Friday 28 January 2022

What if we changed our minds about the badness of drug taking?

Once a ho - from the Addicts exhibition 2018

I have the ghost of an idea which is not yet clear.  It involves drug taking, and drug behaviour.  I am speaking to loads of people about their drug use for my Addicts exhibition, keeping in mind my own family member with addiction difficulties, and there is a rebellious thought forming.

What if it was OK to take drugs.  What if there was a way to accommodate drug taking and change our approach to it? I am talking, as I say, to a good few people, some of whom suffer difficult and crazy addictions, others who did not become addicted but who took drugs and alcohol to such an extreme that they were utterly out of control.  But when these latter people decided to stop, they found a way to do so without rehab or AA.  Stopping was not easy, and the way of doing it was possibly unorthodox but they did it and knew that they could - but I am discovering that the whole drug taking and drinking to excess world is utterly unorthodox.  I remember one such person telling me that there is addiction and there is dependency.  At the time I thought they were the same thing, and this fellow was just using words to deny his problem, but actually, I wonder if he has a point. It is beyond my experience and understanding, mostly because I am teetotal and do not take drugs and until I started work on the Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition, I had not come across people who are in this other universe.  Damn, it is complicated.  I wonder, how has all this addiction and hellish behaviour, hellish outlook and lack of interest in providing solutions got so bad.  How has it? Is what we think about drugs correct?  Is our response to drug taking working?  Are we all part of the problem?  And it is a bloody awful problem.  Really it is.

 Crack pipe.  A fairly dreadful substance.

 Here is my rebellious thought.  What if we have caused the crisis of addiction and mental health and associated crime by our response to it?  I am wondering if the fears we have and the stories we think we know about each drug is wildly out of balance.  The more I look into it, the more I talk to people, the less I know.  What I think I know is that all drugs are bad.  Addiction happens instantly and cannabis is a gateway to other addictions.  I know that addicts are dreadful people, their addictions make them manipulative, cruel, without conscience and borderline psychopaths.  They commit crimes to fund their habits and much senseless violence is the result of the drugs trade.  All drugs need to be banned. And much of this may be true.  The amount of manipulation, lies, stealing and bad behaviour I have experienced from addicts I have known is very hard to deal with.  The way some of these characters casually commit crime is shocking to a law abiding nice person like me.  I watched them do it and laugh about it, and I thought - they do not belong in my world nor I in theirs. 

And this is where I am beginning a thought experiment with myself where we turn everything on its head. Millions of people take drugs and millions of people drink alcohol, they always have.  According to research done by Professor David Nutt at Drug Science, only 10% of people become addicted.  That means 90% don't.  Do drugs make the users anti social?  Sometimes, yes.  And sometimes, no.  Are all drugs absolutely lethal? No.  What is the one drug that causes the most harm both to the user and those around them?  Alcohol.  Is cannabis a gateway drug?  Not necessarily.  On its own, it is pretty harmless to most people, as are psychedelics including MDMA, magic mushrooms and LSD.  The harms that may occur from all these drugs are possibly less than the harm caused by alcohol, which is legal.  Is alcohol a gateway drug?  Well, yes, I think it is.  It seems to go very well too (from a drug takers point of view) with all manner of more serious and harmful drugs like cocaine, opiates, benzodiazepines and all manner of legal and illegal substances.  And there is no doubt that anyone taking all this kind of stuff is going to be pretty difficult to deal with.

Then I think, why do people take drugs?  There are so many reasons, one of which is because they work.  My friend Ian, a true success story if ever there was one, sober and clean now for ten years after forty years of insane drug and alcohol abuse, said that if your life is so bad, so difficult and bleak, and something you took put rose tinted spectacles on for you, then why would you not take it?  That is what he did. People self medicate through drugs, they take away pain and hopelessness.  They make you feel you can cope.  One man I spoke to started drinking at thirteen.  It gave him a sense of who he was, he lost his shyness and felt that only alcohol could help him with feeling so powerless as a child. And here is another revolutionary thought, people take drugs because they like to get high.  People love to get high. 

My friend Ian.  From the Addicts exhibition 2021

 My thought experiment made me wonder, what if we asked drug users what they want?  How would their lives be better?  I used to think abstinence was the only goal to have in recovery.  I don't think that now.  Many many addicts cannot come off their drugs.  The cycle of trying to get clean and sober, and relapsing, and trying to get clean again is impossible and maybe, they should be allowed to take their drug.  Our culture hates addicts. We punish them, we think they chose this life, they don't deserve our help.  Or time.  Or money.  We don't give to addicts on the streets because we know they will spend it on dope or drink.  We are pleased with ourselves, we were not fooled and they need to learn.  I say, have you ever seen someone withdrawing?  They don't need a lesson from us, they need their substance.  Nothing we have will be as bad as that.  Give the money and don't judge.   Addicts do not give up their drugs because we ask them to.   Alcoholics do not stop drinking because we make life difficult for them.  An alcoholic I spoke to told me each time he went to prison he worked in the kitchen because he knew how to make alcohol from the scraps of vegetable peelings.  Prison didn't work for him, it was irrelevant.  But here I have to say that though alcoholics are addicted to their alcohol, I don't suppose my thoughts on drug reform is relevant to them.  It is a whole different subject but I hear that research into using therapeutic psychedelics under a licensed practitioner for alcoholic recovery is very exciting and successful.  Watch that space. 

If drugs laws were changed and drugs were decriminalised, everything would turn on its head.  Imagine, the reason the dealers and gangs are so appalling is because there is no legal control over their stuff and their business models.  They do what they want - who is to stop them?  Who do you complain to if your supplier puts rat poison in your dope?  Who regulates the prices you pay?  Who do you go to when it all goes belly up?  So if your supplier was the government, and instead of back alley transactions there was help available and offered, the whole concept of drug taking would change.  The dealers and drugs gangs would be out of work.  I believe that at one point fifty or so years ago, doctors were able to prescribe heroin and there were a fraction of addicts then.  With the prescription under control, people were able to work, to carry on as normal, under the safe eye of the doctor.  When that was made illegal, and those poor people needed their heroin as normal, the only way to get it was to break the law.  And a downward spiral of illegal supply and demand took over.  Of course, if drugs are illegal, then anyone can step in and create the supply with any amount of dangerous adulteration, and no one can do a thing about it.  In America, during prohibition, when alcohol was illegal, more people died of alcohol poisoning because of the substances added to the drink to make more money, than when it was legal.  What if all drugs were made legal and taken over by the government, what would happen to all the dealers and gangs?  All the resources in place to fight drugs and drugs crime - which makes such a tiny and temporary dent in the trade - could go to treatment, to research into what actually works, and to safe, clean, monitored spaces in which to take the drugs.

Addicts are not like us.  They don't respond to instructions.  They are chaotic and unreliable.  Their world is made up of the search to find their fix and everything they do is illegal. The buying, the taking, the acquisition.  They can't give up because we tell them to.  The law makes no difference to their need to use except that it makes them live outside the law and against it.  Many addicts can't stay clean.  Hence methadone. And even then users top up their methadone with other stuff.  And even then, there is shame, judgement and punishment.

So my rebellious idea which is shared by many, many others, is that what if we asked our addicts what they wanted, and what if we ended the war and make it a peace on drugs with help not punishment, and what if we understood that those who are addicted, need patient, kind, consistent help to take their stuff if they cannot stop?  What if we shone a light on drug addiction and changed our minds, to find sensible, practical and humane ways to bring addicts and addiction back into the fold?  What a thought. 

Safe injection sites are popping up.  Controversial, but successful for harm reduction.

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