What type of community do we want to forge for ourselves - one of compassion and understanding, or one of punishment and judgement? With the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS 2016) around the corner, we stand at a crossroads. Addiction has become a contentious issue. How do we wish to treat our family and friends that may end up in a cycle of personal turmoil?
Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician that specialises in the study and treatment of addiction. Speaking on the feature documentary, 'The Culture High', and contrary to the often capricious handling of the broad subject, Dr. Maté asks his patients some searching and often counterintuitive questions:
Is addiction a health or criminal issue? There are many strings to our drug policy discussion, but all too often we focus on the drugs themselves over the people in our lives. It's far easier to conceptualise and be theoretical about addiction when we use the cold frame of 'drugs' - we are able to construct a linear and logical path of protection using the law to dissuade actions, but the reality paints a different picture, and one that isn't based on concept, but often on the heart-breaking authenticity of suffering.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in England and Wales male drug deaths increased by 23% - from 1,177 in 2012 to 1,444 in 2013. Similarly, female deaths increased by 12% - from 459 in 2012 to 513 in 2013. Heroin contributed to 765 deaths in 2013 - this is a sharp rise of 32% as there were 579 deaths in 2012. We see similar trends across the globe with other countries that lead with a criminal-based approach to drugs. Our drug laws are working? The perversion in what we consider a metric of success needs to be addressed. The recent campaign, 'Anyone's Child', gives an undeniable credibility to just how fatally linked our drug laws are to mortality.
As we take a look at addiction and dependent behaviour, most of us will have an understanding that to try and criminalise other pursuits which carry risk would not only prove futile, but an utter contradiction to what we consider humane. If we hold on to an ardent belief that criminalised behaviour lessened harms then we'd surely employ this method to combat alcoholism, problematic relationships with food, gambling... and addiction to potentially risky adrenalin pursuits such as sports. In truth, we're utterly aware of the barbarism of trying to intervene on such issues through force and punishment. We also have to assess as to whether punitive drug laws have any impact on drug consumption in the first place: The 2014 report, Drugs: International Comparators, was unambiguous in that there's no evidence that a country's drug use was affected by the harshness of its laws; the severity of criminal penalties has little impact on the number of people that use drugs.
The author of 'Chasing the Scream', Johann Hari, gave a Ted Talk which has managed to infiltrate the amphitheatre of social media; his short talk manages to strip the debate down, and places our family and loved ones back at the forefront: "The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection."
As Johann discovered on his trails researching 'Chasing the Scream', if you work in the field of drugs, you will come across many people with nuanced stories, but perhaps there is no better example of how drug use can often provide a raft to survival than 'Sarah's Story', a tale written by the hand of someone that's been faced with the unmitigated tangibility within the issue, removed from the luxury of flippant contemplation. We are all a product of environment. Drug use, whether problematic or not, is perhaps the biggest yardstick of society's collective health. Invariably, the cycle of addiction begins with trauma, and ends with the loss of any real human contact.
We have the generic response of how we need a reasoned debate on drugs using all available information, but this shouldn't wash out the arrant reality that crashes around our feet. If we should happen to develop an unhealthy relationship, whether it's to drink, drugs, food, or another type of behaviour, then it's eminently sensible that we would hope understanding and benevolence would be a guide in the route to 'recovery'- and indeed, perhaps we need to address what recovery really means. Surely this is preferable over a steely set of shackles which simply completes the ensemble of an already cordoned existence?
Isn't it about time we afforded society and all of its members the dignity of treating a possible dependency through professionalism and basic levels of understanding. We set ourselves up for a fall when we try to distinguish who's entitled to care based on the noun of what their problem may be. Addictions shouldn't be feared, but they should have default impartiality.