Andrew Ahmad—Cooke / addict2016
All recreational drugs are evil. Right?
From the point of view of a recovering addict this would seem to be an understandable statement, but where does this predominant opinion arrive from? The majority of people are able to drink alcohol or take other recreational drugs occasionally without fear of addiction, without even a thought of addiction, which is why addiction as a mental health issue is so difficult to empathise with. The question facing most recovering addicts is, if you are addicted to one particular substance, does this mean you must fear and avoid all recreational narcotics?
“Drugs are bad. Mmmkay?”
Different drugs are viewed in vastly disparate ways. Heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine are looked upon as an abomination and its users as total losers by almost everybody, even other drug users. However, within the realms of the counter-culture all of these have their own particular mystique which creates its own category of ‘coolness’, despite the fact that the production of these drugs ravage their countries of origin and the lives of their users and the people around them. Amphetamines are not seen as currently prevalent or contemporary, outside the circles of the many thousands of people regularly using them. In the UK the abuse and addiction to crystal methamphetamine has yet to acquire the epidemic proportions it has reached in the United States. There is widespread acceptance that all of these drugs are highly addictive and extremely dangerous, which unfortunately also adds to their allure.
Cannabis has its own particular reputation, seen by many as something smoked by hippies, as less dangerous and slightly old fashioned. Nevertheless, statistics published in the Guardian in April this year show that about 180 million people use it worldwide. It has generally been seen as relatively harmless but recent man-made (corrupted) strains are having a monstrous impact on the mental health of our planet’s youth. Recent studies state that one in ten cannabis users become dependent or, for those who start in their teens, the figure rises to one in six. In the last 20 years, the number seeking professional help to address their cannabis addiction has risen in Europe, Australia and the United States. Alcohol and tobacco are the only drugs which lead more people into addiction treatment. However, in many parts of the world today, doctors prescribe medicinal cannabis as a treatment for issues such as sleeping disorders, aches and pains, and eating conditions related to other medical treatments like chemotherapy.
Psychedelic drugs also occupy their own special niche. In his book Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna expounds his theory that the transformation of our early ancestor, Homo Erectus, to our own species, Homo Sapiens, was due in part to coming into contact with the mushroom Psilocybe Cubensis. He writes that access to, and ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage and led to humanity’s first religious experiences; that they were the evolutionary catalyst from which language, projective imagination, the arts, religion, philosophy, science, and all of human culture sprang. However, psychedelic drugs are exceptionally powerful substances with unpredictable effects and can be psychologically addictive, although I believe this to be comparatively rare. There has been a resurgence of medical interest in LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, after several recent trials produced encouraging results for conditions ranging from depression in cancer patients to post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychedelic drugs could also prove to be highly effective treatments for addiction, according to scientists who have obtained the first brain scans of people under the influence of LSD. Early results from the new study led by Professor David Nutt at Imperial College, London, add to existing evidence that psychoactive drugs could help reverse entrenched patterns of addictive or negative thinking.
MDMA, or Ecstasy, was another drug developed to improve psychotherapy. It became a street drug in the 1980s playing a pivotal role in the new house-music and rave culture. The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse states that research results vary as to whether MDMA is addictive. Health risks are said to include irritability, depression, sleep problems, memory issues and a decreased appetite for food or sex. However, if you ask the people who were among its countless users, now living successful and happy lives, they will speak of heightened sensations, beautiful shared experiences and lifelong friendships made dancing to the music. As Terence McKenna puts it, “If the words ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”
The misuse of prescribed medication is a global epidemic. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more people abuse psychotherapeutics or other prescription drugs than the combined number of those who reported abusing cocaine, hallucinogens and heroin. They are responsible for the largest percentage of deaths from overdose. Most of these deaths used to take place in inner cities, in African-American neighbourhoods, but these have now been overtaken by the number of overdose deaths in white rural communities.
Another legal drug, alcohol, represents the biggest hypocrisy of all. Many thousands of people die from alcohol-related causes every year, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Thousands more die in alcohol impaired driving incidents. In 2005 64% of Americans who received treatment for a substance abuse problem were treated for alcohol use. Apart from America’s ill-fated attempt in the 1930s, alcohol has remained legal in the western world. Even in the Islamic world, where intoxicants are forbidden, there exists a thriving black market feeding its illicit use. Sound familiar?
“The War on Drugs has been an utter failure”
Barack Obama / 2004
The majority of human civilisation’s stance— the ‘War on Drugs’—is exhausted, deeply flawed and frankly, more than anything, a war on drug users. An entirely new approach to drug abuse and addiction is long overdue. I believe that all drugs should be legalised. Legalisation would bring control over the exponentially increasing problems of abuse and addiction. Prohibition has been tried and it has failed, in fact prohibition is most definitely part of the problem. Through legislation, lives would be saved by taking the supply out of the hands of the totally unscrupulous gangsters who currently arrange matters. Tax revenue would be raised, which could be funnelled straight into addiction treatment.
Portugal is blazing a trail. According to figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s 2015 report, since Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs, the rate of new HIV infections has fallen precipitously from 1,016 cases in 2001 to only 56 in 2012. Overdose deaths have decreased from 80 in the year that decriminalisation was enacted to only 16 in 2012. Portugal’s current drug-induced death rate, three per million residents, is more than five times lower than the European Union’s average of 17.3. Portuguese officials estimate that by the late 1990s roughly one percent of Portugal’s population, around 100,000 people, were heroin users. Today “we estimate that there are 50,000, most of them under substitution treatment” states João Goulão, a physician specialising in addiction treatment whose work led Portugal to reform its drug laws in 2000, and who is today the country’s National Drug Coordinator.
So are there good and bad drugs? The question, I feel, is too simplistic. People often speak of positive or negative energy, but there is only energy; it is the way it is deployed which is positive or negative. Would it be facile to use the same descriptor for drugs? Are there no good or bad drugs, only drugs? The only two truly vital factors involved in consuming any medication or recreational drug are: frequency and dosage. Drugs such as heroin, crystal meth and crack cocaine or equally methadone, diazepam and alcohol are catastrophically addictive and destructive. It is the enslaving nature of these substances that unarguably makes them bad drugs, but the people addicted to these substances must be freed from demonization and stigma. Whether any drug can be called good is a far more complex question.
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.”
Andrew has spent most of his life as a musician and composer. Consequently he has also had many different occupations from laundry worker and record shop manager to spoken word producer, working with artists including Michael Palin, Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde. His most prolific time as a composer was the late nineties when he co-wrote and produced albums including One True Parker’s “Will I Dream” and “The Howard Marks Project” with Nice and Idle. With his band Juttajaw, he ran the notorious ‘Dirty Cow’ parties and remixed artists including The Orb, Test Department, PIg and Ian Astbury. In 1997 he co-founded independent label Big Clever Records. After his retirement from the music industry in 2003, he ran a school for teenagers with challenging behaviour. He now works for a mental health charity and plays keyboards in local band The Warning Shadows. Andrew is currently sober and lives with his family in Cambridge.
Andrew writes a blog, addict2016, about addiction and recovery.