Friday, February 20, 2009

Horseback riding anonymous: inquire here.

Governments don't regulate which type of pleasure is preferable to others. They can't legislate that liver pate is better than hot dogs or that the opera is better than Def Leppard. What they can regulate is harm. If something pleasurable is dangerous or addictive (illegal drugs, cigarettes, alcohol), then they can regulate it as a patriarchal or economic gesture (especially in Canada where the government foots the medicare bill).

But are those really the only criteria involved when condemning those kinds of activities? David Nutt of the University of Bristol suggests that might not be the case. In a paper in the Journal of Pharmacology, he explores how a harmful addiction he calls equasy can be just as harmful as the popular nightclub drug ecstasy. After a compelling account of a woman's struggle with brain damage caused by equasy and stat after stat about its dangers (e.g. one in every 350 episodes of equasy results in acuteharm whereas that number for ecstasy is one in every 10000), I was ready to call my local Minister to tell him about this mystery drug. Well not really, I already knew the punchline because it was plastered across the blogosphere: Equasy stands for EQUine Addiction SYndrome - also known as horseback riding.

Nutt isn't suggesting we regulate equasy as rigorously as ecstasy, he simply wants us to question what is actually going on here. Surely mothers of teenagers would be up in arms if there was an uncriminalized drug out there with the same harmful effects as equasy but horseback riding itself will no doubt survive this one man inquiry unscathed.

In this light, criminalizing ecstasy but not equasy seems to be a blatant value judgment of the kind governments are not supposed to do. But why only pick on drugs? Why not criminalize video games? Studies have shown loss of sensitivity to violences and lack of empathy to others feeling pain. Maybe it has to do with the irreversability of taking drugs? You can turn off a video game but you can't do the same with a high. Just a guess.

Another study examining binge-drinking released recently demostrated that it can have beneficial effects as well as the standard harmful effects was received with controversy. The researchers found that binge-drinking could increase social connections and reduce inhibitions which may be important in a country like England (the location of the study) where in professional settings, inhibitions are exceedingly high. This study is not an endorsement of binge-drinking, it merely examines some positive aspects of what's generally perceived as a negative behaviour. What's the harm in that?

The bottom line is that there are some behaviours that we examine using preconceptions that are so strong that rather than incorporate new, factual information into our model of the world, we'd rather just ignore it. Sound familiar? Climate change...evolution...politics...I'm sure this is something we are all guilty of on one level or another. I know I am.

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