We live in a world of perpetual war, it's never ending. It's almost 'part of our growing up. It pollutes our news media through the various mediums on a regular basis. One war that has been perpetually going on for just over a century now and one that has been widely socially acceptable is our 'war on drugs'. It is one that wider society sees as a necessary evil against the scourge of evil substances that we're led to believe gives addicts a chemical hook that enslaves their body in a zombie-like state rendering them useless and unfortunately this attitude has permeated throughout the world as a result of Nixon era reactionary domestic and foreign policy. It doesn't take much research to understand that this is not the case, and it is much more complex than that and has caused me to look at the regressive attitudes of fellow republicans who don't see the complexities of the situation with drugs and addictions, who advocate authoritarian solutions devoid of empathy and conjecture, that only do the opposite and exacerbate the problem.
The period prior to Anslinger's war on drugs, citizens with addiction issues received their drugs via prescription from their doctor for a small amount of money at their local chemist, a radical and highly successful method pioneered in the 1930s by a Californian doctor, Henry Smith Williams. Addicts received a diluted but medically pure form of the drug (which didn't give them lesions on their face etc.) and the clear majority were in full-time employment and functioning members of society. They didn't need to steal or turn to crime. That all ended with the advent of prohibition. Drug dealers and cartels were created overnight along with twenty thousand doctors and many more addicts dragged into the criminal justice system. Illegal substitutes flooded the market; addicts were now taking a dirty form of their drug and the price increased by 1000% in some cases. Addicts were now at the mercy of gangland figures who charged exorbitant prices meaning addicts now had to turn to crime, prostitution and begging to feed their habit and thus the new laws made criminals of ordinary members of the community and drove them underground into the hands of newly empowered dealers. A valuable lesson from history in the treatment of addicts was lost until the methods were revisited in the UK in the Liverpool satellite town of Widnes by Dr John Marks. Again the results were astounding with up to a 93% reduction in acquisition crime such as burglary, a massive reduction in street prostitution and gangland having their profits obliterated. This model was later adopted in the 1990s on a national basis in Switzerland - but not before the reactionaries in the Tory party shut the program down in the UK.
While rooted in racism the drug war was sustained by the train-of-thought that there was a 'chemical hook' that hijacked the body and enslaved it. The evidence of the pharmaceutical theory of addiction was an experiment on rats, which put a rat into an empty cage with two bottles. One with regular drinking water and one laced with cocaine or heroin, and in all cases the rat would turn to the drug-laced water and after a period would kill itself from taking the drugged water. This spawned an advertisement on American TV funded by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, which depicted a rat licking at a water bottle with the haunting voice-over explaining: "Only one drug is so addictive that nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it.... until they are dead". Dr. Bruce Alexander looked at this and saw an obvious flaw. The rats are in an empty cage, all alone. It reminded me of a comment I read from an addict who said, "addiction is a disease of loneliness". Dr. Alexander did his own experiment that would change the thinking of many on addiction and the myth of the simple 'chemical hook'. He made his own cage. But this time he included other rats, with the same water bottles. One with simple drinking water and the other bottle with water laced with heroin. Inside the cage were coloured balls, wheels to run around, and the best cheeses for them to eat. He aptly named the cage 'Rat Park'. They ate, played and had sex with each other and invariably the rats rarely went near the water bottle laced with drugs, unlike the rats in the empty cage and none took it until they died. They also took rats who has been in the empty cage for several weeks taking the heroin laced water and put them into Rat Park. The result: the rats would invariably, despite taking the drugged water for several weeks, would reject the heroin laced water once inside Rat Park and would bond with their fellow rats and few even exhibited signs of withdrawal from the drugged water they had been taking.
I can hear some say but sure that's only rats. But around the time of the Rat Park study there was a human form of the experiment happening in Southeast Asia - the Vietnam War. 20% of the U.S. soldiers in that conflict were addicted to heroin to escape the daily horrors unfolding before them. There were more Americans addicted to heroin in Vietnam than there was in the U.S. itself. Some visiting American politicians reported home that a lot of their troops were more likely to die from heroin addiction than from combat itself. The American people were shocked and disturbed with the thoughts of hundreds of thousands of junkies suddenly swarming on their cities and towns at the end of the war, as they believed the theory that heroin will have hijacked their bodies and it wasn't going to be pretty. That wasn't quite what happened, though. The soldiers came home. They were no longer in the jungle with people trying to kill them any longer. They reconnected with their loved ones and friends and it was found that 95% of them, within one single year, simply stopped and those who went into treatment were no more inclined to stop their addiction than those who didn't. The remaining 5% were found to have been victims of severe PTSD, unstable and abusive childhoods, or had been addicts to begin with when they went to war.
So, whether you're a rat in an empty cage, or a soldier in a jungle in Southeast Asia with people you can't see trying to kill you, it illuminated clearly that drug addiction is not as simple as a chemical hook. It showed why, while 90% of people who take drugs do not become addicted, some are susceptible to becoming addicted and that is more to do with their cage - their environment - and their disconnection from their family, friends and wider society and the remedy to this isn't 'tough love' but a more benevolent, benign approach that involves focusing on the cause of the addiction, which involves not just their present 'cage' but the other cause of addiction; childhood trauma, usually involving physical and/or sexual abuse, with the focus being re-connection.
Adverse Childhood Experiences was a detailed study commissioned into the long-term effects of child abuse and found those who experienced traumatic events as a child were two to four times more like to become a drug addict. It found two-thirds of injection drug abuse was due to some childhood trauma, so in effect, childhood abuse was as likely to bring about drug addiction, as obesity was to cause heart disease. Another study followed children from the age of five to eighteen and looked at the quality of parenting and its effects on children and how bad parenting could increase a child's future dependency on drugs. They found that children who had parents who were disengaged and who could be cruel were increasingly more likely to develop heavy drug use in their adult years in comparison to children who had parents who were loving and caring towards them. They found as they got older it meant they found it harder to develop loving relationships and found it easier to be angry, distressed and impulsive a lot of the time. One addict had said to Dr Gabor Maté, a leading voice on addictions, that when she first took heroin "it was like a warm hug, like a mother hugging a baby".
The criminalisation of addicts, which is a barrier to them reconnecting with society enslaving them with a criminal record, which is a permanent barrier to them seeking employment. Portugal has done the opposite with their decriminalisation and reconfigured their thinking instead concentrating their resources, not on the criminalisation and jailing of addicts, but trying to reconnect addicts by giving financial incentives to businesses to hire ex-addicts. And, of course, with a helping hand addicts largely reabsorbed themselves back into society and would leave their addiction behind. Switzerland, a country as conservative, if not more than, Ireland completely ended prohibition and created a system where addicts would no longer have a relationship with a drug dealer, but instead with their local GP. Those with the most extreme addiction issues who have previously failed a number of other treatment programs would be prescribed medical grade heroin in a supervised facility that resulted in a huge reduction in HIV infections and resulted in zero overdose deaths. Some other results from Switzerland's ending of prohibition were startling. It cut heroin addiction in half and with addicts no longer needing to steal to feed their habit burglaries, muggings and other assorted serious crimes were reduced by a massive 90% in some instances. Gangland lost its army of street level user/dealers and as a result, of there being no incentive to sell heroin, it became increasing hard to find at street level. The number of new addition addicts plummeted. Another socially positive outcome of these facilities is a massive burden lifted of the already overstretched paramedic and ER services. Would you want a close relative having a delayed ambulance, or not having immediate medical attention in an ER because medical and human resources are tied up in emergencies that otherwise are containable and manageable in facilities designed for quick response and specialist care.
The proponents of not just continuing the drug war in Ireland, but extending it further, scoff at the idea of safe injection centres, which will see the preventable deaths of 200+ addicts who die of overdoses in Ireland every year continue. In Switzerland 68% of HIV infection were due to injection drug use. Now it stands at 5%. We are literally condemning addicts to death and disease with our archaic drug laws. If opiates can be prescribed for physical pain, why not for psychological pain and trauma? I've seen addicts being described as "selfish scum" from those same reactionary champions of the drug war. The thought that ending prohibition on those suffering from addiction and them receiving 'free heroin' sends some over the edge, neglecting the results generated in other countries. You see giving addicts clean heroin in a supervised medical environment gives them an opportunity to leave the criminal life behind and thus having to no longer take dirty drugs allows them to become functioning citizens again and was found in Switzerland that over time as this helped them become more connected and develop bonds again with their family and friends etc they would simply begin to take smaller dosages eventually stopping completely all by themselves. It's worth noting right wing elements in Switzerland have twice tried to revert the laws back towards a criminalisation policy and prohibition with it both times being roundly rejected, with over two-thirds support to keep it as it is. They don't want to go back, so why will we not even go there? The drug laws in Ireland as they stand are driving those who have addictions underground and empowering gangland. We all want to see an end to gangland so why not cut off their supply-chain and put them out of business?
I have, and always will, identity myself as a republican. I was raised one and feel it in my blood twenty-four hours of the day. But I feel a disconnect with what republicanism has become. When I read the findings of my rudimentary level research it forced me to look at my own outlook on life and society. I realised we all have our own addictions in some form outside of the "norms”; our phones; social media; work; shopping etc. In a wider context, we live in a society that is full of addiction and we in some way look at addicts in fear because of our own vulnerability to addiction. We look at addiction with a narrow lens - the individual. The problem is with the individual and they themselves must sort themselves out and at the same time we judge them as morally flawed. Those who view the issue in a wider prism argue for what some call the "social recovery" where we look beyond the threats to addicts and use of force and look to build a society away from the hyper-individualism where people don't feel so alone, and people within society look for connectivity from each other and not from consumption.
When we talk of society, that means everybody, and that includes republicans. We are always looking for the next thing to endear ourselves to our communities, sometimes, to beat the propaganda of Sinn Féin and others who use terms such as 'anti-community elements' to describe us so-called dissidents. To be blunt, the drugs war has been a handy vehicle for some, as working class communities have largely felt the brunt of the criminality that stems from the illegal addiction game so naturally a community hurt by the effects of the addiction business have sought reactionary methods to deal with it and republicans to some degree have exploited this. Why I feel somewhat disconnected from modern day republicanism is the lack in foresight in dealing with anything. Like the obsession with militarism from some who see republicanism starting and ending with that. It’s no surprise then that republicans’ natural reaction to the drugs issue is to target drug dealers and victimise and shame addicts on social media etc for drug use; it's very archetypal of republicans. A comrade explained it well that when your only weapon for problem-solving is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.
But it is worth noting that middle class people statistically drink more alcohol and take more illegal drugs than those from working class communities, yet who do the state aim their war on drugs at? What community? Yet republicans, who see themselves as the vanguard of working class communities promote and call for authoritarian clampdowns in a war aimed at their community solely. It's a handy vehicle for the state to keep down those they are happy to do so to. Look to the United States for another example of this. The black community make up only 19% of the drug users and dealers there, yet they make up nearly 70% of those who are convicted for drugs-related offences. It reminded me of an incident when Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a huge proponent of prosecuting the drugs war, was on a CNN phone-in show when a caller came on to thank him "for everything you've done to help keep the niggers down." His response was to salute at the camera saying: "Well, thank you, I think." Can we thank Irish republicans for helping keep those most vulnerable in our own community down?
I had my own personal awakening and writing this made me think back to how badly I treated the addicts within my own family. The hurtful things I said when I'd realised they'd stolen from me to get another fix. I said horrible things because I only seen the addiction and not the pain and cause behind it. I really feel personal shame thinking about it, but I was willing to open my eyes a little and to look beyond long-held misconceptions and republicans and the wider society they are 'part of need to re-examine the misconceptions they have about addiction and the radical transformation we can see in Irish society if we can recognise the concept that the opposite to addiction is connection. The templates for how to proceed are already in action in Portugal and Switzerland, with results to boot. Are we able to look beyond the sound-bites and proven failures of the past? If we can, we can be part of the process of the social recovery, because as was rightly remarked the people in power are some of the emptiest people in the world, and they won't do it unless they are made to develop a strategy that looks to reconnect and bond the weak and vulnerable back into society - to revert the concept of human nature being aggressive and about hyper-individuality and more about human brotherhood, which can help make our communities a lot less like that empty cage, and a lot more like Rat Park.
Patrick Donohoe is a member of the United Ireland Society, Áth Claith.
Its aim is to make the economic and social case for Irish unity and a more egalitarian Ireland.