The Drug War Is Upside-Down

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The government’s
job is to protect us. At least that’s what they continue to blather
on about whenever they get a chance. To this end, they mandate helmets,
cooking temperature, rounded corners, etc, etc, etc. Here in Colorado,
there is a law preventing daycare centers from allowing their young
charges to go outside if their parents didn’t provide to the center
an appropriate sun screen lotion. Pity the poor child who must sit
inside and watch his friends play outside on a cloudy day because
his mother was too busy to pack the sunscreen.

But I digress.

One of the
ways the government protects us is to outlaw dangerous drugs. You
know, crystal meth and sudafed; heroin and margarine; crack and
foie gras. This Big Mother attitude appears to have no boundaries.
We have not yet seen anything that is out of the reach of those
who would put safety way ahead of liberty.

Nearly a hundred
years ago, Alexander Fleming discovered that certain spores in common
bread mold decimated any bacteria that dared get near. This discovery
revolutionized health care and turned an infection from a life-threatening
condition into a minor inconvenience.

That is, until
the use of antibiotics became commonplace. We see these drugs in
everything from dish soap to waterless hand cleaner to tissue paper.
Apparently there is a demand for such items, driven by the modern
soccer mom phenomenon. This is the cultural situation that vilifies
parents who don’t do everything for their precious child, from pre-natal
college applications to back-seat DVD players to the strange, disturbing
helicopter-parent phenomenon.

Dang it! I’m
digressing again.

Anyway, these
safety-conscious individuals, and they don’t necessarily have to
be parents, are lured into the sense of security that they are doing
their best to protect their family from bacterial infection. Washing
the counters after every meal will keep away those pesky bacteria.
We see plenty of cartoon animation in the television commercials
that prove that bacteria cower away when mom sprays the counter
with a-n-t-i-b-i-o-t-i-c-s.

Cartoon cuteness
notwithstanding, the truth is a bit different. There’s a saying
that goes: everything that does not kill us makes us stronger. This
is particularly true in the area of bacterial evolution. Penicillin
worked because bacteria had the benefit of millions of years of
replicating without any resistance. The relatively weak penicillin
decimated these bacteria because it caught them off-guard.

But a couple
of the beastly things survived because they had developed some random
genetic abnormality that the deadly penicillin didn’t quite kill.
These survivors were probably sick, but managed to survive and procreate,
passing these stronger genes on to their offspring.

Welcome to
natural selection. Whatever it was in their genetic makeup that
allowed them to dodge the penicillin bullet made the species stronger.
The next time their progeny was attacked with penicillin, even more
of them survived, and the human doctors treating the human patients
were puzzled that it took a bit longer to treat this patient than
it took to treat the last one.

Fast-forward
a couple decades and you can see the trend. Bacteria develop random
mutations that make them weaker or stronger, and each time the stronger
batch survives and procreates, carrying it’s superior DNA to the
next generation.

Picture the
aforementioned soccer mom getting a prescription of antibiotics
for a sniffling Junior. Antibiotics shock the system and make you
weak while the war battles on in your system. Antibiotic warriors
dispatched by the pill you take are mounting a no-holds-barred attack
on the bacteria they are designed to destroy.

Little junior
is sick, but he gets more miserable whenever mom gives him the pill.
The bottle of pills clearly says that they should be taken until
they are gone. No exceptions. There is a reason for this instruction,
as you’ll see.

After a couple
of days, Junior feels better, but now gets sick when mom just gives
him the pills. So mom ignores the directions on the prescription
bottle and is grateful for the doctor who made little Junior feel
better.

But mom has
just created a stronger monster. There’s a reason why the doctor
prescribed seven days of antibiotics. It only takes five or six
days to kill the strongest individuals, and so the seventh day is
just a safety measure. By stopping the treatment in three days,
mom has put the world more at risk from Junior’s little guests.
Junior is feeling better now because his bacteria are weak, but
not all are dead. The next time he sneezes or coughs at school he
will unwittingly give the stronger bacteria a chance to find their
way into the next host.

Repeat a few
thousand generations (bacterial generations, not human generations)
and you have created a monster.

Any doctor
will tell you that the casual use of antibiotics is not keeping
us any more healthy, but they are weeding out the weak beasties
from our counter top every time we spray the 409 cleaner, and making
the strongest even stronger. Doctors are running out of more and
more powerful antibiotics to battle these stronger bacteria, leading
to a quiet crisis. Just ask Jim Henson’s family. The beloved Muppets
creator died in a hospital from a minor infection that became a
major infection that was strong enough to survive anything the doctors
threw at it. This happens again and again in hospitals as doctors
try newer and newer treatments for the stronger and stronger bugs.
Their arsenal is getting thinner and thinner.

A case in point:
Tuberculosis. TB, a condition caused by a wily bacterium that lives
in the lungs, was almost obliterated in this country in the ’80′s
when it had a sudden resurgence. It tended to settle into the poorer
areas of the country where people didn’t have the knowledge or whereabouts
to keep it at bay. These people tended to go to public health facilities,
where they were given the mandatory six- to 12-month regimen of
drugs to fight the infection. Like Junior above, they tended to
stop taking the antibiotics once they felt better and, because it
was the government that was “carefully following their progress,"
there was no one to keep them following their prescription.

As a result,
only the strongest TB bacteria survived, ready and willing to infect
the next victim.

In all of these
cases, ignorance has led to a situation where just about every bacterium
alive today laughs at the relatively weak penicillin, that wonder
drug that saved millions of lives.

So where does
this take us? My assertion is that the drug war is upside down.
While the government is wringing its hands and trying to save a
couple of addicts at a great cost in dollars and liberty, it is
giving huge subsidies to the manufacturers of antibiotics in the
name of public health. All the while, single-celled opportunists
are poised to win in their battle of evolution.

If
there must be a government-sponsored war on drugs (and that's a
big u2018if') it should leave the victimless crimes alone and go after
the drugs that, when used improperly, imperil billions.

“Just Say ‘No’
to Purell.”

February
17, 2007

Brian Travis
[send him mail] is a computer
jockey living on a farm in Colorado for now. He’s written six books
on various technology topics and has toured the world several times
giving seminars and telling duck-bar jokes.

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