The only debate where ignorance is something to be proud of?November 1, 2009
Drugs. There is a word thats gonna invite some reactions. From the pseudo scientific bollocks spouted by the ‘e’ generation, who have progressed onto cocaine, ketamin and a whole new generation of legal highs. To the outrage about being ‘soft on drugs’ spouted by our more right wing press, and the despair of those working at the coal face of drugs services which exists at the intersection between criminal justice, health and social care, and education, and overlaps most public services.
The spat between Alan Johnson, and the advisory body on Misuse of Drugs, which resulted in the sacking of Professor Nutt, and the resignations that this has spurred, are the tip of the iceberg of the mess that is the drugs policy of this country.
I have grown up around drugs-living in towns decimated by heroin, and watching my peers fall, very young. Have spent many euphoric nights in clubs, me and my friends suddenly discovering the ability to dance and talk shit till the small hours. Watched barristers who were dull as shit in the morning, come back with polo noses, and unexplained energy for the afternoon session. I have spent my life around public services, in social care- trying to work with lives decimated by the misuse of substances, and in at least half of the conversations I have about drugs, have encountered ignorance beyond a scale I could ever have imagined.
When discussing any issue, its best to start by defining your terms, but in the ‘drugs’ debate- attempting this definition, gets one into trouble. When I was a child, drugs were easy to define. THey were mythical evil substances, which immediately resulted in a complete loss of morality, and a descent into a life of misery and debauchery. Certainly the heroin addicts I saw around me, reinforced this definition. As did Zammo in Grange Hill.
THis definition casually ignored what else I saw around me. Ignored that I, and most of the kids I was in care with, were not there because our parents had used the mythical big bad drugs-heroin, crack. Our parents hadnt abused us because they were shooting up heroin. THey hadnt neglected us because they were smoking spliffs. Their drugs of choice had been(and I am trying hard to remember an exception amongst the kids I remember) alcohol, tobacco, or the steady stream of benzodiazepenes dispensed through the same trusted GP’s who sat there in discussions about our future.
One couldnt look to the governments own classification system on drugs for advice. Because here was a system which refused to even bother classifying substances like alcohol and tobacco, left corrosive dangerous substances like amphetamines at class c, while focusing energy on substances like the MDMA found in ecstasy pills.
It would be nice to have a debate about drugs that wasnt informed by wilful ignorance. Maybe we need to abandon the word ‘drugs’. Accept that as a word it is too emotive, to be of any real value. Maybe we start by looking at substances which have fallen under this umbrella. Do it logically. Start with assessment of the substances from a pharmacological point of view. The effect of the substances. The effect on the individual. Patterns of use. The cost to society as a whole- not just in terms of that particular user, but in terms of costs overall to health/education/criminal justice/social care? Regulate those which are the most harmful, provide information on those that aren’t, and make sure that precious govt resources are pointed where they are needed, and millions aren’t criminalised unnecessarily.
Spare me the friends who will sit there and say(direct quote)- I have never taken any drugs, and wont ever-while quaffing their glass of wine, and stating that anyone who uses drugs should go to prison. Spare me the self indulgence of recreational drug users, who believe that their experience of using a drug makes them an expert, and will wax lyrical about the relative safety of recreational cocaine use, while ignoring the quantifiable strain that even short term cocaine use puts on their hearts, or their own role in a trade which has resulted in entire nations being held to ransom from the drug lords capitalising on the ignorance based policies of powerful western countries(Or the woman who, at a party last year, lectured me about buying ‘Fair Trade’ produce, while chopping up half a dozen lines for those around her to enjoy). Or the pill heads who because they know that the advice about ecstasy being an unpredictable pill, that might somehow cause a different effect and kill you ala Leah Betts, is demonstrably false- ignore the evidence about the harm to kidneys, or the building evidence of longer term mental health issues. Spare me those whose entire drugs education appears to have consisted of watching Grange Hill, and who believe that their complete lack of knowledge is a badge of honor- as if anyone trying to have a reasoned debate was some kind of moral degenerate.
I say spare me. But this kind of ignorancehas a toxic effect on real peoples lives. Try sitting with a woman who has kicked several substances which would probably not cause that much harm to her unborn child, while proudly declaring that she is using alcohol to manage that withdrawal-even though alcohol is the one substance that will cause actual birth defects. In the case conferences where ill informed professionals will spout for hours about the cannabis use of a parent, when it can demonstrably be seen to help someone cope- while they ignore the depth of the damage that ‘recreational’ alcohol use causes for the person on a daily basis. Or the friends of mine, who have found themselves criminalised for ingesting substances carefully, and in a way that causes no harm to themselves, or anyone else.
I would like to say that if one approached drugs services, you could find qualified people, who will be able to fill this void of ignorance. And indeed, there are many. Unfortunately, in one of the youngest fields of social policy, there are quacks a plenty- who are more than willing to push their own , ill informed agenda about ‘drugs’ and the best way to tackle ‘them’.
Working within the governments Drug Intervention Programme, introduced me to the most ragtag bunch, of half qualified, dangerous professionals, I have ever borne witness to. This is a field where people believe the experience of being an addict, is enough to qualify you in promoting the agenda of whatever organisation you recovered with, and enough qualification to abandon every professional standard that governs the work of social care professionals.
Where evangelical christians use government funding, to direct their evangelical christian message to the easy pickings of people praying for something to fill the void that abandoning drug use has left. Where social workers, who have never been educated about any type of substance(not a single module in my whole social work training) are working in a landscape where the majority of their cases will have some kind of substance misuse issue. I have had a junior social worker ask me, in the most serious tone- what is the difference between heroin and cocaine?
I became a member of the Society for the Study of Addiction, hoping that the academic work in this field would inform me further. Only to find that there is no actual definition of what addiction is. That behaviours which dont even involve ingesting a substance can result in what we would classify as addiction, and cause immeasurable harm. That ideas put forward as commonly accepted, like those offered by the 12 steps movement are actually not based in anything relating to scientific evidence, and that there is a body of evidence showing that these ideas, far from helping addicts, often cause more harm than good.
Addiction is rarely the issue in itself- more often that not the dependence on a substance is a symptom of the wider issues. That substances themselves are not inherently bad- but that each substance will have positive and negative effects, and it is in fact, the user, who is the problem.
Am sorry, but I find it difficult to have a debate about the effect of cannabis in contributing to mental illness-when overwhelmingly dual diagnosis in mental health services is about alcohol- not cannabis. When inpatient beds in mental health wards are overwhelmingly used by those detoxing from alcohol, or in the midst of a psychosis from stimulants like cocaine and speed. I find it dfficult to respond to those who pretend they want to educate others about drugs, while professing their own ignorance.
THe goverment is lauding its attempto get drug workers to work towards DANOS qualifications, as the way in which we ensure that our drugs workers are accountable, and working from an evidence base. Wouldn’t be quite so laughable if the DANOS qualification itself drew from the evidence base of scientific fact, and demonstrable social problems- instead it is a hodge podge of half thought out philosophies of competing drug treatment strategies, and is about as challenging as a low level NVQ.
The fact that the Alan Johnson this week sacked one of his senior advisors on the misuse of drugs, came as no surprise. Nor will the ensuing resignations that are bound to occur. Advisors are there to advise. And it is in noones interest for our drugs policy to be one that is based on the advice of experts. It’s not exactly politically expedient is it? God forbid that middle england voters have to include themselves in the ‘other’ of drug users they have mythologised.
We live in a country where debate over an issue which affects us all, is dominated by ignorance, wilful ignorance. Where emotional reactions to media scare stories, and to personal situations, takes precedence over any need to go back to the beginning. Learn what substances are. How they work. What the effect on the individual is. What the effect on society is.
This is not a rant demanding that one substance be criminalised, while others are decriminalised. This is just a plea to people, to remember that this should be a debate, and there is no debate I can think of, where ignorance is an advantage. Maybe our ‘war on drugs’ should be reframed as a ‘war’ on ignorance, and those who appoint themselves our army in fighting this war, should begin by educating themselves, before defining policies that govern everyone else?