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February 6, 2005 - The Sunday Herald (UK)

Kept In The Dark:

Rather Than Ignoring Last Week's Controversial Heroin Study, We Should Use It to Trigger Real Debate

By Helena Kennedy

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

EVIDENCE that a few people seem able to use heroin for lengthy periods without devastating consequences could have sparked a rational discussion about the drug, and how it might be controlled. Instead, publication of research by Dr David Shewan and Phil Dalgarno of Glasgow Caledonian University was met with a knee-jerk response of shock and horror.

It was claimed that the information would encourage experimental use and that hesitant users would feel less restraint. Allegations of "irresponsibility" filled the air, despite the fact both academics emphasised that heroin is a dangerous drug carrying very serious risks. Yet the study was funded by the Chief Scientist Office precisely because it might improve understanding of addiction and lead to better treatment and interventions.

Like every parent, I have a horror of hard drugs and my experience in the courts has filled in the parts of the picture many people do not see. I have witnessed my emaciated clients climbing the walls for a fix. I have had a client rushed to hospital and die from an overdose while the jury were deliberating on their verdict. I have seen the track marks on defendants' arms and the horrible physical consequences caused by the muck with which heroin is cut ( chalk or chemical cleaner or icing sugar ) to increase dealers' profits.

Yet as the Caledonian study shows, while the lives of most users fall apart catastrophically, there are a small number of heroin users who can hold down jobs, care for families and achieve educational qualifications. What makes the difference?

The easy answer is that the same drug has different effects on different people. For a small minority, heroin may not create the cravings normally associated with regular use. The research suggests that the effects of drugs can also be modified by other factors.

The study focused on 126 carefully recruited long-term heroin users who had, on average, been using the drug for seven years and could take it or leave it. The bottom line, according to the research, is that the chemical properties of specific substances, including heroin, should not be assumed to lead inevitably to addictive and destructive patterns of behaviour.

Roger Houchin, former governor of Barlinnie Prison, believes this research is important because it enhances under standing of the subject, showing that the propensity to addiction may vary depending on personal physiology, social circumstances and psychological vulnerability.

Prison drug programmes have demonstrated to Houchin that once drug counselling began there was an unleashing of horrifying ghosts from the prisoners' pasts, which often explained narcotics use as a form of anaesthetic to deal with emotional pain. Houchin saw drugs rehabilitation fail because what was really needed was much more intensive psychotherapy to deal with problems embedded in the prisoners' upbringing.

Extensive research suggests most women offenders have been victims of abuse ( often sexual ) and childhood neglect, and their addictive behaviour in adulthood is inextricably linked to this kind of ill-treatment earlier on. The emotional and physical abuse of boys brought up in macho communities, meanwhile, leaves them with mental health problems which become submerged in drug use , though getting them to talk about their feelings of rejection and hurt is difficult, particularly within a prison culture of "hard men".

Perhaps we should be ensuring that rehabilitation programmes address under lying problems, with the right expertise available and proper resources.

Dr Shewan points out that research on those who seem able to control their drug use is a relatively unexplored area. Advising caution with the study's results, he nevertheless believes there is much to be learned from this previously "hidden" population of users who don't appear to be addicted.

Further research may show, for instance, that some people are physiologically more likely to become addicted while others have genetic factors which "protect" them against it. Another explanation may be that leaving sufficient time gaps between drug use prevents a chemical interaction that causes craving.

Undoubtedly, the results challenge current orthodoxy and throw open whole new avenues for research. A substantial amount of crime is the consequence of drug abuse. Yet, by simply declaring war on drugs and refusing to examine all the issues, we close down public debate.

The reaction to these research findings was not unlike debates that have raged over sex education in schools. The fear that knowledge corrupts rather than educates is obviously still alive and kicking. Young people talk about drugs and sex and exchange information readily, so it is far better that they do so with all the facts. But there are still those who think the public are too stupid to be included in these conversations, convinced that complex information will be misconstrued. The secrecy around research into genetically modified food was based precisely on this premise: that the public could not be told because it would excite fears unjustifiably. If anything excites fears, it is not being told. The distrust in science and government that was sown as a result of the GM food fiasco will remain for a long time to come.

As well as identifying an interesting scientific and sociological aspect of heroin use, the new research has done something even more important. It has highlighted society's continuing difficulty in addressing ideas that challenge its behavioural norms. Our opinion-formers still seem confident that the way to handle these disturbing matters is to suppress rather than encourage debate, despite much evidence that the provision of accurate information usually leads to people making mature and sensible decisions about their actions. Aren't we supposed to be reducing secrecy and encouraging openness? I have always explained with pride that the Scottish education system was built around the idea of creating "the democratic intellect", which meant pupils were instilled with the sense to enquire and question. They expected to be fully informed so they could make wise judgements.

Perhaps it is time we reclaimed the right to proper public debate - real consultation based on real information - and to insist we are not patronised.

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