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October 2007
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Dealing with addiction

This is actually a story from some time ago, but it’s been sitting around nagging me to write something about it.
I’m really not that familiar with Amy Winhouse’s music, nor have I a clue about the tabloid music stories related to her, but I was struck when reading this.

Amy Winehouse’s in-laws have urged fans to stop buying her records. They say a boycott would send a message to the singer and husband Blake Fielder-Civil that they must tackle their drug problems. Fielder-Civil’s parents, Giles and Georgette, fear one or possibly both of them will die if they do not sort themselves out.
They said the couple were drug addicts in denial.
Mr and Mrs Fielder-Civil also said the singer should not be given any awards, to show the couple’s behaviour was not acceptable.
He believed they were taking crack, and there had been instances of heroin use.

How bizarre. I have no idea if the couple are addicted or abuse drugs, but if they are addicts, the notion that suddenly losing the support of their fans would help them in kicking the habit is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard. “Oh, dear,” Amy apparently would say, “our record sales are plummeting and nobody likes our music. Let’s stop using drugs.”
When I hear this kind of thinking, I wonder if it’s really possible that people don’t know anyone who smokes cigarettes. Cigarettes are one of the most addictive drug habits around, and if you ask anyone who smokes/smoked if there’s a time when it’s toughest to quit, or most likely to re-start, it’s invariably in times of stress or during other difficult patches in your life (lost love, financial woes, etc.).
And yet, as a society, we don’t seem to absorb this simple fact and apply it to the issue of other drug addictions.
So let’s say you have an everyday heroin addict. Because it’s illegal, she’ll have to go to some lengths to keep supplied, which probably means selling. She sells to an informant and gets busted on a trafficking charge. Her daughter is taken away. Her car (her only asset) is seized and sold. She’s facing jail and can’t afford a lawyer. Her friends shun her. And now she’s told to quit using drugs. Her entire life has fallen apart and now is the time to quit an addiction? Even if she gets treatment, the odds are stacked against her.
No wonder the recidivism rate is so high.
Let’s compare this to the Swiss model.

Switzerland is now leading the way out of prohibition. In 1994, it started prescribing free heroin to long-term addicts who had failed to respond to law enforcement or any other treatment. In 1998, a Lausanne criminologist, Martin Kilias, found that the users’ involvement in burglary, mugging and robbery had fallen by 98%; in shoplifting, theft and handling by 88%; in selling soft drugs by 70%; in selling hard drugs by 91%. As a group, their contacts with police had plunged to less than a quarter of the previous level. The Dutch and the Germans have had similar results with the same strategy. All of them report that, apart from these striking benefits in crime prevention, the users are also demonstrably healthier ( because clean heroin properly used is a benign drug ) and that they are more stable with clear improvements in housing, employment and relationships. [The Guardian]

So with a regulated clean drug source, an addict can be taken out of the criminal justice system and the stresses involved. They can get their lives in a good stable situation, complete with legal employment, so that when they’re ready to quit, it’s much easier, and more likely to last.
So when I hear people touting the value of drug courts, or pushing (as Kleiman does) coerced treatment as the answer to the drug war, I am extremely skeptical. These provide the wrong situations for a proper approach to quitting drugs. Scientists even have evidence that specific chemical actions in the brain add to the strength of the addiction during periods of stress.
Sure, I have no doubt that some people have responded to the “tough love” approach, but I wonder if that’s only because a more sane approach didn’t exist.
Once again, our slavish adherence to the drug war prevents us from actually considering options that might be more effective. And that’s just stupid.
And so I’ll repeat…

Some days it feels like I’m watching a house on fire. And one idiot wants to put it out with a machine gun. The other one wants to use grenades. And I’m standing there with a bucket of water and they look at me like I’m crazy.

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