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The drugs of choice and the choice of drugs
Roslyn Ross is a regular contributor to Webdiary. Her last piece was The Road to Happiness.
by Roslyn Ross
There are many drugs of choice in this day and age it is just that some are legal while others are not.
We take legal drugs to treat or prevent disease or simply because they make us feel better. People take illegal drugs for similar reasons. Some illegal drugs can be used legally and some legal drugs can be used illegally. All drugs have a potential for addiction whether we are talking about painkillers, anti-depressants, sedatives, sleeping pills, cough medicine, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, ecstacy or speed.
We all know how much good drugs can do and we all know how much bad they can do. We also know how difficult it is to control not just drug availability but drug-taking. Even legal drugs cause high levels of health problems and death so it is not surprising that illegal drugs do substantially greater damage.
Which is why from time to time there have been calls to legalise drugs. Just as prohibition of alcohol in the States did not work, neither does prohibition of drugs and the so-called war on drugs‚ has been a total failure. Governments are being forced to think outside the box‚ and some have been more adventurous in this regard than others and the results are encouraging.
A recent study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, shows that the liberalisation of drug laws in Zurich, Switzerland, has led to a massive fall in the number of new heroin users. Zurich adopted a liberal drug policy a decade ago and has seen an 82 percent decline in new heroin users. The theory is that when you medicalise drugs you take the glamour out of drugs and the image changes from one of rebellion to one of illness.
Legalising drugs also removes the desperation often involved in sourcing them and the criminal element involved in providing them. Less crime is the result.
Addicts in Switzerland were offered substitution‚ treatment with injectable heroin on prescription as well as oral methadone, needle exchange and shooting galleries‚ where they can go to administer drugs.
"Finally, heroin seems to have become a loser drug, with its attractiveness fading for young people," said Carlos Nordt of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Zurich.
Professor John Strang, director of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley hospital in south London, said, "if there is something magical about what the Swiss have done it is not handing out the heroin - it is the heroin mixed with routine and drudgery. All the drugs are consumed on the premises and the patients have to come in three times a day for their dose. It is extremely medicalised. The rebellious nature of drug use has been institutionalised - in the same way that punk was institutionalised when it was adopted by the fashion industry."
Writing in The Lancet, Dr Nordt and his colleague Rudolf Stohler say drug use in Zurich rose rapidly from 80 new registered users in 1975 to 850 new users in 1990. Since 1991, when substitution treatment became available to all heroin users in Zurich, the number of new addicts has dropped dramatically to 150 in 2002. The overall number of heroin addicts in the city has declined by 4 per cent a year, even though the average length of time each user spends on the drug has increased.
The researchers say the finding confounds critics of the liberal approach who predicted that it would increase drug use. Despite giving addicts easier access to the drugs they need, drug use has also declined and deaths from overdoses and seizures are down.
It all seems very sensible although many would claim that these illicit drugs are too destructive and addictive to be legalised. But are they?
Not according to Dr Benson B Roe, Professor Emeritus and former Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of California at San Francisco.
He also believes that drugs should be legalised and says the view of illegal drugs as deadly poisons‚ is a hoax. There is little or no medical evidence of long term ill effects, he says, from sustained, moderate consumption of uncontaminated marijuana, cocaine or heroin.
"If these substances - most of them have been consumed in large quantities for centuries - were responsible for any chronic, progressive or disabling diseases, they certainly would have shown up in clinical practice and/or on the autopsy table," he said. "But they simply have not!"
It is frequently stated that illicit drugs are bad, dangerous, destructive‚ or addictive, and that society has an obligation to keep them from the public, but nowhere can be found reliable, objective, scientific evidence that they are any more harmful than other substances and activities that are legal, he added.
In view of the enormous expense, the carnage and the obvious futility of the drug war, said Dr Roe, resulting in massive criminalisation of society, it is high time to examine the supposed justification for keeping certain substances illegal.
"The concept of evil is derived from subjective values," said Dr Roe, "and is difficult to define. Just why certain (illegal) substances are singularly more evil than legal substances like alcohol has not been explained."
"Addiction is also a relative and ubiquitous phenomenon. It certainly cannot be applied only to a short arbitrary list of addictive substances while ignoring a plethora of human cravings - from chocolate to coffee, from gum to gambling, from tea to tobacco, from snuggling to sex. Compulsive urges to fulfil a perceived need are ubiquitous. Some people are more susceptible to addiction than others and some needs‚ are more addictive than others.
"As for prohibition, it has been clearly demonstrated that when an addictive desire becomes inaccessible it provokes irresponsible behaviour to fulfil that desire. Education and support at least have a chance of controlling addiction. Deprivation only sharpens the craving and never works. Even in prison addicts are able to get their fix‚" said Dr Roe.
A UK policeman created controversy when he voiced a similar view. Richard Brunstrom who is in charge of North Wales police said that the drug laws were doing more hard than good. He said they left vulnerable people in danger while enabling criminals to make massive profits.
"Heroin is very addictive," he said, "but it is not very, very dangerous. It is perfectly possible to lead a normal life for a full life span and hold down a job while being addicted to the drug."
Perhaps one of the most important benefits to society which would come from legalising drugs would be removing the criminal element which thrives on providing such drugs. The drug related murder rate would plummet, drug related theft would disappear and corruption by drug dealers of judges, government officials and policemen would end.
There is a growing movement within Government world-wide that it is time to take a new look at the war on drugs‚ and a realisation that this is a war which will never be won and that acceptance of reality, in the form of legalisation, offers the best circumstances for controlling drugs and reducing the excesses and the tragedies of drug abuse.
Some basic guidelines are:
There will always be vulnerable people in our society and there will always be people who seek to profit from them. The only way that we can protect them and protect society by extension, is to have laws which can moderate and control behaviour. Making something illegal merely pushes it underground and into the hands of criminals.
We need only to look at prostitution and abortion to see what tragedies arise for the individuals and what opportunities arise for criminals, to know what happens when we make things which relate to personal behaviour and personal choice, illegal.
Decades of making war on certain drugs has done nothing to diminish their presence nor their appeal. Surely common sense dictates that it is time to take a fresh look at an old and even more destructive problem. As the saying goes, and I know I have used it before, only a fool keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Given the high cost in human and monetary terms to society in our current situation where certain drugs are illegal, surely it is time to do something different, and, if the Swiss experiment is anything to go by, to get a result which actually improves the quality of life for the vulnerable in particular and the quality of life for society in general.
As things stand, the only people who profit from our refusal to change tactics, are criminals and that is neither sensible nor wise.