The Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy urges Governments and opinion leaders to treat drugs seriously and provide the public with reliable information.
I have a radical notion for you. What would you say if I told you that using drugs or other techniques to alter consciousness is a near-universal human practice, something that has featured in every society throughout history, alongside music and language?
If you were an angry conservative, this notion would fill you with outrage. For the idea that mind-altering substances are somehow an inescapable part of the human experience is still, for many people, a taboo that mustn’t be broken.
Drugs, you would say, are bad and should simply be stamped out. Banned. Stopped.
Yet those very same people might smoke or drink alcohol too, consuming potent drugs in the process. There’s something about the human experience that leads many people – though by no means all – to experiment with drugs, whether it’s tobacco, alcohol or cocaine.
An estimated quarter of a billion people worldwide between the ages of 15 and 64 used illegal drugs in 2016 and many more used legal ones. But as far as the harm to our minds and bodies is concerned, there is often little difference between legal and illegal drugs.
So what, you might say? All drugs are dangerous and addictive, so it’s right that we stigmatise them and the people who use them.
Many people are passionately of this view. Well, without a doubt it’s true that drugs can cause great harm but let’s ask ourselves this: is society really well-served by always equating drug use with addiction, or by always portraying people who use drugs as losers who have messed up?
Actually, the most common pattern of drug use is occasional and non-problematic. Fewer than 12% of those who use drugs are considered to be in need of treatment. And most people who use drugs simply stop as they get older. For example, in 2004, 9% of Europeans aged 15 to 34 said they had used an illegal drug in the past year; 13 years later, drug use in this group (now aged 25 to 44)had dropped to 3.4%.
But let’s be clear. All drug use is potentially harmful and I am in no way seeking to promote it. The fact I feel I have to say so tells you that, for many people, this is a moral issue. Why is that?
In part, because our perceptions are influenced by the language we use and the depictions we see in the media. When we read about drugs, it will most often be a story about a new substance turning someone into a “zombie”, about someone’s arrest or about a celebrity going into rehab.
Media reporting and public fears can culminate in what sociologists call “moral panics”.
One of the most famous of these is the panic that surrounded crack cocaine in the US in the late 1980s. In the UK, we have experienced something similar relating to the drug ecstasy (MDMA). All 25 deaths linked to MDMA in 2015 were reported, in regional and often in national newspapers.
In contrast, hardly any of the 8,697 deaths linked to alcohol in the same year made the headlines. Even taking into account the fact that many more people use alcohol in the UK than they do MDMA, there were still proportionally four times as many deaths from alcohol than from MDMA.
This is not to diminish the tragedy of each of these deaths but simply to point out that the way the media and the public react to them is drastically different.
Too often, we view people who use drugs not only as criminal but as weak, sinful and immoral too.
Why does this matter? Well, the way we view people who use drugs influences the way we treat them. No medical condition is more stigmatised than “addiction”.
That stigma means “addicts” are often treated badly, they find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination, and so they’re often reluctant to ask for help. And that results in their problems getting worse. No wonder there were a record 3,744 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2016. If we want to change how people who use drugs are treated, we need to shift perceptions. The first step is to change how we speak. It makes a huge difference when you speak about a “person who uses drugs” rather than immediately labelling them as a “junkie”. This might seem a bit cumbersome but when people’s lives are at stake, it’s important to stop and think before we speak.
Lazy stereotypes also let us off the hook when we really should be getting to grips with the deeper social issues that are the cause of problematic drug use.
One reason people use drugs is to cope with difficult life circumstances. People who have been through trauma or abuse are more likely to find their drug use leads to dependency.
These are people who need our support – they don’t need to be labelled, condemned and pushed further away. The link between the perception of drugs, the people who use them and drug policy currently constitutes a vicious cycle. All drug use is potentially harmful but the harm can, to some extent, be constrained.
We need to reform our drug policies to embrace scientifically proven ways that can prevent much of the harm, like needle exchange, safe injection facilities, pill-testing services, substituting heroin with methadone – or, when that fails, providing heroin on prescription under a doctor’s supervision, something which has been successful in other countries, notably Switzerland.
Today, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, of which I am a member, releases a report called The World Drug PERCEPTION Problem – Countering the Prejudices about People Who Use Drugs. In it, we analyse the most common perceptions and fears and contrast them with available evidence. There are good indications that it is possible to achieve change. When the voters in Switzerland, a country with a system of direct democracy, were well informed of the facts about harm reduction, heroin prescribing and the positive impact they have had, drug policy reform won at the ballot box.
So we urge Governments and opinion leaders to treat drugs seriously and provide the public with reliable information about drugs and their potential harms.
People in positions of power need to recognise that words shape public opinion and can reinforce perceptions which aren’t just wrong – they can lead to the needless deaths of people who need our help.