Hadia Tajik, the Vice President of the largest political party in Norway, was challenged on national radio by Health Minister Bent Høie; would she still punish drug users? Her reaction; being evasive, making a point of being against legalization and saying young people using illegal drugs at a party to 'act cool' should expect to be met with punitive sanctions.
Dear Hadia Tajik; you are a talented politician who is going to get far and achieve many things. Still, when you say you want to be able to fine 18-year-olds who try drugs to 'act cool in front of their friends' and want to correct their behaviour with drug tests, criminal records and punitive sanctions - I would rather you leave drug policy to politicians in the Dept. of Health. Drug problems, after all, are and should be a question left to that area; coercion, correction and punishment are, at best, of little use; at worst, it contributes to pushing vulnerable people further out into the margins of society.
To an extent, I can forgive you for not understanding this, as you had a different childhood from mine. Not only have I been to the party you are describing; I was one of the kids who tried cannabis to «act cool». Where I grew up, I was one among many who did so. But for some of us the drugs and acting tough was more than an attempt to be cool; it was an escape from pain, from a traumatic childhood or a broken home. You say we have to find a fitting reaction for youth who try drugs. But not even I, who was living among these boys and girls, could know who were acting tough to get in with the cool kids and who were trying to escape painful memories of physical and sexual abuses.
Hardly anyone can know what underlying reasons for seeking out drugs, and you and your advisors being the exception is highly unlikely. We have to base ourselves on what we know from science: Those who end up as problematic heroin users have a more than 50 times higher likelihood than the average population of having experienced serious trauma in childhood. I know after years of hanging out with hard- as well as soft drug users that noone have a sign around their neck reading: "I had a traumatic childhood".
On the contrary; frequently, those who appear to be the most successful and appear to be in control, are those who have to live with an inner chaos because of a brutal childhood. There are more examples that I know of, than I could count, and most of those who have told me more about their childhood, have reacted to the type of early intervention you advocate with anxiety, anger and apathy. It has caused them to feel isolated and marginalized. I especially remember one concrete episode that I want to recount to paint a picture of the mechanisms at work:
We were a bunch of guys with more or less resourceful parents, and every single one of us tried cannabis and other illegal drugs, to, as you say, «act tough». But there were exceptions among us, exceptions where the parents were absent. These guys compensated by acting extra tough. One day our parents, teachers and local police had enough of our gang getting tougher and tougher. Something had to be done. The luckiest ones had parents who took matters into their own hands, and entered into «drug control contracts» with their own parents; consisting of «voluntary» urine controls done either by the school or local police.
But there was a minority among the guys in our gang whose parents did not have the resources to contribute, and they let the government use whatever available means to handle the situations that arose. In those instances child protective services and police got a much more significant role; which cemented the gap between those of us who had parents who corrected us and those who did not have the time, resources or knowledge or maybe not even the will to take matters into their own hands. Those parents gave the task of correcting their offspring to the government - which at the time only meant the cops and their friends.
As a consequence the resourceful parents conspired to identify the less resourceful as the "problem" and concluded that "if only my son or daughter keep away from x and y, they will do fine". That was certainly a correct conclusion, but how did x and y fare? They were put into X-classes (they were actually called so at the time) and institutions, and got into more and more trouble with the police. Time passed and the resourceful kids mostly did fine "thanks to" the tools the school and police was so nice to lend the parents who themselves were doctors, lawyers and psychologists, while the toughest guys and girls, with the most painful childhoods and least present parents, were marginalized. The painful and indisputable truth is that they were pushed there, pressured and isolated, sacrificed to save the majority who statistically had done fine whatever the government did.
When you make drug use among young people a question of judicial policy instead of health policy, you will end up in the following situation - in all small and mediocre cities in the following situation: The resourceful who to a large extent had done well no matter what, get help the do not really need, while those with the most painful experiences and least capable parents get that extra push they needed to end up at the bottom of the table, the end of the plank and finally, under a bridge with a syringe in their arm. This was exactly what happened to my friend Stephane and his now deceased girlfriend whose story I told in my very first contribution to the debate on drug policy. We, those from resourceful homes, did quite well - and probably had done so with or without intervention from the judicial sector.
Dear Hadia. I went to the party, but I also went to the after-party. The collective headache we as a society will wake up with ten-twenty years from now, if we continue to punish rather than help those who "act tough" by using illegal drugs, will not be calmed by a couple of paracetamols. A direct consequence of ardently clinging to today's policies, where punitive policies triumph caring ones in a blind belief in signals and prevention that only exists on paper, is that we will have hundreds of overdose deaths and an open syringe culture with continual recruiting of "tough" boys and girls who have been pushed so far that the tramway to Brugata (Oslos open heroin scene) is their only way out.