From Addiction to Recovery - Did Russell Brand Contradict Himself?

17/08/2012 11:51 BST | Updated 16/10/2012 10:12 BST

I had high hopes, no pun intended, as Russell Brand's usual display of eloquence is enough to draw people into the drugs debate. His humanistic approach based on deep-rooted personal experience is admirable. I was, however, increasingly disappointed by the unbalanced programme: From Addiction to Recovery. Airing on BBC Three, the subject matter is of course provocative and draws opinion from almost everyone, and Russell is firmly on record as supporting the decriminalisation of all drug users.

Despite the title of the show, the main crux of the programme was to promote abstinence based treatment for heroin and opiates, and there was little in the way of an evidence based discussion. Methadone and OST treatments were given no time or credibility: there was a rather odious segment where Dr Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of Practitioners, was edited to look out of touch and debased. It was around this point that I personally thought something was awry. Dr Gerada is on the frontline of addiction and her eminent view comes from both an evidence based premise as well as a first hand practical experience owing to her patience. It's fairly shameful that Dr Gerada was not given any time or credibility.

The BBC Three show was seemingly fully built on the paradigm of abstinence vs. methadone treatment. The myopic view that a one size fits all approach to dependency was marred only by Russell's overuse of the terms 'scum of the earth' and a litany of derogatory remarks towards those battling addiction. Given Mr Brand is firmly on record as trying to remove stigma from addiction, I truly cannot understand this lexicon.

It was around about the time that Russell made a strange ally in Professor Neil McKeganey that I all but gave up hope. With what little I know of Russell Brand, I doubt very much he would be supportive of Professor McKeganey's broad viewpoints. Russell is of course firmly on record from the Home Affairs Select Committee as wishing to decriminalise the actions of people who use drugs and pervades the basic notion that compassion based approaches are preferable and conducive to a healthy society -- Professor Neil McKeganey does not tend to agree with this viewpoint and often argues to the contrary. It's fair to say Russell made some strange bedfellows and rebuked those who are involved in health based advocacy. There was strange paradox to it all.

There was a brief - too brief - glimpse of Chief Superintendent Bartlett of Sussex Police. Mr Bartlett has been innovative in his approach to drug related problems and the BBC programme gave credence to his work. In many ways, this segment was in need of expansion and a whole documentary could have gleaned insight from this specific area. Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett conveys a strong message of health and compassion based approaches over punitive.

The most troubling and perplexing issue was that of methadone: Russell fervently argued against it from his personal perspective. There was little to know evidence based dialogue, and no balance. The World Health Organisation's view is that methadone is an essential medication; there's evidence that methadone can reduce HIV risk, drug use, and criminality. The National AIDS Trust has also put out a report on the need for balanced drug treatments based on sound evidence. There are plenty of people with addiction who have very favourable results with OST.

There's not a one size fits all approach to treatment; what works for one person may not for another. The compounding factors that were not taken into account were that of socio-economic and environmental factors of those in addiction cycles. Russell Brand can project a successful image of abstinence as he has a somewhat privileged place of celebrity -- and yes, that's an easy connotation to draw, but nonetheless a wholly affecting one: The average person, one that is in the bitter grips of dependency, are not wealthy, they are not blessed with support networks, and they are certainly not able to escape the previous lives that led them to a place of turmoil; abstinence will only work is you are able to abstain from your previous existence. The overwhelming majority of those in clutches of addiction will not escape from the dilettantes that act as friends, ready to draw the vulnerable back into previous realms of drug relieving escapism. As Niamh Eastwood from the charity Release tweeted:

"Hard to stay abstinent when going back to [an] estate & dealer is knocking at your door!"

Niamh and Release are best placed to make such a observation given that their helpline is a literal lifeline to so many who are entrapped in a stronghold of poverty and dependence.

Acquisitive crime was given a fleeting mention in the programme, but once more, there was little context. The very nature of the entrenched drug culture is that of poverty. It's no coincidence that prevalence and addiction are rife in the least affluent areas. Assistance in housing and employment play a role in the drugs discussion, but no mention was made in the BBC programme. The overarching theme to Russell's message - although hugely played down in the programme to a mere footnote - is that stigmatisation and criminalisation is not the answer and it can perpetuate the very problems that we all yearn to solve. This sentiment simply had no resonance in the programme. Russell's' Home Affair Select Committee appearance was flashed on screen, with a mention of 'experts' who have given evidence. To view said experts, see here with Danny Kushlick from Transform, Niamh Eastwood from Release, and former Chief Constable, Tom Lloyd.

The conclusive point to the whole programme, and the broad drugs discussion, is that under current laws we are compounding problems and solving little. As alluded to on twitter by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK, current laws and punitive approaches need addressing if we are to take a health based strategy. The blazon motif of the programme was that abstinence is the only treatment, which of course is misguided to say the very least. Under reform of our current drug laws we can have an open, lucid discussion, conducive to an openness to seek support, not to mention rehab & treatments that are attainable to all. To have a single view of any specific treatment is naive; what can be agreed upon is that a tailored, nuanced strategy - that takes an array of approaches to treatment - is going to be the most successful. Like any sophisticated evidence based policy, the only thing we can depend upon is that we need a multifaceted approach over staunch opinion.