People do drugs. They do drugs for tons of reasons. They also don’t do drugs for tons of reasons. Some people do drugs to feel better or to feel smarter or to feel more focused in a chaotic world. Some people do drugs to get outside their own mind. Some people do drugs to treat ailments traditional medicine ignores.
We all have different reasons and different highs. But the truth of the matter is this: Today, you’re hard-pressed to find anyone wearing one of those DARE “just say no” t-shirts without being drenched in irony. We’re not a society of “just say no” anymore.
We’re a society that’s becoming increasingly comfortable talking about (and even legalizing) drug use. There’s an opportunity there—if we can do this right.
So how do we use this moment—and our increasingly chill attitudes toward appropriate and safe drug use—to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself? Let’s think about it.
Many of them preferred to keep their full names private, which...respect, seeing as this was all about doing drugs. So you’ll hear from several friends—Ben, Shardul, and Kelly. Additionally, I had the privilege of speaking with justice reform advocate Ashish Prashar. I also drew a lot of inspiration from Michael Pollan, whose work you can check out here.
This is Thinking Is Cool, and there’s only one rule we live by here: Whoever rolls it, sparks it.
Hello everyone and welcome to Thinking Is Cool, the show designed to make your next conversation better than your last, no prescription necessary. My name is Kinsey Grant and I’m a journalist, huge nerd, and the host of this show.
I’m about to take you on what can only be described as a journey. Today’s episode is, quite literally, an exploration of why people do drugs. Obviously, we have a lot to unpack.
Before we do it though, an enormous shout out to our Thinking Is Cool Season 2 presenting sponsor, Fundrise. They’re great—you’ll learn more about Fundrise in a jiffy if you don’t already use ’em.
Finally, I’ve got a disclaimer before this episode gets started. We’re about to talk about drugs, and because of that I feel the need to say two things off the bat:
Alright? Alright. Season 2. Episode 3: Let’s talk about drugs, baby. As always...Nothing is off limits. Everything is on the table. Take it anywhere. And remember, thinking is cool and so are you.
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How old were you the first time you heard the words “just say no to drugs?” For many of us, that string of syllables is as ingrained in our minds as our first address or our mom’s phone number. It’s what grown-up people said. But what grown-up people knew that we didn’t as kids?
In 2018, some 165 million teens and adults in the United States were substance users, meaning they consumed tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drugs. That’s 60% of the population.
And let me make some clear early here: There’s a very big difference between having a glass of Napa Valley white to take the edge off after a long day...and not being able to go about your life without debilitating and dangerous drugs. I’m not really advocating for anything in this episode, but I’m absolutely not advocating for drug abuse.
What I am doing is this: giving it to you straight. People do drugs. They do drugs for tons of reasons. They also don’t do drugs for tons of reasons. Some people do drugs to feel better or to feel smarter or to feel more focused in a chaotic world. Some people do drugs to get outside their own mind. Some people do drugs to treat ailments traditional medicine ignores.
We all have different reasons and different highs. But the truth of the matter is this: Today, you’re hard-pressed to find anyone wearing one of those DARE t-shirts without being drenched in irony. We’re not a society of “just say no” anymore.
Our perceptions are shifting, and that’s what we’re thinking about today. Guided ayahuasca journeys are an acceptable use of PTO. Marijuana is medicine. Hell, magic mushrooms are legal in some places in our 50 states. So how did we get here, and what does our changing idea of good and bad, at least as far as drugs are concerned, say about us—our shortcomings, our brightest ideas, and our biggest potential? Can we talk about taking edibles at work yet? Should we say yes to that trip into the woods to drop acid with a friend, or should we judge that friend for even going? Are we going too hard? Are we not going hard enough?
Let’s have a conversation. An honest one.
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All good conversations start with context, and Thinking Is Cool is about celebrating that context. So here’s what you need to know: The criminalization of recreational and functional drug use was a choice.
In the United States, drug use of all kinds—recreational, functional, medical—that we deem illegal or illicit today was perfectly acceptable not that long ago. After literal hours spent Googling “recreational drugs” and worrying the FBI agent in my laptop is getting the wrong idea, I found this, from the fine folks at PBS and the History Channel:
The idea that any of these drugs would lead to violent crimes and the disintegration of society as we know it is not only misguided, it’s recent.
Only about 100 years ago, Congress passed the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act that banned the possession, importation, and use of opium for smoking...all but for medical use. It was the first federal law to ban the non-medical use of a substance, but it most certainly was not the last.
A period of strict temperance opened the floodgates for regulating, taxing, and outlawing substances. You remember how well Prohibition worked, right? Keep that in mind as we run through the brief history of the War on Drugs.
1970: President Nixon signs the Controlled Substances Act, which calls for heavy regulation of certain drugs and...substances. It outlines these drugs based on five “schedules” used to classify by potential abuse and medical application. Schedule 1 are considered the most dangerous...and weed is on the list. I mean, heroin is too...but marijuana is considered as dangerous as it gets by Nixon’s rules.
1971: Nixon officially declares the “War on Drugs,” calling drug abuse “public enemy number one.” You’ll hear his reasoning later on.
1973: Nixon creates the Drug Enforcement Administration, aka the DEA, as a special police force committed to targeting illegal drug use and smuggling in the United States. The DEA was initially given 1,470 special agents and a budget of $75 million. Today, it has nearly 5,000 agents and a budget of over $2 billion.
1986: Congress passes the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. This move later drew serious criticism for being...well, seriously racist. It mandated longer prison sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine (used more often by Black Americans) than powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). Five grams of crack triggered an automatic five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same sentence.
In a previous life, I became friends with someone who knows a lot more about that part than I do. I called him up to ask him about the inherent inequity in this so-called War on Drugs, and you’ll hear that call in a few minutes. For now, keep that crack cocaine bit in mind.
Eventually, the timeline gets fuzzy, because social change rarely happens on one specific day on the calendar. But public support for the War on Drugs Nixon started began to peter out. It became clear that it was both ineffective and unfair to marginalized groups. And it was never a war to begin with—it was branded as one by old white dudes, sure. But it wasn’t a war. Those in power brandished police force and prison guards to handle something that, in the case of addiction, was more suited for doctors and therapists. Eventually we started to realize how backwards that was.
Also? We just got a lot more comfortable talking about drugs at the dinner table.
Between 2009 and 2013, about 40 states took steps to soften their drug laws by doing things like lowering penalties and shortening mandatory minimum sentences, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Today, less than a decade later, recreational weed is perfectly legal in 19 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. Last November, voters in Oregon chose to legalize medical psilocybin (aka shrooms) and decriminalize it statewide.
My mom called me the other day to ask me if I’ve ever smoked weed. And instead of lying, I told her the truth...yes, I have.
So why do people do drugs? Well, at least today, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. More on that after a quick break to hear from our friends at Fundrise.
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I’m not trying to sound like a huge hardo, but truth be told? A lot of my friends do drugs. So I asked a handful of them why, in an effort to better understand the way today’s perception of drugs is shifting so meaningfully.
KELLY: I think they can be really great. And I think like if used properly and like to get the dosage, right. Like I think that they have the potential to like really, um, fuel us and also just, uh, really impact like our brains and like I use canvas for instance. And like, I've kind of been able to connect more of myself and ask like deeper questions with myself because of that. That's of it and it's just, I kept, it has opened. I feel like drugs can like open your mind. So like new ideas and, um, thinking deeper.
That was Kelly Moses, a Thinking Is Cool community member who recently started working as a Budtender at a dispensary. For Kelly, the experience of using certain drugs is profound and mind-opening and thoughtful. She told me she’s not a regular user of any other drugs...although she has been wanting to try magic mushrooms.
Now, I want to introduce you to my friend, Ben. Ben is very much a peer—around my age, similar enough backgrounds, you know the drill. Here’s what Ben said when I asked why he does drugs:
BEN: I think it's like a social experience, which I like, I don't really like doing any, a lot of things, almost anything alone. So I find it too, like a social communal experience. And then I feel it's also something that, um, can transform an experience that you're a part of. And you've seen it one way into something completely different.
In a lot of ways, doing drugs with people whom you trust can expand the experience well beyond the baseline. And not in a peer pressure way—in a “let’s go to this Rufus du Sol concert feeling the same things so we can be in the moment together” kinda way. Here’s more of our conversation:
KINSEY: I just finished this episode about Greek life and I've been thinking a lot about like shared experiences, bringing people together. And I think that to, to experience anything in like an altered state, is it inherently a shared experience with other people? Like when I think about why I've ever done drugs in a social setting, like recreationally it's been, because we were like going to go do something together, you know, like you want that extra layer of connection with people.
BEN: Yeah, exactly. And I think we also live in a world where there's so much going on all the time and you're like hopping from one thing to another. And if you're not doing something, you're looking at what that person's doing, or you're inhaling content from Instagram of that person is doing this, you know, and, and you probably is a generalization, but most people are drinking or even smoking. On a level that it's very casual and it's very, it, it can be almost intertwined into any social group experience. And for some people they do it alone a lot. That's not really my, you know, my interests, but a lot of people do that and that's fine, but there are very few things that in your head seem worthy of dropping everything and dedicating your time to one thing. And one thing only. Yeah. And I, I think that's, I think anything that gets you there. Is worth examining and more intense drugs just happened to be a by-product and something that, that often gets you to that way.
Dropping everything and being in the moment with people you trust is pretty cool. And Ben’s right—anything that can grab our goldfish-level attention span for more than 8 seconds is worth a second thought. Drugs can do that.
But that doesn’t mean the experience of using recreational drugs is for everyone. In fact, it shouldn’t be for everyone. We should celebrate the act of saying no just as much as we do the act of saying yes.
Because I tend to be a yes person, I wanted to talk to someone with a different answer. Here’s part of my conversation with my friend, Shardul.
SHARDUL: So I've never done drugs personally. I've been around it in college. Uh, I have always kind of in someone who, um, doesn't necessarily find the concept of like getting a high or smoking from whatever it might be, whether it's, uh, marijuana or cigarettes or anything else that's much harder. Um, I've actually found it interesting. Um, and without going too deep into it, when I was younger, I, uh, was always concerned about. How my friends and peers and people that I grew up with, uh, were doing, um, as most people do quite a bit growing up in a community. And, uh, one of my friends, uh, went on a little bit of a, I guess, a different path to say the least, um, was kind of intertwined with the wrong crowd and around like seventh or eighth grade, um, was caught with possession. Um, cocaine and got knocked, do a different life, uh, where he had to serve behind bars for, I think it was like two or three years. Um, and even now, like a decade later, uh, he has a completely different life than, than I do, but we're, we're still really good friends, but it's just a very different lifestyle because of him going down that path.
Shradul’s experience is completely different from my own, but not all that unique. The things he’s lived through in his life inform his decision to say yes...or no...to drugs. And that’s the most important part: It’s his decision.
For Shardul, his favorite high comes from being creative or running. Definitely cannot relate to that second one, but I get where he’s coming from: We all have different ways of meeting our needs, self-soothing, treating illness and pain, connecting with others, and coping with the stress of...ya know, being alive.
For some people, like a friend of a friend who microdoses LSD into their eyes to manage the intense, life-altering pain of serious and regular migraines. Without the drug, this person cannot live a normal life.
For others, traditional medicine works. But for those like that friend of a friend who have been left out to dry by the traditional medical world, shouldn’t they at least have the option to pursue what works for them? And to do it responsibly with the right guidance?
I think they should, and I’m not alone.
68% of American adults back the legalization of marijuana, which is the most in a generation. Functional drug use is becoming increasingly popular, and not just among the Silicon Valley bros microdosing. Seriously, I think my boyfriend would follow Michael Pollan into the sun if Michael Pollan asked him to.
Pollan is an author who’s studied the effects of drugs and plants on our minds in a way that’s as intriguing as it is appealing to the masses. Here’s a clip from an interview he did with Time in 2018:
MICHAEL: I guess the biggest misconception people have about psychedelics and these are drugs that make you crazy. Uh, and we now have evidence that that does happen sometimes. Um, but in many more cases, these are drugs that can make you sane.
We’re talking about potentially treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, deep fear surrounding a terminal diagnosis—things traditional medicine has never been able to fully solve for.
And increasingly, suggesting the use of small, controlled LSD dosage or magic mushrooms or any other psychedelic drug isn’t something unique to your crazy hippie godmother. It’s something western medicine is becoming more comfortable with.
MICHAEL: We're now in a different world, the adults now, many of them have experienced some psychedelics. They're not going to react in such a panicky way. I don't think many of the people in charge of our institutions, probably regulators at the FDA, um, people at the American psychiatric association, they had personal experience of psychedelics and they're I think going to bring a more rational, um, attitude towards it.
Our perception of drugs has changed and evolved over the last generation. We’ve seen the vast shortcomings of traditional medicine and embraced a new wave of medicinal and recreational living. We’re comfortable talking about drugs, because we see that it was mostly propaganda we were sold as kids that scared us away from them in the first place.
Seriously, Nancy Reagan was the one who coined the phrase “just say no” in the 80s. It was always a plan. And it wasn’t just the Republicans and their wives—it was people on both sides of the aisle. As much Clinton as it was Nixon, Reagan, or anyone else.
The War on Drugs that started in the 70s stopped a great deal of laboratory progress from happening. Scientists who were studying the use of psychedelics for medicine were effectively pushed underground.
But today...they’re able to come into the sunlight a bit more. There are authors like Michael Pollan writing about them. There are investors backing them. There is potential.
But more important than potential...is context. Care. Consideration. And the recognition that potential can be squandered so, so easily. More on that, after a short break to hear from our partner.
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Before that break, I was singing the praises of drugs as medicine. Drugs as mind-openers. Drugs as shared experiences. I truly believe that drugs, when used safely and appropriately, have the capacity to save us.
But the reality is...they’re not always used safely and appropriately.
This was written in the Harvard Gazette: “In 2019, nearly 50,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses. In 2020, a record year for drug overdoses, that number rose to nearly 70,000, an increase driven in part by limited health care resources, shortages of overdose antidotes, and increased isolation during the pandemic.”
Drugs can save us, but they can just as easily kill us. And they do, often. Because of the irresponsibility of a select group of people not held accountable. The Department of Health and Human Services says this on its site:
“In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. Increased prescription of opioid medications led to widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.”
The pharmaceutical industry lied. And they profited more than you or I could ever imagine on that lie. Today, we’ve attempted to hold the Sackler family, the scions behind OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, accountable. But the attempt has been feeble at best.
As I’m writing this episode, a headline from Reuters: “A U.S. judge is expected to rule on Wednesday on OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma's request to approve its bankruptcy reorganization plan that would shield the company's Sackler family owners from future litigation over the opioid crisis.”
These people might very well get off scot-free for essentially introducing us to the opioid epidemic. Why? Because when they introduced this drug to the world, we didn’t ask for context.
Michael Pollan told the Harvard Gazette that that is the key with opium drugs. Context.
It’s our responsibility to look for strings attached and get ahead of whatever the next opioid epidemic might be. It could be obvious, like the one the Sackler family introduced to the world.
Or it might be harder to pinpoint, like the systemic racial injustice endemic to drugs and the perception of drugs in the US. There is a duality of drugs being normalized—one in which white people can talk openly about doing what might still be labeled illicit drugs, but Black people are in jail for minimal possession of marijuana.
Like opioids are addictive but opium can save lives…the idea of drugs being ”totally legal and totally okay” has finer points that we need to discuss. Namely, totally legal and totally okay doesn't apply to everyone.
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I want to introduce you to another friend, this time one comfortable with me sharing his first and last name. You’re about to hear parts of a conversation I had with Ashish Prashar, who’s both the global CMO at the very major ad and creative agency R/GA and a noted justice reform advocate. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from Ashish on several occasions now, and every single time...I walk away from our conversations thinking so hard about the future.
ASHISH: It's no surprises. Communities of color have been decimated by outdated drug policies. And it's not only unfair. It's not an unfairly targeted them, but it's contributed to like mass incarceration and the whole system that's destroyed lives. And many people who are convicted of drug possession are locked up in prison for disproportionately harsh sentences. Get out. If they get out, often they lose the right to vote. They can't get a home or a job, so they can't even get back into society. And when you present the holiday numbers, you can spell the difference between, uh, where people say, oh, is this fiction or this fat black Americans may represent, I think 13% population right now in the United. And I have the same amounts of, uh, drug users as the white population, as a percentage, but they represent over 40% of incarcerated people to drug crimes.
And that’s because of what we talked about earlier in this episode—the War on Drugs started by Tricky Dick Nixon and carried out by countless legislators and leaders who came after him. Ashish?
ASHISH: None of this was driven by science. This was driven by prejudice and politics, but decades. Anyone who wants it to be president had to come across as being the toughest on crime and drugs. That would include president Biden, who was the Senator in 1994. And co-sponsored the crime bill that helped double the prison population from 94 to 2009. That's not unfairly impacted. That's state, state sanctioned racism masquerading as good policy. Yes. And it's disgusting and nefarious and it was always about race.
To buttress Ashish’s point, consider this: During a 1994 interview conducted by journalist Dan Baum and published in Harper magazine, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, all but confirmed that this was indeed always about race.
Erlichman said the Nixon campaign had two enemies: “the antiwar left and black people.”
Ehrlichman was quoted as saying: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Again, that’s an on the record quote from Nixon’s domestic policy chief. And it’s still haunting Black communities today.
KINSEY: So what was the impetus behind this decision in the first place? Was this racially charged? When the war on drugs was declared in all those decades, right?
ASHISH: Yeah, it's actually really interesting. What's really funny is recently you've had kind of deaf, uh, senators on both sides, kind of re trying to rewrite history a little bit here. Um, you know, the rhetoric around the failed war on drugs is nonsensical. It's a nonsensical because it's almost offensive when it's said that way, because it takes away the race disparity. Um, from that conversation, you know, this was all deliberate, you know, uh, people, people would target black people would target. And I still target. It's not that they were unfettered impact is today. You know, one that, you know, one in full, uh, black people that full times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. Comparable usage rates.
The context here is key. You may have seen the viral tweet from May of 2019 that has been permanently inked on the inside of my brain for 2 years: “When the dispensary looks and operates like an Apple Store it’s time to release a lot of incarcerated human beings. A lot, a lot.”
I think it’s a good thing that our perception of drugs has changed in recent decades. It means we’re eschewing the propaganda sold to us by outdated but well-funded policymakers. It means we’re opening ourselves up to changing our minds collectively. I’m always going to root for that.
Ours is a time marked indelibly by tremendous cultural shifting. Our perceptions change at the speed of light, ushered along by the internet’s unmatched scale and rapidity. We’re comfortable with seismic moves in what we deem good and bad, okay and not okay. In my short lifetime, I’ve watched as LSD evolved from death sentence to medicine. I’ve seen my straight-laced mom go from “you will be thrown out of this house if I ever catch you smoking marijuana” to “have you ever smoked a blunt and do you think it would be fun if we smoked one together?”
And I think this applies even if you’re someone who doesn’t choose to smoke or drink or do drugs.
In truth, I was never even offered drugs of any kind until my freshman year of college when someone asked if I wanted to smoke weed at a frat party.
In college, I saw my former sorority sisters hold each other’s ponytails back while they did lines of coke off some guy’s laptop that would transform into the vessel for labor econ notes just 12 hours later. Turns out, they were all doing drugs in high school...I was just a huge loser with a NARC reputation.
But even with that reputation, I could appreciate that the perception of drugs changed. And it continues to change.
We navigate changing tides all the time—it’s become part of the human condition to do so. I think that the changing tides as they pertain to recreational drugs should be a lesson...We can and should feel capable and free to change our minds when presented with more information.
But we cannot let the lessons of the past stay in the past. In the case of illegal drugs becoming either legal or common law legal, we can look to history to show us the dangers—dangers of abuse, dangers of power vacuums, dangers of unfair persecution for Black and Brown people.
That lesson is ours for the taking. It’s time to take it.
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I can feel it and I know you can too—the public perception of doing drugs is changing. To me, change represents a moment of opportunity. Let’s seize this moment to lobby for more accountability of people like the Sackler family. To ask our lawmakers to stop putting Black people in jail for something white people have always gotten away with. To stop unfairly associating drugs with failure or hopelessness and instead to embrace the good.
Reporting this episode made me feel a lot of things. Disappointed that I never knew the real history behind the War on Drugs. Mad that I was fed propaganda in school. Eager to create the kind of world where we can extend help to those suffering with addiction instead of throwing them in jail. Excited to get high with my friends, legally.
Why and how we get high? That’s different for everyone. But one thing is constant: We sure are a lot more comfortable talking about getting high today than we used to be. And that means a lot of things: It means the changing perceptions we’ve talked about, yes. But it also means this—if you’re struggling with addiction...if your friend is struggling with addiction...reach out. Check in. And know that help is there for you.
Let’s make the most of it by stoking thoughtful conversation. Ask yourself, your family, your group chat…
I want to hear what you think. So tell me—you know where to find me. I’ll post these on Instagram, too, so you can share them with the world.
I want to again thank everyone who spoke to me for this episode—especially Ashish, Shardul, Kelly, and Ben for their honesty. And NPR, PBS, and the Pew Center for their inspirational journalism.
We’re three episodes into season 2 of Thinking Is Cool...so what’s next? Well if these first couple of weeks were angsty and horny...just you wait.
Remember, thinking is cool and so are you. I’m Kinsey Grant, and I’ll see you next time.