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. Hell, just look at the mythos woven by those even with intimate experience of the drug.

I have a confession to make: I like to read trashy drug literature. This can really be a damaging habit, and I believe the only way to inoculate yourself against the obvious pitfalls of this vice is to be a critical reader of trashy drug literature. Take William S. Burroughs as an example: Burroughs gave us a snapshot of obscure subcultures in pivotal times and places, but the value of his theory of addiction is such that pawning it would yield scarcely enough cash for a hit. Reading Burroughs is fine, but you need to understand that he’s full of shit.

The first thing to be aware of is that literature, like all media, has an in-built bias towards the exceptional. Nobody really wants to read the memoir of somebody who tried heroin a few times and then moved on with their life, but such people exist in droves. It is estimated that only about 23% of people who try heroin become dependent…and I’d wager, further, that this 23% account for 100% of the literature. Pop autobiographies with subheadings like ‘a year in the life of a shattered rock star’ are read far and wide, but you’re unlikely to find ‘Memoirs of a Moderate and Occasional Opium User’ in stores anytime soon. This is not conducive to a robust understanding of the phenomenon of heroin use in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Neither is the sense of seniority that tends to follow from intimate experience with a subject. The heroin addict has personally experienced heroin addiction – what can anyone else possibly tell them about it? This attitude is hardly unique to heroin addicts: In my work in the harm reduction community, I’ve frequently explained categorical facts to drug users only to be rebuffed on the basis of experience. “Don’t take tramadol while on SSRI antidepressants? What are you talking about? I’ll have you know I’ve been taking opiates for a decade, kid.” People need to understand that there is only so much you can learn about a substance by shoving it in your nose, mouth, or asshole. The heroin addict has a special knowledge of the subject, undoubtedly, but they are not the fountain of all wisdom. Their special knowledge mostly pertains either to the cultures surrounding heroin use and addiction or to the subjective experience of heroin use and addiction. There is much more to know.

What this all is conducive to is the myth-making which has come to characterize the literature of heroin, often achieved simply by choice in tense. You’ll find, if you read much of this literature, that the heroin diarist often recounts their personal experience in the present and general tenses, rather than the past and personal. Generally, they do not say “when I first used heroin, I was hooked,” but “when you first use heroin you are hooked.” Their experience, it would seem to follow, is not only timeless but universal. Except it usually isn’t. The statement of conjecture as categorical fact is a constant presence in such literature.

This is demonstrated well by a passage from Michael Clunes ‘White Out’:

“In Baltimore they call cops ‘knockers.’ We had to watch out for the knockers. Cops dressed like junkies. Undercovers. They were hard to spot. I asked everyone I knew about their favorite way of detecting knockers. It was a survey.

‘So how can you tell a knocker?’ I’d ask.

‘It’s easy,’ Funboy said. ‘Knockers’re black. But the dope boys got it twisted. That’s why some spots won’t serve white fiends.’

‘It’s easy,’ Tony said. ‘Knockers are always white. That’s why we don’t serve white boys. Except you, Funboy. And you.’

‘It’s tricky,’ Henry said, ‘but I got the trick. Knockers always look you right in the eyes. Their eyes knock into yours. It’s why they’re called knockers.’

‘Knockers don’t look at dope right,’ Dom said. ‘They look at it the way you might look at a beer. Or at Henry.’

‘Knockers drive Toyota’s,’ Todd said.

‘Knockers have white teeth,’ Fathead said. ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their teeth.’

‘Knockers mostly snort dope, they never shoot it,’ Funboy said.

‘If you ask a knocker if he a knocker, a real knocker gotta tell you,’ the teenage dealer said looking at me. ‘You a knocker, motherfucker?’

To be fair, this is a problem with drug culture in general, not just heroin. Everybody’s an expert, and they’ll all tell you something different. On any given topic, too.

And not only do the 23% of people who become dependent on heroin account for 100% of the literature, I’d venture a guess that the selection bias is worse still. I would conjecture that among that 23%, the type who actually goes and writes a book about it is especially prone to romanticism and literary flare. Thus opium becomes “a panacea for all human woes,” and “the secret of happiness…at once discovered,” in the romantic prose of de Quincey. Thus heroin becomes “the end of desire,” “the end of wanting,” “the end of fear,” in the phraseology of Clune.

So heroin is romanticized from both sides. Everybody raises it on a pedestal, of some description – it is either panacea or a harbinger of doom. Popular estimations of heroin are scattered on the extreme ends of a spectrum. The truth is more banal. It is an opioid drug. It is highly pleasurable. It is not ‘addictive’ in the sense of inducing addiction, but a minority of it’s users are liable to become addicted. It is, ultimately, just a drug: it has associated pleasures and pitfalls, none of which live up to the romanticism of its disciples or opponents. It’s not that special. Stop embellishing.

Regarding Miranda Devine and the advocates of Harm Maximisation

The Daily Telegraph has just published perhaps the stupidest article to be written on the topic of drugs this year; an article by a totally illiberal and ill-informed hack by the name of Miranda Devine; a woman with absolutely no regard for scientific or medical understandings of drug use and, as a result, no credible regard for the welfare of people like Georgina Bartter, whose untimely death she is using as a prop for her anti-drug crusade. Allow me to take her article apart piece by piece.

She begins, of course, by chiding those who would try to discuss ways of minimizing drug-related deaths in the wake of well publicized drug-related deaths, before preceding to do just exactly that..

Next, she lazily smears an advocate of legalisation, regaling us with the tale of how Anna Wood’s parents refused to join his campaign for legalization, opting instead to tour schools to spread their message about the danger of illegal drugs. Did you catch that? Illegal drugs are dangerous, so don’t legalize them. Is anyone besides the pharmacologically illiterate Miranda Devine unclear on what makes MDMA dangerous in an unregulated market? It isn’t the substance itself. Pure MDMA is actually very difficult to overdose on[2]. It’s the adulterants and frauds which render taking purported “MDMA” dangerous[3]. This is an established fact: a small dose of MDMA (even a LARGE dose of MDMA) will not kill you.

She touts John Howard’s ‘Tough on Drugs’ approach.. What ‘Tough on Drugs’ meant in the language of John Howard was a total abandonment of pragmatism and harm reduction[4]. For example, he personally intervened to prevent a scientific trial of prescription heroin for long-term addicts, a strategy which principally reduces disease, crime, and misery[5]. He passionately opposed other efforts to reduce disease, crime, and misery, such as safe injection facilities, which, again, is a strategy which has repeatedly been vindicated [6].

She decries children being “taught that alcohol is just another drug,” in spite of the obvious fact that alcohol is a drug, and -at least according to David Nutt and the panel of experts he assembled in 2010- by far the most harmful, at that. She decries that they are taught “the harm minimisation doctrine that alcohol is worse [I think we just established that it was], or at least as bad as illicit drugs and, hey, if you must “use”, here’s how to do it safely. The message was loud and clear.”[7]

Finally, she offers her solution: zero-tolerance. That is, no tolerance of people like Georgina Bartter. Harass and arrest them where we find them, and let them fend for themselves when we can’t. Do not indulge their legitimate desire to be high; let them die navigating a black market rather than consider that 150mg of MDMA might have produced a beautiful and memorable experience for a bright girl, as opposed to convulsions and ultimately death.

Prohibition killed Georgina Bartter, and hacks like Miranda Devine respond by insisting we ramp up our militant repression of her and her kind all the while masquerading as the voice of concern for drug users. Her hysterical opposition to harm minimization belies the essence of her position: harm maximisation. She is a fraud of the most dangerous kind: it is because of her brand of hackery that a young girl is dead, and she dare accuse me of using her death as a propaganda tool? I am demanding an end to the policy which just took a life, which has taken literally millions of lives to date, and which will continue to take lives until the likes of Miranda Devine summon the moral and intellectual courage to withdraw their heads from their asses.

[1] In pharmacology, the ‘LD50’ of a drug is the dose at which 50% of test subjects succumb to toxicity. This varies from animal to animal, but even the lower findings for MDMA are around 50mg per kilogram of body weight. We know that legally manufactured and distributed MDMA would be pure. Let’s say for the sake of argument it would be distributed in 100mg pills: what this means is that “1.5 pills” would not kill anybody over 3kg, eg. “1.5 pills” of legal MDMA would never kill anybody.

[2] Harm reduction organization Bunk Police have an excellent guide to reducing the risk of dubious and often dangerous chemicals, which you can read here. In addition, they helpfully list common adulterants, which include MDPV (LD50 unknown; reported deaths numerous [in contrast to pure MDMA]),

[3] She goes on to explicitly denounce harm reduction, from which we might make the logical inference that she favours harm maximization, as she does in practice if not principle, but we’ll get to that.

[4] Such methods have been vindicated repeatedly. Here are the results of an analogous trial undertaken in Switzerland in the 1990’s, as summarized in Dr. Gabor Mate’s book:

  • Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment more than doubled.

  • The patients’ housing situations rapidly improved and stabalized (in particular, there was no homelessness).

  • 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 49.6% to 8.2%.

  • 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.

Sadly, the Howard government had as little regard for evidence as Miranda, and addicts suffered greatly as a result.

[5] The Canadian Medical Association Journal reports on Canada’s Insite: “Vancouver’s safer injecting facility has been associated with an array of community and public health benefits without evidence of adverse impacts.” There is no shortage of similar reports; the assessment of such programs is overwhelmingly positive.

[6] “Hey, if you have to fuck, here’s how to do it safely: wear a condom.” Does she advocate a return to abstinence only sex-education as well? Does she see the correlation between her approach to drugs in the West and the Catholic Church’s approach to sex in the developing world, namely that they both encourage the proliferation of disease in the name of the clearly impossible pursuit of abstinence?

Breaking: Ordinary People Use Recreational Drugs

It’s high time we were honest with ourselves about the kind of people who use drugs and why. Every time a teenager dies at the hands of our prohibitionist policies, newspapers rush to make excuses for their drug use, as though excuses needed to be made. They were peer-pressured, or misinformed, or in the case of Australia’s most recent high profile drug death, it was simply “out of character.” Apparently it is never the case that they are intelligent human beings who made an informed choice about how to live their lives. The popular understanding of drug use and drug users is a farce, and people like Georgina Bartter must be explained away to preserve it..

Her parents say MDMA use was out of character for one reason: cognitive dissonance. She did not correspond to the popular image of a drug user, so it must have been an anomaly; it had to have been ‘out of character’ for she was not possessed of the derogatory character we’ve erroneously ascribed to drug users.

She is demonstrative of a confronting fact: this image, this ascribed character, is dead WRONG. We’ve been slapped in the face for five decades with emotionally confronting images: the heroin addict in the gutter, the toothless smile of the meth abuser. Georgina is a necessary antidote: she is an intellectually confronting image: a kind, intelligent, sensible and respectable young lady who decided some MDMA would improve her night. She is no anomaly; this is precisely the character of hundreds of thousands of young people across the planet who have reached, are reaching, or will reach the same decision. This, in the final analysis, is one of the many faces of recreational drug use.

This is a self-perpetuating taboo. The recreational drug user is spurned on the basis of a lazy caricature: the emaciated, alley-dwelling scum bag. The general population holds a view of the recreational drug user that is wildly off base, and it is because of this view that those who use drugs do not do so openly; and it is, in the ultimate irony, because they do not do so openly that the general population is allowed to hold this view. It is time the general population saw one of the real faces of recreational drug use: Georgina Bartter.

Drug users are not some terrifying ‘Other’, John Q Citizen; they are your sons and daughters. Face this fact like adults, you intellectual cowards. Stop burying the reality of drug use under self-serving lies. Stop using phrases like ‘out of character’ to pretend people like Georgina are anomalies – they are not.