I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the enormous stigma that surrounds heroin.
Even people within the drug-using community who detest prohibition will often be heard saying something like “Yeah, legalise everything… but not heroin. Never heroin.“
Why is this the case? Is there evidence to support the view of heroin as the most harmful, addictive drug around?
Next week is Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week at the University of Manchester. As a student there, I’ve written this piece for the Mancunion newspaper, highlighting the need for harm reduction initiatives that protect our students.
Please read and share to promote safer drug use and potentially save lives!
I wrote this article for The Third Wave, where it originally appeared, as a response to an opinion piece in the New York Times from skeptical clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman. I think it can help address the typical arguments that come from people of anti-psychedelic bias. Enjoy!
A recent article in the New York Times, penned by clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman, attempts to scare his audience into thinking that LSD might not be a good treatment for depression, despite a barrage of recent studies suggesting otherwise. Friedman appears to be of the opinion that it would be wrong to offer these drugs to sufferers of disease; even though there is no evidence of harm from LSD or psilocybin when given in a clinical setting, and despite the growing body of evidence of the efficacy of these drugs in treating mental health conditions.
Friedman himself mentions the debilitating nature of depression; between a third and one-half of all patients will never find relief from conventional treatments. Hundreds of millions suffer worldwide, and hundreds of thousands commit suicide every year. Most of those sufferers don’t have access to the expensive treatments most commonly handed out by psychiatrists in the developed world.
This one’s a little off-topic… technically it’s nothing to do with psychedelics.
You might have heard of kratom recently; it’s been in the news quite a bit, since the DEA announced in August that they wanted to make it illegal, before they fairly quickly withdrew their plans in the face of a loud public backlash. After all, thousands of Americans have been using kratom to combat prescription drug addiction or alcoholism – getting rid of kratom could cause huge damage to people’s lives.
Kratom is a plant that grows almost everywhere in SouthEast Asia. Its leaves are traditionally chewed for their sedative and painkilling properties. In the West, it’s often found in dried form, and brewed into a tea or swallowed in capsules. Kratom contains a bunch of alkaloids that have a relaxing and soothing effect. It’s like a plant-based alcohol – except, it hasn’t been directly linked to seven forms of cancer, like alcohol has.
The period in the 1920s and 30s where alcohol was banned nationwide in the US was a volatile time. It led to an explosion of organised crime, hundreds of thousands of moonshine-related injuries and deaths, and only a moderate reduction in the use of alcohol. The US missed out on untold millions of tax dollars in that 13-year period of prohibition – in a particularly tumultuous economic time that included the great depression of 1929.
Few people would argue that prohibition was a good idea. Although it may have reduced liver damage and moderately reduced alcohol consumption, it increased crime, led to thousands of deaths from poisoned alcohol, and unfairly targeted working class Americans. Any benefits from reducing the sale and production of a harmful drug were minor compared to the unintended consequences of criminalisation.
It’s been three months since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed into law in the UK. It effectively banned every substance that wasn’t food, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or prescription medication. Despite the immense, sweeping power this act has given police, so far they’ve only targeted head shops; stores selling ‘legal highs’. This was the main aim of the PSAct from the outset – shut down the high street vendors that were successfully bypassing UK drug policy. Since the end of May, 24 head shops have been shut down, and over 300 non-specialist stores have stopped selling legal highs. The Home Office estimates this will cost the economy £32 million annually… and that’s probably a fairly conservative estimate.
In addition, 186 people have been arrested for selling legal highs. One representative example is a man selling canisters of harmless laughing gas at a festival. He could face a lifetime in jail for carrying a gas used to whip cream.
Canisters of laughing gas could land you in jail
So the PSAct has achieved its main goal – but at the cost of our freedom. This is the first time in our history that instead of declaring what is illegal, an Act has listed what is legal. And it’s a very small list. It sets a scary precedent for future policies.
Strobe lights, dense fog, thumping beats, crowded dance floor… and a whole lot of MDMA. It’s a typical clubbing experience.
Clubs devoted to the class-A drug ecstasy aren’t exactly a new concept. They’ve been around for decades. But this was my first encounter. Everyone was clearly there to get high; the dancers knew it, the DJ knew it, the bouncers knew it.
In some ways it was a bizarre experience. And it was a microcosm of our nonsensical drug laws.
Ecstasy has been illegal since 1985, but it is a relatively harmless drug. There are risks associated with taking large amounts, taking it frequently or mixing it with other drugs, but compared to alcohol or tobacco these risks are low. Former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, was fired for (truthfully) saying that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding.
Cycling enthusiasts are all over the place these days… donning their questionable lycra outfits at ungodly hours to fly through the standstill rush-hour traffic, saturating our cities with bright neon colours and flashing lights. Maybe some people don’t really get the appeal… but to many, cycling is fun, it makes them happy, and it benefits their lives in loads of ways.
It’s not without its risks of course, but so are many things in life. We get around those risks by wearing helmets, lights and fluorescent jackets. The government builds us cycle paths and spends money on education and awareness. Overall it’s a pretty good system; people understand the risks and work hard to minimise them. And people have a great time cycling.
Let’s say the government becomes unhappy with the numbers of cycling-related injuries and deaths. They respond by increasing their campaigns of safety-awareness, introducing new regulations to keep cyclists safe on the roads, and build better, safer cycle paths. Maybe they even pedestrianise city centres! I think most people agree that this is a pretty rational reaction.
For several months now, our conservative government has been hustling the ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ Bill through parliament and into law. Widely condemned as one of the worst laws ever seen, the NPS act is hateful, illogical, poorly worded and has the potential to make us all criminals. Quite simply, from May 26th, we will see an increase in drug-related suffering and death in the UK.
The NPS act will ensure more drug-related incarcerations
The reason for this law coming into being is a national hysteria surrounding ‘legal highs’. Your average pensioner hates seeing teenagers getting high and not being punished for it, and wants to see legal high vendors kicked out of their towns. The conservatives, hopping on this bandwagon, have brought out reams of misleading and false statistics about legal high-related deaths. Countless voters have been riled up by the media, seeing images of innocent teens on front pages, hospitalised and killed by drugs that have slipped through the legislative cracks.
In fact, deaths from legal highs are tiny, around a dozen per year, accounting for a tiny percentage of frequent legal high users (around 10% of UK youth use legal highs). Compare this to alcohol users, where we would expect one million alcohol-related hospitalisations every year. But tightening alcohol legislation doesn’t win votes. Portraying innocent teens being preyed upon by wily drug dealers wins votes.