The Washington Post published a review of the recently published book, The Cult of Pharmacology by Richard DeGrandpre. DeGrandpre presents a pretty provocative premise:
Why isn’t Nicorette gum a street drug? The Food and Drug Administration considers nicotine highly addictive. Tobacco companies seem to share this view when they manipulate the level of nicotine in cigarettes. But the gum, which packs a goodly dose of nicotine, appeals to almost no one. While we’re at it, if nicotine dependence is what stands in the way of quitting, why do patched smokers — their brains well-supplied with the substance — still crave the next drag?
If these questions have an answer, it is that addiction is not a simple matter of chemical and receptor. Habit, ritual, social context and the means of delivery all affect how the brain processes a drug and how we experience it. As a result, drug research is replete with paradox.
Psychoactive compounds, he writes, function “as mere stimuli, with more or less the same, potentially great, powers as other stimuli one experiences and gives meaning to.” DeGrandpre derides a set of beliefs that he groups under the infelicitous name “pharmacologicalism.” This false ideology, he writes, holds that “drugs contain potentialities that lie within the drug’s chemical structure . . . and when taken into the body, these potentialities take hold of and transform both brain and behavior.” According to DeGrandpre, drugs do not work in any consistent, predictable way — and we’ve been brainwashed if we think that they do.
The prevailing ideology, DeGrandpre argues, has another, equally insidious side. It causes us to attribute different powers to substances that are effectively identical. We demonize cocaine, a natural stimulant, but sanctify its synthetic counterpart, Ritalin. This benefits the “medicopharmaceutical industrial complex,” which favors what can be patented and profited from. Ultimately, our confused beliefs lead to forms of social control, causing us to drug our children with stimulants while imprisoning consenting adults for taking nearly identical substances such as crystal meth.
The reviewer writes a thoughtful and effective critique of DeGrandpre’s arguments:
The problem with DeGrandpre’s argument is that he, more than his imagined opponents, ignores context. The findings of behavioral pharmacology are not unique; in medicine, environment often modifies physiology. Interferon, a medication used to treat certain cancers, causes depression, but it does so less in people who have social supports and more in patients who have had past depressive episodes. To show that the response is multifactorial hardly invalidates the claim that the drug triggers mood disorders.
Expectancy is powerful. Acupuncture is effective in pain relief. But so is sham acupuncture — using shallow needles inserted at random points. Pain responds to placebos. It does not follow that pain lacks anatomical roots or that the use of aspirin for pain management amounts to a conspiracy.
Our drug policies, arising from puritanical moralizing as much as from the needs of corporations, are often irrational. Still, not every choice is without foundation. Like cocaine, Ritalin modulates dopamine transport in the brain. But schoolchildren who take Ritalin by mouth generally experience no high and develop no craving, while snorting cocaine famously does cause a rush. And crystal meth’s minor chemical distinction — it is water soluble and therefore easy to inject — makes a major practical, and addictive, difference. That we allow Ritalin to be prescribed suggests that, as a nation, we pay attention both to drugs’ chemical properties and to their customary usage — hardly a sign of ideological rigidity.
It’s too bad he throws in the drug policy statement. The suggestion that the motivations for U.S. drug policy are two-faceted and wholly insidious reveals his own ideology.