Drugs! Addiction! Criminality!
by Ryan Lester
During our time at the Fringe this year, Sweaty Palms decided to do something a little bit different. After registering the fear in everyone's eyes while we tried to market a show so obviously about drugs (Stoned, Stupid and Stuck), we started talking about how avoided this subject is in this country. Whether you hate them or binge them every week, no one is really talking about the policy and nuances of drug culture. So that is exactly what we did: set up two camp chairs on the busy spots in Edinburgh with a board saying ‘Let’s Talk About Drugs, Baby!’ to see what conversations we could start. This became such a focus of our time in Edinburgh. The scope of people we talked to was more than we ever could have hoped for, and for the high majority of the time, the conversation was civil and respectful.
Before I try and relay some of these conversations and findings to you I feel like I should try and clarify my position on this subject, try and give you the side I was coming from throughout. We were not pushing any kind of agenda or perspective from the outset. We wanted to hear people’s experiences and interpretations of that word and how deeply involved it is in their lives. The word “drugs” has an instant illegal implication to it (probably not helped by the fact that it was written in large, red capital letters on our board) rather than any kind of prescriptive or medicinal one. From my point of view, I have seen family members brought low by street heroin and others by prescription morphine. The complexities of addiction, recovery, medicine, and criminality are so inexorably linked that we should definitely be having more open discussion and looking to change our policy. Particularly as these problems only seem to be intensifying.
I am, however, the Boris of the drug debate. I am pushing for something new but with no idea how it should be done. I do acknowledge that our current prohibition policy has not worked after a near 60 year, blood-filled, train wreck of a test. It should also be noted that the suffering of our own addicts pales in comparison to the countries where a lot of western class A’s are coming from. But from the other side, having toured our show in California in April and spending time in other US states with relaxed drug laws, there are far more questions to be asked than “should they be legal?” The corporatisation of the drug trade in the US has its pros and cons, but their treatment of previously convicted criminals for these substances is ridiculous and quite obviously racist when you look at the statistics and facts of incarceration. This is a huge, convoluted, and sometimes heart wrenching subject to deal with, and is mostly avoided by people. Especially if we are against drugs, it often gives as a stance that makes us feel informed and settled on the issue. They are bad and so are people who get caught up in them. But this view tends to forget that real life is never that simple or binary and that education has to come first.
One conversation that really stuck with me was with an older man from Edinburgh, mainly because of how amicably we were able to completely disagree on the topic. During the course of our conversation, we were joined by two other older women who wanted to weigh in themselves. The man held the belief that all drugs need to remain illegal, because of the ‘Gateway’ theory: the normalisation of drug use will lead to more and more users – hence a bigger problem. One of the women who joined us told me that her son had turned to drugs. They had no history of it in the family, no mention of it at home, so where did they go wrong?
This was one of the biggest challenges for us during these conversations: although we had our experiences of addiction in our families, we had never personally felt the pain a lot of these people have, particularly those related to the addicts. It is hard to push a pro-drug argument to people whose lives have been ruined by them. So I outlined my main problem with the ‘Gateway Drug’ argument; I actually think it holds some sway, but not in the way that anyone uses it. The reason a drug like cannabis might be a gateway to other substances is not because of a Pandora’s Box of psychedelics that once opened cannot be tamed, it is because of how you need to obtain them. You have to meet someone potentially dangerous on a side street, constantly on alert, in order to buy something far less harmful than alcohol. Then every time you do it seems a little bit less bad and illegal. When you are eventually offered something else, the illusion is broken. People said I would do drugs and die, but I didn’t, so maybe the rest is just as easy.
Of course, these only work for the less addictive and destructive substances, but more and more we are seeing a casual and moderate drug culture. This is particularly from the younger generation, the kind that works hard throughout the week to party hard on the weekend. With the information of the internet at your fingertips, people can become better informed about what they are doing, if they choose to seek it out. That is where the problem is for me: such a huge part of our culture should be far more approachable to our young people because figuring it out for themselves with some guys on the street and no idea what it could be cut with is not responsible. Although this group of older people did not agree that we could trust people to moderate their own choices in a fully legal drug market, they did agree that the current policy is not working. The women particularly, with the shock of one son’s actions, though they had done everything ‘right’ to ever prevent this. They forget that you cannot control every aspect of your child’s life. They will hear about these things, they will come into contact with them, and they need to be armed with far more than ‘Just Say No.'
Throughout the month I was lucky enough to speak to a doctor and a family of pharmacists (that’s right, three generations of pharmacists holidaying at the Fringe) and it was interesting how open they were about the hypocrisy we all have about drugs. The similarities you find between pharmaceuticals and street drugs are common knowledge and the fact that some addicts can be state-funded while others are jailed is madness. This is exemplified by the illegal pharmaceutical market: people that have come out of the hospital and have been on these drugs for months are finally taken off and go into withdrawal. Then they can’t get these drugs from the doctor anymore and may resort to finding them on the street. This is why the conversation towards addicts needs to become about recovery rather than a deterrent. People should be able to believe they are going to get better if they go to the hospital, not ruin their lives with a drug charge.
I had the pleasure of a lengthy and heated debate with two young students based in Edinburgh. One of them was very passionate; she had grown up with all sorts of mental health problems and believed that any kind of psychoactive substance was only going to make things worse for her in the long run. This was perfectly fine; we were in no way trying to convince anyone to try anything. However, to blanket say that all of them would be detrimental is simply unknown. More and more we are finding that our illegal substances (now finally allowed to be researched on, bit by bit) can often have startlingly positive effects if dosed right. The most notable being all the wonderful stories you hear of CBD, and even psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and Ketamine being used as antidepressants. Even the wave of LSD micro-dosing that came out of the Silicon Valley tech maniacs has promising prospects when it comes to anxiety and stress. The point is that the prohibition of these substances severely limits our understanding of them, thus putting our faith in criminal organisations to manufacture and control the substances 1 in 3 people (British Drugs Survey 2014) will try in their lifetimes.
We did bounce around a lot of the economics of drug culture, and these students were right in the costs that these addictions can have on our government and NHS. On the other hand, this is also a good case for legalisation: the money for people’s recovery is subsidised by the tax they would pay to use. One of the students was very impassioned that if you were stupid enough to take LSD at any point in your life you were reckless and she did not want to pay for your NHS bill at the end of it. She did not really know what to say after I told her I had taken it with no adverse effect. In fact, I truly believe it made me a more respectful and understanding person. But the fear of drugs, stoked by this 60-year war, is very deeply ingrained and these people’s fears should be respected and heard. Because the reality is for some people it could hurt your life and for others, it could make you undeniably happier. Moderation, caution, and education are key.
There is a whole other part to this that I have had to split into a separate blog post to save people’s poor eyes (and any chance of anyone reading it until the end). But the resounding theme of a lot of these talks, with far more to go into over the next few weeks, is that something has got to give. The rift between generations on this subject is only getting wider, and mutual understanding has to be the key step before any kind of policy change (look at Brexit). Talk to each other, challenge other generations to hear your experiences without fear of being branded a criminal or a prude, and educate each other.