The Drug Czar’s war on the English Language

Use. Abuse. Two completely different words. Sure, they have some letters in common, and they have connections to each other, but there are different words. Sure, there are a few words where you can add a couple of letters without changing their meaning, such as regardless/irregardless or oriented/orientated. Use and abuse don’t work that way.
And yet, the ONDCP, the DEA and most of the prohibitionists have undertaken a systematic campaign to blur or eliminate the difference in meaning. And, to a large extent, they have succeeded. Take a look at this surreal example in a opening of a recent AP story:

Drug Czar Says Drug Abuse Has Declined

Illegal drug use in the United States has dropped sharply since 2001, but abuse of prescription drugs remains a problem, the director of National Drug Control Policy said Friday.

Am I out of line, here? Let’s go to the American Heritage Dictionary:

Use: To take or consume; partake of
Abuse: To use wrongly or improperly; misuse

Clearly different meanings. In fact, the definition of “abuse” even refers to “use” as a different word! American Heritage also has a specific definition for substance abuse: “The overindulgence in and dependence on an addictive substance, especially alcohol or a narcotic drug.” Overindulgence in, dependence on. Not use. Abuse.
Take a look at the ONDCP’s schizophrenic approach toward these terms in the new 2007 National Drug Control Strategy. From the introduction:

To focus the Nation‰s drug control efforts directly on the problem of drug abuse, the President set ambitious goals for driving down illicit substance use in America.

It gets even muddier as you read the document, which contains:

  • 211 instances of the word “use”
  • 77 instances of the word “abuse”
  • 109 instances of the phrase “drug use” or “substance use”
  • 56 instances of the phrase “drug abuse” or “substance abuse”
  • 53 instances of “user” or “users”
  • 7 instances of “abuser” or “abusers”

When I moderated a debate with William Otis (Counselor to the Administrator of the DEA), I asked him point blank whether there was a difference between “use” and “abuse” when it comes to illegal drugs, and he said “No.”
Prohibitionists in general, and the administration in particular, need to blur the distinction for several reasons.
First, it’s easier to demonize when you don’t have to make distinctions of casual use versus addiction, or marijuana versus heroin, etc. They’re all just druggies.
Second, admitting that there is such a thing as responsible or casual use would require them to confront the notion that people who are of no danger to themselves or others are having their lives destroyed by their government.
Third, and most important, they need to invent a reachable goal. They need numbers showing that the drug war works. That ain’t easy. But it doesn’t matter to the government if those numbers really mean anything — only that they provide some public relations cover for their war.
If you’re the government and you want to show a decrease in the “drug problem,” what do you do? Try to help heroin addicts? No percentages in that — their numbers are too small, and it takes some real effort. How about even hard core marijuana users? Still, too few and too difficult.
There is, however, an easy secret target — the casual marijuana user. We’re talking about the person who enjoys having pot with friends now and then — no big deal — a get-together on the weekend, or whatever. These make up the largest population of illicit drug users in America, and are the easiest to sway. This population is more susceptible to scare tactics, because… it’s no big deal to them. They can have a beer instead of pot and it’s no great loss. Marijuana is just something they enjoy. So when the government demonizes marijuana, they can often get a percentage of this large group to stop using marijuana (or become afraid to admit using it in surveys, which amounts to the same statistical value).
So when you see the Drug Czar bragging about the success of his efforts through reductions in numbers, this is because he has already destroyed the meaning of “use” and “abuse.”
This approach does absolutely nothing to help those with drug problems. It does absolutely nothing to address abuse. This destruction of the English language is so the government can harm people who have no problem with drugs as a tactic toward proclaiming victory.

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