One time some years ago I checked myself into A&E suffering from severe pain below my chest cage. It persisted for twelve hours, (on a trolly), this always-on agony, until one empathic doctor saw the relationship between such pain and my seriously high blood pressure. In minutes I was in a ward, hitched to an antibiotic drip in one arm and a diamorphine drip in the other. Six hours later when I awoke, I was perfect, no pain and with normal blood pressure. The anti-B cleared the infection causing the pain and the diamorphine got rid of the pain itself allowing the blood pressure to fall. That’s all very interesting John, I hear you mutter.
What I did not know at the time was that diamorphine is the medical name given to pure heroin. I’d had my first heroin trip and I didn’t even know it. Even better, the heroin you get in hospital is purer and more potent, and is not diluted like the street stuff. The dose is regulated and because it is in a drip, you get feed it continuously. It was a heavenly trip for me, one I will remember for the rest of my life. I had never felt so good before, so happy so contented and so at peace with the world. It would be the absolute dream to spend one’s life in that blissful state, I can positively assure you of that. It was a controlled trip for me with so many professional white coats watching my progress through the night. A couple of years later when I discovered that diamorphine was pure heroin though, it occurred to me that I had no urge to have any more of it. I’d had my fix of heroin but mysteriously I had not developed an addiction to it. How is that possible?
Every heroin addict I have ever seen or heard has attested that it takes just that first hit to utterly destroy the rest of a person’s life because it is a wildly addictive substance. Yet every year in Ireland alone, thousands of patients are given diamorphine in our hospitals, some get it every day for months. However it seems that, like me, they have no irresistible craving for it when they get well and return home. How is this also possible? It flies in the face of everything we have ever been told. We have a global war on drugs, with heroin seen as the number one enemy of society because of its lethally addictive qualities and all that means. Heroin has a chemical hook so powerful that none of us should be immune to it, or at least that is the received wisdom.
But it important to know that heroin addiction is a ‘theory’ not a proven fact carved in stone. One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments done in the 1980s by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The experiment was simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, and they ran it hundreds of times, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself. With its 99.9% success rate this experiment was accepted as fact. But heroin wasn’t the cause, as was found out some years later. It was loneliness.
Rats like humans are highly social and just like us they live in groups or families where they conduct their relationships. Pluck one of them out and put it in an isolated cage with nothing to do and it becomes depressed. Then it discovers the heroin and for a brief period, it doesn’t feel depressed anymore. So in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander asked himself, what would happen if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It was a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. The results were startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a fraction of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died.
But this does not mean that heroin is not potentially addictive. Instead it means that if you are a secure and loved person, happy in your interpersonal relationships, then even months of hospital heroin usage won’t get you addicted. If you are alone and poor with little social connection or sense of belonging, you’re fucked. Heroin is your ticket out of how you feel, until you come down again. Then it is a desperate struggle to find the wherewithal to get high again, a vicious circle. It is no wonder that the poor are more likely to be heroin addicts. The loneliness of poverty creates the need and once discovered, heroin becomes essential. That is the true nature of the addiction. Remove the poverty, loneliness and isolation and the need for heroin drastically reduces as they discovered in Portugal when they approached the problem from this angle.
The American Military conducted vigorous research over years into survivors of the Vietnam War who were also heavy heroin users while in Asia. They found the guys who came back to broken homes, no job prospects and little future, turned again to heroin and died in the streets. Those who returned to a normal life of friends and family, never required the heroin again. The quality of life was the deciding factor, not the heroin, as I must have discovered when I came home from hospital that one time.
It is interesting too to understand that many balanced and successful people in our society are regular recreational users of drugs like marijuana and cocaine and they swear it does not actively affect their productive output. Indeed many claim it enhances it. However, these people have the best of everything, are surrounded by doting admirers and have a future to look forward to. I am sure that many prominent medics will also resort to a drop of diamorphine to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.
But it does pose the awkward question, Are poverty and loneliness the number one enemies in the world today? Are drugs the symptom and not the cause? Should we have a global war on poverty instead of drugs?
Certainly the billions spent on the drugs war would go a long way towards eradicating poverty. It’s worth some thought at least.