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We like to think of drug abusers as “them,” people other than us. That is wrong, says the International Narcotics Control Board in its annual report released last week. It highlights the over-consumption of controlled drugs in developed countries. And it underlines the culture that makes drug use so prevalent — and makes control of abuse so difficult.

The INCB report said there is growing acceptance of the use of controlled drugs to correct mood and behavior in everything from depression to eating habits. According to Professor Hamid Ghodse, president of the panel of experts that produced the report, “up to 70 percent of long-term use of psychotropic drugs is irrelevant and often prescribed for social reasons.”

The views of the generation that aggressively challenged social mores about drug use are now mainstream. While taboos over the illegal use of soft drugs have eroded, attitudes toward use of legal drugs have changed in tandem. Aggressive marketing by drug companies has encouraged legal drug use; the Internet has made it easier to procure them. The INCB report notes that it has also increased the potential for error and intentional misuse.

The legal drug problem identified by the INCB is a part of the illegal drug problem that most governments focus on. Drug use involves supply and demand. Most high-visibility antidrug programs focus only on supply, yet the only way to eliminate the menace is to attack the demand side of the equation as well.

Treatment for the users of illegal drugs is critical, but countries also have to be alert to the dangers posed by relaxed social attitudes to legal drugs. The instinctive reach for some substance to “fix” a problem only contributes to the drug crisis in societies. Drug abuse is drug abuse, whether the drugs are legal or not.

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