rugs. That’s a word that’s always going to invite reactions.
From the pseudo-scientific bollocks spouted by the ‘E’ generation who have progressed onto cocaine, ketamine and a whole new range of chemical highs, to the outrage about being ‘soft on drugs’ spouted by our more right wing press. Outside of that is the despair of those working at the coal face of drugs services, a sector which exists at the intersection between criminal justice, health and social care, education, and which overlaps most public services.
I have grown up around drugs. Living in towns decimated by heroin, and watching my peers fall, very young. Having spent many euphoric nights in clubs, my friends and I suddenly discovering the ability to dance and talk shit till the small hours. Watching barristers who were dull as shit in the morning come back with polo noses and unexplained energy for the afternoon session. I have spent my life around public services, in social care, trying to work with lives decimated by the misuse of substances. In at least half of the conversations I have about drugs, I have encountered ignorance beyond a scale I could ever have imagined.
When discussing any issue, its best to start by defining your terms, but in the ‘drugs’ debate, just attempting this definition gets one into trouble. When I was a child, drugs were easy to define. They were mythical evil substances which immediately resulted in a complete loss of morality and a descent into a life of misery and debauchery. Certainly, the heroin addicts I saw around me reinforced this definition. As did Zammo in Grange Hill. This definition casually ignored what else I saw around me. It ignored that I, and most of the kids I was in care with, were not there because our parents had used the mythical big bad drugs: heroin, crack.
Our parents hadn’t abused us because they were shooting up heroin. They hadn’t neglected us because they were smoking spliffs. Their drugs of choice had been (and I am trying hard to remember an exception amongst the kids I remember) alcohol, tobacco, or the steady stream of benzodiazepenes dispensed through the same trusted GPs who sat there in discussions about our future. One couldn’t look to the government’s own classification system on drugs for advice, because here was a system which refused to even bother classifying substances like alcohol and tobacco; left corrosive dangerous substances like amphetamines at class c, while focusing energy on substances like the MDMA found in ecstasy pills.
It would be nice to have a debate about drugs that wasn’t informed by wilful ignorance. Maybe we need to abandon the word ‘drugs’. Accept that as a word it is too emotive to be of any real value. Maybe we start by looking at substances which have fallen under this umbrella. Do it logically. Start with assessment of the substances from a pharmacological point of view. The effect of the substances. The effect on the individual. Patterns of use. The cost to society as a whole – not just in terms of that particular user, but in terms of costs overall to health/education/criminal justice/social care. Regulate those which are the most harmful, provide information on those that aren’t, and make sure that precious government resources are pointed where they are needed (and millions aren’t criminalised unnecessarily).
Spare me the friends who will sit there and say (direct quote) ‘I have never taken any drugs, and won’t ever’ while quaffing their glass of Viognier and stating that anyone who uses drugs should go to prison. Spare me the self indulgence of recreational drug users who believe that their experience of using a drug makes them an expert, and will wax lyrical about the relative safety of recreational cocaine use (while ignoring the quantifiable strain that even short-term cocaine use puts on their hearts, or their own role in a trade which has resulted in entire nations being held to ransom from drug lords capitalising on the ignorance-based policies of powerful western countries). Spare me too the pill heads who because of patently false scaremongering on the dangers of Ecstacy after the death of Leah Betts, so choose to ignore the genuine evidence about the harm to kidneys, or the building evidence of longer term mental health issues.
Spare me those whose entire drugs education appears to have consisted of watching Grange Hill, and who believe that their complete lack of knowledge is a badge of honor, as if anyone trying to have a reasoned debate was some kind of moral degenerate. I say spare me.
But this kind of ignorance has a toxic effect on real people’s lives. Try sitting with a woman who has kicked several substances which would probably not cause that much harm to her unborn child, while proudly declaring that she is using alcohol to manage that withdrawal. Alcohol will cause actual birth defects. In other case conferences, ill-informed professionals will spout for hours about the cannabis use of a parent, when it can demonstrably be seen to help someone cope, and then they ignore the depth of the damage that ‘recreational’ alcohol use causes for the person on a daily basis. Or those who have found themselves criminalised for ingesting substances carefully and in a way that causes no harm to themselves, or anyone else.
I would like to say that if one approached drugs services, you could find qualified people, who will be able to fill this void of ignorance. And indeed, there are many. Unfortunately, in one of the youngest fields of social policy, there are quacks a plenty willing to push their own agenda about ‘drugs’ and the best way to tackle ‘them’. Working within the government’s Drug Intervention Programme introduced me to the most ragtag bunch of half-qualified, dangerous professionals I have ever borne witness to.
This is a field where people believe the experience of being an addict is enough to qualify you to promote the agenda of whatever organisation you recovered with, and enough qualification to abandon every professional standard that governs the work of social care professionals. A sector where evangelical Christians use government funding to direct their message to the easy pickings of people praying for something to fill the void that drug use has left. Where social workers who have never been educated about any type of substance(not a single module in my whole social work training) are working in a landscape where the majority of their cases will have some kind of substance misuse issue.
I became a member of the Society for the Study of Addiction, hoping that the academic work in this field would inform me further. Only to find that there is no actual definition of what addiction is. That behaviours which don’t even involve ingesting a substance can result in what we would classify as addiction, and cause immeasurable harm. That ideas put forward as commonly accepted, like those offered by the 12 steps movement, are actually not based on scientific evidence, and that there is a body of evidence showing that these ideas, far from helping addicts, often cause more harm than good.
Addiction is rarely the issue in itself. More often that not dependence on a substance is a symptom of the wider issues. Substances themselves are not inherently bad, but each substance will have positive and negative effects, and it is in fact the user who is the problem.
It is difficult to have a debate about the effect of cannabis in contributing to mental illness when overwhelmingly, dual diagnosis in mental health services is about alcohol, not cannabis. In-patient beds in mental health wards are overwhelmingly used by those detoxing from alcohol, or in the midst of a psychosis from stimulants like cocaine and speed. I find it difficult to respond to those who pretend they want to educate others about drugs, while professing their own ignorance.
We live in a country where debate over an issue which affects us all is dominated by ignorance, wilful ignorance. Where emotional reactions to media scare stories and to personal situations take precedence over any need to go back to the beginning.
Learn what substances are. How they work. What the effect on the individual is. What the effect on society is. This is not a rant demanding that one substance be criminalised, while others are decriminalised. This is just a plea to people to remember that this should be a debate, and there is no other debate I can think of where ignorance is an advantage. Maybe our ‘war on drugs’ should be reframed as a ‘war’ on ignorance, and those who appoint themselves our army in fighting this war, should begin by educating themselves before defining policies that govern everyone else?