Ending Drug Prohibition and Emancipating the Addict - the Last Frontier in a Struggle for Enlightenment

07/10/2011 00:01 BST | Updated 06/12/2011 10:12 GMT

The UK is rife with talk of drug legalisation. First, because most illicit drug use is either benign or at least innocuous. Second, because even when addiction is involved, punishment is not the right answer. Third, because the prohibition of drugs has really been a mess - both costly and futile. Unsurprisingly, many oppose these imminent changes.

As a historian of addiction, I take a long-term view on the opposition to legalisation, or even to decriminalisation and harm reduction. Essentially, it amounts to support for punishing attitudes and practices. You might be old enough to remember when it was commonly accepted that children need to be punished physically, and perhaps even insulted on occasion. After an error, even a minor one, a slap across the top of the head accompanied by "Stupid!" was simply the medicine they were often said to require. "Spare to rod, spoil the child" meant, for example, that if your son failed at law school, the reason might just be that you didn't kick his butt hard enough or often enough when he was little.

Of course, if we go back to the nineteenth century, the governing "wisdom" was even more brutal. It was applied not only to children. Hitting one's wife was often considered a man's prerogative, and that too was regularly said to be a way to "improve" the woman. You might have heard that she needed it, or that some woman was perhaps not the best of mothers or wives because her husband shirked this manly duty.

Such attitudes ran right into the twentieth century, though they did begin to dissipate. The attitudes were applied to most anyone in a weaker position, not just the woman and the child. A slave or servant might be said to need a whopping, and workers or the down and out could also, somehow, be said to benefit from assorted forms of degradation - "It's what they need! That's the only way those people learn!" While every disadvantaged group had unique struggles to face, here is one constant: the official (ruling) line would vindicate degradation by insisting that people actually need it, and that it would make them "better" somehow.

Attitudes such as these have governed most of our history, and since the Enlightenment they have been questioned and challenged. For the most part, this was accomplished one group at a time. So, unsurprisingly, the children of those more privileged were among the first to get off the hook. Over time, different attitudes have been applied to other groups, ranging from homosexuals and visible minorities to the mentally ill and the physically challenged.

The point is not that such groups are never targeted, but that the official line has changed: I can't think of a mean spirited politician with enough pluck to state publicly that children, minorities, women and homosexuals ought to be beaten and degraded. Those who might feel that way will normally keep it to themselves, and that's because their "cause" is losing. Paying lip service to it is a recipe for self-destruction.

As I write these words, the drug addict might be the last acceptable target for such talk. We are told that addicts need to hit bottom in order to get better, and this "bottom" might indeed entail beatings, rape, and other degrading experiences. I have said enough in my HuffPo blogs already about why this is nonsense. I have explained that such experiences are far more likely to increase someone's substance abuse than to "motivate" that person toward self-improvement. Sorry, but beatings and sexual assault are not good motivators - they do not turn people into better citizens.

Here, I simply wish to draw the reader's attention to how - here and now - drug addicts are thought to require precisely what in the not-too-distant past many others were said to require. Western civilization has been moving away from this nonsense one group at a time. Now, finally, the drug addict is due.

Anyone having trouble shaking the idea that a bottom is what an addict needs should consider the power of cultural indoctrination, and maybe think of how, one hundred years ago, he or she might have been just as sure that sparing the rod was to spoil the child.

You see, the emancipation of those with substance addictions is consistent with what our civilisation has been accomplishing over the last two hundred years. When politicians and other public figures oppose this cause, my knowledge of history often helps to assuage my anger. I understand that soon - probably in my lifetime - the overcoming of these harsh attitudes toward the drug addict will be viewed in much the same light as, today, we view the abolition of harsh punishments for children, the introduction of woman's suffrage or even the abolition of slavery. Despite their differences, what each advance shares in an overcoming of cruelty (and stupidity) -- I call that Enlightenment.

While setbacks will occur, the writing is on the wall: just last week, Canada's Supreme Court thwarted the Conservative government's attempt to do away with Insite, a medically supervised injection clinic for addicts. The Conservatives hold a majority in Parliament, but on this issue they can't win: The unanimous (9 to 0) ruling makes way for similar clinics across the country:

The emancipation of the drug addicted is on the horizon. Politicians and other critics who oppose this cause are on the wrong side of history, and history will judge them harshly.