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Stigma shouldn't prevent drug research

Published: Monday, April 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08

Depression can be crippling. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in ten Americans report experiencing depression and serious cases can have disastrous consequences, including suicide. Sadly, many people afflicted with depression also suffer from other mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and insomnia. For those experiencing all three, as well as their families and loved ones, every day is a struggle.

Fortunately, recent scientific discoveries are offering these people a new glimmer of hope. Last fall, a review paper by Yale University professor Ronald Duman proposed the idea of using an anesthetic called ketamine for treating depression. Experimental treatments have proven incredibly successful for a majority of patients, and ketamine has brought relief to many people for whom other drugs were never effective. But there's one catch: ketamine is a widely-used recreational drug, often known by its street name, “special k.” Despite this, we think that scientists should explore the potential medical uses of ketamine, and that the medical potential of other recreational drugs should be researched as well.

Ketamine's recreational uses, and potential for abuse, should not be discounted. Originally developed as an animal tranquilizer and currently used as an anesthetic for both humans and animals, it has powerful effects on the nervous system. If taken in high doses, it can cause vivid hallucinations, which led to its popularity as a club drug.

But just because it has the potential to be used recreationally doesn't mean it shouldn't be used medically as well. Many medically useful drugs, from cough syrup to morphine, are commonly used for reasons other than those listed on the bottle. This has the potential to lead to abuse, as does any sort of recreational drug use, from alcohol to heroin.

If drugs' abuse potential is higher than their medical usefulness, some will advocate banning the drugs in order to protect public health. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect – people continue to use the drugs recreationally, obtaining them from the black market, while those who have legitimate medical problems are unable to obtain them.

This can be seen with many drugs today. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing that it can help treat glaucoma, cancer, and other diseases, marijuana remains federally illegal. 18 states and the District of Columbia now allow the medical use of marijuana, but doctors, patients, and providers live in constant fear of federal prosecution.

Similarly, recent research has discovered medical uses for other drugs known for their recreational popularity. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is conducting research with MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy and referred to as “molly” in its pure form, which shows that it can be useful for treating PTSD.

America's experience with marijuana, MDMA, ketamine, and many other drugs all shows one thing: drugs are not inherently recreational, medicinal, or anything else. A drug's function depends entirely on how you use it – a positive effect in one scenario could be a negative side effect in another – and all drugs can be used responsibly or abused. As a society, we shouldn't stop people from using a drug medicinally just because other people have abused it. Eliminating this stigma will allow us to develop better medicines, healing people and allowing us all to lead healthier, happier lives.


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