Russell Brand

Russell Brand (image from The observer)

The debate about the future of the UK drugs laws, what to do about addiction and so on is a really important debate. Unfortunately it’s being undermined by celerity status in the form of Russell Brand.

Russell Brand has been a problem drug user, having developed addiction problems with Opiates and Alcohol which, to his credit, he has managed to beat. However, this experience, his willingness to talk about it and his media notoriety has resulted in him being elevated almost to the position of an expert. He has appeared in online debates, TV programmes and has even been invited to the ongoing Home Affairs Select Committee investigation into drugs policy. So much so in fact his voice is being heard far more often than experts with years of experience in addiction. In doing so he is doing much to undermine the established way of dealing with addiction and as he does this, promotes the campaign by rabid anti drug campaigners to whom abstinence is the only option.

Russell Brand is an evangelist for the 12 step programme of addiction recovery, pioneered by Alcoholics anonymous and later taken up by the offshoot Narcotics anonymous.  Some people who go through the 12 step process successfully – the success rate is not good – are evangelical about the programme. One reason for this is the nature of the whole thing, which is why it’s a controversial programme. The 12 steps are (narcotics Anonymous):

  1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What this means in practice is admitting to yourself and those around you that you are an addict and that you seek the help of others to overcome the addiction. It is good as far as it goes but it’s pretty obvious why this programme is controversial, it’s very faith-based and requires a surrender of your personality to a “higher being”. It’s probably because of this quasi-religious approach and a deep instilling of an acceptance of personal failure that those who come through it successfully feel the need to preach about it to others and this is what we’re seeing with Russell Brand.

He seems to assume that because it worked for him then it should work for everyone, it doesn’t.

The big thing that’s usually overlooked by these evangelists is the original motivation needed to take part in the first place. If you want to quit and addiction the first requirement is that you really, really have to want to do it. This is a deeply personal thing and cannot be imposed from outside. An addict, for example, cannot be ordered by a court to really want to quit. The motivation to try has to come from inside the person and it has to be real. Only then can the often long and difficult path to breaking the addiction begin.

Having successfully broken the addiction of course, you have to stay away from the temptations. As Russell Brand has admitted these temptations do not go away, even if like him, you’re rich enough to escape the old ways you used to live. Most addicts, of course, aren’t.

What we’re being told by people like Russell Brand is if people are forced into a 12 step like recovery programmes, they will see the light and recover en mass. This is typical of the myopic views so often presented in the drugs debate; it isn’t the panacea these people claim. There is a case to be made for more access to such programmes, but they should never be forced onto people, it’s just counterproductive.

The present system for dealing with opiate addiction in the UK is Methadone Maintenance, which is the object of these abstinence campaigners ire.It is true that rather too many people are “parked” on Methadone for years and are never offered a path away from that. This is clearly wrong, especially as methadone is a worse drug to be addicted to than heroin.  An alternative of course, which is working well in other countries, is to accept that some heroin addicts are always going to be heroin addicts and to let them have their drug of choice. A large part of the social harms caused by and ill-health of street heroin users is created by the forces of prohibition, leading to chaotic use and all the problems associated with obtaining the drugs via the black market rather than the heroin itself.

What is never discussed it the complicating effects of prohibition and the forces driving so many people to oblivion motivated drug use in the first case. How much problematic drug use is caused by mental health issues, poverty, stress, personal problems and so on? Probably most of it. Perhaps the whole issue of problematic drug use is more a symptom than a cause; solve the cause and you deal more effectively with the problem.

What is also obscured by all this media personality hype about the “drug problem” is an issue far more important and it’s simply not getting an airing. Non-problematic recreational use accounts for the vast, vast majority of drug use, yet it remains the focus of our efforts supposedly aimed at protecting the population. There are, for example, millions of non-problematic adult cannabis users who are otherwise law-abiding citizens regarded almost as public enemy #1. This huge army of people and the economy they support is forced underground into the arms of the same people who prey on the vulnerable problematic users. Prohibition ensures problems, if they do arise, are kept secret and hidden, allowing them to grow into issues far worse.

The prohibition law is badly focused in that it tries to protect those at risk by concentrating its efforts on those not at risk. Is it any surprise we have the problems we do now? Is it any surprise the law is such an ineffective mess?

What needs to happen, but won’t, is for the Home Affairs Committee to hear from some of the majority of drug users, from some of the millions of people who use drugs as an add-on to real life and to enhance enjoyment, appreciation of music and so on. They won’t do that because it’s not a message they want to hear; they want “drugs” to be associated with people like Russell Brand. Reality in the drugs debate is simply not on the agenda.