The war on drugs. First coined by Nixon in 1971, the term alludes to the crackdown on drug abuse and the international trade of narcotics. However, in simple terms, you could call it a war on humanity.
Why so dramatic? Back in 1990, American drugs counsellor and political activist Jack Schierenbeck called for us to take a serious look at how we’ve framed the discussion around drugs, pig-headedly and incompetently beating around the bush with such futile debates as ‘to legalise or not to legalise?’. It has been evident to those closely involved with the reality of addiction that such questions obfuscate what is a complicated reality, but this has mysteriously eluded our enlightened representatives. According to the Guardian, the UK has the highest usage of several Class A drugs despite spending more on drug policy than any other country in Europe. We criminalise, imprison, and demonise drug users who – for the most part – constitute the poorer percentiles of society: 75% of addicts left school by the age of 16 and 85% of addicts are unemployed. All of this begs the question: what is it about our culture, our political, economic, judicial and social institutions that creates such a ripe environment for the proliferation of addiction and drug abuse?
While drug use seems to disregard class altogether, with lower, middle and higher classes all using, drug addiction devastates groups discriminately. Poverty, deprivation, the lack of facilities and the socialisation of addiction as an acceptable norm within poorer groups weave a complex contextual web that traps addicts in a vicious cycle. Many in recovery struggle to break free from this environment. The attitudes and ways of life that support substance abuse – from dealers to drug gangs to users – are pervasive. The routine of using coping mechanisms conceived to handle one’s daily struggle with the pain, angst or even boredom that accompany limited prospects is a way of life. And it doesn’t stop there. Researchers in 2003 claimed that over half of all property crimes were drug-related (including 85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies). What’s more, the conviction of petty crime has risen substantially: the UK now imprisons 151 out of every 100,000 inhabitants. That’s 73% more than in 1992 and 20% more than in 2001. Drug offenders are neatly absorbed by the UK’s private finance initiative (PFI), which launched its first for-profit prison in 1997. At present there are 14 private prisons across the UK racking up profits from the incarceration of civilians. Prison corporations need to be guaranteed a certain number of inmates – so what of judicial policy? If these numbers are anything to go by, it would certainly seem that policy has been influenced by private interests receiving healthy returns from the criminalisation of drug-riddled groups. The United States has blazed a trail when it comes to corporate prisons, yet critics remark that the war on drugs has been a handy diversion from looking at other, perhaps deeper, social problems. To quote Schierenbeck, “people don’t use drugs accidentally”.
Flashback to the 1860s. According to Schierenbeck, the first addicts in America were civil war veterans. The hypodermic needle had been invented in 1857; suddenly the physical and psychological agony carried through from the war could be relieved with a shot of morphine. Drugs were then more generally distributed to the public: cocaine was a key ingredient in coca-cola from 1886 to 1905, and opium was found in syrups for teething infants. Alcohol has been available for centuries. In reality, drugs are symptomatic of a society addicted to immediate solutions in commodity form. Today, relief is but a pill away. Almost 50 million antidepressants were prescribed in the UK alone in 2011. In a world that seems to offer no long term solutions to our problems, it is no wonder we are seduced by immediate relief. But pandering to the conservative argument that drug use represents a breakdown of moral fibre and personal responsibility is a gross simplification of a nebulously complex phenomenon.
Instead we need to look deeper. It is of primary importance that we bring the discussion back to the level of the individual. In an interview conducted in 1990, Schierenbeck describes his experience as a counselor in downtown New York: “90% of the clients I see are minority women […] who by the time they are 22 to 23 years old have 3 or 4 kids and were themselves children of broken homes. In all likelihood they were physically, often sexually abused, certainly emotionally neglected and abandoned. […] When you find yourself in your mid twenties with kids living in a welfare hotel you feel pretty trapped. These are not people with a lot of opportunities in front of them.” Although coming from such difficult situations may predispose an individual to using psychoactive drugs, drug use is not a function of poverty. People from all socio-economic backgrounds use mind-altering substances to escape from stress, boredom or pain. Drug use and alcohol is also prevalent in high-stress, highly competitive and highly paid jobs in the City. Understanding individuals is understanding that the problem is not drugs – drugs are only one of many symptoms. We are a people just as addicted to workaholism, ‘retail therapy’, nicotine, gambling… as we are to drugs. The real problem is what lies beneath addiction in its many forms.
When the nature of addiction filters into mainstream understanding, the obsession with the curtailment of drugs will appear absurd. Why drugs? Why not alcohol or binge-eating? Apart from being a devastating and catastrophic failure, the USA’s war on drugs is as geopolitically strategic as it is rhetorical, allowing the US to entrench power in its Latin American backyard. Here in the UK, the drug debate is paralysed by a bourgeois politics obsessed with appearing tough on crime and incapable of speaking the truth for fear of damaging political interests. If you truly look deeper you’d have to put all sorts of things in question, such as the government’s legalisation of alcohol, tobacco or gambling and the multi-billion pound industries they represent. A focus on the war on drugs allows the real issues lurking beneath addiction to remain (deliberately) obscured. As Schierenbeck so insightfully put it, we live in a society where “addicts are us”: by singling out drugs as the villain we forget just how much we, as smokers, coffee drinkers, or workaholics have in common with drug addicts. Make an enemy out of something and the rest of us are absolved. But the fact of the matter is this: addictions fulfill the legitimate and unmet needs of those people that our own society frustrates. The war on drugs is a distraction and we ignore this at our peril.
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