In Defence of Heroin

Heroin is without a doubt the most hated and feared substance in our society. And alcohol, conversely, is the friendly face of licit Australian drug culture. It may come as a surprise, then, that there isn’t really that great a distinction between these substances – that heroin use can be precisely as safe and as morally valid as alcohol use and that we have as much (or as little) reason to hate either of these drugs. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, of course, I’m going to demonstrate this point for point.

The first and most obvious argument that will be made for the far superior evil of heroin is that it is addictive. First of all, we must understand what is actually meant by a substance being addictive. No substance causes addiction, but a percentage of the users of any drug are liable to become addicted. Meaning that the addiction is caused primarily by the life-experience and resultant neurobiology of the individual, and not by the drug. This is why some people (those with the neurobiology which underlies addiction) become addicted and some do not. You can read about this in far greater detail in the brilliant scientist Bruce Alexander’s report to the Canadian parliament, or the physician Gabor Mate’s excellent book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. However, even presuming that the drugs themselves were responsible for addiction, there is little to distinguish alcohol from heroin. In 2012, 52.5% of Americans reported drinking alcohol, and about 8% are alcoholics. That’s about 1 in 5. Whereas it is estimated that about 23% of people who use heroin become addicted. That’s about 1 in 4. Hardly the kind of difference that would justify murdering the merchants of the latter and giving your children a flute of the former on New Year’s Eve.

The next, I suppose, must be that heroin kills. Well, so does alcohol: 4% of all deaths (6% of male deaths, 9% of deaths among people aged 15-29) are attributable to alcohol. Aside from which, we must obviously account for the fact that heroin is a black market substance and therefore its users are subject to the hazards attendant to navigating a black market. To understand how a safe and legal market for heroin might affect this, we can look to Switzerland’s trial of heroin maintenance for long-term addicts who had proven resistant to treatment. The results, as summarized in Dr. Mate’s book, were as follows:

  • “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.”

In addition, there can be little practical education about a substance as systematically demonized as heroin. We can hardly tell people how to use heroin safely whilst hysterically maintaining that using heroin is the worst, lowest thing a human being can do. Most opioid overdoses are attributable to combining substances – people who use heroin in conjunction with alcohol or benzodiazepines are far more likely to overdose, and proper education to that effect could greatly reduce the number of deaths.

Next, some will argue, children born to heroin users are damaged and addicted to heroin. It will suffice to ask if they’ve heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which affects a large number of live births. Still not seeing a particularly clear distinction.

I wish finally to point out that addiction is symptomatic of great suffering. I hope this knowledge, combined with a little empathy, might lead us to a more nuanced understanding of drug use. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to reprint what I’ve already written about this:

Let me be clear: nobody thinks addiction is a good thing. The real question is whether it is causal or symptomatic. And the answer, quite emphatically, is that it is symptomatic. Addiction arises from a deeper cultural malaise; from dislocation, isolation, stress and abuse. The research is very clear on this point: most hard-core drug abusers come from abusive homes. They are suffering deeply, and drugs offer them relief. What in essence this means is that drugs are rarely the problem. It is meaningless to condemn drug addiction while ignoring the profound injustices which invariably precede it. As Vincent Felitti (MD) has written, “dismissing addictions as ‘bad habits’ or ‘self-destructive behavior’ comfortably hides their functionality in the life of the addict.”

People self-medicate sadness. Sadness is bad. That so many people lack any effective relief bar heroin is bad. Heroin itself? There are worse things. These self-medicated masses have been compared by Antonin Artaud to “unhappy escapees from hell…escapees destined eternally to reenact their escape.” What’s bad is the impetus for their flight, and not the propulsion.

When we send soldiers to fight in meaningless wars, this is bad. When they watch their brothers and sisters in arms destroyed by falling bombs, this is bad. When they destroy other human beings themselves, and when they suffer tremendously under the resultant guilt, this is bad. When their PTSD flares up in every unfamiliar situation, this is bad. When heroin erases the suffering we’ve so laboriously heaped upon them, we must seriously consider the possibility that this is good. We should at least re-evaluate how bad it really is.

As Artaud has also written: “So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of human despair, we do not have the right to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair.”

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