The Important Drugs Debate Question That Nobody's Asking
It all comes down to policing where we get our pleasure.
Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo
There is a question at the heart of the drug debate that often gets forgotten amid all the talk of prohibition vs legalisation. Is the act of getting high, regardless of the law and your health, a good or bad thing?
Both legalisers and prohibitionists say their policies offer the best ways of reducing addiction, harm and death. But the government and most of the general public have consistently rejected the idea of blanket drug legalisation in Britain. This is not necessarily because people think cannabis cafes will take over our high streets or because their kids will suddenly get into crack cocaine. Most people distrust talk of legalisation because they distrust getting high itself – not just because taking illegal drugs entails risks, but because using them to get a buzz is somehow cheating, inauthentic and inherently antisocial.
The arch drug prohibitionist and Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens voiced the feelings of many of his readers when he described drug taking in 2012 as "the purest form of self-indulgence, that severs the link between hard work and reward… making deferred gratification appear a waste of time and a foolish rejection of readily available delight".
After decades spent chasing down drug criminals, one senior drug detective told me earlier this year that he still could not fathom why there is a culture in Britain of people having a good time "only if your mind’s not thinking the way it was born to". He was incredulous that "our society wants to distort its mind so frequently and at such volume that drugs are now one of the biggest commercial markets in the UK".
There is scant mention of how we view drug intoxication in parliamentary discussions, TV debates or reports on drug policy. It’s nowhere to be found in the Home Office’s latest drug strategy. But both Hitchens and the detective touch on an issue that's really holding up a sensible discussion around drug policy.
The two men also have a point. The buzz of being on top of a mountain isn’t just about the view, it’s also about the sense of achievement you get from climbing up there. Reward and pleasure become numbed when they become detached from effort or a sense of achievement. And then there’s the comedown, and the over-saturation of the body’s feel-good chemicals.
Like Hitchens and the detective, the general public is not too at ease with the act of drug taking, unless those drugs have been bought at an off license, pub or chemist. This is the case despite the fact humans have been taking drugs of all sorts for far longer than most religions have been around: the Sumerians are thought to have used opium 5,000 years before Jesus appeared.
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Of course, within the drug world echo chamber it's easy to forget that two-thirds of people in England and Wales have never taken an illegal drug in their lifetime. It’s likely to be an underestimate, but these government figures show that only 3.3 percent of the great British public take drugs with any kind of regularity. However, it must be noted that those Brits who do take drugs regularly – particularly when it comes to MDMA and cocaine, according to the Global Drug Survey – do so with more enthusiasm than the drug users of other countries.
So, it’s no surprise that the public views drug taking with ambivalence, even though most will have been drunk more times than they can remember, or have at one point drifted through the day on a cloud of prescription valium or opiates. Three-quarters of the public think it's acceptable to get drunk, but two-thirds think it's "never acceptable" to smoke weed. Drug taking has a serious image problem, and it's this factor that we forget the impact of when it comes to the drug legalisation debate. If you think taking drugs, even for fun, is a bad thing to be doing with yourself, why would you think legalisation is a good idea, even if it could potentially reduce the wider harms?
It follows that if taking drugs is seen as inauthentic or irresponsible, then so are the drug users themselves. James Q Wilson, a former US government adviser on drugs, said cocaine "destroys the user’s essential humanity, debases one’s life, alters one’s soul". Relying on drugs to get your highs, say moralists like Wilson, is bad for society, too. While getting drunk is a communal letting your hair down, getting high on drugs such as cannabis and LSD is viewed as anti-social escapism. If you escape in your mind, you cut yourself adrift from society.
So why should these deviant drug takers be listened to in any kind of debate? If they are not part of the community, why should they have any rights? And regardless of which is the best way of reducing the harms of drug addiction, why feed this anti-social behaviour by regulating the drugs market instead of trying to stamp it out of existence?
Putting aside for a moment the hypocrisy at the heart of the artificial divide between legal and illegal drugs, maybe these people are right about drug use being an act of inauthenticity. Was the inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, correct in 1803 when he said that coffee created "artificial beings" by disrupting nature’s rhythms to get people buzzing when they should be resting? When half our lives are spent staring at screens and pressing buttons to get our emotional hits, should we not be craving natural highs like running, sex, music and sunsets, rather than shelling out for yet more artificial ones in the form of drugs?
Technically, getting high on drugs and high on life is the same thing. The same neurochemicals involved in a drug high, such as dopamine and endorphins, are also involved in the high from exercise, solving a problem or eating a donut.
"Similar chemical reactions could be taking place whether you are using drugs or surfing, for example. The difference is that when it comes to getting a high through drugs, you facilitate this externally," says Dr Melissa Bone, a lecturer on drugs and human rights at the University of Leicester. "When Salvador Dali said, 'I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.' he was right. Ultimately we are all just a mixed bag of chemicals and chemical reactions. When you look at it through this lens, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate highs becomes rather arbitrary."
"In the 18th century it was thought that reading novels was bad because it could inflame our passions or control our minds. At the time, reading would have been seen as an inauthentic high, much like the way drug use is seen today."
Our bodies are chemically receptive to taking psychoactive substances, and the close relationship between humans and drugs led the American psychopharmacologist Dr Ron K Siegel to conclude that intoxication is the "fourth drive" in humans, after hunger, thirst and sex.
Throughout history, the way drugs have been used has been regulated – for example, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with controlling wine instead of it controlling them. Dr Bone says the huge difference now between "natural" highs and drug highs is chiefly a social construct around the policing of pleasure:
"We’ve always affected our own body chemistry, whether it be through sex, alcohol, masturbation or even reading, and such practices have been regulated and controlled over time, particularly through religion. In the 18th century it was thought that reading novels was bad because it could inflame our passions or control our minds. At the time, reading would have been seen as an inauthentic high, much like the way drug use is seen today."
The use of drugs as a shortcut to personal reward – feeling the pleasure without the pain – is the main reason people distrust drug users, rather than the fact they are law breakers. Angus Bancroft, an expert on drugs and society and a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, says this probably originated in the Protestant work ethic, but has morphed more recently into what it says about the self.
"The more people can appear to be working on their 'authentic selves' – getting your kicks from base jumping or reading 50 Shades of Grey – the better. But getting a high from drugs is farming out some aspect of the self to a chemical," says Bancroft. "There’s a fear that drugs disrupt the basic effort-risk-reward system and, like the government printing money, it devalues the currency everyone trades in."
But this kind of mindset is a little paranoid. We all know that the pleasure derived from taking drugs is totally different from the pleasure derived from hard effort. As the author and cultural historian Mike Jay tells me, claiming that an experience is worthless simply because it is drug-induced is wrong.
And who is to say drug taking experiences are in some way unreal? Jay mentions William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, who, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, argued that "subjective experiences of non-ordinary consciousness, including religious revelations and in [James’s case] nitrous epiphanies, are legitimate because they’re experienced as real, whether they have objective evidence to support them or are produced by chemical means".
The mistake of many anti-drugs campaigners is to think that pleasure from drugs comes at the expense of other pleasures. There is a presumption that taking drugs is the only thing people who take drugs do; that the drug high is the only high they get. Which may be true for some of those with severe addictions, or absolutely no other hobbies, but is over-stepping the mark for the vast majority of the (at least) 2.8 million people who have taken drugs in the last year in Britain. Most people want drugs, rather than need them.
Earlier this year a campaign funded by the Dutch government, Music Against Drugs, put brainwave scanners on sober audience members during live concerts to prove that you don’t need drugs to have an ecstatic experience. Nevermind that the live gig, festival and rave scenes have their roots deeply implanted in psychedelics, this publicity stunt is disingenuous. Drugs are rarely used in isolation, but to enhance other pleasures.
From the spliff at the end of the working day, the pill on a Friday night or the bump of ketamine while watching Blue Planet 2, drugs are taken for fun, to relax and sometimes, as the poet John Milton said, to "bathe the drooping spirits in delight". Drugs are part of a balanced diet of highs – from split-second social media buzzes to all engulfing moments – experienced alongside the despair and ecstasy of everyday lives.
Getting a zing from a line of shitty cocaine might not be as worthy or deep-rooted as the buzz you get from making someone you love happy, or from doing a charity cycle, but it still puts a smile on your face. As Jay says, "The notion of 'pretend pleasure' is incoherent – it’s like 'pretend pain'. What’s the difference between the delusion of pain or pleasure and the real thing?"
Some would argue that taking drugs can actually be a more profound experience than reality, particularly when it comes to taking hallucinogens, substances thought to be pivotal to the process of human evolution. Rosalind Stone of publisher the Psychedelic Press, an expert on psychedelics and director at charity Drugs and Me, told me: "Exercise gives you endorphins – which, like drugs, love and chocolate, stimulate the opioid receptors. But with drugs you can stimulate specific receptors to get different effects. They're a means of accessing a range of specific, different highs you can't access any other way – and certainly not through an organic biological process such as exercise."
The signs are not good for our society becoming more accepting of the drug high. Even getting drunk, a hobby ingrained in our culture since every village had its own brewery in medieval times, is viewed with doublethink. It’s illegal to serve someone who is drunk in a pub, but virtually everyone who is drunk gets served. There are 52,000 pubs in Britain, but the notion that people drink alcohol for its psychoactive effects seems to have been forgotten. "Drink for pleasure, not effect" it now says on bottles of Ilkley beer. And good luck to the scientists developing a pill that stops you from getting drunk, because no one will go anywhere near it (more likely to catch on is "alcosynth", a chemical being developed by Professor David Nutt that mimics the effects of getting drunk but with no hangover). Wine with some food is a brilliant thing, but there is a reason people drink alcohol, and it’s not just for the rich notes of cherry.
One of the biggest barriers to drug policy reform is the refusal to accept that the vast majority of drug use is not addictive or deadly; that intoxication, in moderation, is OK. Up to now, reform of drug laws around the world has only ever happened on the back of health crises, such as the spread of HIV, heroin addiction, kids using skunk and medicinal cannabis, or just plain economics. But even if drugs are eventually legalised, this does not necessarily mean drug taking will be seen in any new and improved light.
If the reality of intoxication – that, for most people, it is part of the ups and downs of life – is understood, then legalisation of the drugs that were prohibited primarily because of a series of racist panics 100 years ago should logically follow, regardless of any crises.
If taking drugs is seen as an inherently inauthentic and negative thing to do, then any debate on drug policy is hobbled from the start. People who use drugs deserve to be heard like anyone else, and certainly not demonised or criminalised. Accepting that taking drugs is part of the tapestry of life for some people, and not an act of insurrection or immorality, is a key step on the path to solving our heavily spiked debate on the world’s creaking drug laws.
Previously on Narcomania: