In every presidential election comes a moment that politics, policy, and party affiliation are put aside and candidates are assessed through the lens of the beer test: Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? The question is a proxy to how likable and down-to-earth a candidate is.
In our society, being someone that others would want to drink a beer with is considered virtue. At the same time, using drugs — such as cocaine, heroin, or LSD — is extremely stigmatized. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came under scrutiny for smoking marijuana in their past.
If a 2020 presidential candidate would come out as an occasional user of ecstasy, that would likely end their campaign.
In Australia, one elected official decided to do exactly that.
Minister of Parliament Cate Faehrmann “came-out” as an occasional and recreational user of MDMA — the active substance in ecstasy — in an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald. She wrote that she wanted to expose the hypocrisy of her country’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs. “The truth may be uncomfortable for many people and goes against the government’s ‘war on drugs’ script," MP Faehrmann writes, "but the vast majority of people who choose to take MDMA at a festival, or at a club or a private party, will do so safely and they’ll enjoy it.”
The science supports Faehrmann’s claim. The vast majority of people who use even the most stigmatized drugs do not develop a use disorder. Headlines such as “Official: 1-hit addiction to meth no myth” might ring true because we are so used to them, but a study of 1,700 people who used meth in the U.S. found that two years after their first use only 5 percent developed an addiction. Another study found a similar result for people who use cocaine.
Drug use is a positive experience for the vast majority of people who use. And yet, something about an elected official who has a few drinks in a social gathering just rings different than an elected official who takes ecstasy.
One could argue that the difference is in the harm — perhaps alcohol is a relatively harmless drug, while ecstasy could have a more detrimental impact on the person using it and the people around it. A group of researchers in the UK decided to rank drugs by harm by devising a harm score. The researchers took into account both the harm that the drug inflicts on the person using it and on other people. While alcohol trails behind heroin and cocaine as the most harmful drugs for the user, alcohol is by far the most harmful to other people — and the most harmful when the two measures were added together. Ecstasy was found to have a fraction of the harm of alcohol and basically no harm to other people.
The harms of alcohol are very real in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 88,000 deaths a year are attributed to alcohol. About 40 percent of people convicted of a violent crime were inebriated while committing the offense. In nearly half of rape cases, the perpetrator was drinking prior to the assault. Alcohol consumption also increases the odds of victimization — about 40 percent of homicide victims and sexual assault victims were under the influence during the time of their assault.
Perhaps the real difference between alcohol and other drugs is that while binge drinking could be harmful, alcohol is less addictive than other drugs. But that is not true either. The British researchers who studied harm looked at addictiveness in a different study. They found that the likelihood of developing a physical dependence on alcohol is about double the likelihood of developing a dependence on ecstasy.
In general, the vast majority of people who use even the most stigmatizing drugs never develop a use disorder. The majority of those who do will stop to use at some point without any treatment. That makes sense given how prevalent drug use is. According to the most recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health, about half of Americans will use an illicit drug in their lifetime — about 1-in-5 Americans older than 12 used an illicit drug. About 12 percent of Americans between the ages 18 and 25 had used ecstasy.
The term “drug user” has been kidnapped by stigma, but in the most literal sense, America is a nation of drug users. And still, unless it is alcohol, drug use is not a legitimate behavior from a candidate for office.
Odds are that many people holding elected office use drugs; they are just too scared to admit it about any drug other than alcohol. Given our draconian, arbitrary, and racially motivated drug laws, combined with decades of demonization of drug users as a cartoon image of a “junkie," coming out like MP Faehrmann takes a lot of courage.