How different would the story have been, given a regulated supply?
Proving that age restrictions on the purchases of certain products can’t always be 100% effective, I first saw Trainspotting long before I reached the 18 years that the law supposedly required.
Bar the usual “just say no” messages, the concept of hard drug use had barely entered into my consciousness, so it was rather revelatory. It’s now one of my favorite films. I’ve watched it dozens and dozens of times, including having it running in the background one afternoon earlier this month while penning something else for later – something that happens to mention counterfactual history. Which got me thinking.
The story, particularly if one includes its deleted scenes, is instructive in comparing the effects of prohibitionism with what we might hope and expect to occur with controlled regulation of dangerous drugs.
Consider, then, how different the characters’ outcomes could have been if they were not taking smack of unknown provenance in a variety of unsafe ways, but using a regulated supply of pure diamorphine, in a sterile fashion, with proper medical supervision.
Now, Trainspotting is not all misery and death, and in many places it’s an exceptionally funny film. A few directors had wanted to option the novel on which the film is based before Danny Boyle and John Hodges successfully pitched, but, as author Irvine Welsh recalls in the sleeve notes to the special edition, his initial cinematic suitors all “wanted to make a po-faced piece of social realism like Christiane F or The Basketball Diaries”. They were disappointed, and the resulting movie is far from one-dimensionally grim. But this examination necessarily requires a focus on the harms of prohibition.
So to recap for readers whose DVD players see a little greater variety:
As the film begins, Renton comes down from his latest high and spontaneously decides to get “off the skag”, by going cold turkey with no help other than a fistful of valium and an opium suppository. His sober life seems empty and depressing, and before too long he elects to get back on heroin: it takes about 12 hours.
After being arrested for shoplifting from the John Menzies newsagents on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, he receives a suspended sentence on the condition that he stick with the methadone rehabilitation programme that he’s entered. He fails: unable to to stand being around his friends and family and having used up all three doses in the morning, loneliness and withdrawal drive him back to longstanding dealer Swanney. His tolerance having declined, Renton’s usual order proves too much for him – fortunately his overdose doesn’t prove fatal, as he’s kindly left outside the local hospital’s emergency department by a taxi driver.
Later, in the first of two deleted scenes (#142 and #192), Renton is a visitor rather than the patient. Swanney, having tried to inject himself in the leg, has missed and pumped a syringeful of air into an artery. The leg is amputated. Plans to peddle just enough junk to set himself up for a comfortable life in southeast Asia go awry, and Swanney ends up homeless – and unrecognised even by his former mates as they idly hand over some change on the way to get their coach to London.
For most, this is the second leg of a return journey. The majority of the guys had recently come back to Edinburgh for the funeral of one of their number, the previously straight-laced Tommy. Grieving following his breakup with girlfriend Lizzy, he had asked Renton for an introduction to his new mistress heroin. Amid the myriad unsafe practices common to Swanney’s less than sanitary setup, Tommy had contracted HIV, presumably from a shared needle, thereby becoming a part of the shockingly high 50% of intravenously injecting 80s Edinburghians with, as Renton puts it, “shite for blood”. He dies of an Aids-related illness alone in a squalid flat, left there for days before anyone even notices.
Tommy’s is the second fatality of this story, at least in the film version. The first is Baby Dawn, daughter of Allison and, as is revealed later, Sick Boy. Whether the cause is cot death or neglect isn’t entirely clear, but we might reasonably assume the latter given that the child’s mother is rarely sober enough to look after her.
Back onto the coach. The boys have come into £16,000 worth of gear and are off to punt it on to a guy Sick Boy knows in London. During the celebratory pub visit afterwards, Begbie, the group sociopath who doesn’t do drugs but does do people, viciously assaults a fellow drinker. When Renton makes off with the money in the middle of the night, Begbie trashes the hotel room in which they were all staying, attracting the police. Already on the lam after committing an armed robbery, he is presumably arrested.
How different might a story such as this have been if it had taken place in a world with a better drug policy?
The first thing that would have to go would be the setting. Rather than a dank flat on a Leith housing estate, the characters now pass their days in a facility not so far from civilisation that it’s too much of a pain to get there and a return to Swanney’s is preferable, but just far enough from main residential areas to allay the locals’ largely unfounded fears of being up close and personal with ‘smackheids’.
This hypothetical facility has access to medical records of users who are registered as dependent. They know that Allison’s a mother, and social services get involved. She’s given a stark choice: get her addiction under control, or Baby Dawn goes into care. But better into care than left in a cot, face contorted and lungs static, dead before she’s had chance to live.
In this universe, Renton’s spontaneous decision to quit is not left to proceed unaided. He has access to a range of options: methadone, prescription diamorphine, psychotherapy. If he does return to heavy drug use after a break then there’s no chance of an overdose: he’s not being sold skag of unknown purity administered by an amateur, but a precisely controlled dose based on a carefully calculated estimate of his current tolerance level. In the event that someone does make a mistake, there’s a stock of opioid antagonists at hand to quickly counter the effects of the OD.
Similarly, because any and all injections are supervised by medically trained professionals, Swanney doesn’t mistakenly hit an artery and there’s no need to amputate his leg. And all this without Sick Boy licking any needles, too.
On this parallel Earth, when Tommy is dumped by girlfriend Lizzy and turns to the euphoria and detachment of heroin it’s not a simple case of handing a grubby banknote over to one of his mates. As he sits through a two-hour long mandatory induction at the medicalised out-of-town facility our new story again bifurcates, the alternative universe splitting into one in which he sticks with his decision and another in which he changes his mind. But even if it’s the former, the sterile conditions mean that he stays alive.
With addicts shunning street gear and the black market for heroin reduced to scraps, the four friends can’t illegally enrich themselves at the film’s close. Begbie perhaps escapes justice and Renton doesn’t have an easy getaway from the clutches of the mates that help to keep him down. Maybe he, Spud and the undead Tommy manage to get their lives together anyway, maybe not: it’s a tightrope.
Clearly this world would be far too dull to write a novel about. But there’s good reason for the Chinese to deem the idea of “living in interesting times” to be a curse. And Trainspotting is of course ultimately just a story, a work of fiction, and in this case a lens through which to view how a change in policy might affect a familiar set of made-up people and events. But the point of any piece of fiction is to illuminate the facts of the real world. And the fact is that the perverse incentives created by prohibition increase the harm done to drug users. There are thousands of real people just like Dawn, Swanney and Tommy, and prohibition, retained as a policy due to an unfounded fear of a surge in the number of drug users, is complicit in killing them.
_ _ _
Update 21/2/2012 The original version of this post misspelled Allison's name on its final use. This has now been corrected.