How the war on drugs compounds harm

This article was originally written for the Drug Education Advocate magazine, a publication of service users in Belfast.

In the mid-90s I was working as a drug counsellor in the criminal justice system, when it became obvious to me that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ was one of the major problems that my clients faced as they tried to get their lives together (and in some cases, just stay alive).  People with very similar life stories kept appearing in front of me – they had, as often as not, experienced all of the following: been in care, been abused, had a drug-dependent parent, suffered unresolved bereavements and not done well at school.  Now they were struggling to cope with all these historical issues, together with finding enough money to score heroin and crack.  Some were dealing, others turning to sex work, and most were involved in acquisitive crime of one sort or another.  Quite simply, it became apparent that it was the illegality of the drugs they used that was catalysing their drift into lives consisting of ever decreasing and dangerous circles.

Now a jump back in time – to the work of a Canadian sociologist named Bruce Alexander and his research into addiction in the 1970s, a largely unknown but extraordinary piece of work that became known as ‘Rat Park’.  At that time, the scientific community’s understanding of addiction was based on studies on rats in labs.  It had been observed that, given a choice between opiated water and pure water, rats would invariably self-administer the opiates, to the point of significant ill health.  Thus proving the inherently addictive nature of this now demonised drug. 

But Bruce had an idea: recognising that rats are social creatures, he hypothesised that their self-administration of opiates was a response to stress, caused by their isolation from being kept in shoebox-sized cages on their own.  So Bruce built Rat Park – large areas, perhaps the size of a single bed – where the rats could socialise, raise families and play.  The rats still had access to both opiated and non-opiated water. And, surprise, surprise, most of the rats stopped drinking the opiated water.  To check his findings he took rats out of Rat Park and put them back in isolation, where they invariably began drinking the opiated water.  He’d put them back in Rat Park where they would stop ‘using’ as it were.  This raised some severe challenges to many people’s notion of the nature of ‘addiction’, challenges that remain unresolved fifty years later.

You can read about the Rat Park experiments in this brilliant cartoon by Stuart McMillen

Now, Bruce and I are well aware that rats are not humans, but the analogy is difficult to resist: if people live in isolated ‘cages’, whether it be a rundown council estate, in a situation where physical, sexual and emotional abuse are normalised, perhaps taken out of their family, we can begin to see how this might lead to self-administration of drugs that dull the pain, and enable them to ‘escape’ from their ‘cages’.  Alternatively we can extend the metaphor to recognise that some build cages in their minds, without needing the help of a deprived and violent upbringing.  Either way, the Rat Park experiment is highly instructive.

It seems fairly obvious to me that when humans are provided with opportunities to live satisfying, interesting lives in a society that is supportive and caring, the chances are that they will grab those opportunities with both hands and make the most of them.  Heavy self-medication is for people who actually – or in their minds – inhabit tiny isolated cages.

So, the question I asked myself was this: why is our government so intent on using an inherently violent system of criminalisation?  Why on earth would you want to criminalise people who self-medicate in this way?  And especially if it was childhood violence that led them to use in the first place?

These were questions that I asked of the UK Home Office back in the mid-90s, and to this day I have never received a useful reply.  That is because there is no reason why a policy of prohibition would help my former clients.  It is why, in the view of increasing numbers of people, the criminalisation should end, and be replaced with a responsible, effective and humane system of legal drug regulation – a system where drugs are made available from doctors, pharmacists and licensed retailers (for the detail see ‘After the war on drugs – Blueprint for regulation).  It is a proposal that is increasingly being taken seriously, as senior politicians around the world discuss alternatives to prohibition, including President Santos of Colombia, who has stated unequivocally that he would consider legalising and regulating cocaine.

Clearly responsible regulation doesn’t deal with the underlying reasons why people get into a mess with drugs.  However, prohibition has served only to push users into lives of crime, misery and degradation and created a smokescreen hiding underlying societal problems.  At the same time it has created a supply chain that has brought extreme violence and instability to some of the most fragile places on earth – witness Afghanistan which provides most of the world’s illicit opium, or Mexico, where as many as 75,000 people have been killed and 25,000 have disappeared as the drug gangs fight for a share of the cannabis and cocaine business.

It is a little known fact that half of the world’s opium is grown for the legal opiates industry.  Thousands of hectares (a hectare is the equivalent of a rugby pitch) of land in the UK is currently under cultivation with opium poppies.  The same plant that has caused so much misery in Afghanistan is just a productive flower in the legal market.  It is obvious that the prohibition is the driver for the violence and criminality that forms part of a global illegal (and untaxed) drug trade estimated to have a turnover of more than £200 billion a year.

If we consider ourselves to be a civilised society, we need a civilised and responsible system of drug control that first causes no harm, and second provides benefits for the majority of the world’s citizens.  We deserve a system of drug control that doesn’t impact most negatively on those least able to bear it – the poorest and most marginalised in society.

At the same time, as a matter of some urgency, we need to free people from their ‘cages’ (literally in the case of those in prisons).  We must build the equivalent of Rat Park for people, and enable us all to live lives of fulfilment and opportunity.