I have occasionally had occasion to write about addiction and reflect on points of view of those who are truly informed from medical and psychological points of view. Many things to which we can become addicted can be dangerous for our health and can even kill us. That is a fact, but must people be forbidden by law from indulging in such addictions and not be allowed to take responsibility for their own lives? In the 1930’s, alcoholic beverages were prohibited by law in the United States, and now alcohol is legal for those over the legal age in each country.
My father came over very strongly with his warnings to his children against drugs. My two sisters, my brother and I wisely heeded these warnings, and none of us became addicted to anything other than cigarettes. Only my mother smoked until her death from heart failure, certainly brought on by her chronic emphysema. My father stopped smoking in the 1950’s even when it was still in fashion, and I was the last of the children to kick the weed, already ten years ago.
There are chemical substances that are intrinsically addictive like nicotine and other alkaloids and opiates. Addiction is mostly psychological and partly bio-chemical. Hooked like a Fish! is an article I wrote quite a long time ago, quite heavily based on information from the journalist and cured alcoholic Damian Thompson. There are also theories according to which some people are more susceptible to becoming addicted to chemical substances and behaviours than others.
The real point to this article is to add a couple of reflections on the debate as to whether prohibition on recreational drugs should be lifted and repealed. This article – Legalize it all – is extremely interesting. The real issue is the legitimacy of a nanny state, a coercive law originally designed to protect citizens, but which has had the result of filling prisons and creating drug cartels that practically own South America and other parts of the world. The amounts of money made from black market drugs are obscene. Those who are minded to believe in conspiracy theories saw (modern) prohibition as a way to outlaw all forms of alternative lifestyles like Hippies, off-grid people and non-white races, bring about the Orwellian totalitarian state with all men wearing black suits and closely cropped hair! Plenty do think that way, but it isn’t very healthy.
Progress is being made as alternatives are found to throwing addicts and small-time dealers into the slammer. We have to be clear that all these soft and hard drugs are harmful for our health, and one should never take them, but we all know that. Most of us like a drink, which is a part of our social life – for as long as we stick to our known limits and don’t get drunk. We are responsible for ourselves and others, and the law is right in severely sanctioning someone who drives a car whilst drunk. The danger goes beyond the individual and puts other lives at risk. The law must intervene. But, must the law be the appropriate organ for preventing persons from doing harm to themselves? That is a good question, even in cases where responsibility is to some extent diminished. Where is the limit?
I was highly impressed on reading Brideshead Revisited and thinking of the way Charles Ryder dealt with his friend Sebastian who became an alcoholic. Lady Marchmain’s approach was coercive: take away all the drinks and make sure no money was available to buy booze outside. Charles respected Sebastian’s addiction and diminished willpower. It is agonising to see someone we love go that way, but they can only reverse the addiction if they want to – and then seek appropriate help. It is simply that you can’t get someone off the cigarettes, booze or drugs by punishment and force. The person has to want to quit – and then use the available tools to achieve the goal of being free from the addiction.
Hashish and “shit” rot the brain, but occasional use does little harm. I tried it a couple of times, a drag on a joint in a group of several persons, when I was a student in London. The feeling was like a non-smoker smoking tobacco – it causes dizziness and “feeling sick”, but some people feel very peaceful and contented – stoned. I wondered why people spent so much money on the stuff for the mediocre feeling it gave me. The smell is very distinctive. Back in the 1970’s, if you got caught in England, it was fines and imprisonment – and shame on one’s family. So I just smoked ordinary cigarettes, which filthy habit I started when I was at Wennington in 1971.
Then there are the hard drugs. The 1970 English documentary Gale is Dead was the poignant story of Gale Parsons, who had spent most of her childhood in institutions and died aged 19 from an overdose of heroin and barbiturates. I was 11 at the time, and the documentary made as much of an impression on me as my father’s passionate warnings. Why do kids go wrong? Something is up when they are being burned up from the inside out. The main problem is the society these young people are being born into – just like in the Victorian era. There were drugs then too!
I need no convincing that drugs should be decriminalised, but there needs to be a well designed programme of education in schools and packages for parents. I’m sure it is possible to avoid the moralising tone and still get the message over. Lifting prohibition would save enormous amounts of public money presently spent on policing, the legal system and keeping people in prison. It would put the cartels out of business overnight (at least in theory). People could grow their own pot in the greenhouse and buy other stuff over the counter at the chemist’s shop for moderate prices. Naturally, as with cigarettes and other tobacco products, there should be no advertising or commercial pressure to buy this or that brand of the product.
One big problem would be how the prohibition would be lifted. There are enough deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs. Hundreds or thousands would die from heroin, opium, crack, cocaine and all the others. Public opinion would support draconian policing and repression rather than the “irresponsibility” of allowing young people to kill themselves. There would have to be at least the same degree of regulation as for legal alcohol and prescription drugs. There must be a way to work out a transition.
A key to this would be understanding addiction. You can smoke a pipe and good cigars without becoming addicted to nicotine. I wouldn’t, because I was addicted to cigarettes! One thing that keeps me going is that I never again want to go through the pain of stopping smoking. I envy those who can enjoy a good cigar after a meal! I enjoy a drink in the evening or some wine with a meal – but I’m not alcoholic. I can easily go without a drop for days or longer. One must be careful for signs of becoming dependent. Then, it isn’t just chemicals, but our psychology and what we rely on in life. I do believe in being as independent as possible from outside stimulation and self-aware as much as possible. Some do that through asceticism, others by adopting a totally non-conforming and anarchistic approach to life.
What about using drugs recreationally and not getting addicted? I can’t imagine this being possible with heroin or some of the horrible synthetic stuff people can buy in night clubs! Apparently, no drug is immediately addictive. I often think about the anaesthetic I was given for my hernia operations. You just go out like a light – and that’s it until you find yourself in the recovery room with the oxygen mask. There are drugs that are supposed to make you feel wonderful. There are also the mind benders like LSD and DMT. I have heard of people going to a special clinic where they could be given a dose of this “near death experience” drug and be supervised so they they would not do themselves any harm whilst being under the drug. I envy them. In past eras, such drugs were given to heighten spiritual life in some Native American tribes and shamans of other traditions. I would be too afraid to try something like that alone, but with proper supervision. Ketamine is also said to have amazing effects, but it is a veterinary anaesthetic and can kill you if you overdose. At the same time, would I have the moral right to try such things? I have never done so, and I am sure I never will.
Addiction needs to be distinguished from these chemical substances and studied as a medical discipline in its own right. Addiction is the problem, even to chemicals and behaviours that are not forbidden by law – but are harmful and sometimes life-threatening. I was considerably enlightened by Damian Thompson’s work on this subject – The Fix. This looks interesting: Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction from a scientific point of view.
One thing that shocked me when I stopped smoking is that the drug Zyban my doctor prescribed for me at the time was not financed by the health service and its price was unreasonably high. The cost was actually calculated to be the same as that of smoking twenty cigarettes a day. It seems a very moralistic approach. Zyban was originally formulated as an anti-depressant, and doctors found that patients who smoked lost their craving for cigarettes and spontaneously stopped smoking. It worked very well for me combined with a progressive nicotine diminution approach through the use of arm patches. I stopped using the nicotine patches months before the prescribed end of the treatment. Perhaps there is a less moralising approach now and more support from public health schemes. I would hope so. A more positive approach will help smokers and people hooked on hard drugs. That is where they need to spend money, and not on throwing drug users into the slammer!
Many countries have legalised marijuana, and rates of addiction do not seem to have increased. Actually, the stuff isn’t physically addictive. I have heard it can actually be good for you in small doses, perhaps in a non-smoke form is that is possible. It is not sure that an intelligent repealing of prohibition would increase rates of addiction to hard drugs. Everything would depend on developing medical treatment for both soft drugs (including nicotine) and hard drugs, and removing the moral stigma. That takes original thinking and a lot of money, but probably less than with the present police and carceral repression.
What would be the effect on organised crime and the cartels, the big dealers and the complicity of some countries? There has to be a way to put the bad guys out of business! This question would have to be studied, and perhaps some of my readers are informed and would enrich a discussion.
A historical study of Prohibition (against alcohol) in the USA in the 1930’s would contribute greatly. There is not only the supply and demand, but the aggressive marketer who makes a lot of money from old rope and other people’s misery. Binge drinking is a real problem and some advocate the return of Prohibition. Perhaps a state monopoly on drugs, alcohol and tobacco (gambling and computer games too – perhaps) would be the right thing, if the state isn’t corrupt and pathocratic. All the substances would be sold or dispensed at reasonable prices, regulated and above all made safe. “Sin tax” is another issue, which merits discussion.
The greatest issue is human freedom and nanny states. Driving a car is potentially dangerous. So is crossing the street, going somewhere by plane, eating food, breathing polluted air, playing sports, anything. We take risks all the time, and we have to weigh up what is reasonable or reckless. Freedom is improved by education. I mentioned above the idea of taking a mind-bending drug, but under medical supervision and professional care – just something once in a lifetime. Frankly, the idea freaks me out, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like. But absolutely not at home! It is simply a question of safety like using a push stick when cutting a piece of wood on a circular saw.
The world is in such a mess, and people are so wretched and broken. Perhaps we could prop them up in a church and climb up into the mighty pulpit and tell them they’re all going to hell if they don’t show moral uprightness, thrift and will-power. I have lived long enough to know that this would do no more good than policing and prisons. Perhaps it is just what we little people can do, get good ideas out using the internet to have some influence on doctors, lawyers, politicians, social workers – and priests among so many who can really help the wretched. Indeed, blogging is a form of ministry.
I used to be strongly in favour of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs. After working in substance misuse services for the past seven years, I’m not so sure. We can’t be sure how many more people would experiment with currently illegal drugs. One of the things I have noticed is that the illegal status of drugs creates a stigma for a lot of people who are instead addicted to alcohol. That does not deter everyone obviously, but it seems to have a deterrent effect for some.
If drugs are decriminalised, they would have to be heavily regulated like medical drugs, tobacco and alcohol. I am rather drawn to the idea of using the money presently used for policing and jailing used instead for rehabilitation and medical / psychological / spiritual care of addicts. They just have to get rid of the drug barons in the same way as Daesh and company (who are also drug dealers). That would give the police and military plenty of work – but I have seen Clear and Present Danger with Harrison Ford and the dangers of covert military ops.
I’d love to see our budget increased, but I’m not sure it would work like that. If drugs were no longer seen as a criminal justice matter, politically, there would be a desire to de-prioritise the whole matter and spend any savings on more glamorous and vote-winning things.
If usage did increase after legalization or decriminalization, there might still be costs to the police, as drug use can cause crimina behaviour such as unsafe driving or violence.
Yes of course, these are valid arguments. I mentioned the case of drunk driving in my article for the reason that the person is endangering the lives of others. That is another moral problem. Drugs are a problem, and what they do to people is vile, something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! But, are prohibition and impotence in the face of the drug cartels the way?
I’ll be straight with you here, I’ve been an opiate user and addict since my late teens and I’m going on 35 now, and to be honest I don’t know if I want to live totally clean. The few times I quit through sheer willpower and necessity it was miserable, and once sober I found myself just totally bored,and everything dull. I don’t even use to get high, just to stay in a state of what I have come to learn is normal, and to stave off sickness. Somehow opiates lift my mood too.
I thought of Suboxone, or trying to use Kratom to ween myself off, but like you said one cannot be forced to quit, it has to be something you want. I don’t know what else to say really ha!
I too hated marijuana, to me it felt like what I imagine it must be like to be a paranoid schizophrenic, albeit with a nice body buzz. I don’t get the hype. I do get why the poor in Victorian England, or the poor in Laotian villages of Chinese railroad workers were into opium though, as it gives you nothing but a sense of peace, rest, good feelings and apathy. It makes you forget about the darkness around us, or ones woes whatever they may be, and all without that schizophrenic funhouse and paranoia of marijuana or the uncoordinated sloppiness of alcohol.
It is what it is I guess. Some people need to understand that while addiction is real, not all addicts really want to stop. If we can function what makes it different than the guy next door that has to take Xanax for anxiety or antidepressants?
This is why individual freedom needs to be respected and not repressed by the law and the police. If you are not harming other people, which I think is the case, you are responsible for your own health, sanity and your life.
Personally, I am glad to be off cigarettes and I would hate to be enslaved to any other addiction and have to finance it by honest or dishonest means. Am I still addicted to something? Perhaps sailing! We all have to breathe atmospheric air and eat food, so that in a way is an addiction. To excess, food kills, but without it we can’t live. I often think I would like to go on a one-off trip on a psychedelic drug – but under proper supervision. I doubt that I ever will.
I remember the cold empty feeling when I was stopping smoking, but the Zyban was a great help to “warm” the “coldness”. As I say, we need to be motivated by the notion of being free from the addiction, and that this freedom would bring more to life than the addiction.
Christians often preach about living healthily as a moral principle related to the respect of life and direct or indirect suicide being a mortal sin. Again, where is the dividing line? I think if I had cancer, I would opt out of the chemotherapy and its side effects and allow the disease to take its course and lead to my death. I am not a health nut, but I do make some efforts to have my outdoor life and a positive attitude. I see a doctor when necessary. How does addiction relate to spiritual life? Most Christian priests and spiritual guides would affirm that addiction is a serious obstacle, something like spiritual life being favoured by simplicity of life, low priority given to money and worldly power. I don’t want to be “preachy”, but you are a Christian and obviously want to take your faith and prayer seriously. It is up to you.
Yes, it is similar to long-term medication from a psychiatrist or a physician. I am lucky not to need more than occasional antibiotics and something I have for my occasional gout attacks. I am very sceptical about psychiatry, and we need to find another understanding of states of consciousness that are different from most of us or even alternative realities.
The best I can say is – look after yourself. Reflect and meditate on the notion of freedom from physical necessity as much as possible. That would be the basis of any decision to embark on a course of treatment to get off a drug and then remake one’s life without it. It has to come from ourselves, not from anyone preaching at us about will-power or that sort of thing.
I remember a friend several years ago mentioning to me that he was sent to the pharmacy by his mother for medicine to ease her menstrual cramps (it was tincture of cannabis!) at the time that alcohol was outlawed….around 1933.
Now in the states of Washington and Colorado, recreational marijuana is openly sold so that the states can get tax money from it. And Portugual is another story which I’m not privy to.
BC especially Vancouver has areas where addicts can cleanly shoot up heroin so they won’t die on the streets.
And overdoses from prescription opiates and other drugs are the ‘recreation’ of the middle classes who have sympathetic physicians. This has been going on for many years: new mothers ‘stressed out’ by the demands of their young children etc (my ex-wife met several of them in the hospital where she worked way back in the ’80s).
Just some information here. I sure don’t have many answers.
Not being an addict myself, I do find the idea of taking drugs revolting. How does a country spend its money? Putting all those people in prison because they have violated laws, or improving the education and care system like is being done with cigarette smoking? I don’t know the social and legal issues well enough to give a definitive answer, but I’m glad we are discussing it. I do have the impression that the present system only feeds the drug cartels and perhaps makes money. If that is so, the indictment is very serious.
Back in the 60’s and 70’s I was involved in the so called ‘War against Drugs’ during my first career. As the years have gone by my views have changed and for some time now I have advocated legalisation . Many former and presently serving law enforcement officers feel the same as me about this issue. For those with a substance abuse problem the situation is much better dealt with as a medical issue for which treatment is available from Doctors and others.
I do not for one moment think that the use of the usual currently illegal drugs is any sense desirable and indeed the adverse medical consequences are well known.The use of addictive drugs has not and will not be brought under control by courts of law and prisons. So much better to deal with the issue as a social and medical problem.
In Victorian Britain such substances could be freely bought in Apothecaries.I advocate a return to the open sale of these substances at specially designated present day Pharmacies.My final point is the one often spoken about by the likes of myself who advocate legalisation. That would be the long established legality of Tobacco,alcohol and legal highs.
The United States actually put in place a noble experiment not too long ago, which banned all alcohol. It was a disaster. It only memorial left of it is the mob crime that it spawned and is still with us.
There is a strong connexion between violent crime (even terrorism) and drug use. Peter Hitchens makes that argument here:
Should mind-altering drugs be made legal, then? I have always thought “certainly not!” The fact that they are illegal makes almost no difference anyway. My own sister “smokes weed,” and often did so in my very home, and I cannot convey the misery it brought on everyone, her violent mood swings, the revolting stench of it, &c. I was held back from calling the police by two factors: the intercession of my parents, who presumably wanted to spare my sister a criminal record (she already has one anyway), and the fact that even if I did, almost certainly nothing would come of it. Just like all the victims of car accidents, these things are so routine now that people just don’t care. My sister doesn’t live with us anymore so fortunately I don’t have to put up with it but I feel sorry for anyone who has to live with her.
I see even the recreational (I am loath to say “harmless”) use of drugs as the sign of a very degraded individual; their availability as the sign of a more or less lawless society, and calls for their legalisation as very misguided, very naive and fundamentally mistaken. And yet it is so popular a cause nowadays! At the same time, we’re constantly reminded that smoking is bad for us, smoking causes cancer, &c. Large retailers are not allowed to advertise them, and supermarket kiosks keep them locked behind screens, with strict rules as to when and how to open them, to keep the cigarette packets face down on the counter, and so on. Next comes the campaign against alcohol (“drink responsibly!”). This is incredible! To me, there is nothing wrong with smoking, anymore than there was anything wrong with corporal punishment in schools, or the death penalty, or theatre censorship…you know, all the things whittled away incrementally in our “permissive society.” Smoking and drinking alcohol are very civilised, adult pleasures and should not be curtailed. But drugs? If people better understood the connexion between drugs and unpredictable, psychopathic behaviour there’d be less calls for their legalisation and more calls for the state to heavily penalise people who use them. Drugs should be SO against the law that dealers, users alike should all be locked up.