Wilkie Wilson Interview


DM) Do you agree with the legalization of drugs?

WW) I see the drug issue from three different perspectives: as a former federal grand juror, as a medical scientist, and finally as a parent. Each of these gives me a different perspective on drug legalization.
A couple of years ago I served on the US grand jury for my district in North Carolina. I was struck by how much of our criminal justice system is occupied by the drug issue. The vast majority of the federal indictments that we issued were for drug trafficking. In that one year, in this one third of one state, I saw the lives of hundreds to thousands of people completely destroyed. But, frankly, I never had the feeling that the legal system was even making a dent in the supply of drugs.
As a medical scientist, I understand that the word “drug” is not useful as a generic, “one-size-fits-all” term. The brain is a very complex place, and the range of effects of chemicals we call recreational drugs is so wide as to make this an enormously difficult issue. Marijuana has little overdose risk but may impair the development of the nervous system in adolescents. Ecstasy really does kill brain cells and leaves people depressed. Repeated cocaine usage has long-lasting effects on the brain’s reward system. A legal drug, alcohol is highly toxic in many ways.
Finally, as a parent, I favor education over incarceration. No amount of law enforcement will stop the flow of drugs, so the only defense is education of the children so that they will make healthy decisions.
I would recommend decriminalizing marijuana and strongly reducing the criminal penalties for other drugs. The money saved on incarceration could then be diverted to education and drug treatment.

DM) But by decreasing penalties doesn’t that send a message of acceptance of drugs?

WW) Not at all. There are many behaviors that segments of society abhor but do not criminally penalize. Two of these are tobacco smoking and overeating. In many circles these are totally unacceptable behaviors but no one is going to prison for them. Another example is drunk driving. It’s become completely unacceptable, but the penalties are much less than those for cocaine possession. With each of these three issues, education is working without serious incarceration. We can do the same for drugs.

DM) But there has been education in the anti-smoking campaign for decades and it is that’s not stopped yet. Is it a realistic goal to eliminate drug usage?

WW) Nothing is going to completely eliminate drug usage, because drugs get to heart of the motivational system of the human brain, the reward system. But, I think we can do much better. We have not really tried a comprehensive educational approach for kindergarten through high school students. It is critical to reach the kids because most addiction occurs during adolescence.

DM) Do you think America will ever “win” the war on drugs?

WW) I really don’t like the term “war on drugs,” because it is meaningless. If we really are having a war on drugs, then it is a war on ourselves, because almost all of us use one drug or another–alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, valium, etc. No, it we must recognize that there will never be a time in which recreational drugs are not available to whomever wants them. Our only hope is to educate people to have a sense of respect for their brains, like they do for their hearts. Then, maybe with that respect in place, they will choose not to intoxicate their brains in dangerous ways.

DM) Do you see that awareness as happening in the near future?

WW) I’m hopeful. Everybody agrees we have to take different approaches to the drug problem, and the beauty of a “how to respect and maximally use your brain” approach is that it is much broader than just drugs, and thus much easier to incorporate into conventional educational systems. Probably no school system will allow a drug “harm reduction” course in high school, but I’ll bet you that almost every one will want to teach their kids how their brains work, how learning occurs, and how alcohol and other drugs alter brain functions.

DM) What kind of questions have you heard since the book came out?

WW) What’s amazed me is how many people are interested in how drugs actually affect the brain, and how little of the basic science people actually know. I’ve given talks to drug educators, counselors, teachers, and health professionals. Uniformly their reaction has been amazement at what they did not know and their recognition of how helpful a little knowledge would be in drug education and treatment.

DM) If you found one of your children smoking pot, what would you tell her?

WW) Well, that’s how Buzzed was born. My daughters asked me about drugs, and I told them the truth, as I knew it as a medical scientist. I told them that pot impaired the ability of the brain to acquire new information, that it stayed around a long time, and that even weekly use of it could be problematic. Also, I told them that, like it or not, it is currently illegal, and that becoming involved with it put them at risk of being involved with the legal system. I explained that right now the criminal justice system is going through a rough period, because some elements of this society are hell-bent on harsh punishment. So, you never know when what seems like a minor infraction will mean a major jail sentence….you just never know. My advice was and is to stay away from anything that can cause an interaction with the legal system.

DM) What is the most physically addictive street drug?

WW) If by physically addictive, you mean what drug produces the most withdrawal effects, that would probably be alcohol and heroin. If you mean true addiction, which is craving and compulsive use, then it would be a tie between crack, heroin, and methamphetamine.

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