Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide

30Dec/110

Diamonds in and out of the rough

Dependent substance users are faced with being portrayed as stereotypes. Credit: Christian Martínez Kempin/ istockphoto

Behind every addiction, there's a person. Policy should be aimed at providing the best help for them.

There's an element among prohibitionists that views the use of some drugs as inherently immoral – and that can't seem to separate their hatred of the sin with that of the sinner.

It can only be this that is behind, for example, the decision of the US Congress to continue to ban federal funds being put towards needle exchanges – a shameful expression of fear and loathing that will needlessly cost lives. One can't help but recall the character of General Salazar in the film Traffic (based on Jesus Gutiérrez Rebollo) charmingly discussing Mexico's treatment strategies: “Treatment of addiction? Addicts treat themselves. They overdose, and then there's one less to worry about.”

Here in the UK, meanwhile, we have real-life moral-panicmongers like Peter Hitchens rhetorically asking how, if dealing drugs is wrong, then using them could possibly not also be wrong – a contention as patently absurd as reasoning that if it is immoral to operate a sweatshop then it must also be evil to toil in one for near-slave wages of pennies a day – and roundly dismissing the notion that those with drug addictions are in any way 'victims'.

Nor is this vitriolic, hateful element likely a minority given the widespread pejoratives used to refer to dependent substance users. Junkies. Smackheads. Dope fiends. The acceptable face of the language of prejudice.

But there's an obvious paradox here, in that if addicts are such vermin, then just who is prohibition aimed at helping in the first place? Only, it isn't helping them at all. And nor are they all bad people. Sure, some may have occasionally done bad things, but they're far from one-dimensional cartoon villains. Those who reflexively vilify drug users remind this blogger of, say, the kind of vociferous racists who have never even met anyone of a different ethnicity but are happy to pile opprobrium upon them regardless. Perhaps they should get out and speak to some of those they're demonising, and take the time to listen to their stories.

Stories, that is, like that of Jimi, who has experienced some of this prejudice first-hand. Growing up in Middlesbrough before finding employment as a residential social worker in Somerset at the age of 19, he used drugs recreationally and fairly harmlessly alongside his position of responsibility. But he eventually became addicted. “It’s essentially just drip, drip, drip,” he says. “I woke up a year later, thinking 'Oh my, what about this, every day for a year?'. I didn’t want to believe it, you know what I mean?”

Although from time to time he'd borrow money and fail to pay it back, he certainly didn't fit the tabloid profile of the thieving druggie. “I always used to tell myself 'I'm not a smackhead: I'm a heroin addict',” he says. After his own recovery, Jimi became involved with setting up a rehab centre back in his native north east, and was faced with a smear campaign and a shower of lies about its clients posting needles through neighbours' letterboxes. At a public meeting to discuss the issue he'd found that those opposing the centre displayed a mob mentality together but individually were, in the main, reasonable, decent people – much like those with addictions. “We could understand that that was coming from a place of misunderstanding and misapprehension,” he says. “And from years of seeing negative images on the TV and in the press, and all the ills of society being blamed on that sort. We knew that was coming from that place. We couldn't blame people for that. We thought, 'Well our job is to educate now; that's what we've got to do – not argue'.”

Or then there's Merseysider Thomas, a son of teachers, who grew up in a house filled with the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and was as a consequence acutely aware of the power of drugs to alter the consciousness. It led to experimentation with, and then regular use of, acid, and, later, amphetamines. “I think initially it started off innocently, as I guess it does,” he says. “But, exploratory. That was definitely the aim, initially.”

Thomas used drugs clandestinely more or less daily from the age of 16 up to 18 or 19, and often couldn't sleep and experienced hallucinations. He then stopped for five years. “That was actually the best part of my life to be honest,” he says. “That was brilliant. But between real life and a girl it sent me back. I started drinking again. And after that day... It was bad timing. I was playing in a band at the time. We went to Swansea to record and I had been drinking in the van on the way over. By the evening I’d done valium and pills and ecstasy. Like, it was a very quick succession.” A heroin addiction later followed.

Thomas says that the only illegal activity in which he engaged during this time was scoring itself. Encounters with the law were rare, amounting to one single brief detention in the back of police van, largely because he “didn't look the type”. Amid multiple attempts at quitting, the threat of punishment wasn't particularly an incentive to do so. “You forget heroin’s an illegal substance after a while because you just do it without thinking,” he says. “The drug takes over people.” Eventually, the will to change overpowered the addiction, and Thomas is now settled with a partner and young child.

Across both the Atlantic and most of the continent that lies on the other side, Fabian grew up in one of the poorest parts of LA as the son of Mexican migrant workers just as the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic hit. His parents found that the American Dream wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and a certain despair set in among the whole family. Fabian says that he turned to gangs and to drugs – first marijuana, later crack cocaine and PCP – as a means of coping. And because he felt like he had little to lose anyway. “Our environments also play into it,” he says. “So the best way we cope with it is to use a substance, which can be from marijuana to heroin to crack cocaine, to methamphetamine to anything that is suitable for the mind at the time. So that’s how I became a drug addict, to find ways of coping.”

Fabian was dragged deeper and deeper into the underworld lifestyle and ended up selling drugs himself, and being involved in gunfights. A fistful of arrests proved no incentive to change his ways, but after two suicide attempts borne of shame and ever greater hopelessness, he entered recovery and now works as a drug counsellor, trying to stop people from making the same mistakes as he did. “I’m not quick to judge because I see myself in the mirror every day,” he says. “If I have a 14-year-old kid and a mother in despair it immediately reminds me of my mother and her despair at the time I was 14.”

Faces and names
These are all people who have had problems, and perhaps sometimes caused them for others, rather than intrinsically being problems themselves.  In instances where trouble is made for others, for example by stealing, it's only because of the grip that drugs sometimes get of people – a shackle that they could not reasonably have predicted would take hold when they first began to experiment. Even with the most addictive drugs, those who become dependent are still a minority. And although self-inflicted (as are alcoholics' liver diseases or smokers' lung cancers) then once an addiction has rewired the brain then sating the beast by any means necessary is not fundamentally any different than, say, Disney's Aladdin lifting a loaf of bread in order to stay alive.

The point is that if dependent substance users are diamonds in the rough, the sole aim of policy should be to polish them up and enable them to shine. Telling them, implicitly or otherwise, that they're scum who deserve to be in prison is not useful. In many cases it will only reinforce an existing feeling of worthlessness.

Now, prohibition is, in theory, intended to prevent drug addiction from happening in the first place. It doesn't always work. More than this, it does precious little to help those who fall through the cracks, partly because it's so commonly necessary to dehumanise the other side in order to maintain support for a prolonged conflict.

Much the opposite sentiment to that of General Salazar is expressed at the end of Traffic, when Michael Douglas's drug czar concludes that: “If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family.” Nor on other people's families, or their friends. On people who need a leg back up – not a slap down.

Posted by Christopher White