Shabu shrinks brains? Drug abuse expert debunks 'myth'
MANILA, Philippines – An expert on the effect of illegal drugs on humans on Friday, May 5, debunked President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated claims that the repeated use of shabu (methamphetamine) shrinks a user’s brain over time.
“The data simply isn’t there,” said Dr Carl Hart, whose area of research includes “behavioral and neuropharmacological effects of psychoactive drugs in humans.” Hart, a renowned neuroscientist and drug abuse expert, chairs Columbia University’s psychology department.
Hart’s discussion was part of a talk on “a public health approach to the war on drugs” in a two-day drug policy forum conference sponsored by non-governmental organizations, held at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.
While Hart did not mention Duterte in his talk, the drug expert noted that this “myth” seemed to be prevalent in the Philippines.
“The origin of this myth is animal tests,” said Hart.
He narrated that in tests, animals were exposed to “large doses” of methamphetamine. The doses, Hart noted, were much higher than what humans themselves normally take.
The immediate large does, Hart said, resulted in damage to brain cells. He noted that escalating doses over a period of time does not result in the same effect.
“If you expose the animal to escalating doses [over] several days, you don’t see the toxic effect,” he said, noting that studies have shown that tolerance to illegal drugs is actually “protective.”
Hart is the author of the memoir, High Price, described as "a neuroscientist's journey of self-discovery that challenges everything you know about drugs and society."
In justifying his bloody war on drugs, Duterte had repeatedly said in public addresses that unlike people hooked to natural drugs like marijuana and cocaine, shabu users are "beyond redemption" as the chemical substance shrinks brain cells.
"The problem is once you're addicted to shabu, rehabilitation is no longer a viable option," Duterte said a week before he took over the presidency, a statement he would repeat in varying forms. (READ: Duterte in Cebu: Drug users, pushers will 'surely be killed')
Drug use vs drug abuse
During the same forum, United Nations Special Rapporteur on summary killings Agnes Callamard delivered the keynote addres, where she said that based on the experience of various countries, the war on drugs does not work. She instead advocated a “multi-disciplinary” approach to curbing the drug problem, citing a UN gathering of various world leaders in 2016.
The forum was held as Duterte’s war on drugs nears the one-year mark. While his crackdown on illegal drugs enjoys popular support in the Philippines, it has also been criticized both at home and abroad. (READ: Is Duterte's 4 million drug addicts a 'real number'?)
Hart, considered a worldwide expert on illegal drugs, said “75%-90% of drug users do not have a problem,” meaning most users’ problem is not the illegal drug itself but other factors.
“Drug use is not drug abuse,” said Hart, in a talk that sought to “dispel drug myths.”
On a policy level, Hart noted that the failure in properly differentiating a drug user from a drug addict meant that the “system” was “overwhelmed.”
“[This] decreases the chance for people who need help to get help. We might have to actually admit that the problem is not as bad,” Hart said.
Experts, citing the experience of countries such as Colombia and Thailand, have said that the war on drugs does not work. Columbia has since characterized its war on drugs as a “failure.” Colombia now leads world leaders in advocating a more “human solution” to the drug problem. (READ: Colombian ex-president to Duterte: Force won't solve drug war)
While Duterte's aides have acknowledge that illegal drugs is a health issue, aside fro being a peace and order concern, Duterte himself has said that drug suspects and criminals are “not human.” (READ: Ubial: PH drug problem a 'public health emergency and Shoot to kill? Duterte's statements on killing drug users) – Rappler.com