Saturday, June 30, 2012

Time to Decriminalise Drug Addiction?

Just the word ‘addict’ is enough to conjure up a negative impression in many people’s minds. Precede it with the words ‘book’, ‘telly’, or ‘exercise’ and it softens the perception. However, try ‘drug’ or ‘alcohol’ instead and the negativism drops off the chart. In western society, drug addicts are often perceived to be amongst the worst members of society, with alcoholics not that far behind. For many people, the concept invokes images of seedy squats, down-and-outs, crime, prostitution, discarded needles, HIV, hepatitis, wasted lives, early deaths…the list is endlessly dismal. Such people are perceived by many to be untrustworthy as employees and undesirable as neighbours.

However, what if your neighbour happened to be the author Jack London, famous for his books ‘The Call of the Wild’ and ‘White Fang’, who rewarded each 500 words written with an alcoholic drink; or the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (of Jekyll and Hyde fame), addicted to hashish, opium and cocaine, and who thought wine was ‘bottled poetry’? Alternatively, consider the poet Dylan Thomas, the mind behind such invocative poetry as ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and who rather pertinently said that ‘an alcoholic is someone you don’t like, who drinks as much as you do’. Then there was Aldous Huxley, the author of the classic ‘The Doors of Perception’, which was written whilst under the influence of the psychotropic drug mescaline. The list is endless, and includes the likes of poets and writers such as Thomas de Quincey, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all of whom were addicted to the opium and alcohol mixture known as laudanum.

Now, not for one moment do I want anyone to believe that I am condoning the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Many of the aforementioned famous personalities died of illness brought on by addiction. My point is to illustrate that our perception of whether or not the addiction is generally acceptable depends on whom the person is, and how they deal with their addiction. For example, the controlled use of alcohol is accepted by most people in our society; being drunk in the city centre on a Saturday night is not acceptable to most. With some notable exceptions (such as the late Amy Winehouse), what also differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable is the availability of money. Drugs tend to be expensive; mainly because of their illicit status. This in turn fuels the negative spiral of people turning to crime and dropping out of acceptable society to fuel their addiction. To compound the issue, in many areas the most successful rehabilitation centres are only available to the wealthy.

Drug addiction, as anthropological research has shown, has always been with us. It is equally true to say that it will never disappear, and it is not just a problem associated with the young. According to some studies, illicit drug use in those over 50 years has increased by a factor of ten since the mid-1990s. In London, for example, one in ten over-sixties regularly uses cannabis. Other drugs featured in these studies of the older population include cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines, and tranquilisers.

Additionally, throughout the world the criminalisation of drugs is causing hardship in, and destruction of, whole countries; many of which are in South America. As a result, global initiatives are now taking place to consider drug policy reform. There is a very rational, public health argument for decriminalising drugs, and substituting litigation with appropriately resourced treatment for addicts. Increasingly, doctors are calling for evidence-based policies in respect to drugs. The evidence in respect to the potential health-gains for society is out there; we now all need to suppress our prejudices and encourage our politicians to effectively engage in this important debate.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 31st May 2012)

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