People are calling for the legalisation of drugs. But it won’t be enough [OPINION]

Drugs Addiction
Steve Topple

The campaign for the legalisation of recreational drugs is gathering pace. Groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP UK) and Anyone’s Child are asking for sensible debate around reforming drug laws. And The Canary has previously looked at possible therapeutic uses for mushrooms, ecstasy, and cannabis. But would allowing people to get high legally be enough? Are we missing the bigger picture about why many people take drugs in the first place?

Anyone’s child

In March I took part in a LEAP UK debate about drug law reform. Other guests included campaigner Peter Tatchell and Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose 15-year-old daughter died from a MDMA overdose. Cockburn told her moving story later on that evening, on BBC Newsnight:

The thrust of the debate was that, in short, making recreational drugs legal would be best. As what goes into them can be regulated, as can the dosage; people can seek professional advice more openly, and environments in which people take drugs can be made safer.

You can listen to the full podcast here. And while I broadly agree with the arguments for legalisation, I have concerns about its implementation. I do think we’re missing the bigger picture.

Hitting a person twice with a bottle

I’ve been an alcoholic for more than a decade, having had numerous relapses, been sectioned under the Mental Capacity Act, declared bankrupt and made homeless along the way. So I understand the issues surrounding addiction, how it can be intertwined with poverty and the broader societal implications of both. But I’ve also done Class A drugs on many occasions; although, interestingly, never had an addiction issue with these.

When you’re dealing with an addict, the most effective treatment in many medical professionals’ eyes is what’s known as a ‘dual diagnosis’. That is, you not only treat the underlying physiological effects of addiction, but you deal with the psychological factors that have sent a person spiraling out of control. This is usually done firstly via either a chemical detox or a reduction plan. And then intensive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) coupled with an anti-depressant.

Scraping away

I’ve done at least 15 detoxes, and only one of them has lasted more than six months. That was the last one I did in May/June 2016. And I believe I’ve managed to stay dry because, for the first time, the NHS gave me the tools to deal with the underlying reasons why I drink. I was assigned a psychiatrist and then a CBT therapist, coupled with the highest (45mg) dose of the anti-depressant Mirtazapine.

All that has, for the moment, worked. The CBT stripped away at all the peripheral ‘noise’ that manifested in my need to drink: anger, frustration, resentment and stress. And it broke into what was really making me hit the bottle: childhood trauma, fear, low self-esteem, and high functioning anxiety. CBT has kitted me out with the equipment I need to deal with life’s journey in a way that means I don’t need to drink to navigate through it. But I believe there’s a problem with it. CBT is only treating addiction in terms of the symptoms of another illness. And that illness is one which therapy can’t cure: the corporatist society we live in.

Alcohol doesn’t make you an alcoholic

There are various theories that addiction is a response to the environment around a person. And in this case, it’s corporatism. That is, addicts know that society is, essentially, fucked. And so they abuse a substance to try and escape the horror of it all.

Dr Gabor Maté is a Hungarian-born Canadian psychiatrist and psychologist. And he has intensively studied the relationship between corporatism and health. Broadly, he believes that corporatism makes us sick:

But Maté also thinks that corporatism is fueling the world’s drug and alcohol addiction problem. He said in a lecture [9.55] that:

There’s a couple of myths associated [with addiction]. One of them is that it’s a choice that people make… The other idea is that it’s genetic. And the third idea… is that drugs are addictive. Which is inherently nonsense. Because if it was true, then anybody who tried a drug should become addicted… Most people who try most drugs don’t become addicted… Most people who have a drink don’t become alcoholics… The real question is, why are the drugs addictive to certain people?

Seeing the world for what it is

And he profoundly says in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction:

A sense of deficient emptiness pervades our entire culture. The drug addict is more painfully conscious of this void than most people and has limited means of escaping it. The rest of us find other ways of suppressing our fear of emptiness or distracting ourselves from it. When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease or the nagging mental stupor we called boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending ‘alone time’ with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioural addictions are also responses to this terror of the void.

“Systematically severing connections”

Also, journalist and author Naomi Klein believes that addiction runs deeper than just escaping corporatism and its horrors. She thinks it is also a response to a corporatist society that “systematically severs connections… from one another and from our natural surroundings”. Klein finds interesting the “idea of addiction being so closely correlated to the severing of meaningful connections that protect us from needing to go for that second bottle”. And she notes that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous may be so successful because they involve face-to-face human interaction:

We don’t have political meetings anymore. We used to have… trade union meetings, and people would go to… city hall meetings… Just coming face to face with fellow human beings and talking, we don’t know how to do—unless you’re an addict.

Infinite addictions?

But British journalist Johann Hari takes these ideas one step further. He believes that its not just alcohol and drugs that our corporatist society makes people addicted to. But anything that offers a form of escapism and shelter from the horrors of the corporatist world:

We live in a culture where people feel really increasingly vulnerable to all sorts of addictions, whether it’s to their smartphones or to shopping or to eating.

But he also believes that the loss of physical human connections plays a major role in addiction. He said in a TED talk “If you have a crisis in your life, you’ll notice something”:

It won’t be your Twitter followers who come to sit with you. It won’t be your Facebook friends who help you turn it round. It’ll be your flesh and blood friends who you have deep and nuanced and textured, face-to-face relationships with…

Rat heaven

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, a much-cited experiment was conducted in 1978 with rats and addiction. Called “Rat Park“, it put some rats in a bare cage with just morphine solution. And others in an environment with physical and mental stimulants – wheels, runs etc, but with the morphine as well. The rats in the bare cage consumed more morphine than their counterparts in the park. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander who conducted the experiment said:

It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier… box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a… box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.

Hari cites this experiment (along with the Vietnam war) as evidence that environment influences addiction; not the drug itself. But for me, the experiment and Hari’s conclusion are not definitive proof.

Rats do not have the complex emotional, psychological and social foibles that humans do. Nor do humans live in a perfect world. To say that an experiment with rats is proof that humans become addicts because of external forces is naive. But what it may show is actually that there’s more weight to the argument that humans do become addicts because of the environment around them. Because if rats feel the need to metaphorically ‘jack up’ when isolated, the urge for humans is ten times worse in a corporatist society.

The crisis is real

Ultimately, Maté, Klein and Hari think that corporatism creates addicts. Because people are trying to escape the system and are adversely and inherently damaged by it. But also, generally, it’s those on the sharp end of corporatism that suffer the most. The poorest. And UK statistics, in my opinion, back up this argument.

Regarding alcohol consumption:

  • There has been a 63% rise in the number of alcohol-related hospital in-patient admissions since 2005.
  • A&E attendances due to alcohol poisoning have seen a 104% rise.
  • Rates of A&E admissions due to alcohol poisoning were three and a half times higher among those living in the 20% most deprived areas of England than those in the least.
  • 24% (the highest figure) of all alcohol-related deaths are in the poorest category of socioeconomic status (SES).
  • The poorest are nearly three times more likely to develop alcohol-related liver disease than the richest.

A study for the BMJ showed that people with the highest SES generally consumed alcohol more regularly than the most deprived in society. But when the pattern of consumption was studied, the poorest were the most frequent and heaviest “binge drinkers” (i.e. consuming at least double the guideline limits in a single day).

Regarding obesity:

  • Children living in the 10% most deprived areas of the country are twice as likely to be obese compared to children living in the 10% least deprived one.
  • Areas where children are most likely to be obese are in the bottom 5% of deprivation.
  • Rates of obesity are falling among the wealthiest children, while there has only been a stabilisation for the poorest.

The same pattern can be seen in the adult deprivation statistics: the prevalence of obesity increases as wages fall, as educational attainment drops, and as social class lessens. The most startling figure shows rates of obesity are highest in women who work in unskilled manual jobs – 10% more than their male counterparts.

Regarding smoking:

  • 30% of adult smokers are in the poorest SES, compared to just over 10% in the highest.
  • Adults with lower levels of educational qualifications are more likely to be smokers.
  • The proportion of current smokers in the lowest two income brackets is double the proportion in the highest two.
  • People living in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to be smokers.

Regarding drug use:

  • 34.7% of people aged 16-59 have tried recreational drugs.
  • The drug-induced mortality rate among adults in the UK aged 15–64 was 55.9 deaths per million in 2013. This was three times more than the most recent European average of 19.2 deaths per million.
  • 9.6% of men in the lowest income bracket are drug dependent. This is compared to 2.1% in the highest.

Hard statistics on drug use and its relation to socioeconomics are few and far between. But it is widely accepted that deprivation is linked to drug misuse, particularly Class A substances like heroin and crack cocaine.

So, what does all this show? That poverty, substance abuse and addiction are inherently linked.

Poverty is to blame

As I wrote for openDemocracy: regarding poverty and obesity, but also addiction more broadly:

When you already have very little in life, it’s the remaining little things which take on extra importance. Having a McDonalds for dinner, being able to take a bottle of coke into school or buying a six pack of Stella are your way of feeling part of society – a feeling which is rammed down our throats day in, day out on those flat screen TVs we all watch.

George Orwell said in The Road To Wigan Pier:

The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots… When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.

Sticking a plaster on a broken leg

So, will legalising recreational drugs be enough to stem the crisis of addiction and drug-related deaths? Sadly, I believe not. Making ‘highs’ legal will exert some control over substances, ensuring people won’t unintentionally take too much, or take a bad batch. But it is ultimately putting control into the hands of the system that feeds addiction in the first place. Almost like giving a blood bank to Dracula. Regulation won’t stop addiction and its related deaths. It will merely mean that taxes will be levied, pouring more money into a system that causes addiction.

Addiction is a human response to witnessed horror and deep-rooted, often subconscious distress and unhappiness. So, if we truly want to end this scourge, then all our financial, political and societal systems need razing and starting afresh. Because while we have corporatism, we will have poverty, inequality, isolation, sickness and hate. And therefore we will still live as humans, and as a society, with the scourge of addiction.

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