Patients NOT Addicts

As we reach the midpoint of R&G Week 2016, it is reassuring to see that there has been a respite in the media with regard to the tragic spate of incidents due to drug misuse and overdoses over the past few weeks. But this does not mean that the issue has in any way subsided. Following the 8th Annual Journalism Conference held in UCC last week, Brittany Helmer-Peschier writes on the urgent need for drug reform not just in Ireland, but worldwide.

On Friday February 12th the UCC Journalism committee hosted its eighth annual conference. The conference consisted of two panels, one of which discussed drug decriminalization and its importance in tackling the major issues surrounding drug addiction. Olaf Tyaransen, Graham De Barra, Tim Bingham all spoke for the panel and voiced their beliefs in regards to drug decriminalization and legalization, and its many benefits. One common opinion that all three speakers shared was that people rely on drugs as a way of coping with trauma. Most people who take drugs regularly need psychological help, therefore we need to start treating heavy drug users as patients, not addicts.

The issue of drug addiction is one that’s really close to my heart. For years, my eldest brother struggled with drug addiction as a result of a rough childhood. I’ll be completely honest and say that Matthew was not the easiest child to raise; he loved to stir up trouble and found the anger it brought out in people entertaining, even if it meant he would be heavily disciplined afterward. He wasn’t one who could live by the rules or follow authority and this caused many problems for him growing up. Nevertheless, Matthew was a child who needed extra love and understanding. He needed someone to take extra time and patience to work with him. He couldn’t be dealt with like every other child, because he simply wasn’t like other children. Unfortunately, Matthew never got the care he needed. By age 14, he was placed into foster care, was using drugs, and was in and out of juvenile detention. I was 7 when he left home, and he was ostracized from the family for about a decade, so I never really got to know him until years later. I did know, however, that he used several different types of illegal drugs: ecstasy, LSD, marijuana, but his drug of choice was crystal methamphetamine – one of the more dangerous ones.

I’m not telling this story for the shock factor, or for any form of sympathy, I’m simply pointing out that Matthew, like so many other people in the world, used drugs to cope with issues that stemmed from a traumatic childhood.

Olaf Tyaransen and Tim Bingham spoke passionately about this issue during their speeches at the conference.

“Most people use drugs to cope with a traumatic experience” – Olaf Tyaransen

“Someone might be 25, and have the coping mechanism of a 13 year old” – Tim Bingham

What these two gentlemen were saying wasn’t false. In fact, there was great merit to what they were saying. “In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure” (Funk RR, et al).

Furthermore, depression and anxiety levels in teens are higher now than they were just a few years ago. As Graham De Barra stated at the conference “the average age teenagers experience depression is 14”

A survey done by University College Dublin found that 11% of second-level students and 14% of young adults had severe or very severe anxiety. 8% of second-level students and 14% of young adults had severe or very severe depression. Students who completed this survey said that most of their stress came from school, work, and family. These isuues are all realities of life and growing up, yet teenagers and young adults cannot deal with them. Young people are not taught, or perhaps not given the opportunity, to process their stress in a healthy manner. This is why many of them turn to drug use, as my brother Matthew did.

I’d like to reiterate again that the majority of drug users are people who need psychological treatment. This is why the war on illegal drugs is failing. This war treats drug addiction as a crime instead of a mental health issue, and it treats drug reliant individuals as instead of patients. In reality, the war on drugs is actually a war against traumatized people who need help.

In an ideal world, drug legalization would mean that drugs are regulated by the government, made by pharmaceutical companies, and distributed by government owned centers to people over the age of 18. Such restrictions would keep drugs out of the hands of children, the money would go to the government instead of dangerous criminals, and people could seek treatment for mental illness instead of facing jail time. Those who are reliant on drugs could get safe and low amounts of drugs to get them through the day, while they can still function at home and at work without causing harm to themselves or those around them. But a world where such a society exists is far from reality.

In the US More than $51,000,000,000 is spent annually on the drug war.

The number of arrests in 2014 in the U.S. for drug law violations is 1,561,23. 83% were for possession only.

700,993 were arrested in 2014 for marijuana violations and 88% of those arrests were for possession only.

The number of Americans incarcerated in 2014 in federal, state and local prisons and jails: 2,224,400 or 1 in every 111 adults, the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Yet, more and more people are using drugs every day. So is this war actually working?

An article from The Irish Examiner said that “Marijuana was the most popular substance among more than one-third of respondents to a survey who reported drug taking (80%). More than two-thirds of those taking drugs first did so at age 16 or younger”

The survey done by UCD that I mentioned before reported that considerable proportions reported using cannabis at some point in their life and its use increased with increasing age. 77% reported that they took cannabis for the first time between 15 and 19 years of age. One-quarter of second-level students and half of the young adults reported high levels of substance misuse.

With all of this evidence piling up, I can only draw the conclusion that the war on drugs isn’t working. More and more people are using drugs every day. Consequently, there are more drug overdoses each day, more lives being taken from people who need help. And with anxiety and depression levels increasing among youth, the statistics will only increase. Obviously, our current system is not working. I strongly believe that drug legalization is the only answer to solving this epidemic.

On April 12th 2015 at 11pm I got a persistent knock on my front door. My Mother, Father, and Brother Curtis got up to answer it. After moments of silence, I grew suspicious and texted Curtis to see who was at the door.

He replied “It was the police. Matthew died of a drug overdose”

Matthew died at the age of 27, a victim of childhood trauma, a victim of mental illness, a victim of drug abuse, and a victim of a failed system. He is one of many examples of how our current system, that criminalizes patients for drug use, and ignores the psychological aspects of addiction, is doing more harm than good. How much more money has to be spent, how many sick people have to die or be arrested before an alternative system is put in place?


One thought on “Patients NOT Addicts

  1. “Most people who take drugs regularly need psychological help, therefore we need to start treating heavy drug users as patients, not addicts.” I disagree, many people perform well even though they are regular drug users, you’re not yet defining “drugs” which makes the statement even more open-ended. I understand your family outcomes were disasterous, and of course you are right to blame policy for this.

    The issue of drug addiction is one formalised by the word itself as a form of counter-agency; it entrenches a medical stamp of disability over the daily struggle for recognition and survival. I am so opposed to the misuse of language inherent in this discourse about decriminalizing or legalzing drugs, it’s an abhorrent objectification that vests legal agency in a thing instead of an individual. The legally nonsensical binary (as legal or illegal drugs do not exist in law and neither should these terms be used here), is mirrored in the therapeutic intervention that fetishises a liberty issue as a pyschiatric disease. In this case the ‘addict’ is subsumed by the thing entirely, and thus you are right to challenge this, but do rescue the moral agency from the rush to denounce full citizenship rights to experience drug use without stigmatization. The proper response to oppression is one of empowerment, not victimhood.


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