Alcohol and Other Drug Monitoring Project, for researchers and analysts.

With any luck, by next spring, we'll be over our bad habits and discussions will be based more on fact than fiction.

Nicole Pankratz, is publications officer at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC ( at the University of Victoria.

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