Fuck Burroughs (The Mythos of Heroin)

“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

– David Foster Wallace

 I intend to write this essay in this spirit of the above quote, and in the memory of its author. And to my great chagrin, I am writing about a topic I am sick to my core of writing about, sick of hearing or reading about: heroin. I write to banish a demon. Just about everything that has been written, thought, or said about heroin in the past 75 years is bullshit. I feel an intense need to set the record straight. I feel it is my duty to write one long, lucid essay about heroin and be done with it. Then, at last, I can finally move on with my life.

Here’s the cause of the strife: in our society, heroin has attained the status and the characteristics of a myth. We are taught to fear it, to rank it, and most importantly to imbue it with what can only be called profundity long before we ever learn a single genuine fact about it. It is a word, an idea, which is said in hushed tones, which turns heads, which carries weight. And why? Is it something unique about the chemical diamorphine which creates this profundity, this respect? No. It’s talk, talk, talk. It’s all in our heads. It’s mass hysteria. My purpose here is to trample all over the sacred icon. I intend to bring it crashing back down to earth. If I hope to achieve anything with this essay, it is simply for my readers to have a little less respect for a substance which is really no more special or diabolical than plain old ethyl alcohol, the staple drug of our society.

Over the last 50 years or so there has been a very-nearly unconscious romanticism. These are indeed dark times, and stupid ones too, so we have used romance as a defence mechanism. We are subjected to a state of things which nobody ought to enjoy, and perceiving no way out we embellish and we mythologize until finally, artistically rendered, the times are still dark and stupid but…pretty, in their own way, aren’t they? So it is that every teenager wants to feel like the star of their own maudlin indie film with a soundtrack by Elliot Smith, or the antihero of a dark postmodern novel peppered with words like ‘tenement’ and ‘awning’ which evoke the concrete jungle, the airtight cage.

I used to feel the temptation to write this way about heroin; to produce pretty, prosaic prose which is aesthetically good but intellectually and ideologically bankrupt. So after a conversation with a friend at a party, one night, I composed the following in my head in the taxi home:

We’d all been sitting around the fire for hours, eating pills, talking shit, and drinking beers. I got up and walked to the kitchen to fill a big plastic cup with water, and he was standing there looking sad and dopesick.

“Jake’s not well,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“He’s using a lot.”

“I know.”

That’s all we said, but I felt there was a subtext. Was there? Was he asking me, in his way, what I intended to do about it, or was he just stating facts?

And upon finishing it, I started down the train of thought which eventually lead me to write this essay, which was to question the motives underlying this kind of literature. It’s bad. But it’s melancholy and, I flatter myself, it evokes a certain mood: the raucous happy party outside and our disillusioned dialogue in the still, pale kitchen. And it has the hip, subversive air which lingers around anything to do with heroin thanks to our mythologizing. But what does it actually say? What does it amount to? My close friend is very depressed and addicted to heroin. Not much of a story. And my instinct is to exploit him artistically for a hundred words that are kind of pretty. Pretty, yes, oh so pretty; and yet the very definition of bad literature.

The point I’m trying to drive home is that in our popular ideology and in our popular culture, heroin is glamorized. We have taken something that is essentially mundane[1], and blown it out of all proportion. If you find this hard to believe, perhaps it may be informative to pause at this point and spend a little while researching the Korean myth of “fan death”, which has caused many Koreans to imbue electric fans with the same fearful profundity with which we imbue heroin. Yes, electric fans.

This happens in two ways. It is placed on two different pedestals. On the one hand, it is feared as the devil, the most dangerous and insidious force on this planet which will rape your sister and murder your father. On the other hand, it is held up as Godly, even by people who have never taken it.

We shall speak to the allegations of wonder first.

Sometimes sensible, sober people tell me they’re saving it for when they’re old and it doesn’t matter any more…which tends to overstate just how much it matters now. It is a kind of reverence to view it in this way, something so wonderful and so dangerous as to be taken only at the age of 87, on one’s deathbed. It is neither that wonderful nor that dangerous.

First of all, the value of any given thing is contextual, and varies from person to person, day to day, moment to moment. If you’ve been in a car accident and are experiencing extreme pain, there is little better for you at that moment than a morphine drip. If you suffer from PTSD and are having flashbacks, the instantaneous symptomatic relief of a shot may, at that moment, be the best of all things. But for most people, at most times, it is not.

Secondly, the only other argument for it being the greatest of all experiences relies on the notion that pleasure and happiness are purely biochemical, and that is a feeble and profoundly sad argument I won’t even bother to refute. However, here’s three things which are better than IV heroin: sex, music and literature. I can name dozens more, but we’ll use these three as examples.

Sex, especially with somebody you love, involves so much more than the binding of chemicals to receptors. It is an expression of profound feelings which are fundamental to our humanity, which already puts it above any drug. But it also involves physical sensations, not only in the important organ, but in the fingers and palms, in the legs and feet entwined, body against body; it involves sights as beautiful as can be found in any museum, and if one spends an afternoon at it, it doesn’t simply peak then diminish, it involves a multitude of different states of being from the deeply relaxed to the climactic. Given a choice between heroin and an afternoon of lovemaking, I will choose lovemaking every time. Because pleasure isn’t just about the firing of neurons, it’s about meaning, damn it; and there is very little, if anything, more meaningful than love.

Music is so incredible, so sublime, that I have trouble writing about it. As a very young child, I fell in love with a Paul Kelly CD I found laying around our living room. Several times a week I would sit on the floor, right in front of the CD player, and listen to it over and over again for hours. Some years later, I was given a pair of very high quality headphones and a compilation of the 40 best alternative tracks of the previous year. Sitting there, listening to what was to me (at that time) the most incredible music in the world, at a volume and a quality I didn’t know existed, I experienced bliss for the very first time. When I think of that day, heroin pales in comparison.

One more note on the subject of music. Those who mythologize heroin have been know to claim that it’s so good that once you try it, you can never stop. The statistics suggest otherwise. Most people don’t have the neurobiology of addiction, and once they try it they often never use it again. And even those who do become addicted often quit. And what’s more, they quit because they realize there are better things. Often loved ones, sometimes life itself, sometimes just not having to experience withdrawal anymore. On the other hand, do you know of any music fan who ever stopped listening to music?

And to literature: literature is a most incredible thing. It allows us to commune with people who lived long ago or who live far away; it invites us into the most intimate, private recesses of their minds. And while sitting alone in our homes, they talk directly to us. It teaches us, it warms us, it protects us from loneliness…it makes us. The books I have read are responsible for the person I am today. I could never give that up for the meaningless pleasure of foreign molecules attaching themselves to receptors in my brain.

I repeat: heroin is a myth! I don’t mean that diamorphine, the substance to which the word ‘heroin’ ostensibly refers, doesn’t exist. I mean that there are two heroins: the heroin of pharmacology, and the heroin of mythos; and that the relation between the two is dubious. The average adult has never used heroin, does not understand its pharmacological action, cannot even conceive of its effect, and his understanding of its epidemiology is based entirely on hysterical hearsay. Heroin is, to this person, a notion, an allusion – an invention of mind, based loosely on what he (incorrectly) imagines diamorphine to be. I can only conclude that the jumbled, elusory, and frequently contradictory haze of ideas and feelings which constitute the heroin of mythos cannot properly be considered to have any authentic relation to the heroin of pharmacology, much less be considered a valid part of the same singular concept. This ‘heroin’ does not exist

The complications arising from this mythologizing and glamorization are numerous. First of all, it is one of the chief attractions of heroin. As I’ve said, there’s this attraction in our culture to anything which is darkly romantic, anything which is imbued with that sense of profundity. I don’t need to waste any words defining or illustrating this attraction – if you’ve grown up in the same culture I have then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Secondly, it makes it incredibly difficult to have a rational conversation about the drug or addiction or harm reduction. Thirdly, it creates a barrier to treatment: addicts prefer not to disclose to the world that they’re addicts, largely because the world has such a jaundiced view of who and what an addict is.

As evidence for the first claim, I give you the oeuvre of William S. Burroughs, whose legacy this essay is intended to desecrate. I give you Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Jim Morrison overdosing in Paris, Jim Belushi in LA, and on and on. Like it or not, these are people our youth culture idealizes. Never a frown with golden brown, and remember – happiness is a warm gun. (And emptiness is a home detox.)

The second claim is somewhat harder to prove, but perhaps we can demonstrate with an experiment. Switzerland prescribed injectable synthetic diamorphine to addicts in an attempt at harm reduction, with incredible results for the health, economic status, and criminality of the participants[2]. Try advocating for this demonstrably successful policy to your family, or to just about anyone, and tell me if you think the response is reasonable and considered. More than likely, the response will be along the lines of “it’s heroin! Are you mad!?

The third is easy to prove, as it has been demonstrated empirically and repeatedly in studies of treatments for opiate addiction. Here is one such study.

What should we take away from all this? The simpler message is that heroin isn’t somehow in a magical league all it’s own; it’s just a drug with attendant pleasures and risks, like alcohol, like any other drug. Stop embellishing. The second point is about the responsibility of certain people in our society to approach subjects maturely and responsibly. This is a broad discussion that needs to take place between the creators of media, and goes a lot further than just heroin. In this instance, however, journalists have a responsibility not to capitalize on fear and mythology to sell newspapers. Writers of fiction and of TV shows and movies have a responsibility not to cash in on young people’s affinity with the darkly romantic, and a mythologized heroin which feeds right into that affinity, greatly to their detriment. This is important in the same way as their responsibility not to glamorize mental illness. Young kids often buy into this nonsense and fuck their lives up because it looked cool and darkly beautiful in some film, only to find out in their twenties that real life isn’t like that, the right music doesn’t play at the critical moments, things don’t automatically resolve themselves because there’s no author of their life with an obligation to a plot arc, and the visceral reality of addiction and mental illness is not very romantic or pretty; like William S. Burroughs and his ilk, it fucking sucks.

 

[1] It is important to be clear on what I mean, here. Heroin use is obviously bad for your health, and intravenous use obviously carries the risk of death and other complications, and it is clear that addiction is damaging to one’s quality of life. When I say that it is mundane, I am only pointing out that the former statements are true of any number of things that are commonplace in our society, and which do not carry weight, as the concept or myth of heroin carries weight. There are thousands of things which are bad for your health, and everything from driving to contact sport carries a risk of death or injury; addiction is prevalent in our society, and it has hundreds of objects, and we all make decisions which adversely affect our quality of life all the time.

[2] “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment nearly doubled.

  • The patients housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
  • There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighbourhoods.
  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
  • Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs from 46.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”

– From In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate

Advertisements

Deregulate Vice, or Leave Me Alone You Puritanical Bastards

Ever since I turned 15, the government has tried to stop me from doing what I want to do. In the name of a mandatory national morality, they have imposed upon me a colossal inconvenience, wasted thousands of hours of my life, forced me to associate with criminals in order to pursue choices I had made about how to live my life, and imposed financial penalties for every moral deviation which will almost certainly reach a total with six digits by the time I die. I’m fucking sick of it, and so are many others, and it’s about time we started letting adults make their own decisions.

Like a lot of sixteen-year-olds, I drank beer from time to time. Being illegal, my friends and I had to find an older friend or a liberal parent. Eventually, when we got sick of that, we simply brewed our own beer. Point is, nothing the government did stopped me from drinking – it only succeeded in making it more tedious and time-consuming to do so. In public policy literature, this is sometimes called a disincentive. When its hours of your life being wasted because someone doesn’t agree with your choices, it’s just plain annoying. And the fact is, disincentivizing efforts are usually ineffectual, and as such end up being nothing more than punishments for moral deviation.

I was again punished for my moral deviations when, as a teenager, I smoked a little weed from time to time. Sometimes all the time. Whatever: teenagers will do that. And because the governmentally sanctioned morals don’t include the right to smoke cannabis, it was even more tedious than buying alcohol. People who sell weed don’t advertise in the paper, they don’t have shopfronts, you have to waste hours of your life finding them. And then you do, and you find out that they’re the most unreliable people on the planet. You find out that “half an hour” is sometimes slang for four and a half hours. Sometimes you have to catch a train ten stations away; sometimes you have to change train lines. All in all, if you decide to proceed in spite of the monumental inconvenience the government has attached to your chosen vice, you end up having thousands upon thousands of hours of your life travelling to or waiting for the useless entrepreneurs who, in the absence of a legal market, hold a monopoly.

Admittedly, I eventually started using so-called “harder drugs,” but that’s hardly an argument in favour of government regulation of morality. After all, for all of their efforts, their inconveniences, their punishments and contrivances, I still went ahead and did it, didn’t I? Only I had to associate with shady and dangerous people to do so. And the products I bought in this unregulated and inconvenient black market were of a consistently low quality and high price. The hours wasted by government imposed obstacles to my chosen lifestyle stacked up.

It doesn’t matter what kind of life I have lead. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with it or not. What matters is that it is my life. I made my own decisions. And while they weren’t always good, without the constant interference of the government they would have carried significantly less costs, legally, economically, and even for my health.

One last thing. All of this time, nearly a decade of my life, I smoked and drank regularly. Alcohol is heavily taxed in yet another attempt to control me. Tobacco is far more heavily taxed for the same reason. Because of how I choose to live my own life, I have financial sanctions imposed upon me. In the case of tobacco it amounts to financial blackmail. We hear that the tobacco excise is increasing by 12.5% per annum in an attempt to persuade people not to smoke. What we don’t hear is the tangible impact that has on people’s lives, the cost to individual human beings, in dollars lost and food not bought. A “pack-a-day” smoker, for example, pays about $4,000 a year for the sin of smoking. Their quality of life is being held hostage.

As for myself, I have reformed my life. I have given up every vice except for tobacco, and I plan to give that up too, when it’s appropriate. But that’s not good enough for the morality police. I am still punished severely for my one remaining vice. I live off $270 a week. After rent, medicine, and tobacco, I have $50 left for food. The $37 I am fined (taxed) each week for smoking would make a far from insignificant difference to my quality of life. I am an adult. I will smoke if I want to smoke. The notion that some bureaucrat who knows nothing of my circumstances should financially blackmail me (Stop smoking or lose half your food budget) would seem to presume I’m a child. I repeat: I’m fucking sick of it.

A Concession to Pragmatism

I’m writing this mostly to clarify my own thoughts and question my own impulses, but I hope I might also contribute to the struggle of other oppressed groups. And for the record, I wish to make this contribution not as a “cishet” white guy telling people how to express themselves, but as a recovered drug addict and somebody who has written and advocated for the liberation and empowerment of drug users and addicts, another oppressed group, for five or six years now. Where oppression is concerned, our struggles are not only related but all involve the pursuit of similar goals in the face of similar attitudes – lessons for one will often apply to another.

I get pretty angry sometimes. People say a lot of cruel and dehumanizing things about drug addicts, and I feel rage welling up inside of me. My instincts, at times like this, is to repudiate the views which have offended me as completely and relentlessly as I can. I feel the urge to spew fire onto the page and show my enemies for the heartless, ill-informed dullards that they are. Sometimes I do.

And sometimes people tell me I should be more polite if my intention is to change minds: I’ll catch more flies with honey. Something about this has always pushed my buttons.

My people are dying, they’re jailed, they’re faced with militant repression, and they are ostracized from society. They’re afraid of police – the people who should be entrusted with their protection have declared war on them and must be avoided. Some of them are even afraid of paramedics. I’ve seen people who are so afraid of authority that they’re scared to call an ambulance when their friend is dying. That’s the atmosphere with which they live: even when they are in dire need of help, they must shy away from the outside world because of who they are.


So when people tell me I should try being more polite, I usually lose my head. Are we expected to get on our knees and beg for our lives. Are we being told to ask nicely for the boot to be lifted from our throat, to take the answer ‘No’ graciously?

But in general, the people who make this suggestion are speaking purely from a pragmatic point of view. They’re not saying we should /have/ to act nicely, or that we should need to alter our behaviour to change people’s minds; they’re simply arguing that in the context within which we have to argue, certain tactics are likely to be more effective. Whether or not you want to adopt those tactics, it’s the context which is offensive, not the suggestion that we might have to adapt to it. It’s not a value judgement.

And maybe they’re right. My anger and passion is totally valid and understandable. I am not wrong to feel this way, and if I suggest others might change the way they react to people who they disagree with, I’m not questioning the validity of their passion and anger, either. But the point is valid, and I’ve started writing this to give an intelligent response to it, based on reason rather than emotion.  Should I change how I interact with people on the topic of drug law? The question I need to ask myself, in deciding this, is /what are my goals?/ Why do I write? What is it I’m hoping to achieve?

In a nutshell, the answer would be that I want to provoke empathy and understanding in the general public. I want to work towards the acceptance and wellbeing of people who suffer from addiction, and I want an end to the war on drug users. So I have to pause and wonder whether I can really advance these goals with angry screeds against prohibitionists.


There’s more to this question than is immediately obvious. One thing that should be kept in mind, I think, is that the discourse on the issue is already watered down and barren of emotion, when we’re talking about the enforcement and cost of prohibition, and highly emotive when we’re being told that drugs are bad. It’s a policy which causes mass misery, disease, death, fear, and incarceration, and this very dark reality is largely kept out of the reporting on it. At the same time, emotion is invoked by the prohibitionists. They get to talk about how ice “ravages” people and communities while they ravage people and communities. They portray themselves as being concerned with welfare whilst advocating for mass incarceration and intimidation. Do we fight fear with mild-mannered, unemotional statements of fact?

Sometimes, maybe. I guess the only reasonable conclusion is that we must be judicious in order to be effective. We shouldn’t totally divorce our speech from our emotion, but nor should we simply rain hate upon anybody who disagrees with us.

If anger generally provokes more anger, then it is generally true that getting angry at people who disagree with us will achieve very little. But there are exceptions. I find it useful to shut down extremists aggressively and publicly. For example, the last angry piece I wrote was in response to John Adams calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty for drug offences. While it will not sway him, taking an aggressive tone may help to sway spectators.

More mainstream views, on the other hand, should probably be treated respectfully no matter how stupid or ugly they are. We must be firm and clear in rejecting these views, but anger will only cause people to double down.

And there is a third way which I think is the most effective of all. We can be very emotive without directing anger at anyone. We can paint the visceral despair of people affected by prohibition, we can express the anger that people feel about the situation they are in, we can make it utterly clear how horrific our drug laws are, and as long as we aren’t directly attacking anybody in particular, they have no reason to get defensive.

Sometimes I think this kind of writing, using the style of ‘New Journalism’ to simply show how bad prohibition is, is probably our best bet if our goal is to move society to compassion and sanity in their approach to drugs and drug users. Some of the people who make the pragmatic argument, flies and honey, also say that the reason no advancements have been made in public opinion on drug policy is because we have failed to engage in a well-reasoned and non-hyperbolic way. This is patently false. We have been doing precisely this for 50 years. Clearly it makes little difference. People are emotional creatures and they do not respond to the facts. Clearly we need a new approach.

‘New Journalism’ involved using novellistic techniques in nonfiction. In other words, telling true stories as they might be told in a novel. It is the perfect style for making the reader feel that the drug war is wrong. In particular, we can use portraiture to tell the stories of the individuals who are harmed.

We’ve already spent so much time telling people why prohibition is wrong, and it doesn’t seem to have got us anywhere. Perhaps it’s time we tried showing them.

Against the Death Penalty (as proposed by John Adam’s in the Daily Telegraph)

Conservative writer and former (thank fuck) Coalition advisor John Adams has called for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Australia to tackle the ‘drug problem’. He has pointed to Singapore as the country we should model our drug policy on. This extremism, this call for brutality, demands an immediate response. Just about everything he has written is ill-informed and dangerous. Let’s dismiss it quickly and move on with a sensible debate.

The only point any intelligent human being should agree with him on is that by “any possible objective measure, Australia’s current approach to the war on drugs is an example of gross public policy failure.”

As noted, he thinks this should be solved by modelling our policy on Singapore’s. This is a ‘multi-pronged approach’ consisting of:

a) Education in schools.

We already have this. Sadly, it’s mostly scaremongering and misinformation. Education amongst the drug using population, rooted in the concept of Harm Reduction, would be a much more successful approach than telling 9-year-olds that drugs are bad.

b) Mandatory rehab for first and second time ‘offenders’ (people caught using drugs).

This is the most humane of Singapore’s policies, but it is still problematic. It assumes that drug use is ipso facto bad, and therefore makes no distinction between addiction and casual use. Presuming that it was only applied to addicts, there is still great doubt about the efficacy of mandatory rehab.

First of all, I have seen several people go through rehab programs in Australia, and they are in need of serious improvement. The failings of these private and public institutions is beyond the scope of this article, but you cannot simply propose to shove people against their will into rehab without first making an extensive study of the rehabs themselves and how well they presently work.

Secondly, of those that I have seen go through rehab, those that took the step themselves because they genuinely wanted to recover had the best results. Those that were forced to attend rehab, either through pressure from their families, or to avoid jail sentences, did extremely poorly – because they did not want to recover, and you cannot force somebody to recover if they don’t want to. Even more problematic, is that people who are forced in rehab institutions without a genuine desire to recover have an adverse effect on those institutions, because they bring with them a negative attitude which is harmful to other clients, and sometimes even have drugs smuggled in, which is even more harmful to other clients.

This was starkly demonstrated to me recently when a friend recounted their experience in a simple detox facility. Most of the clients were there voluntarily, and brought with them a positive and hopeful attitude. But two of them were forced into detox, and complained endlessly about the institution, talked about drugs and drug culture, and generally made it a toxic environment. Worse than that, one of them had a friend toss a syringe over the fence in front of everyone, and was subsequently removed. The other smuggled in methamphetamine and a pipe. This individual was sharing a room with a mother of two who was scheduled to enter rehab 6 days later, and was trying very hard to recover from a problem with methamphetamine. The other client smoked meth in front of her all day, and then offered her a hit of the pipe. Being an addict, against her better judgements and against her deepest, sincerest wishes, the mother of two accepted. I do not know if she passed her drug test and got into rehab, but I have a sick feeling when I think of it. She may just have had her life and her family ruined by a careless ass who was forced into rehab.

If people don’t want to rehab, for the love of God, and for the sake of those who do, don’t make them.

c) Mandatory death penalty’s (with a reverse onus of proof) for anybody caught with “with a prohibitive substance above a legislatively prescribed weight.”

I should sincerely hope that I don’t even need to address this one. I hope that all Australians see the state sanctioned murder of human beings as a barbaric act that should remain a dark memory in our collective past. It’s a hideous concept. But I’ll address it anyway, especially the assault on the Justice system this particular approach entails.

Mandatory sentencing removes the discretion of individual judges, which we count on for a fair and just legal system. This is an affront to our ideals even when applied to less serious penalties, but mandatory death sentences is beyond disgusting.

Reversing the onus of proof is an outright repudiation of the rule of law as we have understood it since the Magna Carta in 1215. This means that somebody accused of a crime must prove that he is innocent. The way court works for everybody else accused of a crime in the Western world is that we must prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they are guilty before we impose any sentence on them much less a death sentence.

As for the sentence itself, his only argument is that it would act as a deterrent. It may do, if we are willing to sacrifice our principles to put a deterrent in place, but it would have adverse consequences as well. People will still deal drugs, make no mistake, but the stakes will be higher and therefore the business will be immensely more dangerous. A drug dealer, knowing that if he gets caught he will face a mandatory death sentence, has literally nothing to lose. He may as well open fire on arresting officers to defend his life. And if you’re already risking a mandatory death sentence for possessing drugs, why the hell not throw a gun into the mix? There is literally no reason not to; it can’t worsen your sentence.

“Singapore’s policy approach is brutal, but it works.”

Portugal’s policy approach is humane, and it works better.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this:

“Peoples without political organisation, and therefore less depraved than ourselves, have perfectly understood that the man who is called “criminal” is simply unfortunate; that the remedy is not to flog him, to chain him up, or to kill him on the scaffold or in prison, but to relieve him by the most brotherly care, by treatment based on equality, by the usages of life amongst honest men.”

 

  • Law and Authority, Pyotr Kropotkin

 

Remember that addiction arises from abuse and neglect, and that many people who deal drugs are doing so only to maintain their own habit. I knew a man who dealt drugs to feed his own habit. He was kind and sincere, told his clientele to be safe, and did nothing more than cater to an already existing and mostly inelastic demand. He had a girlfriend and a child. He eventually stopped dealing, and is trying to recover.

Do you really think he ought to have been murdered? Should we have put his head on a pike in a public place, if deterrence and brutality is our aim? I sincerely hope that no Australian’s really believe this.

On Journalism

In trying to end a protracted battle, one which is being carried out by entrenched powers who have not wavered in half a century, we have to use diverse tactics. We have to take aim at the foundations. The “Drug War”, and those who carry out its aims, are empowered by legislation. So there is a political battle to be waged in seeking to change this legislation. But before we can be successful in that campaign, we have to change the way society views the issue: we have to change minds and win hearts before we can force the hand of the political elite. In short, one major arm of our campaign must be dialectic, and our opponent is the media establishment who currently act as the propaganda arm of the State.

In our pursuit of a new society, we should seek to encourage a new journalism. I have written about what this journalism might look like:

(Against false objectivism and the sterilization of journalism.)

Humanist Journalism
April 27, 2015
Journalist as Human Being; Journalism as morally passionate.

Journalism today is largely cold, sterile, and unfeeling.

When one reads of drug raids and court trials on a daily basis, one gets very little sense that he is reading about real human beings. A paramilitary raid in the pre-dawn hours involves fear, pain, hatred and agony. A lengthy incarceration involves existential despair. These human elements are strangely absent from the reporting on the drug war, and all that remains are phrases like, ‘Man arrested in pre-dawn hours’. No tears, no suffering, nothing visceral, just another raid.

When one reads of the addict population, they are reading about an abstraction which does not think or feel. Millions of human beings, with their individual hopes and desires and insecurities are reduced with the utmost crudity to a series of statistics, to one big, unfeeling, unreal “problem” requiring policy prescriptions.

To me, good journalism, like good fiction, deals with that heaviest of subjects: what it is to be alive and human, here and now. The personality, the philosophy, the thoughts and feelings of a man arrested on drug charges are as significant a component of the Truth as the quantity of cocaine or methamphetamine that was found in his home. That he speaks with a lisp, that he is a David Bowie obsessive, that he loves his daughter, that he thinks she’s precious; these are valid subjects for the humanist journalist. Because to the humanist, this man is not simply another drug trial, he is not possession and he is not intent to distribute but a human being.

Whom is it that you’ve dragged from his bed? What has he been forced to leave behind? That’s what I want to know. I do not give two fucks how much methamphetamine was in his drawer or the boot of his car.

This is a large part of why I write. I know the drug using population intimately. They are my friends and family. They are the beautiful and complicated human beings who make up the tapestry of my life, and if I hope to achieve one thing with my writing it is to make them as real to you as they are to me. I hope to illuminate the human constituents of this mess we call the Drug War. I hope, through long suffering, to inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who sanction their repression.

One of my friends died recently. He was awaiting trial, having been charged with importing “controlled substances,” and was facing a minimum of nine years in Federal prison. Never the happiest of individuals, he was now distraught and terrified. Life as he knew it had been ground under the boot of the United States government, and so he spent much of what time was left to him consuming alcohol and benzodiazepines to numb his burden. One morning he asphyxiated on his vomit and died. His family heard him snoring at seven, and by nine he was gone.

Among the last words he said to me, when I admonished him to be careful mixing those two substances, were these:

[21:57:54] <charles> sometime it’s just..l

[21:57:57] <charles> nice to let go

“It is,” I replied. “For everyone.” Ah, poor encumbered soul, he only wanted to let go. And now he’s dead.

I know how the orthodoxy of journalism would have referred to him. To them, he was “a man in the greater Chicagoland area facing trial for the importation of controlled substances”. To me, he was a beautiful and complicated human being. He was my friend. He did not deserve to be caged or interrogated or hectored by unfeeling authorities and he did not deserve to die.

Charles was the most meticulous drug user I ever knew, to the extent that it bothered me, a passionate advocate of harm reduction and responsible drug use. He kept a log of his every dose, with comments and miscellania. A lot of my friends simply eat bars of Xanax, like candy, but he would buy grams of powder and carefully lay it on blotter paper using an alcohol solution; and he would dutifully record the amount in his log, to the third decimal place – to the microgram, for Christ’s sake.

I hope the coroner found a more specific time for his death than “between seven and nine”. That doesn’t seem a very fitting conclusion to his logs.

Anyway, there’s a story for you. Don’t tell me how many labs the DEA has busted this quarter; I don’t want to know.

What I’m suggesting is essentially realism: to describe this mess as accurately as the English language can be made to describe it, which means describing not only the machinations of power or troop movements such as one finds in military history but the real, visceral, and above all subjective experience of the human beings involved.

I am also suggesting a revival of a movement which was called New Journalism in the 1960’s, which put the journalist as an individual human being at the fore. I am not a sober, impartial abstraction; I write from my own unique perspective of the world. I write as a friend and ally of drug users. I write as a drug user myself. I write as someone who has been high, to a greater or lesser extent, on something or other, for part or all, of most days for some seven or eight years. I write as one upon whom the political establishment has declared war with the tacit or explicit approval of the population.

And this is, as they rightly say, a war. But it is a hugely one-sided war, being fought against people that I love and who, unarmed and unmedicated, without that warmongering instinct, are losing badly; economically, socially, spiritually. I intend to fight. As a propagandist for Love and for Peace. As an articulate, drug-using adult. As a voice for the voiceless.

This is perhaps the most important point. We’re discussing an issue which has caused a monumental amount of pain, despair, death, disease, and misery, and for the most part it is written about dispassionately. This is why the general public are allowed to comfortably support the war: because they are shielded from the brutal reality. This reality, which can only be expressed with a degree of subjectivity, must be brought to light; it must be broadcast far and wide.

But that is not all that is wrong with our journalism. It is also incompetent to a comical degree. There is almost no information presented, plenty of outright falsehoods, and generally nothing of substance. I outlined what a more substantial view of the drug issue might look like in an article titled ‘Towards a New Journalism’…

From ‘Towards a New Journalism’
February 25, 2015

I contend that it is the role of journalists to inform, and on that front the present journalism is an abject failure. To write with expertise on a subject requires expert knowledge, and the issue of drugs, and the drug war, are above all else multidisciplinary. The competent journalist of the drug war must, then, be a student of relevant disciplines. They needn’t be an expert in all of the relevant fields, but they should be aware of what the experts in these fields are saying.

The drug issue involves psychopharmacology. I do not believe it is possible to write intelligently about, say, 25i-NBOMe without a cursory knowledge of its psychopharmacology. And yet, few of the plethora of articles which appeared during the “synthetic LSD” hype made much, if any, mention of the drug’s effects. Little examination was given to its safety profile, which is quite a poor safety profile indeed, except to say that it can kill. How does it kill? Toxicity. How does this compare to other drugs of a similar nature? LSD, for example, is non-toxic and, consequently, does not kill.

It involves economics. Intelligent writing on 25i-NBOMe, to its credit, made much of the fact that 25i-NBOMe was remarkably cheap, but no examination was given to why it could be so cheaply manufactured. And ultimately, the economic perspective of 25i-NBOMe leads inexorably to the conclusion that its price (economics) and its similarity to LSD (psychopharmacology) combined to create a significant incentive for dangerous profiteering in the form of fraud – buying the cheap and dangerous substance and selling it at the price of and in the guise of the more expensive and not-at-all dangerous substance (economics again).

It involves both philosophy (why do people take LSD?) and sociology (why do people take heroin?).

It involves neuropsychology. It is impossible to write intelligently about addiction in any way (‘Addiction on the rise,’ say) without understanding what modern neuropsychology and particularly developmental neurobiology have taught us about addiction. Specifically, they have taught us that addiction arises largely out of abuse and isolation, which begins to paint a vivid portrait of the addict population – they are victims, in the first instance, and having turned to drugs are being victimized again. How many papers have you read that in?

It involves history. Every mother whose child dies from a heroin overdose is happy to contribute to the demonization of opioid drugs, and every major newspaper is happy to dutifully print it, but nobody bothers to ask how the tears of the poppy went from being Gods Own Medicine in the terminology of medicine men, carried ashore to the very first colony of the New World by none other than the Puritans, to being a symbol of dread.

It involves politics. Who benefits from prohibition? Why do laws take so long to adjust to new evidence, if indeed they ever do?

It involves, most controversially, the subjective experience of being human. How does the heroin or meth user live? How do they feel? How do they feel about the drug war? What does it feel like to take LSD? How do those who have done so think about the experience, about how it fits into the context of their lives? How has it changed their view of society? What happens to the children of those nameless multitudes hauled out of their beds in the depths of night and thrown into cages? When a teenager dies from their drug use, the mother’s views are sought immediately, but when a father is dragged to prison nobody asks how the child feels. It is worthwhile to paint the many stories which arise both from drug use and from the drug war, as vividly and accurately as the English language can be made to do so, so that we might have a better understanding of the human constituents of this god awful situation, and that we might, through long suffering, inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who support the manufacture of their circumstance.

With notable exceptions, the journalism of the drug war lacks balls, depth, and breadth. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, journalism has been cut off from “the underground rivers that [connect] it to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans…” It is “content with being a splash pool three feet across, four inches deep, chlorinated, and painted blue.”

Happy World No Tobacco Day

Today is World No Tobacco Day – a fairly self-explanatory occasion. Presuming we want to eliminate tobacco smoking (although I don’t, personally), it’s worth having a quick think about who smokes and why.

Smoking is more prevalent among those below the poverty level than those above. Lifetime instances of major depression are twice as common amongst smokers than nonsmokers. Immigrants smoke more after moving to the US, to give another example. It is more common amongst people in high stress jobs, like nurses and carers. A pattern appears to be emerging.

These are patterns, moreover, which can be explained. For instance, it has been discovered that tobacco smoke contains an (as yet unidentified) chemical which acts as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (or MAOI). In simple terms, important neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are monoamines. Monoamine oxidase breaks down these chemicals, and tobacco smoke, by inhibiting the action of monoamine oxidase, increases their availability. Inhibited action of monoamine oxidase means more monoamines which means more serotonin, more dopamine, more norepinephrine. Cigarettes are a mild anti-depressant – that’s why the mentally ill smoke. Hence why this effect dramatically increases the motivation to self-administer nicotine in rats.

The flaw in anti-smoking advocacy is that it is heavily rooted in the behavioural model of medicine. There is a behaviour (smoking) which we wish to stop, so we seek to modify the behaviour without examining its causes. A more intelligent approach would take guidance from the biopsychosocial model of medicine – it would understand that behaviours are contextual, and if we wish to alter behaviour we most effectively and ethically do so by altering the context in which they occur. If smoking is more common among mentally ill, poor, and stressed individuals, is a byproduct of mental illness, stress, and poverty, it follows that a reduction in smoking would be a byproduct of tackling these more important issues.

So this World No Tobacco Day, ignore the World Health Organization and contribute to efforts to eradicate poverty or to mental health services.

Suggestions for “Tackling” the “Ice Epidemic”

There are some small signs of hope in the creation of a National Ice Taskforce by Tony Abbott. For instance, recognition that a strict law enforcement approach is failing now suddenly permeates our discourse, and phrases like “options in both the health and education space,” are appearing in major newspapers. But it is hard to take this talk seriously when it is bundled with fear-mongering and blatant misinformation. When journalists and politicians talk of the drug as “instantly addictive,” they make it clear that they have no literacy whatever in the addiction science of the last few decades. One has to wonder how much stock, exactly, we’re willing to place in the “health and education” solutions put forth by people who are so thoroughly misinformed. For whatever it’s worth, let me correct a few misunderstandings, and based on an accurate, unbiased, and multidisciplinary appraisal of the drug, offer some real solutions.

First of all, if we want to ‘tackle root causes’, we need to begin by understanding addiction. The causes of addiction are primarily neurobiological, not pharmacological. It is not that the drug is “addictive” so much as that the user is inclined to addiction due to their underlying neurobiology. Drug-induced addiction, I’m sorry to say, is a dubious concept. If methamphetamine had a fixed addictive allure, identical in all individuals, it would follow that all people who use meth would become addicted. Or, accounting for some anomalous, addiction-immune individuals, at the very least most would become addicted. On the contrary, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States found, in 2011, that only 3 percent of people who had used the drug had done so in the previous month. Addiction scientist, Carl Hart, points out that even at the peak of America’s “crack epidemic”, only 10 to 20 percent of users became addicted. These rates are typical of every “addictive” substance in every Western society. I am unaware of any drug, anywhere, at any time, which has been demonstrated to cause addiction in greater than half of those who try it, and very rarely in more than a quarter.

The reason for this is obvious, if one is familiar with the science of addiction. Most people do not have the neurobiology underlying addiction, and to such people even methamphetamine is likely to be relatively benign. All of which raises the question: what does cause addiction, or the underlying neurobiology? And the answer is stress, isolation, and abuse. An overview of the literature on this subject is beyond the scope of this article, but has been extensively outlined in Dr Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. So, if we’re to begin by tackling root causes, we are to begin by reducing stress, isolation, and abuse.

Some practical suggestions for reducing stress, isolation, and abuse, among methamphetamine users:

  1. Stop demonizing methamphetamine users.
  2. Stop expending vast sums of money enabling law enforcement to abuse methamphetamine users.
  3. Redirect that money into support services for people who have been abused.
  4. Allow legal access to pharmaceutical Desoxyn (oral methamphetamine) for addicts. (Buying meth is pretty stressful. Affording meth is pretty stressful.)
  5. While it may sound lofty, we might treat methamphetamine addicts as human beings deserving of love and community, rather than making them synonymous with the word “scourge”.

Aside from the “addictive potential,” much has been made of the aggressiveness of methamphetamine users. Keeping in mind that most people who use do not go on to become addicted, it is well worth pointing out that aggression is very likely the result of abuse, and therefore specific to the addict population – a minority of “users”. In appraising the extent of this problem, then, we should look at two statistics: the incidence of violence, and the size of the addict population. In 2012/2013 financial year, there were 3,218 methamphetamine-related assaults. In 2014, there were 75,000 addicts. That’s about 4.29 assaults for every hundred addicts. So we’re talking about an extreme minority within a minority. Nonetheless, it is a serious problem, and we need practical strategies for tackling it.

To begin with, we need to further our limited understanding of the causes of this violence. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that a person simply takes methamphetamine and becomes violent due to its immediate effects. This proposition is dubious on the face of it. Presently, the best theory we have (and it is a very sound theory) is that violence among methamphetamine addicts is a result of the interaction and synergy between (1) dopaminergic and serotonergic damage and resultant impairment of executive functions (including self-control), and (2) psychosis resulting from sleep deprivation. This suggests some practical solutions:

  1. Legal availability of antipsychotic medications such as olanzapine, which have been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of amphetamine-related psychosis, for methamphetamine users.
  2. Legal availability of benzodiazepines, both for their sedative effect and their capacity to induce sleep, and therefore ameliorate effects of sleep deprivation. In my work in the harm reduction community, I have advised several highly aggressive individuals suffering from amphetamine-related psychosis. The administration of a benzodiazepine has, in my observance, induced sleep and, in so doing, ended a psychotic episode. One milligram of Xanax; sleep achieved; psychosis ended; potential for violence quelled. Simple.
  3. Safe spaces for use. Methamphetamine can cause or exacerbate paranoia. As can a euphemistic “War” on your kind. In an atmosphere of hysteria and repression, engaging in a felony without a victim, methamphetamine users have a very real reason to be paranoid, which we can and should remove from the equation.

This is the kind of conversation which Ken Lay convincingly makes it sound like he’s promising. But while the Australian, a household name in this country’s journalism, goes on printing stories about “LSD overdoses,” referring to 25i-NBOMe as “synthetic LSD,” and passing along, uncorrected, Tony Abbott’s claim that both amphetamine and MDMA (which he naturally called “ecstasy”) are forms of methamphetamine, I retain very little hope of a productive national conversation.

I'll be writing articles and essays on drugs, drug politics, and drug culture, because I don't believe many people are doing so intelligently or compassionately. Donations can be made in bitcoin, if you want to show support: 1FByUZu6UxJ8ThxYuRHLi7vRxXnRM7iATM